IACP Awards and Conference in Birmingham - banner and IACP winner icon

Diversivore Wins Best Blog at IACP 43 in Birmingham, Alabama

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Hey folks! I dug myself out of quarantine-esque isolation to attend the 2021 International Association of Culinary Professionals awards and conference in Birmingham, Alabama.  I met some great people, ate some great food, and I'm delighted to say that Diversivore won the award for Best Individual Food Blog! Below you'll find some food, photos, and stories from the Magic City. Cheers!

IACP Awards and Conference in Birmingham - banner and IACP winner icon overlaid on a photo of the historic Alabama hotel
IACP Awards and Conference in Birmingham - banner and IACP winner icon

Diversivore at IACP 43 in Birmingham

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It's been much too long since Diversivore was off on a culinary adventure. In fact, I haven't gotten to do any food-related travel since 2018 when I was in Japan. Then again, I'm hardly alone in that respect, given that most of the planet stayed pretty close to home for the last two years. But a big award nomination coaxed me to mask up and haul my double-vaccinated self to the airport for a trip to the Magic City - Birmingham, Alabama.

Long story short: I met a lot of great people, ate a ton of incredible food, learned a whole lot, and... won the 2021 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for Best Individual Food Blog!

And because I'm just awful and managing social media while I travel, I figured it would be fun to share the experience with y'all here on the site.  And yes, I said y'all. It's a very addictive word. I was instructed by the many Southerners I met to bring it home to Canada and use it as souvenir.  So there y'all go.

IACP Awards & Conference

IACP 43 conference programs alongside the cast iron trophy given to award winners

For those of you who aren't familiar, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) is... well, exactly what it sounds like. The organization brings together food writers, chefs, educators, restauranteurs, and other culinary creators under one big umbrella.  The organization runs an annual conference and awards ceremony (both of which were cancelled in 2020, like everything else).  I've been wanting to go to a conference for a few years now, and when Diversivore was nominated for Best Individual Food Blog, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

IACP didn't disappoint!  They put on a great conference, and a wonderful awards ceremony.  I also met a lot of great people who run wonderful ongoing culinary and educational programing, and I'm looking forward to being more involved with the group in the years to come.  If you're a culinary person, I'd encourage you to check out IACP, and some of the other award winners from 2021.

(One quick note before we get to the good stuff - the content below is organized chronologically, so it covers the various aspects of the conference with the awards sandwiched in between).

Birmingham, Alabama

"the Magic City"

I am fully prepared to admit that I had mixed feelings about traveling to Alabama. I'd never been to the state - nor to the US Southeast in general.  Covid cases were surging in the state earlier this year, and the socio-political atmosphere (both historical and contemporary) has been contentious enough to make a major impression even on non-Americans like myself.

I'm happy to report that Covid cases had dropped dramatically by the time I arrived, and IACP had taken abundant precautions to keep attendees safe.  The effects of the pandemic were undeniably still present wherever you looked, but it was nice to be able to get together with like-minded food lovers for the first time in a long time.  As for the socio-political factors - well, that was pretty interesting stuff.

The Alabama Theater in Birmingham, Alabama

The historic Alabama Theater. You'll never guess what state it's in.

The majority of Diversivore readers are actually from the USA, and I'm sure many of you will be at least somewhat familiar with the history of Birmingham, especially as it pertains to the civil rights movement.  For those of you who are less familiar with the details, I'll give you the briefest of overviews here, but I'd also encourage you to read about the subject on your own (the Wikipedia articles on the civil rights movement and the Birmingham campaign are good places to start).

In the 1950s and 60s, the US civil rights movement was organized in an effort to achieve legal equality for Black Americans.  While slavery was formally abolished in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, state and federal governments enacted numerous Jim Crow laws designed to discriminate against and disenfranchise black Americans.  Civil rights activists faced violent opposition from white politicians and citizens, especially (but not exclusively) in the former slave-owning southern states.  The difficult - and often deadly - quest for civil rights brought about the Birmingham campaign of 1963, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and led by Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and others.  The campaign sought to call attention to the omnipresent and systemic racial discrimination faced by black Americans by having volunteers peacefully violate segregation laws on public transit, lunch counters, libraries, churches, and stores.  Volunteers were arrested en masse, overfilling the jails and clogging the court systems.  Tensions increased in Birmingham throughout the year, and came to a head when civic authorities turned high-power fire hoses and police dogs on students marching peacefully in Kelly Ingram park.  The violence shocked the nation - and indeed the world - and turned the tide in favour of the SCLC and the broader civil rights movement.  Segregation laws were dismantled and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed the following year.

Racism, of course, did not disappear in 1964.  Alabama is still very much a racially and politically divided state, and the state's socio-political reputation is well known even here in Canada.  In fact, when I told people here that I was going to Alabama their reactions were, let's say 'mixed.' One person even apologized to me.  Not one person expressed unbridled enthusiasm about the idea.  But I am delighted to tell you that Birmingham defied expectations and thoroughly impressed me.  The Magic City left a lasting impression on me, and I want to share some of what I experienced with you.

Sean from Diversivore outside of the historic Hampton Tutwiler in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.

I hope you're ready for some seriously sub-par selfies!

Birmingham is undeniably in a state of evolution.  The historic downtown core and industrial sectors are being revitalized and reclaimed.  The University of Alabama at Birmingham has created a world-class medical research and education facility that has brought in talent from around the world and fostered it locally. The culinary scene is dynamic, creative, and absolutely world class.  But most of all, the citizens seem to be genuinely invested in their city.  People are proud of the Birmingham's trajectory and dedicated to being a part of it - and with good reason.  The history of the city - good, bad, and ugly - is a part of its identity, and very much informs its people and its future.

Luckily, the IACP conference not only introduced me to many amazing citizens, but also allowed me to see - and in many cases taste! - exactly what they were so proud of.  I hope I've captured some of that here, and I hope you'll enjoy seeing what the city had to offer.  And if you do get a chance to visit Birmingham - y'all should do it.

Welcome Y'all!

Sweet Home Street Party

The 43rd annual IACP conference kicked off with a welcome party in the beautiful Pepper Place market district in Birmingham's historic Lakeview region.  I was surprised to learn that Pepper Place is actually named after Dr Pepper - but not because of any form of corporate sponsorship.  The district is centered in and around the large brick factories built to produce and bottle Dr Pepper in the late 1920s.  The Dr Pepper plant closed in 1982, falling into disuse and disrepair until it was purchased and revitalized in 1988 by Sloss Real Estate (more on that later).

Today, Pepper Place is a beautiful retail and restaurant space, and home to an award-winning farmers market that supports local Alabama producers.  It's also, I would argue, a must-visit spot for any food lover visiting Birmingham.

Gulf coast snapper appetizers in small bamboo leaf dishes

Gulf snapper appetizers from Bettola restaurant at Pepper Place. While the Alabama's coastal region is relatively small, there's no shortage of great Gulf Coast seafood available throughout the state.

The IACP festivities kicked off with Mayor Randall Woodfin welcoming the assembled conference attendees to the city.  We mingled outdoors (with plenty of space, thankfully) while enjoying fantastic food and drink from some of the market's restaurants.  I was particularly enamoured with the snapper ceviche from Bettola (above), but honestly every dish was exceptional.  I wish I'd been able to find the time to enjoy an entire meal at the James Beard Award-winning Hot and Hot Fish Club, because their menu is just incredible, but I had to make do with the wonderful scallop dish that they served.  They ran out twice before I could get any - luckily my persistence was rewarded with a double-serving.

IACP is a large group, and its members have rather varied interests.  As such, there are a number of semi-autonomous sub-groups within the organization that get together to learn and socialize.  When the welcome party wound down, I found my way to the nearby Ghost Train Brewing Co. to meet with the Food Writers, Editors, and Publishers (FWEP) group for some brews.  All in all, a lovely introduction to B'ham, and to IACP.

This picture is 95% for my brother, who's a paramedic here in Canada. The Ghost Train beerbulance is a fully functioning taphouse on wheels, because... why not?

The Market at Pepper Place

I am a sucker for a farmer's market. I've been running my popular "Whatsit Wednesday" feature across my social media channels for a couple of years now (check out the hashtag #WhatsitWednesdayFood on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter if you haven't already!), and I'm always on the hunt for unfamiliar and underappreciated ingredients.  Fortunately, Saturday morning opened up with breakfast back at Pepper Place and time to explore the weekend markets.

Produce and various pickles being sold at the Pepper Place Farmer's Market in Birmingham, Alabama

Pickles and produce abound at the Pepper Place Farmer's Market. Note the pickled okra and green tomatoes - sure signs that you're shopping in the South.

The farmers' market at Pepper Place certainly didn't disappoint. Fresh produce (see below), southern-style preserves (see above) abounded, along with plenty of enticing baked goods and other treats. I could easily share more pictures than what I've got here, but I've got to save at least a few of the interesting items for future Whatsit Wednesday posts!

The market also provided an opportunity for some of the IACP cookbook authors to set up a book-signing pop-up.  Sadly, I had to cut my time at the market short, as I had to zip off to get a Covid PCR test so that I'd be able to fly back home on Monday, then zip back to the market to catch the shuttle to Sloss Furnaces for the conference.  Fun times.  Perhaps I'll be able to make it back to Birmingham some day.  If I do, I intend to spend all morning at the market - ideally without anyone having to stick a swab up my nose.

Red Okra in baskets at Pepper Place market

Red okra is a spectacular variation on its more common green cousin. Sadly, the pods lose their red colour when cooked (a common issue with many red and purple veggies), but they sure do look beautiful in the baskets at the market.

Yates apples in baskets

Yates apples - a southern specialty first developed in Fayette county, Georgia. These small, tart apples are a popular cider apple, but they're great fresh too. These lovely fruits were grown by Petals from the Past.

Sloss Furnaces

National Historic Landmark

After opening up at the Pepper Place market, we moved across the train tracks to the impressive National Historic Landmark known as Sloss Furnaces.  The facility, founded by Colonel James Withers Sloss, operated from 1882-1971, producing pig iron from the abundant mineral deposits found in the Birmingham area.  Sloss Furnaces quickly became a major force in the region, driving a post-Civil War economic boom that led to Birmingham being nicknamed "the Pittsburgh of the South."

Water tower and old steelwork equipment at Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, Alabama

The iconic water tower at Sloss Furnaces stands tall amidst a plethora of old iron work buildings and tools.

Birmingham Alabama was more-or-less built around a developing steel industry. The city was founded in 1871 by the Elyton Land Company in order to take advantage of the region's abundant mineral resources - especially coal, limestone, and iron ore. Interestingly, Birmingham is the only place in the world where those resources - the three components necessary for making steel - can be found in close proximity.  Even the name Birmingham was chosen with industry in mind; the white settlers and investors in the region were mostly of English descent, and they chose to name the new city after the major industrial center of Birmingham, England.

The ideal location made Sloss Furnaces profitable immediately, but it was in 1886, after Colonel Sloss retired and sold the company to a group of investors, that the industry truly took off.  Rebranded in 1899 as Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron, the company (which only ever produced pig iron, not steel) incorporated more furnaces and modern facilities, and by expanded its mining rights in the region.  It soon became the second largest merchant (i.e. stand-alone) pig iron producer in the region.  By the start of the First World War, Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron had become one of the largest pig iron producers in the world.

Walkway beneath the old steelwork equipment at Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, Alabama

A walkway beneath the many retired ironworking facilities at Sloss Furnaces. Red primer, rust, and photo opportunities galore.

It wasn't just natural resources that made Birmingham's steel industry so profitable.  Iron and steel - and indeed many industries in the South - were able to compete with the major industrial centers in the North thanks to an abundance of free labour.  While slavery had been abolished in the USA following the Civil War, it hadn't disappeared.  The 13th amendment to the US constitution banned the use of forced unpaid labour - except in the case of punishment within the penal system.  This led to the development of a massive 'convict leasing' system, in which prisoners were forced to serve their sentences by providing unpaid labour to private industries.  This system overwhelmingly targeted black Americans through racially prejudiced policing and the selective application of loosely defined vagrancy laws. Convict lease labour continued until in 1928, when Alabama became the last state to eliminate it.  The leasing of prisoners to private industries has been outlawed for nearly 100 years; however unpaid and poorly-paid prison labour - both forced and volunteer - remains legal in the USA.

Sloss Furnaces utilized convict lease labour only its coal mines, but the workforce at the furnace itself was heavily segregated.  The hierarchy was entirely white at the top amongst managers, engineers, etc., and entirely black at the bottom amongst the 'unskilled' labourers. The middle ranks of skilled labourers were racially mixed, but still ranked and compensated unequally.  Today, this history of segregation can still be seen in the surviving architecture at Sloss Furnaces, where separate on-site bath houses are clearly marked as being for white and black workers.

Blast furnace at Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, Alabama

The tall furnace at the center of Sloss Furnaces is particularly stunning, and served as the backdrop for several of our meals.

The steel industry went into decline in Birmingham after WWII, and Sloss Furnaces shuttered in 1971. Local groups soon began to lobby for the site's preservation, and today it stands as the only 20th century blast furnace to be preserved as a historical site in the USA. Investments in the facility have helped to preserve the historic infrastructure, and to provide educational facilities and opportunities for visitors.  An excellent on-site visitors center was built in 2012, and served as the location for several of the talks at this year's conference.  The expansive grounds also provide numerous outdoor opportunities for festivals, meetings, and private events.  This made it an ideal location for bringing together conference-goers while still allowing for social distancing.  It's also a fantastically photogenic site, especially during the 'golden hours' around sunrise and sunset.

While Sloss Furnaces itself isn't particularly connected to the city's culinary history, the ancestors of its founder are.  Cathy Sloss-Jones, great-great-granddaughter of Colonel Sloss, is president and CEO of the urban redevelopment firm Sloss Real Estate.  She was instrumental in the purchase and revitalization of the now-thriving Pepper Place district, and established the farmers' market (which is run as a not-for-profit organization) there in 2000.  Her sister Leigh Sloss-Corra is now the executive director of the market.  Both sisters played key roles in bringing and welcoming the IACP conference to Birmingham.

Sweet - and Delicious - Home Alabama

Let's get back to some food now, shall we?

Back row (L to R): Nancy Wall Hopkins (IACP President), Justin Hill (Eastaboga Bee Company), Clayton Sherrod (chef & educator), Lindsey Noto (chef & culinary specialist), Jorge Castro (Sol y Luna restaurant), Jennifer Ryan (BLUEROOT restaurant), Dean Robb (Blueprint restaurant), Crystal Peterson (Yo' Mama's restaurant), Reggie Torbor (former NFL linebacker and Super Bowl champion, now of Taproot restaurant), Abhishek "Abhi" Sainju (Abhi Eatery & Bar and mo:mo restaurant), Dr. Martin O'Neill (Auburn University)
Front row (L to R): Lee Sentell (Alabama tourism director, author), Valerie Thomas (The Val Group), Odessa Woolfolk (civil rights leader & activist), Cathy Sloss-Jones (CEO Sloss Real Estate), Nick Jernigan (Montgomery Super Suppers)

The talks at IACP 43 opened with the "Sweet - and Delicious - Home Alabama" address, given by a number of notable Alabama residents.  Everyone had something different to say of course, but there was an interesting theme of renewal that ran through the event; quite a few of the speakers spoke of coming (or returning) to Birmingham only to be surprised by the city's direction and evolution.  Many didn't expect to stay, but soon found that they couldn't imagine working anywhere else.  This theme of dynamic civic rebirth is a growing theme in a number of post-industrial American cities, and it certainly seems to be in full swing in Birmingham.

The panel at the Sloss Furnaces casting shed. The awards and many of the talks were held in this pandemic-friendly covered outdoor space, beneath the impressive 10 Ton Morgan Crane.

Food was, of course, on everyone's mind. The speakers touched on many of the talking points that would be addressed in greater detail at later in the conference, but everyone spoke of the incredible culinary creativity and agricultural richness that Alabama has provided them with. Needless to say that by the time we wrapped up, we were beyond ready for lunch.

BBQ with Pitmaster Rodney Scott

& Day 1 Side Sessions

The southern US is deservedly famous for barbecue, and few barbecue specialists are as renowned as pitmaster Rodney Scott.

A plate of BBQ pork, turkey, and sides from pitmaster Rodney Scott

Smoked turkey, shredded pork, Alabama white sauce, macaroni & cheese, and coleslaw.
Not shown: the to-go box with a second serving that I brought back to my hotel.

Rodney Scott first started cooking whole hog barbecue at the age of 11 at his parents' small shop in his hometown of Hemingway, South Carolina.  Demand for Scott's barbecued pork grew and grew, leading to the establishment of Charlston's Rodney Scott's BBQ in 2017 and a James Beard award in 2018.  The restaurant expanded to Birmingham in 2019, and is planning to open a third location in Atlanta.

Whole hog barbecue being converted into pulled pork

Whole-hog barbecue being masterfully handled by one of pitmaster Rodney Scott's crew. Even our substantial and food-mad convention group couldn't polish it all off.

Scott obviously doesn't personally cook at all of the restaurants these days - but he and his crew did come and cook for us.  The hardwood-smoked pork was perfection, rounded out by smoked turkey, creamy mac and cheese, coleslaw, and Alabama white sauce.  Alabama white sauce absolutely needs to be a more well-known thing in my opinion.  Sweet and sticky red barbecue sauces are fantastic, but the tangy kick of mayonnaise-and-vinegar based white sauce is a wonderful foil to the smoky richness of all kinds of barbecued meats.  I've been considering what recipes to develop for the site from this trip, and white sauce is a strong contender.  Stay tuned.

Sean with award-winning pitmaster Rodney Scott

I was so excited to meet (and thank) pitmaster Rodney Scott that I didn't even consider how exhausted and sunburnt I looked in pictures that day. A little more time outside and I could have disappeared against the rust-red primer in the background.

Stuffed from a spectacular lunch, we broke out into the afternoon sessions. Rochelle Brown, Carrie Morey, and Zoë François spoke about hosting cooking content on TV and video - something I really enjoyed given that I'm working towards getting Diversivore's video content off the ground.

Later on, Under the Desk News host V. Spehar led chef Adrian Lipscombe (of the 40 Acres Project), food writer Ed Behr, and Niman Ranch founding farmer Paul Willis in a round-table discussion of the challenges surrounding sustainability in the meat industry, and the "lost taste of pork." Both are fascinating subjects that I hope to talk about on Diversivore more in the future.

The afternoon closed with overlapping side sessions - "Eat Well, Live Well, Age Well" led by hosts Patricia Greenberg and Nandita Godbole, and "The Mother Sources: Add Depth to Your Writing" with Bonnie Benwick, Darra Goldstein, Ann Taylor Pittman, and Cheryl Slocum.  I chose to attend the latter session, and I was thoroughly impressed (and inspired!) by the multi-award-winning panel's insights into research and credibility in food writing.

With conference sessions, I anxiously made my way to the "main event" - the IACP Media & Cookbook Awards.

2021 IACP Awards

Winner winner, fried chicken dinner

Spoiler alert: things went well.

The awards opened with a reception outside of the Sloss Furnaces casting shed and spray pond, with cocktails from Dread River Distilling Co. and a bounty of Birmingham snacks.  The award show itself started soon after, hosted by comedian Roy Wood Jr. and singer Ruben Studdard.  The duo were fantastic together, keeping the awards entertaining and fast-paced.  I was pleasantly surprised when my home city of Vancouver got a shout-out from Ruben, who sang the praises (well, not literally) of Japadog hot dogs.

I was beyond thrilled when Diversivore was first nominated for the IACP digital media award for best personal food blog.  It's a cliché to say that you're happy just to be nominated, but it's still true.  With awards in other categories going to culinary powerhouses like Jacques Pepin, Food52, Milk Street Kitchen, America's Test Kitchen and more, it's pretty damned flattering just to be part of the conversation.

Sean holding the IACP award for best individual food blog

Suitably, the IACP awards were tiny cast iron frying pans, made by Sloss Metal Arts.  It's fully functional, so I'm going to have to cook some fried quail eggs to celebrate.

When my category came up, I was thrilled to learn that not only had Diversivore won, but that the judges had awarded a tie for first.  I was proud to share the award and the stage with Jennifer Fergesen of Global Carinderia. Jennifer's writing explores the Filipino culinary diaspora throughout the world, and it's really fantastic stuff.  I hope you'll check out her wonderful work.

Sean Bromilow of Diversivore and Jennifer Fergesen of Global Carinderia - co-winners of the 2021 IACP Award for best individual food blog

I was delighted to tie for first place with Jennifer Fergesen of Global Carinderia.
We took this poorly-lit celebratory selfie at the after party at the Back Forty Beer Company.

Sean Bromilow of Diversivore and Jennifer Fergesen of Global Carinderia - co-winners of the 2021 IACP Award for best individual food blog accepting their awards on stage

Sean and Jennifer on stage at IACP 43 accepting their awards for best individual food blog. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Flores.

With my little frying pan trophy in hand and the waiting over, I was able to absorb the rest of the awards show a little more easily. My little table of six fared amazingly well, winning five awards (my own, plus best personal Instagram, member of the  year, and two awards for King Arthur Baking, accepted by author Rossi Anastopoulo).  On top of that, my immediate neighbour at the adjacent table was Melissa Martin, whose phenomenal Mosquito Supper Club won best American cookbook and the coveted Best Cookbook award.  We considered her to be an honorary member of the "Table of Victory."

The awards wrapped and the festivities moved to the nearby Back Forty Beer Company, where we enjoyed even more food, and even more drink.  I made it back to my hotel in one piece, managed to share the good news with you all before collapsing into bed.

Jones Valley Teaching Farm

IACP conference attendees listening to director Amanda Storey at the Jones Valley Teaching Farm in Birmingham, Alabama.

Amanda Storey speaking to the IACP conference attendees at the beautiful new Jones Valley Teaching Farm facilities in Birmingham. Amanda won an IACP Trailblazer award the night before for her incredible work.

Getting out of bed on Sunday morning was, amazingly, easier than I thought it would be.  This was largely thanks to the amazing local field trip that IACP had planned for us.  Well, that and coffee. Lots of coffee.

Entry to the Jones Valley Teaching Farm's downtown campus and Food Education Center, Birmingham, Alabama

The Jones Valley Teaching Farm's beautiful new Center for Food Education just opened up on their downtown campus in 2021.

Jones Valley Teaching Farm is one of my favourite kinds of place.  Dedicated to the intersection of food, agriculture, education, and community service, the farm operates seven teaching farms, community gardens, apprenticeships, and educational programs in the Birmingham region.  Of particular note is the fact that five of the seven farms are in the Woodlawn region of Birmingham, which has experienced considerable grassroots-level revitalization following a long period characterized by high crime rates and poverty.

Fields at the Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Birmingham, Alabama

Some of the crops at the Jones Valley Teaching Farm. The farm is surrounded by housing in Birmingham's Central City neighbourhood.

JVTF executive director Amanda Storey spoke to the attendees about the role that the farm plays in the community, and how food and agriculture can enrich and empower its citizens. Surrounded by the JVTF's beautiful and brand new educational center, and fresh off an IACP Trailblazer award, she was pretty convincing.

The farm also hosted breakfast courtesy of Food & Wine, Southern Living, and Meredith Food Studios.  A few Birmingham-based food businesses (see below) offered up drinks to round things out.  We toured the farm and the facilities for a bit, then headed back to Sloss Furnaces for what I would consider the cornerstone of the entire conference: the Food & Civil Rights talk.

Domestique Coffee at the Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Birmingham

Nathan Pocus, co-founder of Domestique Coffee, poured a mean espresso that helped bring me back to life that morning.

1 Ft a Day Kombucha from Harvest Roots Ferments, Birmingham, Alabama

This fascinating and delicious brew from Harvest Roots Ferments was very much up the ol' Diversivore alley.  It's made with foraged flowers from the invasive Asian vine known as kudzu, which is said to be able to spread as much as one foot a day - hence the name.

Food & Civil Rights

The conference reconvened in the casting shed for an unforgettable session with an amazing quintet.  Journalist and NPR host Janae Pierre led a conversation between chef and author Bryant Terry, Senator Doug Jones, Alabama Poet Laureate Ashley M. Jones, and educator Dr. Sephira Shuttlesworth (widow of civil rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth).  The group talked about what food had meant to them in their families and communities, and how it was forever interwoven with the struggles - both historical and ongoing - for civil rights.

Panel from the Food and Civil Rights Table Talk at IACP 43 in Birmingham

The incredible panel from the IACP Food & Civil Rights talk:
(L to R) Bryant Terry, Ashley M. Jones, Janae Pierre, Dr. Sephira Shuttlesworth, and Senator Doug Jones,

It is, I'm sure, abundantly clear that the civil rights movement is forever entwined with the story of Birmingham. This isn't going to change any time soon.  But I can understand how it might seem, at least at first glance, as the topic of food is being shoehorned somewhat into the picture.  This simply isn't the case.  Food has been an essential element of the civil rights movement at every turn.  African slaves worked the fields that fed America, and their nominally free ancestors continued to do the same as impoverished and indebted sharecroppers.  Lunch counters were the sites of some of the most visible sit-ins of the segregation era.  Behind the scenes, all too often unnoticed, brigades of volunteers cooked and fed the volunteers that marched and protested across the country for decades.  Many of these people were black women - mothers and wives, too-often invisible in the recounting of the victories of the civil rights movement.  The panel spoke fondly and at length about these women - mothers, aunts, friends - and the impact that they'd had on preserving both people and culture.

Listening to them, I was reminded of the story of Georgia Gilmore and the Club From Nowhere.   Gilmore was a cook, midwife, and activist from Montgomery, Alabama.  When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others organized the boycott of Montgomery's buses in protest of racial segregation, Gilmore organized a group of women who made and sold food to surreptitiously raise funds for the alternative modes of transportation that made the 381-day boycott possible.  She called the group, which remained clandestine in order to protect the livelihoods of the black women who participated, "the Club From Nowhere."  This was because when anyone asked where all this money was coming from, the answer was always the same: nowhere.

Ronald McDowell's "Foot Soldier" monument at Kelly Ingram Park.
The statue is one of a series commemorating the fight for civil rights in Birmingham.

There's simply too much to say about the incredible group of people that spoke on the past, present, and future of the intersecting worlds of food and civil rights. I can say only a little here, but I am working on a larger piece related to the session, and to the conversations I was fortunate enough to have with panel members. I hope to share that with you all soon.

Southern Living Lunch & Sessions

more eating, y'all

Fried chicken, beans, and pasta salad at IACP 43 in Birmingham

The fine folks at Southern Living put together Sunday's lunch for us, composed of crispy fried chicken, pasta salad, and shockingly delicious beans. Forget any negative stereotype you've ever heard about lima beans - these babies were incredible.

We continued once again with food, because of course we did.  Southern Living fed us once again, this time with fried chicken that and sides that warranted all kinds of superlatives.  Seriously people, I cannot stress this enough: I ate like a king for three days straight.

We broke into the final sessions of the conference, starting with a fantastic panel on contemporary food journalism.  Jamila Robinson led a group including Food & Wine's Hunter Lewis, L.A. TACO's Javier Cabral, AllRecipes' Jason Burnett, and award-winning author and historian Toni Tipton-Martin.

Next, we warmed up our ovens for "What is America Baking?" This one was a lot of fun, but I think the most memorable part of the whole thing might have been the entire conference singing Happy Birthday to Dorie Greenspan (who was participating virtually on the big screen).

Once more, the day wrapped with concurrent side sessions.  "Cooking through the Decades" examined food fads and trends with Food52 founder Amanda Hesser and the New York Times' Kim Severson, while Phyllis Hoffman Depiano talked about the secrets to her success in the publishing world, along with her son Brian Hart Hoffman (Founder and Editor in Chief of Bake from Scratch).

Thoroughly exhausted, we said our goodbyes with a farewell at Carrigan's.  And just like that, it was over.  Well, more or less....

Solo in B'ham

So much to eat, so little room

Events like this are always a little bit of a whirlwind. You're so busy with the scheduled stuff that you often end up leaving without feeling like you've gotten to experience much of the destination itself. But there aren't a whole lot of flights from Birmingham to Vancouver, which means that I had a good chunk of Monday to myself to explore.

Japanese stone lantern in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Alabama

This stone lantern is one of a number in the spectacular Japanese Gardens located in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This particular lantern was a gift from the city of Hitachi, Japan.

I started my morning early and headed to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for a bit of greenery and a peek at some more agriculture. The gardens are, unequivocally, one of the brightest gems in the city's crown. They're free (seriously!), and spectacular. Even in late October with little in bloom, they were stunning. The Japanese garden in particular is a incredible, with stunning architecture, manicured gardens, and a dense bamboo grove. Of particular note to me was the Bruno Vegetable Garden, which grows and donates over 3,000 lbs of produce every year for charity.  It also provided a few more interesting foods for me to take photos of, including the muscadine grapes I featured in the very next Whatsit Wednesday after I got home.

Loofah gourd growing in the Bruno Vegetable Garden at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Loofah gourds growing in the Birmingham Botanical Garden's Bruno Vegetable Garden. Mature loofah gourds are made into the eponymous bathroom 'sponges,' but the young gourds are wonderful veggies.

Heirloom pumpkins at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama

The conference was held only a week before Halloween, and these beautiful heirloom pumpkins were on sale at the botanical gardens. Unlike the average field pumpkin, these gourds are every bit as good for eating as they are for displaying.

For the first time all weekend, I had to feed myself. I had an overabundance of options to choose from, but one speaker from Saturday's "Sweet - and Delicious - Home Alabama" had really pressed the idea of what it means to eat and support business in the city.  Crystal Peterson of Yo' Mama's restaurant spoke to us about the restaurant she runs with her Mom, and how we needed to get out there and experience food that mattered to and supported the people of Birmingham.  I had to agree - and when I learned that Yo' Mama's was only open for lunch, the choice seemed pretty easy.

Interior of Yo' Mama's restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama

Yo' Mama's restaurant in Birmingham. Co-owner Crystal Peterson (behind the counter) spoke at the Sweet Home Alabama panel, and I had to visit the restaurant that she runs with her Mom, Denise. I was not disappointed.

The restaurant was busy when I got there, with a line up out the door.  As I waited to order, a woman stepped out to the sidewalk to video chat on her phone with an older man (her father, I believe) who was lying in a hospital bed.  One by one, she turned the phone to other family members who were coming and going.  They all said their hellos and wished him well before putting face masks on and heading into the restaurant.  When I made it inside, I took a moment to say hello the couple in front of me with their infant son, and to mention that I was going home to my own boys.  We talked about family, the city, and the restaurant. He had eaten there many times before, but it was her first time.  He recommended the chicken and waffles.  He was absolutely correct to do so.

Chicken and waffles with hot peaches from Yo' Momma's in Birmingham, Alabama

Of all the things I did and meals I ate in Birmingham, my kids might have been the most jealous of this.

I ordered, thanked Crystal for speaking at IACP, then quickly got out of the way for the next customer. Yo' Mama's is an understandably busy place at lunch time, and you don't want to hold up the line.  I took my meal and ate alone on a bench out front while I waited for a car to take me to the airport.  Every bite was perfect.

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  1. Wow, it looks like such a wonderful place to visit! The food and sites look amazing. And congratulations on the award – well deserved!

  2. Congrats on your win! The award is so cute! I love that it is a mini frying pan – very fitting.

  3. Wow! Y’all had one grand adventure! Seems like such a well organized conference and I’m glad they snuck so much ‘local’ into it. Congrats on the win and for not being ‘overweight’ for the flight home!

  4. Congratulations! That’s such a great achievement and you should be very proud. Thanks for all the info about a region I knew little about beyond the stereotype. It looks like a memorable adventure!

  5. V complete write up, Sean! Nice meeting you in #Bham. Stay earnest, O Canada! And come visit us in DC.

  6. Congratulations, Sean! Wow – to be part of all those big names is a big deal! 🙂 It also looked like an amazing trip- so glad you got to go. Keep up the great blogging work!

  7. Fantastic run down Sean! Big congratulations on winning and showing us how amazing Alabama is! Very cool, I hope to go one day too.

  8. Congratulations, Sean, for your fabulous, well deserved win!! How exciting for you and your family.
    Loved your Birmingham report on all that deliciousness everywhere you turned. Sounds like the perfect place to visit for any serious foodie, such as yourself.
    Glad you made it home safe and sound.

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