"Who doesn't love a biscuit?" That's what I said when I first met Biscuit Boss John Craig, creator of the International Biscuit Festival. It made perfect sense to me that there was a festival dedicated to one of the most iconic Southern foods.
And what a festival it is. In just three short years, this biscuit bash has ballooned from 8,000 to nearly 20,000 biscuit believers. They congregate from all over – Kentucky, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama…and all parts of Tennessee – on Knoxville's Market Square to celebrate the Southern trifecta – soft flour, sweet milk and shortening. Now that's some biscuit love!
I had never been to Knoxville before, but I was anxious to get to the biscuit promised land and experience it for myself. More than 90 purveyors were participating, including the legendary Loveless Café, Nashville's fine dining Capitol Grille and Benton's Bacon & Hams, which in my and many other's opinion, is the best damn bacon known to man. This was definitely not an average Saturday outing…but I was ready.
Parked right at the intersection of the Farmer's Market and the beginnings of Biscuit Boulevard, I couldn't miss or resist the Cruze Farm Milk Bar truck. Colleen Cruze and her gingham-garbed milk maids entertained lines of giddy patrons while they peddled lime cardamom ice cream, sweet corn hoe cakes, and over-sized, oven-warm buttermilk biscuits slathered with tangy buttermilk butter. They literally stole my heart…and made my taste buds swoon.
Walking along Biscuit Boulevard, I was delighted to see kids of all ages. Moms, dads, grandmaws and granddaddies were smiling as they eagerly searched for the next freshly baked cathead. I, of course, dodged my way through the crowd, making a bee line for the small, scratch-made biscuits that country stars croon about from the Loveless Café. Dolloped with their sweet, cinnamon-y peach preserves, they make me want to put on my boots and two-step.
With Rodney Crowell and Keith Whitley tunes in my head, I danced my way to The Blackberry Farm Biscuit Brunch. The sold out, tented affair brought the best of Blackberry right to the heart of Biscuit Square. Crisp, white-shirted servers warmly greeted us and politely showed us to our bone china and silver-set tables. The centerpieces were quite playful with boxes of pimento cheese popcorn alongside fresh lime-tomato bloody marys and stacks of golden, fluffy biscuits with benne seeds. I was in heaven!
Then came the food. Chef Josh Feathers and proprietor Sam Beall crafted a comfort-like menu that featured warm, black peppered cheesecake made with their signature soft Brebis cheese, which is now a regular staple in my fridge. Slow-braised pork cheeks served over creamy Anson Mills grits with pickled ramps was the main course. I'm glad the plate was small, because the flavors were so warm and homey I could have eaten a bowlful of the grits and probably half the pig. The final sweet was a luscious, custardy pot de crème flecked with vanilla bean and topped with juicy bits of South Carolina strawberries. Yes, I ate the whole thing.
The Festival finished with biscuit doyennes Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart teaching tips and techniques from their tome, Southern Biscuits, on the Biscuit Bake-Off Stage. If you're going to learn how to make the perfect biscuit and its many variations, these are the ladies to learn from. They were soon followed by the quirky and competitive Miss and Mr. Biscuit Pageant where contestants vied for the top prize with big biscuit wigs, bouncy biscuit raps and ditties and eloquent biscuit monologues. One contender playfully milked the crowd with strategically placed biscuits on her apron and a "show me your biscuits" sign. It was hands-down hilarious!
So now I have been to the biscuit promised land…and I can say that I am one of the BiscuitFest believers. May 17, 2014 is already on my books. I will be back to Knoxville with all the other 20,000 biscuit buffs.