Thinking Outside the Biscuit

biscuits1I didn’t try the Southern Chicken Pot-Pie Biscuit or any of its competition at the sixth annual International Biscuit Festival last Saturday in beautiful downtown Knoxville, Tenn. To do that, I would have had to stand in line to pay $10 that would have entitled me to five biscuit samples — not a bad deal, but I was still feeling the effects of the kimchi hot dog and the moonshine-infused lemonade from the night before.

So instead, I just grabbed a cup of coffee to go and feasted on the scenery as the festival participants prepared for the mob of carb-seekers headed their way.

It was fascinating to observe the creative lengths each one went to to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

There were biscuits filled collards, stuffed with fried chicken, topped with pecan brittle, decorated with sprinkles, and smeared with whipped cream cheese and jalapeno marmalade. And this was just the beginning. Later in the day there would be biscuit baking contests, a biscuit song-writing competition, and the crowning of biscuit royalty.

A really good, made-from-scratch biscuit does have the capacity to stir up a memory, start a conversation, and get the creative juices flowing. It’s also a great vehicle for storytelling. That’s why the festival’s founder, John Craig, aka “The Biscuit Boss,” decided to add a warm-up act several years ago — the Southern Food Writing Conference. I came that first year, and left invigorated and inspired.  The programs were great, the vibe was friendly and welcoming, and I loved mingling with the 100 or so other cookbook authors, journalists, magazine editors and bloggers who get as excited about probing the deeper meaning of food as eating it.

So I was thrilled and honored when he invited me to come back this year to speak with chef Steven Satterfield about our process for working together on his first cookbook, Root To Leaf, which came out in March. The theme of the entire program was collaboration, and for all of us trying to build our food writing careers — whether we are employed by publications or work independently — building these creative relationships is more vital to our success than ever.

Just as there are countless ways to bake a biscuit, there is no set formula for sharing great food stories with the world and making a living at it.  As a former newspaper food editor turned entrepreneur, I am reminded of this daily, and find myself gravitating to innovators and risk-takers who are finding fresh ways to follow their passions. I was definitely in the right place.

Helen Rosner, Eater’s features editor and a master of longform food narratives, was there with writer Keith Pandolfi, formerly of Saveur where Helen used to work, to discuss how they brought his powerful and beautifully told story, Searching For Forgiveness At Friendly’s, to life. It’s part of the acclaimed Life in Chains series she started, where top writers share the roles chain restaurants play in their lives. Cynthia Graubart, who has written several books with Nathalie Dupree as well as some of her own, told us the pros and cons of having a writing partner. And Tasia Malakasis shared her circuitous journey from New York marketing executive to award-winning cheesemaker and cookbook author back home in Alabama.

I got just as much out of the countless random conversations with old friends and new acquaintances on field trips and dinner excursions. I have always found food writers and producers to be a generous bunch in exchanging ideas, and in future posts I will share some of their stories in-depth.

Since this is my very first blog post of my newly designed website — thanks Judi Knight of newtricks.me! — I am going to leave you with a few snapshots from two of this event’s annual highlights: our spectacular dinner at the luxurious Blackberry Farm resort, and our visit to Cruze Dairy Farm for fresh buttermilk and ice cream treats. If you’re  looking for a great networking event to sharpen your culinary storytelling skills, I highly recommend marking your calendars for next year.

 

 

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