This May, Knoxville, Tennessee played host to the third International Biscuit Festival, paying homage to all things biscuit-related -- including stuffing your face with them. This year's Biscuit Festival also included the Southern Food Writing Conference. This symposium of food writers, recipe developers, journalists and people who are otherwise enthusiastic about Southern food included speakers, shared meals, an idyllic trip to the incomparable Blackberry Farm and an afternoon visit to pork heaven: Benton's Country Hams.
I am, decidedly, not from the South. Amazingly enough, a bunch of us weren't. There was Francis Lam, the ridiculously well-spoken guy in the snappy jacket (seriously, his jackets) who grew up in New Jersey with his family's home cooking (Chinese) and all the Italian deli food and Kramer's Pork Store wursts he could eat. There was Mary Collins-Shepard, a food educator who described herself to me as a "wannabe food writer," who now lives in Knoxville, but grew up in Rhode Island. I am from New Mexico, which, as I said a lot of times while I was in Knoxville is "the southWEST, so it doesn't count."
I spent the entire trip trying to figure out why we were all so drawn to the South and to Southern food in particular. I thought about it more than I than I worried about remembering everyone's name. I thought about it more than I wondered where our next biscuit was coming from. I thought more about it than I thought about the superiority of Tupelo Honey Cafe's pimento cheese biscuit (which, to be fair, was A LOT).
As we went around the room discussing the journey that led us to this place, a lot of people cited time spent in the South. Lam credits his love of the south to his time spent in Biloxi. Chef Hugh Acheson, a Canadian by birth, fell in love with Athens, Georgia, like a tattooed, wayward musician who just happens to understand food better than most people who ever touch it (while Acheson does have tattoos, I can speak to neither his waywardness nor his musical ability).
In truth, I haven't spent that much time in the south. I ALWAYS want to spend more time there. When people on this trip asked me why I was interested in the south, why I have a ramp tattoo on my ribcage ("Do y'all even HAVE ramps?" one of them asked me), or what the hell, frankly, I was doing there, I cited road trips. I love a road trip. More than most things. And the places and times that I've loved road trips the most were always driving -- and eating -- in the South.
My first cross-country road trip was with my mom and my brother in 2007. We drove from New Mexico to New York in four days or so, stopping for food, drinks and my mother's other weakness, amusement parks, along the way. On our itinerary was Memphis, Tennessee. I only wanted to eat barbecue, drink beer, hear a little music and be on our way -- as I was inevitably the second-string, drive-once-mom-is-tired driver in the equation. But my mother insisted that a Sun Records tour was on our itinerary. What was it about me that hated guided tours? I can't exactly say. But I can say that this one changed my mind.
I grew up with jazz and blues playing in the house, and have always loved it. But I never really knew anything about it until I went to Memphis. Once inside Sun Records, I was excited and comforted by the dingy interior, the cheap Elvis glasses in the lobby, the decades of dust creeping up the floorboards. I can't remember our tour guide's name, but I can remember how she looked: a boatneck shirt, loose, well-worn jeans rolled up, beaten-up black Converse sneakers. She had a way of holding her neck and arms that told me she was a trained ballerina. She had a way of talking about Howlin' Wolf and Elvis that told me she loved this place like family. She had an accent that told me she'd grown up in Memphis, and a voice that indicated that she may have been drinking maple syrup and smoking cigarettes for breakfast every single day of her maybe 28 years of life.
That tour guide helped me fall in love with the South, by helping me fall in love with Sun Records, which helped me fall in love with Memphis. And then I ate a pulled pork sandwich in a bar with writing all over the walls and pencils stuck into the ceiling and I was hooked forever.
That, and the first time I cooked collard greens.
These were the kinds of stories everyone at the SFWC shared, whether they were from the South or not. Every story centered around a particular place in time, a group of people, an experience shared. Was it because we were all there to talk about food that food was included in every single one? I can't say for sure, but I don't think so.
I asked everyone the same question, "why Southern food?" People often pointed to Southern food's accessibility, to the fact that it's comforting in nature. There were those who reminded me that Southern cuisine is a uniquely American invention, that perhaps it gives us all a kind of nationalistic pride to eat food that could only have been created in the American South. Acheson talked a lot about the magnetism of Southern seasonality. "But," I wondered to him in a room full of food lovers, "everywhere has seasons. What makes Southern seasonality so special?"
"Because, have you ever eaten seasonally in Quebec in the winter? I hope you like cabbage," Acheson quipped with barely a second's pause. "For over 200 years, we've just known what to do with our seasonal food. Everything grows in California, it's not fair."
Maybe he's right. Maybe the South achieves the perfect agricultural balance of seasonality. The climate is warm enough that a huge variety of things can flourish there, it gets warm early in the season and cold late in the season so they get a jump on the tomatoes, corn and okra we pine for in the summer. As the charmingly cheese-obsessed Liz Thorpe explained to us, Southern cheese is amazing because grass just grows everywhere in the south, making the milk some of the sweetest and most delicious. However, it also gets cold in the winter, demanding the same return to potatoes and root vegetables that we face up north, albeit for a few months longer. And he's right California, you guys have it so easy.
But this question of seasonality intersects with another phenomenon that's impossible to ignore, which is the insistence of every good Southerner that you never go away hungry. Southern culture isn't the only one to employ this technique (I'm Jewish, so therefore well-versed in food-as-social-currency), but they do it with a flair that is uniquely their own. It seemed that wherever we went in Knoxville, whoever was preparing and serving us food wanted to make us feel like we were at home. People smile at you all day long. When you pass someone on the sidewalk, they say "good morning" to you. When you combine those proverbial open arms with a warm biscuit, it's pretty easy to feel like you are home. Even if home is actually very far away.