After being known for generations as a gritty, blue-collar town with a troubled racial history, Birmingham has worked hard to change its image. In recent decades, the Magic City has made its mark in finance, medicine, education and technology. Birmingham has also received national attention for its exciting restaurant scene.
To further enhance its burgeoning reputation as a foodie destination, Birmingham will host its own major food event.
The first annual Bham FOOD+Culture Fest, to be held Oct. 12-15 at Pepper Place, Sloss Furnaces and other venues, will celebrate the great chefs, great dishes and diverse cultural traditions that make Birmingham a hot culinary destination.
The festival will allow Birmingham “to spotlight our extraordinary food community, as well as celebrate our history and our culture,” says Cathy Sloss Jones, board president for the FOOD+Culture nonprofit.
The festival will be anchored by five events, including FOOD+Heritage, which each year will celebrate a different influence on Birmingham’s culinary identity.
This first year, FOOD+Heritage will showcase some talented Black chefs who’ve helped shape the city’s culinary scene and welcome a few regional chefs to cook alongside them.
FOOD+Heritage will take place outdoors at Pepper Place on Friday, Oct. 13, 6-10 p.m. and features a multi-course, family-style dinner.
The event will also mark the 60th anniversary of the pivotal Civil Rights events of 1963 in Birmingham when Black people fought to end segregation and promote racial justice.
The Black chefs taking part in FOOD+Heritage are Zebbie Carney, founder and CEO of Eugene’s Hot Chicken; Thyme Randle of Juniper restaurant in Forest Park; Justin Robinson of The Chef JRob Experience in Atlanta; Jasmine Smith, a recipe developer and tester at Birmingham’s Dotdash Meredith Corporation; and Adjoa Courtney, or “Chef Joya,” a famed chef and cookbook author from Charlotte, N.C.
The event will feature mixologist Eric Bennett from Birmingham’s Continental Drift and Thomas Price, the first Black person to become a Master Sommelier. Price serves as sommelier for the 1856 Culinary Residence at Auburn University.
“It’s an honor to be recognized” at FOOD+Heritage, Carney says. “There’s so many great people of color doing great things in Birmingham.”
FOOD+Heritage attendees will enjoy top-quality entertainment. The Eric Essix Group, led by acclaimed Birmingham jazz guitarist Eric Essix, will accompany singers Belinda George Peoples and Karen Bryant, Emmy-winning poet Hank Stewart and dancers from the Ursula Smith Company.
DJ Gina Tollese will perform, and the event concludes with a dance party with live music.
Essix collaborated with Valerie Thomas, a board member with the FOOD+Culture nonprofit and president and CEO of The VAL Group, to plan the entertainment.
“The objective was to cover as many aspects of African American art and culture as possible,” Essix says. “We also wanted to showcase as many different musical styles and genres as possible.”
Thomas and Essix want the atmosphere at FOOD+Heritage to be “Black, vibrant, and fun,” Thomas says.
“Regardless of the ethnicity of the attendee, we want them to walk away feeling like they got a peek at a bit of Black culture that maybe they haven’t even experienced before and that each phase of the evening felt upbeat and fun.”
Carney is excited about the FOOD+Culture Fest.
“Birmingham is a huge food town,” he says. “You can find the best of everything here, from hot chicken, to jerk chicken, to Thai food and tacos and everything in between. The notoriety is long overdue.”
Organizers want to make sure the festival’s presentation of the food scene is diverse and represents the city’s culture, Thomas says.
“That’s why the Heritage event is so important,” she says. “We want to be very intentional about illustrating the impact Black culture has on our food scene.”
Carney is happy to see people of color finally getting some of the credit they deserve in the food business.
“People of color have always had a major influence in food, and I love how people are being intentional about showcasing it,” he says.
The BHAM FOOD+Culture festival will help the city’s image, according to Thomas.
“Birmingham has as its leading narrative the horrors of the violence of the civil rights movement, and the narrative is permanent,” she says.
The FOOD+Culture events will attract visitors “who still only know that narrative,” but the festival can change their perceptions, Thomas says.
“They’ll spend a weekend here and find that Birmingham is actually ahead of many places in America, where we’ve moved past that ugly history and have figured out ways to move forward and be a vibrant, inclusive city,” Thomas says.
The other events at the BHAM+Food & Culture Fest include the cornerstone event, FOOD+Fire: The Great Southern Tailgate – presented by Southern Living – at Sloss Furnaces, Saturday, Oct. 14, featuring barbecue and other open-fire cookery.
For tickets and details about all the events – including FOOD+Heritage, FOOD+Frank, FOOD+Flair and FOOD+Funk – go to https://www.bhamfoodplus.com.