The International Biscuit Festival Puts Knoxville on the Hot, Buttery Culinary Map

A hot (literally!) festival and a long tradition of floury goodness have turned Knoxville into the world's biscuit capital

PARADE magazine was looking for 50 food festivals for its May 22 "Eat Your Way Across America" issue, one for every state. In the course of research, the staff came across hundreds of barbecue, strawberry, and peach festivals, says features editor Daryl Chen. But their list included just one event celebrating biscuits: the second annual International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tenn.

"We knew that's the one we wanted," says Chen. "Everybody loves biscuits. I know everybody loves biscuits, because after we did the research, I asked around the office, ‘Which one of these would you most like to visit?' and a lot of people mentioned the biscuit festival. There's nothing more delicious than a warm biscuit."

Except maybe more warm biscuits. Because being the world's first and only biscuit festival meant that last spring organizers had no idea what to expect, and they left a lot of biscuit lovers clamoring (and sometimes glowering) for more.

Back then, the handful forming the aptly named Biscuit Brain Trust, headed by downtown realtor and Market Square Association president John Craig (aka "The Biscuit Boss"), had spent just two months pulling together the event with an all-volunteer staff. They weren't sure anyone would show up, much less that the breakfast for 250 would disappear in 45 minutes, or that 800 tickets for the eight-vendor Biscuit Boulevard would be gone in an hour. "We sold out so fast people accused us of selling tickets to our friends ahead of time," says Gay Lyons, one of the original Biscuit Brain Trust members and the bake-off director. "They went like hotcakes. In fact, biscuits obviously sell better than hotcakes."

This year, the IBF is planning for its popularity with lots and lots of biscuits, from Blackberry Farm angel biscuits to scones from Tea At the Gallery to the trust's recently taste-tested "emergency" biscuits (frozen Kroger store brand). The breakfast tent will be able to handle 500, and Biscuit Boulevard ticket numbers have swelled to 5,000, with each $5 ticket yielding five samples from 20 vendors—twice as many as last year. The bake-off tent, which last year permitted standing room only for many events, is bigger, seating 50 more than last year's 100.

And they're sailing into new waters. Additions include a Friday night dinner to benefit local hunger relief featuring Miami chef Michelle Bernstein at the S&W building, and a Thursday night concert at the Bijou by bluegrass maestros and lampooners the Cleverlys. The bake-off has added a kids' category to the standards like "most creative" and "dessert biscuits"; while there were still under 100 entrants this year, that's almost four times more than 2010.

All told, they're expecting 10,000 biscuit eaters, bakers, and browsers by the end of the day Saturday. Not bad for a ragtag group of volunteers who all have day jobs and started with nothing more than big talk over a couple of happy hours last February.

Since they were discussing pie in the sky anyway, says Craig, they decided to go ahead and shoot high—why pause at the Tennessee, or Southeast, or American Biscuit Festival when you could be International? "It is a bit tongue-in-cheek," says Craig. "But the truth of where the ‘international' claim came from was that my wife, who's from South America, was doing some work for McDonald's translating some commercials. When she had to do one for biscuits, there wasn't a word in Spanish for biscuits. The word biscuit itself is French—‘bis' is twice, ‘cuit' is twice baked—and that got me thinking how every culture has its breakfast bread staple, and that it would be kind of fun to feature what other countries do."

At the same time, the Brain Trust is quietly but forcefully laying claim to Biscuit King—or Biscuit Headquarters—or Biscuit Capital—status for Knoxville. Not that anyone's come right out and said it, but they do have that motto, "Bringing the world to the biscuits and biscuits to the world."

All the ingredients are right here, too, starting with the inimitable Blackberry Farm down the road in Walland, which came to be involved through connections made by BaconFest's Laura Sohn, Allen Benton of Benton's Bacon, and Kim Trent of Knox Heritage. Blackberry will sponsor the toney benefit dinner Friday and a posh "Foothills Cuisine" brunch Saturday, and their much-lauded chef Josh Feathers will do some demonstrations. Aside from generally lending the highest degree of food cred to the event, the farm also set an invaluable connection to the Southern Foodways Alliance in motion, which has in turn led to an article about IBF in the May 2011 issue of Southern Living. "Blackberry Farms has been very, very generous with us, and they love the festival as much or more than we do," says Craig.

There's more serendipity for the Biscuit Brain Trust past and present: Knoxville's own Yee-Haw Industries with its Appalachian folk art handset letterpress being ready and willing to print out placards that read, "I love you better than biscuits"; Cruz Farm buttermilk, which already has a reputation stretching to upscale restaurants across the country and a New York Times food page cover to its credit; and sponsors like Mast General and Hardee's that have a strong presence in the region.

Even without those strongholds, the foodie community is more than willing to accept Knoxville as the biscuit leader if they say they are, says Nathalie Dupree, of Charleston, S.C., the author (with Cynthia Graubart) of Southern Biscuits and a 2011 bake-off demonstrator and judge. Author of 11 cookbooks and director of Rich's Cooking School in the mid-'70s and the de facto founder of the New Southern Cooking movement, Dupree hosted 100 television episodes sponsored by White Lily after catching the company's eye by writing in the Brown's Guides for Georgia that Southern flours were different.

"Knoxville has long had a biscuit reputation, both because of White Lily being located there all those years [the local mill closed in 2008] and because of the 1982 World's Fair. Biscuits have been made there for well over a 100 years now."

Dupree, who will drive to her festival duties with Carrie Morey, the owner of Callies Charleston Biscuits in South Carolina, is "absolutely sure" the biscuit festival will break through biscuit barriers. "Outside the South they don't know what a biscuit is—why in England, that's what they call a cookie!" she says. "The biscuit festival will change the understanding from just a fast-food product. I don't think the fast-food biscuits are always the best. There are so many others that just melt in your mouth—all different types, crisp and all of that. At the festival, people will get to see all of them."

Now is a really good time to be celebrating biscuits as a tourist enterprise, too, because food festivals are becoming very popular, as is Southern food in general. PARADE's Chen notes the obsession right now with all foods Southern, particularly fried chicken, in New York City, where the magazine is based. "But you still can't get a good biscuit outside the South," she says.

Dupree, who's written for the Los Angeles Times in years past, chimes in. "Southern food is the hottest food trend around right now. We're the new Italian."

With a week to go, the Biscuit Brain Trust and the biscuit vendors and the dinner stylists and the restaurants and artists and singers and strummers are marshalling their forces, pre-heating their ovens, and starting to fret about keeping their butter cold and baking onstage.

All are very aware of last year's shortfall. Lyons in particular is unhappy at the thought that even one person missed a chance at a real biscuit. "Not everyone grew up eating good biscuits, and I feel sorry for them for that."

But lots of people can correct this coming weekend, says Craig. "We're mobilizing to be able to crank out unlimited biscuits."

If all goes well, this festival will serve twice as many as last year. The next year, who knows? Plans are for continued growth, more sponsors, maybe some vendors from places outside the area. For sure, all the world will be invited to butter up. Says Craig: "We don't want to deprive anyone of biscuits."