I missed the conference’s first keynote, spirits expert David Wondrich, on Thursday evening. The talk was listed as full on the website so I Ubered from Lawrenceville to the North Shore to start at the second event. I didn’t get to sip the Kool-aid, er, whiskey, from the beginning but I caught up and on quick.
The Three Day Blow Festival for food writers, editors, chefs, restaurateurs and venturers from around the country was held in downtown Pittsburgh Aug. 25-27. This inaugural event, which plans to be annual, was a call to action for all tastemakers to “Eat. Drink. Think. Pittsburgh.” Its raison d’etre was a quote from The New York Times article by Jeff Gordinier published last March that bode well for the ’Burgh. In his illuminating story, Gordonier shows an appreciation for the trend shift that is occurring right now, driven by the city’s influx of tech industry youthful employees and what they want.
“If there are scholars who hope to study how a vibrant food culture can help radically transform an American city, the time to do that is right now, in real time, in the place that gave us Heinz ketchup,” Gordinier wrote.
Thursday night a cooking competition turned the tables in the Whiskey Garden of the Wigle (pronounced “wiggle”) Barrelhouse, where a floor to ceiling battery of barrels stores aging hooch on the North Shore. Three rounds of food writers competed in pairs that were judged by a panel of Pittsburgh chefs accustomed to taking the slings and arrows of their reviews. The chefs were kind. The whiskey helped. And the Pittsburgh Post Gazette team of Bob Batz and Gretchen McKay won the contest with a South Indian inspired dish that they called “Sri Rogies,” which are Pittsburgh-style pierogies stuffed with a spicy masala potato filling accompanied by green beans with urad dhal.
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The Three Day Blow was chaired by Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-produced by a large committee of dedicated volunteers and supported by a host of sponsors. Grelli, the co-founder and co-owner of Wigle, a craft whiskey distillery that opened to the public in 2012, is a change-maker in the area, personally involved in getting the distillery ban repealed in Pennsylvania in December 2011. Witty and urbane, Grelli hurried throughout the cavernous August Wilson Center introducing speakers and facilitating sessions.
A Friday morning Bloody Mary bar welcomed attendees at the 8:30 a.m. registration. Pimped out by Meat & Potatoes, the stellar downtown restaurant, the bar offered a dazzling array of additions to the fresh tomato or tomatillo juice. A charcuterie board with a dozen house pickled vegetables, seafood and accompanying spicy condiments made the drink a small feast. Celery was there for the purists. A coffee bar with breakfast pastries was available for those who needed to go the other direction.
Acclaimed Chef Michael Solomonov gave the food keynote that morning. Born in G’nei Yehuda, Israel, and raised in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, “also a suburb of Israel,” joked Solomonov, the family spanned both the conflicted Middle East and the upscale Pittsburgh ‘hood. A typical American childhood in the city and then a move back to Israel at 15 led to a difficult adolescence and early adulthood between both worlds, without rudder. What eventually stabilized the young man was a grasp of the power of food when he managed to land a job in a bakery in Israel in spite of having no experience. A culinary career dawned.
Rumor has it that Solomonov has his eye on a site in Pittsburgh, but nothing official has been announced. The homie’s return would be a mitzvah for the city.
Breakout panel discussions included sessions on writers and editors in conversation about how to bring an idea to market, either as a print book or a digital magazine article; the evolution of the restaurant critic in Pittsburgh and beyond; how to sharpen your pitch; beyond foodies and food deserts; Rust-Belt cuisine; memoir on food and place; the affect of regional immigration patterns on the food system; and a discussion about what might be next for Pittsburgh, named Top Food City in America for 2015 by Zagat last December. Editors on deck included Beth Kracklauer, of the Wall Street Journal, Helen Rosner, of Eater, Dana Bowen, of Martha Stewart Living, Adam Shuck from Glassblock and more.
The Saturday morning keynote speaker, Bryant Terry, gave insight into “the intersection of food, farming, health, activism, art, culture and the African Diaspora.” Currently the chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Terry’s work to promote healthy, just and sustainable food systems that are accessible to every member of a community is widely known and recognized. The affable chef/educator/author won the crowd early when his voice rang out clear and true, singing the spiritual “When I Lay My Burden Down” that he remembered his grandmother singing while she canned the vegetables from her garden in Memphis, Tennessee.
Terry rapped the lyrics to a 1992 hip-hop song about animal cruelty and the perils of industrialized meat production that awakened his consciousness when he was in 10th grade. He decided to become a vegan and never looked back, relinquishing his Memphis barbecue roots but eventually discovering a whole new world of exciting flavor in a plant-based diet. He has written four books, the first one in 2006 called “Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen” in partnership with Anna Lappé. A true cheftivist, Terry could not talk about food without preparing some and made a sautéed kale dish with orange juice and raisins onstage.
He closed talk with a screening of the first episode of his 2012 web series, Urban Organic, on aquaponics. My only complaint is that I didn’t get to try his bright green kale dish.
But there was plenty of other food at the conference. On Friday, the Hidden Gems luncheon showcased small ethnic restaurants that represent why Pittsburgh, with its 93 neighborhoods, was called at one session “the melting pot that won’t melt,” by moderator Kracklauer who quoted Trevor Hooper, Legume and Butterjoint chef/owner.
Infused from the start with a literary bent, the festival name hails from the Ernest Hemingway short story, “The Three-Day Blow,” about a storm in Michigan, and two friends that ride it out drink by drink. The stage was set. While Amy Rosenfield, of Mon Aimee Chocolat, in the Strip District led a chocolate tasting of three Nathan Miller and two Guittard chocolates, explaining the process and the harvesting of the world’s favorite sweet, we sipped on organic aged rye whiskey and nibbled lunch sandwiches. Life is short; eat dessert first — and we did.
There were many other events going on during the festival evenings, far too many to actually attend unless you were Grelli — jazz at the Jamestown Street gastropub, late night in the Biergarten at the Hotel Monaco, a local grain discussion at Tripoli Street Bread Oven, but one that I did go to seemed to fully express the intent and the direction that the festival envisioned.
The Pierogi Pop Up at the Wigle Distillery on Smallman Street in the Strip District, presented by Pittsburgh Magazine, brought three very different versions of filled dough into the limelight for evaluation by NPR personality, film director and local legend Rick Sebak: Italian ravioli from Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville, an Asian dumpling with Burmese/Malaysian flavors from Oakland’s Spice Island Tea House and a spin on a Polish pierogie from Apteka, recently opened in Bloomfield. I left with the lingering impression of the last one on my tongue, astounded at the interplay of flavors in the sauerkraut and mushroom filling, the creaminess of the nut milk yogurt, the earthiness of the roasted beet, the liberal garnish of chive. It all worked; it was vegan and it was beautiful. The young couple serving, Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, have their bright eyes on the future while rooted in that place they are from. This new interpretation of Pittsburgh’s regional cuisine is world class, hitting all the right notes — and it pairs very well with the whiskey.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink .com and can be reached at email@example.com.