Written by Julian Rankin
Good neighbors are always good for a cup of borrowed sugar. By that measurement, residents of Fondren’s Broadmeadow community are far more than just neighborly. Broadmeadow encompasses the north-most “Top of Fondren,” and the tight-knit Broadmeadow Neighborhood Association (BNA) is the mechanism that ensures that food and fellowship are always on the menu. To understand how the group thinks about community development, look not at the bylaws, but at just a few of the individuals who keep it running.
There’s Chef Dan Autrey, a resident for fifteen years, who counts his time in the neighborhood by the age of the kid next door; she was born the year he moved in and is now almost old enough to drive. “He’s the nebulous of many of these events,” says Catherine Moore Lee, another BNA volunteer who has lived in the Broadmeadow enclave for four years with her husband Garrad. Autrey, who had two Atlanta restaurants before moving to Fondren, is now a personal chef. His wife, Beth, has served as past president of Broadmeadow Neighborhood Association and is currently on the board. For Autrey, food is a conduit, a language, and a vehicle for sharing oneself with others. Food begets conversation and connection.
“One of the happiest times in my life and my wife’s life is having friends gather around the dinner table,” he says. “When someone’s sick, we’ll take them food. If someone is pregnant, we feed them – I love feeding pregnant women. I’ll see a kid and tell them, ‘I’ve been feeding you since before you were born.’”
Throughout the year, BNA hosts a number of culinary-anchored events. Soup’s On! is held in January to raise money for the year; a crawfish boil takes place is late Spring; there’s a Fourth of July parade and celebration; and BlocktoberFeast – where Dan Autrey has been known to man the smoker – offers neighbors a spread of slow cooked pulled pork. Each event is chaired and executed by a different combination of Broadmeadow’s Fondrenites. To taste the food made in the kitchens and backyards of neighbors is to develop communal trust. It is to see, spread out on the shared table, a tangible manifestation of the individual identity that defines the community as a whole.
“You get a little bit of everyone’s style and personality and what they like to eat at home,” says Catherine Moore Lee, who along with her husband transmutes her own personality into the soups she makes and donates each year to Soup’s On!
Wade Thompson, 2015 BNA Board President whose day job in Studio Manager at Fondren architecture firm Wier Boerner Allin, agrees that food is a bridge to connect people of different backgrounds. “Our neighborhood has a lot of diversity,” says Thompson, “and the neighborhood association enjoys that diversity and wants to foster it. What better way to bring diverse people together than to focus on a commonality? Everyone has to eat and everyone loves good food. It’s the natural place to start.”
The combination of Broadmeadow veterans and fresh blood keep the community vibrant. As you might expect, new arrivals to the neighborhood are welcomed, not just by smiling faces, but with food. Marc Leffler, Creative Director at marketing agency Maris, West, and Baker, remembers his arrival more than a decade ago, when a neighbor greeted him with a tater tot casserole and a cooler of Cokes.
“It goes back to breaking bread,” Leffler says. “Nothing speaks louder than food.”
Compared to some of Broadmeadow’s longer-tenured neighbors, Maureen Smith – like Catherine Moore Lee – has only lived in the community for about four years. Her first encounter came in the form of a neighbor across the street, who arrived at her doorstep with an emblematic loaf of bread as a gift. Her second meeting was with Dan Autrey, who burst forth from his door with jovial tidings, asking when he could bring the family dinner. Not long after, Smith tells, “he showed up with a meal.”
Smith is the Director of Communications for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson and views food through the lens of her own Catholic faith. “Food in the Catholic context is a big deal,” she says. “The mass is essentially a meal. We talk about sharing food as a way of sharing life. Food is nourishing for the body. But when you get together and eat with people, it’s nourishing for your spirit and for the community.”
Almost anyone you talk to in Broadmeadow is quick to say that BNA and the bond between neighbors is built from the ground up, not the top down. It’s about starting small to affect big change, viewing the larger context of the community not as an area on the map, but as a web of interconnected and interpersonal relationships. From humble seeds, BNA has cultivated meaningful and delicious things, held together – like a thick roux – by those who partake in the ceremony of the meal.
“Plus it helps that there are a bunch of foodies here,” adds Smith. “So the food is good.”