Sunday, March 23, 2008

'Foodies' Target of SIU Tourism Project

Monday's Southern highlights another tourism project underway in the region, this time targeting the distinct culinary delights of Southern Illinois.

Carbondale Tourism Director Debbie Moore talks about the project with the Southern's Karen Binder. She's mentioned it before in tourism meetings and quite frankly it sounds delicious!

"What better way to understand an area's culture if it means understanding the food," Moore said. "The natural start for destination dining here is a perfect pairing with Southern Illinois wine and our Southern Illinois dishes. We want food and wine to the primary focus to this initiative."

While culinary tourism development opportunities are as varied as menu choices, Moore said developing partnerships with key food communities, such as restaurants, wineries and food producers, could tap the region's German, Polish, Italian, Hispanic and black historical roots.

Also, the team cited potential for a barbecue trail, promotion of locally grown products, turning farmers' markets into travel attractions, production tours, food safety and hospitality training, tourism business planning and more. Work is already under way on a regional cookbook.

Next step for the team is rolling out its Web site around a Southern Illinois Food, Family and Fun logo against a checkered tablecloth and continuing planning to launch the concept.

"Our hope that this entrepreneurial spirit can be leveraged with state money and we can see this happen," Moore said.

Karen ends her story with Debbie's rhetorical question, "How simple does it sound to serve apple pie made of Southern Illinois apples?"

Yet, it's not that simple. It's getting harder and harder to find locally-produced pies, let alone locally-produced pies filled with locally-grown fruit.

It came up at every tourism town meeting we conducted last year this issue of where tourists can go to get a "true taste" of Southern Illinois.

I call it the rhubarb test. I'm not a big pie eater, but I grew up on my grandmother's rhubarb and occasionally gooseberry pies. To me that's Southern Illinois. That's a distinctive taste that I associate with the region.

It's like knowing where the best barbecue can be found, or knowing that if going to Herrin - the best Italian beef.

Not all tourists stay overnight in the region, but it's almost guaranteed that if they spend just two or three hours here they'll eat at least one meal.

Whatever we can do to make that meal more memorable the better down the road for us.

Another part of Debbie's grant would pay off even more immediately as it would connect local food growers to local restaurants.

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