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Summing up the 2012 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival

Around 3 p.m. yesterday, as many of us were still crowded under the tasting tents at the second annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, avoiding a downpour during the event’s one day of inclement weather, tweets started rolling in from national taste arbiters. Josh Ozersky (@OzerskyTV), a food columnist for Time magazine, wrote, “Goodbye to a great food city and the festival that brought it to the world. #afwf12 I'll never miss this one again.” Raphael Brion (@raphael_brion), national editor for Eater, said, “Atlanta is a great food town and has an equally great food fest.”

I saw these comments and felt something between pride and vindication. I heard a lot of first- and second-hand remarks this weekend about how surprised visitors are to discover the culinary riches here, and how the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is becoming an ambassador for the city like we’ve never had before. It’s the brilliance in the ambition of co-founders Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love: The festival offers seminars, cooking demos, special dinners, and small bites from the best chefs across the South, but Atlanta finds itself in a spotlight as a cultural hub. And, of course, it inspires locals and visitors to try our finest regional-minded restaurants.

The most frequent comment I heard from foodies who travel the festival circuit is how the quality of the cooking really shines in the tasting tents: At other gatherings the standout nibbles from the best chefs can be too interspersed with less inspired bites from big sponsors. I agree that in the three days I chowed through the AF&W festival’s afternoon tasting tents (full disclosure: I had a media pass) I found the food refreshingly un-corporate. Independent restaurants from Maryland to Texas devised clever one or two bite dishes. I loved that the “tasting trails”—stands grouped in themes like fried chicken, seafood, tacos and tamales, cheeses, bourbon, the whole pig, wine—swapped out vendors daily and included smart variety. On Saturday, for example, H. Harper Station served a lovely little sliver of quick-cured salmon spiked with foamy peach remoulade and ginger beer, and the next day Octopus Bar doled out corn soup punched up with crab and herbs. My personal favorite from the whole event was probably fried chicken from Birch & Barley served with a square of fried brioche, a shard of smoked chicken skin, and a scattering of spiced pecans. On Sunday, the fryers for several chicken vendors were some distance from the actual tents, and the fried chicken ran out so fast the cooks couldn’t keep up—but it was more than worth the wait for a second round.

As for the pre-tasting tent classes, the organizers cut the number from 124 last year to eighty-eight, but the choices still numbered between nine and sixteen per session! Do you learn how to build a better bar at home, watch two star chefs compete while cooking in cast-iron skillets, or learn more about aperitifs and digestifs? Taste through country hams or craft beers? I tended toward the more avant-garde sessions, like the one dreamed up by Matt and Ted Lee (aka the Lee Bros.) in which chefs demonstrated recipes with which they’re experimenting: Andrea Reusing from Lantern in Chapel Hill, for instance, set milk into a fragile savory custard using ginger juice (it was delicious).

Overall, the festival has an irresistible rhythm: first some learning, then some indulging, hopefully a disco nap back at home or the hotel, and then out for dinner. I was exhausted last night after the finale—a chef taste-around at Abattoir that featured greens (appropriately cleansing after all the gluttony)—but it was a fulfilled exhaustion. This being a young festival, every year is an opportunity for growth: In 2013, I’d love to see one more round of compelling seminar sessions on Saturday, perhaps overlapping with the tasting tent hours to assuage some of the early crowding, and I’d really love to encounter a tasting trail that better glorifies vegetables. But my biggest wish is already granted: This event gives Atlanta the attention as a food town that is absolutely deserves.

Picture: Pork Tamale from Alma Cocina in the tasting tents on Saturday