Dan Huntley is spinning a tale of his youth growing up in Charlotte as the son of a textile mill owner. He offers one of his fondest memories set around a bubbling caldron of catfish stew. In a raspy voice, Huntley recalls the rough hands of mill workers cutting squirrel meat with garlic and onions while stories filled the space at the humble suppertime affair.
"They were like shamans," Huntley (known around town as Dan the Pig Man) says of the mill workers. "To sit with them and listen to their stories was an honor and a privilege, and as a kid that just lit me up."
The art of storytelling around the table has long been a staple of Southern foodways, gastronomical cultural practices from which traditions are created and passed down. This is the premise of A Place at the Table, a two-day forum on Jan. 18 and 19 hosted by the Rock Hill artists collective Friday Arts Project, which celebrates the interconnectedness of food, art, history and community.
A Place at the Table will feature a multi-dimensional schedule of activities to satisfy the culturally hungry — and the plain ol' hungry. The forum kicks off with a photography exhibition and screening of The Man Who Ate New Orleans, a documentary by Michael Dunaway, on Friday. Served up all day Saturday are panel discussions featuring some of Charlotte's leading experts on Southern foodways, including Peter Reinhart, master breadmaker and faculty member at Johnson & Wales University; Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, and Dan the Pig Man.
Capping the feast is the Longhouse Dinner Revival, hosted by the award-winning author, food writer and former New York Times columnist Molly O'Neill. A Place at the Table is one stop on O'Neill's traveling dinner series based on the 19th-century American Chautauqua movement that encouraged the sharing of learning and culture. "The Revivals are designed to stretch the boundaries of how food stories are told," O'Neill writes on her website, Cook n Scribble (cooknscribble.com).
O'Neill is no stranger to the rich stories shared around a dinner table. Her 880-page tome, One Big Table, captures American culture as she discovered it while traveling across the United States and breaking bread with others.
A Place at the Table is the Friday Arts Project's second forum. The first, Beneath the Surface, held last year, explored the concept of beauty. According to founding member Stephen Crotts, each forum is dedicated to exploring one of three ideas: truth, beauty or goodness.
"A Place at the Table focuses on the theme of goodness," Crotts says. "We want to share with a wider audience the rich goodness that we experience as a group."
The Friday Arts Project began when students from Winthrop University gathered in Rock Hill with the intention of developing a meaningful cultural impact in their community.
"This group is using art, culture and food as ways to build bridges," Hanchett says of the Arts Project. "They are doing new things with old traditions."
History in the making? Quite possibly.
A Place at the Table will be at Gettys Art Center in Old Town Rock Hill. Registration is $85 and includes Friday and Saturday events with Saturday breakfast, bunch and Longhouse Dinner. Register at www.fridayartsproject.org.