Talk to anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line about Southern food, and chances are, you’ll get a different story depending on who you ask. Southern food can mean anything from the seafood-rich Lowcountry cuisine from coastal South Carolina and Georgia to Louisiana’s wildly diverse Creole dishes that incorporate European, African, and Latin flavors.
Whether you’re an aspiring foodie or a culinary expert, one of the best ways to get a broad education is at Southern food festivals, which offer dozens of food experiences compressed into two or three days. But instead of splurging on the big-ticket, celebrity-studded events, you can be immersed in Southern food at homegrown food festivals that celebrate the local culture and cuisine.
So, what really defines Southern cuisine? “There is usually a heritage, history, and a story behind all Southern food,” explains Lynne Brandon, a Greensboro, North Carolina-based writer who covers festivals and agritourism in Southern states. “When you see barbecue and bourbon showing up in menus around the country, you know the whole U.S. is looking to the South for great food.”
Coming up this weekend is the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, which is like a master class in Southern cooking and cocktails. It’s not just one class, but nearly 100 separate food classes and seminars and tastings. If you think it’s just about fried chicken and grits or the “meat and three” (a meat dish and three sides), think again. Look for workshops about Florida’s “cracker cuisine” (think fried fish and something called swamp cabbage) and new ways to prepare catfish, as well as a special dinner on coastal cuisine from the Florida Panhandle to the Charleston coast. The three-day event also has a grand tasting tent with more than 100 exhibitors. May 29-June 1, 2014; atlfoodandwinefestival.com.
Every fall, the TerraVITA Food & Wine Event celebrates the cuisine of North Carolina. Founder Colleen Minton created the Chapel Hill event five years ago in an effort to bring attention to sustainability in Southern food. “Both Southern food and the term ‘sustainable’ have different definitions for people, and the beautiful thing about our cuisine here is that you can combine the two,” says Minton. Chefs, farmers, and culinary experts come in “from the coast to the mountains” for panel discussions and special dinners that explore North Carolina’s food traditions (hint: there’s pork…lots and lots of pork). In the event coming up this October, guests will include Fred Dexheimer, the only master sommelier in the Carolinas, and Sean Wilson, who dubbed himself Chief Executive Optimist at the Durham-based Fullsteam Brewery. True to its mantra, TerraVITA sticks to a zero-waste philosophy, with recyclable materials and composting bins—a huge endeavor when you consider the amount of small bites handed out inside a festival tasting tent. October 9-11, 2014; www.terravitaevent.com.
Also in North Carolina is the Asheville Wine & Food Festival. Asheville is one of the foodiest small towns in the South and it shows in this multi-day celebration. Along with the grand tasting, there will be a special cocktail competition where mixologists use liquors from North Carolina’s craft distilleries. There’s also…wait for it…a dessert party! That means you can stroll along the downtown Grove Arcade, trying out sweets from local chocolate makers and pastry chefs, paired with local wine, beer, and spirits. August 21-23, 2014; ashevillewineandfood.com.
The Charleston Food & Wine Festival is a big event that brings together Lowcountry cuisine with international culinary celebrities. But don’t overlook the “other” South Carolina food festival: Euphoria in Greensville. This event, which takes places in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was founded by a songwriter and a restaurateur. Look for events like the Taste of the South, featuring live music from Nashville’s Sixwire Band, Southern food and Virginia wines; and an after-hours party with locally sourced “lambs and clams.” September 19-21, 2014; euphoriagreenville.com.
For more can’t-miss restaurants and recipes, check out:
- Foodie Favorites From Across Mexico
- A Global Editor’s Top Paris Restaurants
- A Food Critic’s Favorite New York Restaurants
By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com