On the eve of an annual Central Park picnic to celebrate Mississippi culture, a group of chefs will host a dinner called the “Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table” to protest a Mississippi religious freedom law that critics say allows for discrimination against gay people.
It’s particularly awkward because John Currence, perhaps the best-known chef in Mississippi, had long been scheduled to cook another meal in New York for Governor Bryant and the Mississippi Development Authority at Butter restaurant. That event was timed to coincide with the Mississippi picnic. Then the governor signed the bill. But because he has already committed to the state and to Butter’s executive chef, Alexandra Guarnaschelli, he decided to go ahead with the governor’s event but to also create a protest dinner the next day.”
Every June for 35 years, hundreds of New Yorkers and displaced Mississippians have gathered in Central Park to eat catfish, listen to the blues and praise the virtues of that Southern state.
The event, which draws governors, Southern musicians and loyal college alumni, is as much about keeping the state’s cultural flame burning as it is about promoting economic development.
This year, a group of chefs upset over a new Mississippi law designed to protect religious freedom but which is perceived by critics as hostile to gays and other groups is adding a little fried-chicken activism to the mix.
At issue is the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which takes effect in July. The law allows businesses legal leeway in dealing with customers if doing so would put a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.
Opponents call it the “turn away the gays” law. Although other states have introduced similar legislation recently, most notably Arizona, Mississippi was the first to pass a new version of what are referred to as religious freedom bills.
The legislation is intended to protect business owners whose views on certain social issues such as abortion or birth control are based on religious beliefs. In some cases, the legislation has been motivated by legal decisions against businesses, including a case in New Mexico in which a photography studio was sued after refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony.
The broadly written Mississippi law does not specifically mention gays and lesbians or other groups. But it prohibits the state from compelling any action contrary to a person’s exercise of religion. It also added “In God We Trust” to the state seal.
Several religious organizations and conservative groups including the Family Research Council have praised Gov. Phil Bryant for signing the bill.
But others in the state, the chef John Currence among them, contend the law could lead to discrimination by businesses who don’t want to serve gays and lesbians, Muslims or others whose lives don’t align with certain conservative Christian values.
On the eve of the state’s showcase picnic in Central Park, Mr. Currence and a group of chefs including Art Smith will put on a protest dinner called the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table in partnership with City Grit in Manhattan.
“It’s polite Southern activism with food, which is a magic way to bring people together,” said Mr. Smith, who has worked as a private chef for Oprah Winfrey and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor.
In the offices of the Mississippi governor and the state economic development office, news of the protest dinner did not seem so magic.
“My knee-jerk reaction was: I am not going to go cook for him,” Mr. Currence said. But because he has already committed to the state and to Butter’s executive chef, Alexandra Guarnaschelli, he decided to go ahead with the governor’s event but to also create a protest dinner the next day.
“More than anything else, the law sends a terrible message about the state of consciousness in the state of Mississippi,” Mr. Currence said. “We are not going to sit idly by and watch Jim Crow get revived in our state.”
Mr. Currence said that he spoke with Marlo Dorsey, the chief marketing officer of the Mississippi Development Authority, last month and invited her and the governor to the protest dinner on June 13, explaining that he and other chefs wanted to make a statement with food. Neither has agreed to attend. The idea was hatched with the Memphis chef Kelly English, who fought against a similar bill introduced in Tennessee. The chefs will be joined by Southern cooking personality Virginia Willis, the North Carolina chef and author Bill Smith, and Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff, the men behind New York’s Big Gay Ice Cream, who will serve sundaes for dessert. Proceeds will go to gay and lesbian groups on college campuses in Mississippi.