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Remember when food was just something people ate – mostly for sustenance, often as part of a social gathering or ritual? Ten years ago only a few thousand people attended the first South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBE) for a series of dinners, seminars and food and wine pairings.

Fast forward a decade, when the culinary arts have been elevated to a religion - something people talk about, dream about, obsess over. In the last ten years, the Food Network's viewership has quadrupled, according to The Nielson Company (and there are countless other food shows on other networks and around the world).

"I don't think we even had the word 'foodie' back then", said Lee Schrager, Lee Brian Schrager, director of Special Events and Media Relations at Southern Wine & Spirits of America, who founded the festival, which is now called The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. More than 50,000 people will descend on Miami's trendy neighborhood of South Beach as the festival celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2011 (24 to 27 February).

The balmy Florida sunshine is a glorious respite from the harsh winter weather around the world, and at this massive food convention - much of it in tents on the beach - you can hobnob with celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis, see hosts Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse, watch cooking demonstrations, attend culinary seminars and gorge on exotic food and international wines at different parties each night.

What to do
The "bread and butter" of the festival is the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village on Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm. Under white, breezy canopies with walkways on the sand, there are food and wine seminars, book signings, culinary products and, of course, a 20-course-meal of tastings. It is less crowded than Disney World, but there are still thousands of people packing the tents  and  waiting in line for a tasting or to see a celebrity chef demonstrating a cooking lesson. Free-flowing liquor and appetizers help lubricate delays.

Outside the grand tasting village there are specialized seminars such as "Making Great Cocktails at Home", hosted by Tony Abou-Ganim, the Modern Mixologiest author, "Grilled Cheese Pairing Seminar," with Laura Werlin, author of The All American Cheese and Wine Book, and "Fun and Fit as a Family" for children and families, hosted by Jamie Oliver.

Parties
The night bashes are the best chance to rub shoulders with the "fooderati" (although do not be surprised if they have bodyguards hulking nearby) at grand events for a couple of thousand people. With more than two dozen chefs and restaurants, the opening night's "Burger Bash", hosted by Rachael Ray, is a great appetite whetter - especially if you like burgers topped with pulled pork or pastrami or homemade pickles and aoili. Bobby Flay is hosting the festival's famous - and last - "Bubble Q", a champagne barbeque on the sand behind the stunning Delano hotel, which has been a popular event but is being retired while it is on top, Schrader says. The 10-year anniversary parties include a dinner honoring chef Alain Ducasse (who was the first famous chef at the festival 10 years ago), as well as a new event: "The Best Thing I Ever Ate at the Beach", after the Food Network's show, The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

Tickets
Although the events usually start selling out by the new year, there is still time to buy tickets, which start at $20 for the few family events and run $85 to $150 for seminars. Evening dinners and parties cost $100 or more (usually more). Packages, which include a mix of events, such as a pass to the Grand Tasting Village and the Bubble Q, for example, can run in the hundreds to the thousands, especially if hotel rooms are included. While South Beach hotels may sell out early, Miami Beach proper has hotels of every class. Purchase tickets at http://2011.sobefest.com/.

Follow the food
If you can not make it to the Cannes of food festivals, there are others. They may not be as star-studded, but they also may not be as crowded.

For the last three years the Food Network also has hosted the New York Wine & Food Festival held every October (www.nycwineandfoodfestival.com), and Lee Schrager says they plan to open a festival in Los Angeles in the next year or so. The festival that first inspired Schrager is the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado (www.foodandwine.com/promo/classic-in-aspen) on 17 to 19 June, now in its 29th year.

Even though there has been a backlash against the cult-like attention to food by media tastemakers such as The New York Observer, Grubstreet and Chowhound (its founder, Jim Leff, has renamed foodies "foodiots") , Schrager says he does not see the food craze ending anytime soon. "Oh God, no. Are people going to stop eating or drinking?"

 

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