by Beth McKibben
After only its second year, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is already becoming a must-attend event, not only in Atlanta, but in the South. The excitement filled every nook and cranny of the May air in Midtown this past weekend. Everyone from chef to sommelier to festival goer walked around with a smile on their face, giddy with Southern pride. Even the rain that poured down from the sky on Mother’s Day (the last day) could not dampen the spirits of those attending.
Umbrellas above and a glass of bourbon on the rocks in hand, people plodded through the mud to the tents to taste, sip and savor their Southern heritage. It was a beautiful sight to behold. The talent brought in to dazzle our tastebuds was down to earth and full of Southern charm. It was a chance to meet the folks behind the dishes and drinks, a chance to really get to know them as people. Where else can you learn from top chefs like Edward Lee (pictured below) or Hugh Acheson, joke around with The Lee Bros., drink bourbon at a party with the likes of Art Smith or chat candidly about cooking in the South with up and comers like Asha Gomez (pictured with Beth McKibben) of Atlanta’s Cardamom Hill over a plate of charcuterie? You can and you will if you attend the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.
Many things will be written about this year’s Festival, including how the South’s major talents brought their cookin’ to this gateway city, taught us a thing or two about their methods and ate and drank alongside us like we’re family. Not an uncommon occurrence in the South – the familiarity we all seem to have with one another despite never meeting previously. That’s the way we do things here. Food and drink are the cornerstones of our culture, our “how do you do?,” our come sit a spell while I tell you my story. Yes, Southerners are proud of their food and their heritage, and this year’s Festival proved that and more through the stories of the chefs, bakers, chocolatiers, sommeliers and bootleggers. As every Southerner knows, the story behind the food is just as important as the food itself.
The recurring theme of this past weekend seemed to be about finding local sources for meats and vegetables, while preserving the long culinary heritage of the South. This region of the country has gone through many transformations over the generations, but as we changed, the food seemed to always remain constant, the place we all returned to, the root of our colorful family tree. From the passing down of heirloom seedlings from grandmother to granddaughter, to smoking the pork for barbecue, to the distilling of our “other house wine” – bourbon – to the soul behind soul food, the South’s love affair or rather unconditional dedication to its food and drink is almost unrivaled.
The chefs of many of our most beloved eateries have dedicated themselves to bringing back the “old ways,” while giving some of our favorite dishes a modern twist. Knowing where our food comes from, the pride of growing it ourselves, of living off the land has once again risen in the South.
Many of the chefs and local growers speaking at this year’s Festival tastings and demonstration sessions pressed the point that back in the day, you simply walked outside your back door, picked a few vegetables, slaughtered a chicken and milked your cow for the ingredients you needed. This past weekend, they challenged us to reach back in time. Plant a fruit-bearing tree, a vegetable garden or buy milk from local farmers. We are too dependent on the mass-produced, genetically modified, gotta have it right now foods.
Over and over again, both in the sessions and the tents, I heard story after story of how people were preserving Southern food and culture through long-forgotten methods in an effort to not only produce beautiful, healthy food, but remind us of where we came from.
Asheville’s French Broad Chocolates bought an old cacao farm in Costa Rica to learn the craft and bring it back to North Carolina, all while keeping their operation green and true to the original methods of harvesting cacao. Chef Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston is on a mission to preserve Southern heritage through heirloom seeds and plants, something he grew up doing with his grandmother in rural Virginia. Garden Manager Jeff Ross of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, takes pride in the cultivation and preservation of the farm’s historically inspired vegetable and herb gardens. Wholesome Wave is a nonprofit organization bringing locally grown fruits and vegetables to underserved communities around the country and allowing people to pay with food stamps. And, yes, even the liquor business is in on the action with companies like American Spirit Whiskey, based in Atlanta, distilling unaged whiskey or “white dog” in an effort to avoid that “moonshine” label, while still staying true to tradition and flavor.
These stories may have different paths, but the final destination is the same: preservation. As the South rises further into culinary greatness, we remain deeply rooted in who we are as a people and a culture through the food and stories we share around the table.
I’ll be telling you more about the stories and chefs coming out of The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival over the coming months. Until then, enjoy a homegrown tomato, glass of distilled bourbon or plant a seed from the South and become part of preserving our culinary heritage.
I’ll admit, my job this past weekend was pretty darn fun considering the company I was keeping and the access I was afforded as a member of the press. I learned a lot, laughed a ton, ate and drank until I was stuffed to the gills, all while meeting some incredible people. I was proud to represent Deep South and introduce the magazine to the Southern food world while they, in turn, introduced themselves to me.
See more pics on our Pinterest Board!
Photo credits, from top: Fried chicken and waffles from The Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, Georgia, by Beth McKibben; Beth with Chef Asha Gomez of Atlanta’s Cardamom Hill by Thomas Spravka of SpravkaImaging.com; charcuterie and okra, Chef Edward Lee (center) presenting “Is Soul Food Food?”, spring green soup, lonzino pork and hand pie by Chef Anne Quatrano in the Poetic Greens session with Emory poet Kevin Young, Southern Mule from American Spirit Whiskey and festival media pass by Beth.
Beth McKibben is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She enjoys telling a good story and day tripping with her husband and two kids. To find out more about Beth, see her full bio in our “Contributors” section.