I had an opportunity to attend the Southern Food Writers Conference in Knoxville, TN last week (May 12-14). It is hosted as part of the International Biscuit Festival which was on Saturday May 14. It was a gathering of a few people I already knew and many more that I met as part of the conference. Of course, besides food writing, food was the center of attention for the three days.
Our morning breakfasts were provided by the chefs of Willa Jean bakery from New Orleans. Their biscuits were excellent and with the jams provided by the Fresh Market, made for a great start of the day. On Friday, they also made us shrimp and grits with some wonderful cheese grits.
The speakers were fascinating and covered a variety of topics. Tina Antolini spoke about turning the edible into audible sounds. Tina currently produces the Gravy podcast for the Southern Foodways Alliance. A key point she made is looking for a larger story and being able to tell it through the lens of food. She played several clips of the Gravy podcast. The pictures she was able to communicate through only audio surprised me since I tend to be a very visual person. (Here is a link to the excerpts of Gravy – check out “The Fight for Water and Oysters” – that was the episode she used in her talk.)
I always enjoy hearing Kim Severson speak. She’s done a number of sessions at IACP conferences over the last few years. Kim currently serves as the Atlanta Bureau Chief for the N.Y. Times and previously wrote about food in the Times. Kim talked about the importance of reporting and especially checking facts and research for any stories you write.
For lunch, we headed to the Sunsphere, a nice 5 block walk from the East Tennessee History Museum. I was looking forward to this as I had never been up the Sunsphere before. Yes, I attended the University of Tennessee in 1982 during the World’s Fair. However, being a broke college student back then, I never could bring myself to pay to go up the Sunsphere. So, here I am, over 30 years later finding myself on the 6th floor enjoying lunch.
After lunch, we started with two Nashville authors (Erin Byers Murray and Jennifer Justus) talking about dealing with rejection in food publishing. Unfortunately, both of them had quite a lot of experience receiving the “thanks but no thanks” messages from publishers. Both of them have since received book offers as they have published a number of books.
The next session features two Knoxville chefs. Matt Gallaher has opened Knox Mason on Gay St. and Emilia in Market Square. Joseph Lenn is in the process of opening J.C. Holdway on Union Ave. They discussed the steps it takes to get to opening night for the restaurant. What I found interesting was the history of both of the chefs along with them talking about other Blackberry Farm “Alums.” Many of the chef owned restaurants in Knoxville have Blackberry Farm as one stop in their experience. Another comment I found interesting was that they said that almost everyone is taking photos of the food that is served at the restaurants. However, they said they sure wished everyone were better photographers because many of the photos just don’t look good. (OK, so, guilty as charged!).
Brian Hoffman of Hoffman Media in Birmingham spoke about launching a new higher end publication “Bake from Scratch” It was good to hear about the interest in high end publications and instructional recipes.
Blackberry Farm in Walland TN hosted our dinner on Thursday night. The dinner was simply amazing and deserves a bit more space. So, look for another post about the food and wine of the evening. As I mentioned earlier, the impact that Blackberry Farm has exerted across the area is amazing.
Friday was another great day as we started with Eric and Mandee McNew of Knoxfoodie about using social media for building a brand. Eric is working with a number of Knoxville based restaurants and other food related businesses. Next up was Von Diaz talking about nostalgia and food writing. She was challenged to write with “no more grannies” which is a challenge since she is writing a book about her heritage and family, including her grandmother.
Kenzi Wilbur and Kristen Miglore of Food52 talked about the new app and people starting to “cook without recipes.” One of the topics was the level of detail in recipes in cookbooks. Kenzi was saying that she thinks the overly detailed instructions are insulting. I found that interesting as I am putting quite a bit of instruction in the recipes we are writing for my book.
Lunch on Friday was hosted at The Emporium, an arts center in downtown Knoxville with a variety of galleries and local artists. Chef Tim Knox from Dallas (But a UT Alum) catered our lunch. He is in the process of opening a restaurant (Lonesome Dove Bistro) in downtown Knoxville. After lunch, we stopped by the Mast General Store on our way back to the sessions. The afternoon sessions included discussions of podcasting with Kenzi and Tina and food writing for businesses by Janet Kurtz of Nashville.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on a field trip to Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Allan Benton has been credited with producing some of the best bacon in the country. I had never had an opportunity to visit, so I certainly enjoyed seeing the smokehouse and row after row of bacon in all stages of production. I bought a good bit of bacon to bring home with me.
Friday evening was the Biscuit Bash – a reception open to the public along with the participants of the conference. There were several more local providers at the Bash. The most amazing being Cruze Farm Dairy. I don’t like drinking buttermilk but after enough people told me I had to try their buttermilk, I finally tried it. It was NOTHING like any buttermilk I had ever tasted. I actually liked their buttermilk. Along with Chocolate and Strawberry milk, their products are worth seeking out when you are in the area.
Saturday was the International Biscuit Festival. We started with a VIP Biscuit reception before the festivities began. We had Blackberry Farm Jam to go with the biscuits. The way the festival works is you buy a ticket that gives you 5 biscuits to try. The different vendors have a variety of biscuits available all of which includes much more than just a biscuit. They had some with barbecue, strawberries, duck and Benton’s country ham. In addition, they have a number of Biscuit Baking Contests throughout the day crowning the Best Biscuit Baker.
Saturday morning is also the big Farmers Market on Market Square. Cruze Dairy brought their truck to the market. I ended up having one of their biscuits (made with their butter and buttermilk) with egg and cheese. If you are there for market day, all I can say is go get one of their biscuits!
On the way back to the car, I had to make a stop at Coolato Gelato – I had walked past this place without having time to stop, so it called to me. Had the salted caramel and chocolate gelato. Can recommend a stop here as well.
So, bottom line – had a great conference. I haven’t been to downtown Knoxville in years (except to park for football games). I was amazed at the changes in downtown Knoxville and will have to go back and try many of the places including all of the restaurants I’ve mentioned (and a few more).