They call John Craig, The Biscuit Boss.
The truth of the matter is, he is a pretty humble man who wanted to do more to attract folks to his hometown’s city center: downtown Knoxville. And so the International Biscuit Festival was hatched, to draw in visitors from around the South and around the world, to partake of and honor biscuits of all shapes and sizes. Along the way, if the plan worked, visitors would fall in love with this town and share that feeling with friends.
What started out rather modestly in 2009 with 8,000 attendees has grown almost exponentially. This year marked the third annual festival, and included such events as an appearance by Food Network’s Alton Brown, the Inaugural Southern Food Writing Conference, a Blackberry Farm Biscuit Brunch, and a Biscuit-themed pageant. Spread over four days, John Craig estimates the events drew in more than 30,000 folks to downtown Knoxville.
Having never been to Knoxville before (aside from that awkward summer camp trip to the World’s Fair site in ’82), I was eager to immerse myself in everything the city had to offer. I drove in from Birmingham on Wednesday, parked my car in the lot next to the Oliver Hotel on Union Street, and didn’t need wheels again until it was time to depart on Sunday; everything was walkable: bars, restaurants, corner groceries, entertainment venues – you name it.
I started my Biscuit experience on Wednesday evening at the Tennessee Theater where Alton Brown discussed “The Case of the Grandmother’s Biscuit.” In his affable way, with plenty of crowd participation, we learned how he worked tirelessly to duplicate the perfection of his grandmother’s epic biscuits. Recounting the replication of ingredients (same brand of flour, buttermilk, butter, etc.), room temperature and humidity (the man IS a stickler for detail), and tools (evenher pan and rolling pin), he continued to fail in his quest. Until at last, just three months shy of her death, he cajoled her into making the famed biscuits again. This time, he did nothing more than watch her – no note taking or filming – just watch her to see what he was missing. Turns out, Alton’s grandmother had terrible arthritis which prevented her from bending her fingers when turning out the dough. It was this gentle handling, with a relatively flat surface, that was the secret to her success.
After his talk, he took audience questions, posed for photographs and even signed autographs – on a KitchenAid stand mixer one guest hauled in. Foodie fanatics are like no other.
The Inaugural Southern Food Writing Conference began on Thursday. Nearly two dozen speakers discussed everything from cookbook development and design to food blogs, as well as the intersection of Southern food and culture. Event organizers kept things fresh by changing up venues, fostering interaction between the speakers and 60+ participants. We met up in at the East Tennessee History Museum, a gorgeous space with plenty of room. For lunch, we walked just down Gay Street to the Emporium Center for Arts & Culture. As we dined on sandwiches, salads and sweet tea, we learned a bit about the history of the space and all that Knoxville has to offer. A little bluegrass duo provided background music.
The afternoon session of the conference was so interesting, hearing from a local historian about how to research food stories using alternative sources. Southern Living Magazine Features Editor Jennifer Cole, shared some food-writing-for-magazines tips as well as some choice Weller bourbon. Later, Tennessean Food Editor Jennifer Justus took to the stage to interview Southern Food icon, John Egerton. His seminal book can be found in most every seriousfood writer’s library; he takes his subject, but not himself, seriously which only endeared him to us more.
We took an afternoon break to freshen up and get pretty before boarding chartered busses to famed Blackberry Farm in nearby Walland, TN. As the sun set, we enjoyed cocktails in their garden and noshed on little savories. Allan Benton (bacon & ham rock star) and his wife joined us there as did Earl Cruze and his daughter Colleen, of Cruze Farm Dairy. We walked over to the Barn where award-winning chef Joseph Lenn and his staff had created a special menu featuring biscuits, Benton’s bacon and Cruze buttermilk. The scene was even more breathtaking than you can imagine. I’d been to Blackberry Farm before but never like this – surrounded by food writers and friends who tear up over artful plating and divine wine. At home, I might be admonished for photographing each dish but here, I could be myself – hell, we even shared apps and techniques, twitter handles and hashtags. Heaven!
Following Thursday’s activities might have seemed daunting to some but not to the guys from Nashville’s Capitol Grille who served us breakfast in a new location: Café 4, just on Market Square in downtown. Tyler Brown and Cole Ellis’s mustard-seed beaten biscuits with poached eggs and tomato gravy were sublime – just the right textures and flavors to start the day right. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune writer Brett Anderson shared his favorite excerpts from thelatest installment in the Cornbread Nation series. Shaun Chavis and Jason Horn, co-founders of FoodBlogSouth, discussed the right and wrong ways to blog about food, and Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart discussed how to collaborate on a cookbook, staying organized AND staying friends.
We ended the afternoon with a field trip to Cruze Farm where Colleen and her farm girls served us 3”-tall biscuits with buttermilk butter, hoecakes, and buttermilk ice cream. Clearly, moderation was not invited to this event. Everyone tried everything. And then went back for more.
Later, the authors gathered at Café 4 to sign books for conference attendees as well as the general public. There was more music and lots of happy well-fed friends. This wrapped up the conference portion of the Biscuit Festival and only the sad and overcommitted folks left before Saturday’s full-day of fun.
I exited the Oliver Hotel on Saturday morning to a buzz of activity on Market Square. In addition to the regular stellar farmers market, Biscuit Boulevard was lined with tents where people could sample everything from catheads to drop biscuits, savory and sweet contenders. $5 tickets let you sample five full-sized biscuits.
Under a huge tent just off Gay Street, Blackberry Farm chef Joshua Feathers and his crew served a ticketed Blackberry Farm Biscuit Brunch. Imagine linen tablecloths, fine stemware, phalanx after phalanx of servers, picking up plates in unison and you begin to get the idea. We started with platters of hot biscuits and cold Bloody Marys but finished with an elegant vanilla crème brulee. Don’t tell the chef but I gilded the lily by adding a large dollop of their signature strawberry-rhubarb preserves to my serving. In between we savored braised pork cheeks and seasonal ramps.
Were this not a once-a-year event, I might have snuck in a little post-prandial nap but I did not want to miss a thing. I took full advantage of the proximity of my hotel and my room’s mini-fridge and loaded up (and dropped off and loaded up again) on the best of the best: packages of Benton’s bacon and hams, brebis cheese from Blackberry Farm, Lusty Monk mustards and condiments of all manner and variety.
And then, I was sated.
And I realized: there is an alchemy or sorts that takes place when pure buttermilk, from really happy cows, is combined with sweet cold butter that’s been cut into soft white flour. Three simple ingredients come together in a hot oven to create something genuine and if done right, achingly beautiful. And it hit me, Biscuit Boss John Craig has done the exact same thing for Knoxville – combining the simple charm of a Southern city, with an event that prompts easy interaction, making you want to come back again and again.
Christiana Roussel is a freelance food writer, living in Mountain Brook, AL. You can follow her culinary musings on line at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@Christiana40).