I hate going to conferences. Just hate it. It makes me twitchy. All my social anxiety rises up from the basement of my being when I have to do something like go to a work event alone, or make a phone call, or leave the house to run errands, or get the mail.
But conferences are the worst. The break-out sessions not so much. Presumably you signed up for the thing because of a interesting topic. It’s the between times that make me feel I’m back at the outcast lunch table. Milling about, smiling, attempting small talk like, “Wow, that was informative!” to total strangers without looking like an asshole until the next breakout session begins and you can find a seat in the back and bury your head in your notebook and go back to what you do best at conferences. . . take notes.
But I go. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve probably had 60 different jobs in my life and every single one of them had a meeting or conference deemed “must attend”. Plus when you’re a writer, if you don’t show your face at least twice a year people start thinking you’re a hermit or some kind of cellar-living mole man from a Stephen King novel. At least food events have food.
The first annual Fire, Flour & Fork event in Richmond a few weeks ago had more than food. It had APPALACHIAN food. Chef Sean Brock’s food. Chef Travis Milton’s food. Throw in Chef Jason Alley of Pasture, one of my favorite folks on the planet, Christina Tosi, punk rock pastry chef from David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, and other assorted noteworthies from the region PLUS some of the great friends I made at the Appalachian Food Summit in Kentucky last spring (Ronni Lundy, Kendra Bailey Morris I’m looking at you), and just maybe this particular conference wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t. In fact it was pretty fucking epic. Almost as epic as that run-on sentence.
Another reason I don’t go to many food conferences is the same reason I stopped judging contests. And stopped ordering 10-course tasting menus. My aging tummy can’t handle it. But when I hear Chefs Sean Brock, Travis Milton, and Jason Alley are collaborating on an “Appalachian Memoir” dinner I do what any self-respecting homegirl from the Shenandoah Valley would do. I fast for three days and pack extra Mylanta.
And what a memoir! From my guesstimate 100 people gathered at Travis Milton’s Comfort that first night to celebrate the bounty of Appalachia. And when I closed my eyes and blocked out the ambient noise, the tastes and textures entering and warming my soul could’ve been from Nana’s and Muddy’s kitchens.
Pickle plate with mustard pickles, icicle pickles, pickled beets, dilly beans, pickled cauliflower
Angel biscuits with Alan Benton’s ham and pimento cheese
“Sunday Go-to-Meeting” deviled eggs
Soup beans with chow-chow
Catfish and tomato gravy
White Eagle hominy grits
Kilt salad with Fall greens
Rabbit with black pepper dumplings
Buttermilk pie with warm pickled peaches
Sean’s Grandma’s apple stack cake
Green tomato fried pies
I could’ve made a meal from the biscuits, ham, and pimento cheese alone. Sean Brock’s pimento cheese is extraordinary. Box-grated onion adds a sweet creaminess so smooth it tastes like silky cheese pudding. The fermented sour corn is fried in bacon grease resulting in a taste that’s by turns, sweet, sour, and bacon-smoky. The soup beans instantly fed my soul with their warm, tender and hearty goodness, and the greasy beans tasted just like Muddy’s.
Leather britches are dried green beans strung into long ropes for hanging. Once dried they’re soaked, cut, and cooked down until soft. Usually with bacon grease. I couldn’t get enough of their beefy flavor and neither could my Buffalo-born Hubby.
The White Eagle hominy grits were prepared the old fashioned way. Wood ash is mixed with water to create an all-natural culinary lye used to strip the outer hull off the kernel. The resulting grits are gray in color and taste of pure corn essence, the corniest hominy grit imaginable. It’s a difficult process and it makes me sad to think I can’t always eat grits this way. From now on all the grits I eat will be less than. They’re that good.
What is Kilt Salad? Just any sort of green, wilted or quickly blanched, then doused in hot bacon grease. Yes Ma’am! Paired with Sean Brock’s rabbit and black pepper dumplings and I was slapping the table, crying out Hallelujah! Instant chair-church-dancing ensued. Light, airy dumplings with sweet, tender rabbit in a big stew pot. I need to eat this at least once a year from now on. Just to preserve my culinary sanity. Seriously, I will go insane if I never eat this again.
At this point the entire restaurant was pleading for mercy. Chef Milton’s brother even joked aloud how the line for the bathroom was ungodly long, and why not with all the beans and greens and pickles on the menu, resulting in gales of laughter. But no mercy here folks, for dessert was the final climatic scene to this memoir. Four-layer apple stack cake with what tasted like an apple, salted caramel glaze in between each layer. Holy mother of God. The Hubby took one bite and immediately proclaimed it the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Guess I’d better master the recipe. When the buttermilk pie and green tomato hand pies started coming out I looked around frantically for a to-go box. No way in hell was any of this going to waste.
As we rolled, literally Violet Beauregarde-ROLLED out of the restaurant and walked back to our hotel, I was content, truly content. One of those life moments so sweet you know it won’t last, so you breathe it in, take it in with every sense, so you can remember it later.
We strolled down deserted downtown Broad Street past Jefferson Loan (where Bo Diddley shops, remember that commercial?) and I thought to myself, “Yep, hometown proud. Those guys have done good. Real good.” Then burped. Loudly. In any case, I was happy, Pappy. It thrills me to see this kind of no-tweezers-in-sight comfort food celebrated. There’s a respect I have for the technical virtuosity of what I like to call “Tweezer Food”, no doubt, but I must admit, my love, lust, and longing are held most dear for the chefs who cook the way of my grandmothers. I’m a whore for dumplings and grits. Not to get too nutty-crunchy—spiritual-hippie on you, but when I eat Appalachian food, for just a moment, that spiritual gap, that hole, that emptiness we all carry around with us every living moment of every day, that gap that’s there because something in our lives is missing, is filled. For just a moment, one sweet moment, I’m whole. A rare thing indeed. And one I tend to chase when I’m hungry.
Is it nostalgia? After all, Chef Milton’s mother joked with me as a child Travis hated the garden, and now all he wants to talk about are “…beans, beans, beans!” I can’t get enough of beans, greens, biscuits, and cakes that remind me of my grandmothers. Even Northern-born Hubby ran straight to his favorite fish shop the minute we checked in. The one right next to his old apartment that serves up a fine 3-filet fried trout sandwich on white bread with ketchup. For $2.95.
Is it nostalgia? The simplicity of ingredients? Or just damn good food? All I know is what I feel. And after that meal, I felt not only FED, I had a twinge of excitement because after all, this was only the first event. There were about 50 more left to come. Anxiety? What anxiety? Good food makes conference anxiety all better.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my Fire, Flour & Fork adventure next week. . .