Southern Food Writing Conference: an amazing gift

Egg salad served on crispy chicken skin. An unbelievable appetizer brought to Knoxville by the Southern Living Test Kitchen.

Egg salad served on crispy chicken skin and topped with pickled onion. An unbelievable appetizer brought to Knoxville by the Southern Living Test Kitchen.

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.”

Chef Hugh Acheson having a catered lunch at The Emporium Center on Gay Street.

Chef Hugh Acheson having a catered lunch at The Emporium Center on Gay Street.

Celebrity chef Hugh Acheson, owner of three restaurants in Georgia and a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef:”

  • 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.

Francis Lam, a veteran of “Gourmet” magazine and “Salon.com,” today works for publisher Clarkson Potter. He also is a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.”

  • “I eat food because I love food. I cook food because I love food. I write about food because I love people.”

Kat Kinsman enjoying cocktails in the garden of Blackberry Farm.

Kat Kinsman enjoying cocktails in the garden of Blackberry Farm.

Kat Kinsman, managing editor of CNN’s food blog, “Eatocracy,” also is known by her Twitter handle (which I love): kittenwithawhip.

  • “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.”

Allan Benton, proprietor of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee:

  • 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.”

Blue Point oysters-on-the-half-shell served by Tupelo Honey Cafe for lunch under a tent in Krutch Park Extension.

Blue Point oysters-on-the-half-shell with carrot jalapeno mignonette served by Tupelo Honey Cafe for lunch under a tent in Krutch Park Extension.

Cynthia Graubart, the co-author with famed cookbook author and television personality Nathalie Dupree:

  • “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!”

Breakfast on Thursday began with ham biscuits from Knox Mason served at the East Tennessee History Center.

Breakfast on Thursday began with ham biscuits from Knox Mason served at the East Tennessee History Center.

The croissants from Old City Java were the best I've ever tasted.

The croissants from Old City Java were the best I've ever tasted.

"Biscuit Boss" John Craig, the founder of the International Biscuit Festival, passing out samples that were part of a taste test by Nancy Wall Hopkins of "Better Homes and Gardens" magazine.

"Biscuit Boss" John Craig, the founder of the International Biscuit Festival, passing out samples that were part of a taste test by Nancy Wall Hopkins of "Better Homes and Gardens" magazine.

Self-described "Appalachian hippy poet" Bill Alexander provided a few readings as an interlude during Thursday morning's speeches.

Self-described "Appalachian hippy poet" Bill Alexander provided a few readings as an interlude during Thursday morning's speeches.

Lunch, catered by Public Food, was served on the 100 block of Gay Street in The Emporium Center.

Lunch, catered by Public Food, was served on the 100 block of Gay Street in The Emporium Center. Here is the barbecued pork.

Collards

Collards

From left, presenters Francis Lam and Nancy Wall Hopkins with Megan Hartman of the St. Charles Convenion and Visitors Bureau.

From left, presenters Francis Lam and Nancy Wall Hopkins with Megan Hartman of the St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Fried chicken

Fried chicken. Obligatory.

Mellow lunch music was by the Donald Brown Quartet.

Mellow lunch music was by the Donald Brown Quartet.

Donald Brown's latest album was favorably reviewed the Sunday before last in the New York Times.

Donald Brown's latest album was favorably reviewed the Sunday before last in "The New York Times."

Herbed biscuits, of course.

Herbed biscuits, of course.

Isn't this the cutest way to serve milk and cookies?

Isn't this the cutest way to serve milk and cookies?

Centerpieces were stunning.

Centerpieces were stunning.

Everyone got a package of shortbread cookies courtesy of Visit Knoxville to take home. (Because we needed more food!)

Everyone got a package of shortbread cookies courtesy of Visit Knoxville to take home. (Because we needed more food!)

Everyone also got an awesome "swag bag" of goodies just for registering.

Everyone also got an awesome "swag bag" of goodies just for registering.

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!)

But first, a signature cocktail to make the ride more festive. Fiona McAnally serves Vodka Thyme Lemonade.

But first, a signature cocktail to make the ride more festive. Fiona McAnally serves Vodka Thyme Lemonade.

Bluegrass music welcomed us to cocktail hour in the garden of Blackberry Farm.

Bluegrass music welcomed us to cocktail hour in the garden of Blackberry Farm.

From left, Joan Allen, Alan Carmichael and Joan's friend Katherine Dowling from The Woodlands, Texas.

From left, Joan Allen, Alan Carmichael and Joan's friend Katherine Dowling from The Woodlands, Texas.

Lisa Trentham serves garden radishes with schmaltz butter and crumbles of chicken skin.

Lisa Trentham serves garden radishes with schmaltz butter and crumbles of chicken skin.

Here's a closer look.

Here's a closer look.

Amanda Morgan, left, representing sponsor Kroger, and her mother, Vanna Holbert.

Amanda Morgan, left, representing sponsor Kroger, and her mother, Vanna Holbert.

i thought the flowers on the picnic tables were lovely.

i thought the flowers on the picnic tables were lovely.

Leslie Caldwell passing pork belly and pickle biscuits.

Leslie Caldwell passing pork belly and pickle biscuits.

These are bacon people! From left, Ada and Todd Fisher with Allan Benton. Todd Fisher is the host of "The United States of Bacon" on Discovery's "Destination America" series.

These are bacon people! From left, Ada and Todd Fisher with Allan Benton. Todd Fisher is the host of "The United States of Bacon" on Discovery's "Destination America" series.

At dinner time in The Barn at Blackberry Farm, proprietor Sam Beall welcomed guests.

At dinner time in The Barn at Blackberry Farm, proprietor Sam Beall welcomed guests.

First up: asparagus salad with Cruze Farm buttermil, hazelnuts, muscadine  vinaigrette and garden greens. Paired wtih Lail Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, 2011. Beall called Cruze Farm "the greatest producer of buttermilk in the country."

First up: asparagus salad with Cruze Farm buttermilk, hazelnuts, muscadine vinaigrette and garden greens. Paired with Lail Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, 2011. Beall called Cruze Farm "the greatest producer of buttermilk in the country."

Best course! Roasted Carolina shrimp with Anson Mills grits, andouille, preserved tomatoes and pickled pepper emulsion. Paired with Brandl Pfaffenberg Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, 2011.

Best course! Roasted Carolina shrimp with Anson Mills grits, andouille, preserved tomatoes and pickled pepper emulsion. Paired with Brandl Pfaffenberg Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, 2011.

I have often remarked on the elegant simplicity of the centerpieces at Blackberry. But this one takes the cake for understatement. (I don't think I could ever get away with this at home!)

I often have remarked on the elegant simplicity of the centerpieces at Blackberry. But this one takes the cake for understatement. (I don't think I could ever get away with this at home!)

Hearth fried egg. Yep. Just a fried egg served with watercress, garlic confit, chili oil and chicken cracklins. Paired with Paul Hobbs Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay from Russian River Valley, 2010.

Hearth fried egg. Yep. Just a fried egg served with watercress, garlic confit, chili oil and chicken cracklins. Paired with Paul Hobbs Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay from Russian River Valley, 2010.

Our cute tablemates, Janet Kurtz, left, from the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, and Tina Antolini from NPR's "State of the Reunion."

Our cute tablemates, Janet Kurtz, left, from the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, and Tina Antolini from NPR's "State of the Reunion."

Pork ribs with baked peanuts and grilled cabbage. The peanuts blew everyone away because they tasted like baked beans! This course was paired with Williams Selyem Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast, 2006.

Pork ribs with baked peanuts and grilled cabbage. The peanuts blew everyone away because they tasted like baked beans! This course was paired with Williams Selyem Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast, 2006.

By this point, I was too full to eat any more. But this course is Border Springs lamb loin and neck served with peas, carrots, mint pesto and lamb bacon. It was paired with Domaine Jerome Gradassi Chateauneuf du Pape, 2006. (I was able to get the wine down!)

By this point, I was too full to eat any more. But this course is Border Springs lamb loin and neck served with peas, carrots, mint pesto and lamb bacon. It was paired with Domaine Jerome Gradassi Chateauneuf du Pape, 2006. (I was able to get the wine down!)

Here's the controversial course. It was still being discussed on the bus back to Knoxville at midnight? Did it work? Some said yes and some said no. Blackberry Farm Singing Brook Cheese with marcona almond sorbet and verjus granita.

Here's the controversial course. It was still being discussed on the bus back to Knoxville at midnight. Did it work? Some said yes and some said no. Blackberry Farm Singing Brook Cheese with marcona almond sorbet and verjus granita.

Cruze Farm chocolate milk panna cotta with dark chocolate sorbet and maraschino cherry.

Cruze Farm chocolate milk panna cotta with dark chocolate sorbet and maraschino cherry.

Here is reporter Cari Gervin from Metro Pulse.

Here is reporter Cari Gervin from Metro Pulse.

Sam Beall introduced Executive Chef Joseph Lenn to take a bow. Lenn is just back from receiving a James Beard Award: Best Chef Southeast.

Sam Beall introduced Executive Chef Joseph Lenn to take a bow. Lenn is just back from receiving a James Beard Award: Best Chef Southeast.

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.

Author Cynthia Graubart, Nathalie Dupree's writing partner.

Author Cynthia Graubart, Nathalie Dupree's writing partner.

The hilarious storyteller Julia Reed talks with her hands!

The hilarious storyteller Julia Reed talks with her hands!

Linda Carman of White Lily Flour, one of the sponsors, served everyone White Chocolate Raspberry Biscuit Bread Pudding. Oh, my.

Linda Carman of White Lily Flour, one of the sponsors, served everyone White Chocolate Raspberry Biscuit Bread Pudding. Oh, my.

Click here for the recipe. Click here for the recipe for the biscuits used in the bread pudding recipe.

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!

Fennel, artichoke and ramp salad

Fennel, artichoke and ramp salad

Piquillo peppers stuffed with spring pea and goat gouda pesto

Piquillo peppers stuffed with spring pea and goat gouda pesto

Honey pickled beets

Honey pickled beets

Steak tataki with ginger sauce

Steak tataki with ginger sauce

After lunch, Hunter Lewis of Southern Living sipped a craft beer from Birmingham (and offered some to all of us) as he discussed how Southern Living is going to re-invent itself. Along with the egg salad on crispy chicken skin posted at the top of this blog, he served tomato tartlets, also from the Southern Living Taste Kitchen.

After lunch, Hunter Lewis of "Southern Living" sipped a craft beer from Birmingham (and offered some to all of us) as he discussed how "Southern Living" is going to re-invent itself. Along with the egg salad on crispy chicken skin posted at the top of this blog, he served tomato tartlets, also from the Southern Living Taste Kitchen.

"Prissy little tomato tartlets" is how Lewis described these.

"Prissy little tomato tartlets" is how Lewis described these.

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.

From left, my friends Rosa Mar, Dawn Ford, Peter Acly and Ellen Robinson

From left, my friends Rosa Mar, Dawn Ford, Peter Acly and Ellen Robinson at The Biscuit Bash.

Laura Johnson of Pillsbury was passing out an interesting dessert concoction that started with a honey glazed biscuit.

Laura Johnson of Pillsbury was passing out an interesting dessert concoction that started with a honey glazed biscuit.

Dawn was up for it!

Dawn was up for it!

From left, Chris Kahn, author Cynthia Graubart, and Patricia Robledo

From left, Chris Kahn, author Cynthia Graubart, and Patricia Robledo

Robin and Chad Tindell

Robin and Chad Tindell

Jennifer Holder and Bill Lyons

Jennifer Holder and Bill Lyons

Janet Testerman and Joey Creswell

Janet Testerman and Joey Creswell

Julia Reed signing a book for me.

Julia Reed signing a book for me.

Dawn Ford with Hugh Acheson

Dawn Ford with Hugh Acheson

Colleen Cruze watching the movie featuring her family farm.

Colleen Cruze watching the movie featuring her family farm.

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12 Responses to Southern Food Writing Conference: an amazing gift

  1. AlanCarmichael, on May 21st, 2013 at 3:23 pm said:

    Grandmas take it on the chin from food writers; Dawn Ford eating the biscuit may live on as a classic Blue Streak photo, surpassing anything Richard could concoct; the film was great; loved the roe fishermen talking about Hollywood.

  2. Becky Hancock, on May 21st, 2013 at 3:49 pm said:

    Great post, Cynthia. Hard to believe this is the same city in which I was born and bred. Proud of all who are making these great things happen.

  3. Lauren Christ, on May 21st, 2013 at 3:52 pm said:

    And now I’m hungry. And wishing we didn’t have to wait a full year for the next conference. Also very jealous that you met Hugh Acheson, Cynthia!

  4. Steve Dawn, on May 21st, 2013 at 3:53 pm said:

    We SO don’t want to hear your pretentious “Oh we just signed up for two $500 tickets ‘just’ so we could attend dinner at Blackberry Farm.” UGH!

  5. Melinda Meador, on May 21st, 2013 at 5:00 pm said:

    I still can’t believe I couldn’t be there this year. And this blog only adds to my misery, Cynthia! Everything seems to have been wonderful and perfect. No graduations for me next year!

  6. Jessie Bailin, on May 21st, 2013 at 7:49 pm said:

    It was lovely as ever having the two of you at the conference. Such a beautiful write up.

  7. Cynthia Moxley, on May 21st, 2013 at 8:20 pm said:

    Thanks, everybody. I really don’t think the cost was out of line for a two-day conference that included all meals including the dinner at Blackberry Farm. The quality of the speakers was exceptional. I am proud of our community for pulling this off. And, Lauren, here’s the good news: Hugh Acheson was very nice!

  8. Gay Lyons, on May 21st, 2013 at 10:01 pm said:

    OK, you’ve convinced me. I need to take 2 days off and attend next year. Loved “Pride & Joy” at the Biscuit Bash.

  9. Rusha Sams, on May 22nd, 2013 at 1:01 am said:

    Great post. Thanks for showing us what we missed — both from the writers and the chefs! A good time was had by all! And the recipes you’ve included just may get the ol’ taste test in my kitchen! So proud of Knoxville!

  10. Dawn Ford, on May 22nd, 2013 at 7:23 am said:

    Having my picture taken with Hugh Acheson was the highlight of the month! Let us hope I don’t go down in infamy for eating the biscuit. Great event and lovely blog post.

  11. Cynthia Moxley, on May 22nd, 2013 at 8:52 am said:

    Yay, Gay! Glad to hear it! Rusha: I hope you make that bread pudding and bring it to one of the events our mutual Leadership Knoxville class hosts! Dawn: You always look cute!

  12. Tami Hartmann, on May 22nd, 2013 at 9:46 am said:

    Wow! What a great event to have here in Knoxville each year. I would really love to try that bread pudding! It all sounds so delicious and interesting. I definitely want to sign up next year. I will say, my grandmother did make a delicious apple pie — oops! Guess I shouldn’t talk about that! Lessons learned.

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