When people questioned me about the cost, I let them know that in most cases, these sort of food festivals are more about attracting culinary tourists rather than just providing a bargain way for locals to eat food from restaurants that they can visit any time. I had difficulty expressing this without making it seem like the local crowd was not important to the festival; instead the focus is about spreading the word about Nashville cuisine to a broad audience. This is why the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. was a very visible sponsor of the event. There are a lot of conventions that they hep to attract to town, but not many where they actually invest skin in the game.
In the end, attendance was much higher than many folks (including me) expected, and all the travel packages sold out very quickly, indicating that the foodie tourists bought into the pricing structure. That's also why some restaurants ran out of food early on both days of Flavors of Nashville. While I do sincerely hope that Music City Eats returns next year, I also hope that they do at least consider some sort of more a la carte pricing structure that might be more attractive to locals who want to experience part, but not necessarily all of the event.
That being said, I've attended three similar food and/or music festivals since Music City Eats, and I thought I'd share some of the details with Bites readers so that you can make an informed comparison. While no festival is perfect, I do think that MCE did a great job for a first year festival.
The first event that I attended was last month's Euphoria in Greenville, S.C. Thanks to a direct Southwest flight, this small South Carolina city near Spartanburg has become pretty easy for Nashvillians to visit, and the food scene there is booming. Euphoria is similar to MCE in that it features both music and food, thanks to the fact that singer-songwriter Edwin McCain, a Greenville native, was one of the founders of the festival. Local chefs are showcased in large tasting events, and guest chefs cook at cooperative dinners and at food demos during the weekend. Sound familiar?
Nashville was represented by the presence of Whisper Creek and Belle Meade Bourbon in the wine and spirits pavilion at the Saturday tasting. The main musical acts at Friday night's "Taste of the South" event were from Nashville, thanks to local songwriter Tim Nichols who invited Josh Leo, Adam Craig Band and headliner Kim Carnes to perform at a beautiful downtown amphitheater venue on the river. (Hey, we're getting one of those too!)
So you can see how similar Euphoria was to MCE, but perhaps on a slightly less prestigious scale in terms of guest chefs. But what did it cost to attend, you might ask? There were three pricing levels, plus a la carte options. Individual wine and food seminars and cooking demos were about $35 to attend, and the guest chef dinners ran $100-150 depending on the scale of the meal and the celebrity status of the chefs. The Tasting Showcase was $75 for a day pass. The package tickets ran from $165 for a whole hog dinner, food truck event and a jazz brunch, to $275 for those same events plus the big tasting/music evening. The full VIP experience was $795, but it also included free transportation to and from anywhere in town in a fleet of loaner Land Rovers.
For entertainment value
If I had to choose
You and me might disagree
Cause I like rhythm and blues
Now I'm not dissin' disco
I'm not saying punk is bunk
I can't settle for heavy metal
Cause I gotta have that funk
So when I saw the lineup of bands that are appearing at the 19th annual Southern Brewers Festival to be held on Saturday, Aug. 24, from 2 p.m. to midnight, I had to pass along the information. For just $30, hops fans can sample beers from over 40 breweries while diggin' on live performances from a mix of funk, rock and soul bands including: Galactic, North Mississippi Allstars, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Yarn, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
You general admission gets you a commemorative 14-ounce glass an one beer token. You can purchase additional tokens for $2 which you can use to buy additional drinks, two tokens for a full pour and one token for a half-pour. For more info and the list of participating breweries, visit the official festival website.
Plenty of other Nashvillians attend the event; in fact there is an entire Facebook group dedicated to local bartenders and liquor biz professionals to help plan the week's events. You can usually find at least a few Music City residents holed up in some of the French Quarter's best hole-in-the-wall dive bars late at night, taking a break from the frantic festivities of Tales. My calendar is always full of seminars on cocktail history and trends and visits to many, many various tasting rooms.
But you can have a helluva good time just hanging around the Hotel Montelone, the headquarters of the event. There is almost always free food and drinks available somewhere in the vicinity all day and night during Tales, and purchasing any of the various ticket packages grants you even more access to fun events, receptions, dinners and drinking throw-downs surrounding the event.
Southwest flights are usually cheap and available, even at this late date, but I generally drive so I can carry back all the swag I acquire during the week. I'm known as the liquor mule of the group and frequently carry bags of bottles back for my industry friends who don't want to chance checking their booty in their luggage.
So if you decide to attend this year or in the future, here's my advice for surviving Tales:
I didn’t want to stay in Tunica. But the casino hotels there have the best rooms for the best rates in all of northern Mississippi. So I sucked it up and booked my reservation for Harrah’s (formerly The Grand). For those of you not familiar with Tunica or Harrah’s, it’s the home of the Paula Deen Buffet (y'all). But I discovered much more.
First, though: the buffet. You and 559 of your closest friends can dine at this sprawling all-you-can eat complex modeled after Paula’s home in Savannah, Ga. The various rooms include Paula’s parlor and birdcage room, and the food stations are based on Paula’s cuisine (Lady and Sons, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House …). This is the place for a real Deeniac (on a budget). Kind of. I suppose it’s like an Elvis fan visiting Graceland Too.
Anyhoo, there’s more.
The real Deeniac can take a little Paula with them by visiting the gift shop. Not that you’d have a choice; to leave the buffet, you must exit through the shop. There, you can purchase Paula Deen-inspired and approved gift items such as Deen family cookbooks, a “Peace Love and Butter” T-shirt, and kitschy kountry krafts. You can also choose among the diabetic coma-inducing Paula’s Dessertsto Go, the most famous of which is Paula’s Gooey Butter Pie (which is just chess squares, y’all). Be sure to drop a bill in the Paula Deen slot machine on the way back to your hotel room as well.
Oh yes; the hotel.
If it’s not enough to eat facsimiles of Paula’s food in a facsimile of Paula’s house, you can also sleep in facsimiles of Paula’s favorite rooms in her Savannah home. Harrah’s offers four different Paula Deen Suites available to rent. Just what does a Paula Deen Suite offer the Deeniac? Does it come with a mini-bar stocked with butter? Equipped with a deep fryer? Unlimited hoe cakes? Sadly, no. The only Paula influence comes in the decor, designed by her personal interior designer. Nary a fat-laden confection or concoction awaits you. But it does come with a refrigerator and microwave and at least one photograph of Paula to keep you company.
So there you have it; Harrah’s is the ultimate Paula Deen-ish destination. A Deeniac’s paradise. A Paula-dise. There are even Paula package deals for Harrah’s Total Rewards members.
In addition to Paula's food, visitors to Harrah's can
enjoy visit Quizno's, Dunkin' Donuts, and Fuddruckers. One sad note to report, though. It’s with a heavy heart (though not one heavy with cholesterol because I didn’t actually eat at the Paula Deen Buffet), that I must inform you that you can no longer hang out at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar. Just a short time after opening to numerous bad reviews, the restaurant and bar closed.
First of all, it's an easy trip. From downtown Nashville to the Loews is less than four hours. Now I'm not saying that you can make it that quickly if you maintain the speed limit and stop for frequent rest breaks, but I did it with plenty of time in the non-passing lane of the race track that is I-75 in north Georgia. If you don't feel like driving or you might be traveling by yourself and want to lessen your carbon footprint, Megabus leaves from downtown Nashville and drops you off at a MARTA station just a mile's walk or a couple of train stops from the Loews. Fares are as low as $1 each way for the trip, and I've had positive experiences every time I've gotten on the big blue bus.
Once you get to the Loews, you really don't need a car for the rest of the weekend, anyway. The very entertaining informational seminars are held in the hotel, and the amazing tasting tents are just across the street. Most evening events are an easy cab ride away, and the real after-parties where you can see your favorite Southern chefs let their toques down are a block away at Hugh Acheson's Empire State South. Speaking of those tasting tents, I hope some representatives of Music City Eats were taking good notes, because those tents are the happiest place on earth™ for a few hours each day Friday-Sunday of the festival.
Hundreds of restaurants, chefs, wine, beer and spirits distributors and other food purveyors sample their wares on a rotating basis in an orgy of gastronomic frenzy. The tents are divided into smaller pavilions that focus on craft beer, chicken, barbecue, pork, beef, sweets, cheese etc., and Nashville had a strong presence in most of them.
Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint was a popular stop in the barbecue tent and earned many new fans for their tasty pork. Rumors of further expansion were running rampant in the pavilion, and they turned out to be true! Charlie Nelson of Green Brier Distillery worked his table like a trouper for all three days of the festival, and created quite a buzz with his Belle Meade Bourbon. Heh.
For sheer barbecue goodness and access to a variety of styles, you can't beat the Big Apple BBQ Block Party held each June in Madison Square Park in te Flatiron District of Manhattan. This year's iteration will be held June 8-9 and will feature a veritable who's who of barbecue talent.
Our own Pat Martin will drag his 40-foot Hogzilla smoker all the way up the Eastern Seaboard and through the Lincoln Tunnel so he can prepare six whole pigs and 30 shoulders at a time for long lines of hungry New Yorkers who devour it and embrace it like a life-changing experience. Last year, I can't count the number of times I saw eyes rolling back in heads with moans of ecstasy as city folk discovered what we country mice have been hiding all these years while they have been eating reheated radioactive orange frozen Hormel shredded pork and calling it barbecue. Please!
Martin will be joined by some of my absolute favorite pitmasters, and frankly favorite people, in the barbecue biz. Sam Jones will be there from Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C., cooking whole hog alongside his friend and neighbor to the south, Rodney Scott from Scott's Bar-B-Q in Hemingway, S.C. Both Jones and Scott are members of the Fatback Collective barbecue supergroup with Pat Martin along with other luminaries like James Beard winners Sean Brock, John Currence, Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski.
If I was able to attend this year, I could be happy just spending my time among the piggy law firm of Martin, Scott and Jones, but then I would miss out on so much other great barbecue. Nationally acclaimed pitmasters like Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's, Scott Roberts of The Salt Lick, Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar and Grill, Kenny Callaghan of Blue Smoke, John Stage from Dinosaur Bar-B-Q and Ed Mitchell will join several other talented cooks to prepare their specialties. Drew Robinson runs the Jim 'N Nick's tent, where they serve a very simple appetizer of the same smoked sausage, pimiento cheese and saltine cracker app that you can find on the JNN menu, but lawdy, you should watch those Yankees line up around the block for a taste of South in their mouth.
If you’re just now hearing about this event, the likelihood that you’ll be able to find a place to stay to hang out for the entire week is not great. Hotels and campgrounds get booked months in advance (though it's still worth checking).
So here’s a list of the highlights that are worth a day trip, particularly if you’re a fan of fried catfish:
Pratesi's next tour promises similar opportunities to experience the cuisine of Virginia as she leads a group to the Richmond and Charlottesville area of Virginia from April 21-23. Highlights include a rare behind-the-scenes opportunity to experience Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello as very few people do, a farm dinner at Manakintowne town and a stay at The Jefferson Hotel. They've arranged a special rate of $155 per night at this magnificent property, so If you've ever wanted to stay at The Jefferson this would be an excellent reason to make a road trip.
For more details, check out the On the Road Culinary Adventures site.
All three of those chefs were nominated as James Beard Foundation semifinalists for Best Chef in the Southeast, and the foundation has selected Memphis as one of the sites for their traveling Friends of James Beard Benefit series of dinners. On Sunday, April 14, chefs Ticer and Hudman will host five up-and-coming guest chefs from various regions for a seven-course meal: David Posey of Blackbird in Chicago; Jason Fox of Commonwealth in San Francisco; Jason Stanhope of Fig in Charleston, S.C.; Jeff McInnis of Yardbird in Miami Beach; and Stephanie Prida of Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif.
I was fortunate enough to sample some of McInnis and Stanhope's food at the recent Charleston Wine + Food Festival, and I'm on record as being a huge fan of the Memphis boys, so trust me when I suggest that you clear your calendar for that weekend. According to the official event announcement:
The menu includes — but is not limited to! — funnel cakes, corndogs (referred to by Memphians as "Pronto Pups," a brand name), deep-fried Oreos, Sno Cones, Polish corndog (the mind boggles), candy apples and turkey legs. My favorite fair food, frozen chocolate banana on a stick and hot apple dumpling are not on the menu, but I suppose I could comfort myself with a deep-fried honey bun and some fried pickles.
If your first thought was like mine — "wow, what a fantastic idea!" — and your second thought was, "I wish we had one in Nashville," you should note that the 24-hour Carnival Food restaurant at 3349 Jackson Ave. is the last of the restaurants still in operation. Google tells me that there were three or four other locations in the Memphis suburbs that have shut down over the past few years. So I suppose if you can't get a location somewhere along the eastern perimeter of Vanderbilt or maybe MTSU, then it might be best to scrap any carnival food plans for the Midstate. Then you could just add this to your growing list of Memphis food destinations to try!
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