There is a treasure in Knoxville that is hidden in plain view. It is the Southern Food Writing Conference, in its second year of being held downtown in conjunction with the decidedly un-secret International Biscuit Festival.
If you care anything about food and/or writing, you need to be there when it returns this time next year. If you want to hear great music, great stories and converse with bona fide experts about Southern culture, get your reservation in. If you want to meet journalists and cooks from across the country, you have just GOT to be at the Southern Food Writing Conference when it convenes again in Knoxville May 15-16, 2014.
Here is a look at this year’s conference. Confession: Alan and I actually signed up for the conference just so we could go to the dinner at Blackberry Farm that is included in the registration. And, believe me, it would have been worth it just for that. But, once I started listening to the speakers who followed each other back-to-back for the better part of two days, I just couldn’t tear myself away. This opportunity is a gem. One I would have traveled hundreds of miles to experience. But here it is in the heart of Knoxville.
I will post all the great photos here, of course, including those from the phenomenal dinner at Blackberry Farm. (There even was one controversial course!) But see below for what I thought were the most interesting points made by the speakers who came from organizations ranging from “Southern Living” and “Better Homes and Gardens” to CNN, Discovery Channel, National Public Radio, “Garden and Gun”, “Vogue” and “Newsweek.”
- Originally from Canada, he said he was raised mostly by his father and “grew up on fish sticks and canned yellow wax beans that were neither organic nor local.”
- Raised in Clemson, South Carolina, and Georgia, he returned to Canada when he was 15 and started working in high-end French restaurants. “They gave me what cooking school never would have given me: they paid me!”
- Sixteen years ago, at age 24, he returned to Athens, Georgia, and started working at a restaurant I used to go to in my college days at the University of Georgia: The Last Resort. “I started opening the doors to farmers,” he said. “Some brought chickens. Some brought hogs. Some brought flowers.”
- “Southern food is a reaction to what we have. In the 1950s, canned mushroom soup became available and we started seeing that in recipes. When we have crappy things, Southern food becomes crappy.”
- He said he loves living in Athens, Georgia, where he has two restaurants today. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said. “It is a place where I can be myself.” He added, “The South has a certain cadence to it.” He also has a restaurant in Atlanta and is planning to open one in Savannah.
- “I eat food because I love food. I cook food because I love food. I write about food because I love people.”
- “If you are a good writer, you can write about anything.”
- “Think about, ‘What is the story that only you can tell?'”
- “Leave Grandma out of your story — or be sure there is something inherently more interesting about her than that she was a great cook.”
- “Don’t worry about being perfect.”
- “Put your vulnerability out there. Discuss the most personal parts of yourself.” (She herself shared the story of her personal battle with depression and said he found that “the payback is more than you could possibly imagine.”)
- “Make the universal personal and the personal universal.”
- When he thought about cutting corners because his competitors were underpricing him, his father told him, “If you play the other guy’s game, you will always lose. Stick with what you do. Quality always will win out in the end.”
- “I’m not going to sell my products in grocery stores because chefs like the fact that you can’t buy Benton’s bacon in grocery stores. They like to offer something folks can’t get in a grocery store.”
- He said he plans a small expansion to his operation. “We will slightly expand,” he said. “But not much. It’s hard enough to get 12 hillbillies to produce your product. It would be impossible to find 100 to do it! You are only as good as your weakest link.”
- “I wrote ‘The One-Armed Cook,’ which was a book about how to cook with a baby in one arm. It’s still useful now that I cook with a martini in one hand.”
- “Food writing stops time. It says where we are and what we are doing right now.”
- Graubart and Dupree won a James Beard Award a few weeks ago for their latest book, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” Said Graubart: “I feel like Cinderella. I won the award Friday night and on Monday my agent called, whom I had not spoken to in 16 months! She she said, ‘I think we should chat.'”
- “My email has gotten so much more interesting in the past two weeks!”
Sara Camp Arnold of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi, had this advice for writers pitching stories to her organization’s website and magazine:
- “We don’t want to follow anything from the seed to the table.” She said they already have done that for countless products. It’s no longer interesting or creative. Find another angle.
- “We don’t want to hear about your grandmother’s cooking — unless your grandmother had a crazy back story.”
- “Don’t be too earnest.”
- “Have a sense of humor.”
- When writing about food, tell us, “How is food and drink an expression of the character’s identity?”
- Or, tell us, “How is food and drink an expression of a sense of place?”
- “We are not looking for tasting notes. We get a lot of ‘crunchy’ and ‘fork tender.’ We try to use food to talk about bigger issues.”
Sheri Castle, a food writer, cooking teacher, recipe tester and developer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
- “If you are going to tell a story, you either have to be honest or creative.”
- “Decide where do you stand. What direction do you face? Who are you talking to?”
- “Also decide, ‘What do you have to say?’ Sadly, this is where a lot of things jump the track.”
- “Don’t fall in the quicksand of grandmas, cast iron skillets and Duke’s mayonnaise!”
Following the afternoon sessions, it was time to head to the Crowne Plaza Hotel to board the buses that would take us the 45 minutes to Blackberry Farm. (Yay!)
Because we got back to town and into bed so late, I did not make it to breakfast at Cafe Four on Friday. Frankly, I was still full from dinner! I did, however, make it to every single presentation of the day except for the field trip to Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham. Alan and I have been before.
A huge lunch spread was provided by Tupelo Honey Cafe. In addition to those beautiful Blue Point oysters pictured earlier, they put out stuffed peppers, steak tataki with ginger sauce, pimento cheese biscuits, shrimp and grits, lump crab cakes with lemon cherry pepper aioli, fried chicken with milk gravy and spring lamb chops with mint julep demi-glace. Sides included honey pickled beets, asparagus, garlicky kale and chard, artichoke salad, baby peas and sweet potatoes with pineapple. Dessert: strawberry and blueberry shortcake with Cruze Farm buttermilk ice cream. Whew!
The last activity of the conference was called The Biscuit Bash. It involved drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the Southern Depot in an atmosphere where the authors could mingle with the guests and also sell and sign their books. The evening was capped off with the premiere of “Pride & Joy,” a one-hour documentary film about Southern food. Two local enterprises — Cruze Farm and Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams — were featured. Alan and I had planned to skip out after the movie started, but it was so compelling that we stayed until the very end. Directed by Joe York and produced by Southern Foodways Alliance and the University of Mississippi, it seemed to fly by.
Click here for a four-minute trailer about the film.