Eating up culinary tourism

One of the education sessions at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism held last week in Chattanooga was hosted by Erik Wolf, president and CEO of the International Culinary Tourism Association (ICTA), an Oregon-based organizations whose mission is “To help food and beverage manufacturers and providers, as well as travel industry professionals, to package and promote their culinary treasures as marketable and sellable attractions.”

Wolf defines culinary tourism as a subset of cultural tourism, yet made the point that everyone is a culinary tourist. We all eat three times a day, and one of the most frequent questions asked by visitors is “Where’s a good place to eat?” He said that he thinks Tennessee is ripe ground, so to speak, for culinary tourism, and I’d have to agree.

Erik Wolf of the International Culinary Tourism Association

There are several features of Tennessee’s country cooking cuisine that jump out, among them country ham, slugburgers, and stone ground grits, just to mention a few. East Tennessee has tamales, which came from the Mississippi Delta, and in West Tennessee people like to eat catfish “fiddlers.” There are all manner of pick-your-own produce and fruit farms, and a growing number of wineries, breweries, and distilleries. And don’t forget the uptown restaurants in the big cities of the state.

Wolf suggested that we examine how South Carolina, another wonderful state for foodies, addresses culinary tourism on the web. Take a look at this site. From one page, the visitor can find restaurants, get recipes, and locate food festivals as well as wineries and breweries. This is a great idea, and the site also encourages interaction by inviting people to send in their own recipes. Here’s one for “Chicken Bog,” a new one for me.

During his presentation, Wolf stressed that some of the more interesting restaurants do not have the time or the capability to do good marketing. The chef is busy cooking, and the managers are trying to get everyone served and keep the tables clean. He said that local tourism organizations should help these places get the word out.

He is dead right there. When researching my guidebook, I sometimes found that local chambers of commerce, which frequently double as visitor information dispensers for small towns or rural counties, would not publicize a fantastic barbecue place or some classic hole in the wall eatery “because they aren’t members.” Aaaargghhh! Yet these same chambers would dutifully list an Applebees or a Pizza Hut that is just like the other 500 such chains all over the country.

Culinary tourism does not have to exist in and of itself. Tennessee is now criss-crossed with all manner of trails: The Trail of Tears, Tennessee River Trail, and Quilt Trails. The brochures and descriptions of these trails seldom include a listing of good restaurants or even country stores that still slice baloney for sandwiches. Why not?

Wolf spoke of a new website called Foodtrekker that ICTA is launching. There’s not much there now, but I plan to keep an eye on it and will report here whenever the site finally takes off.

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