It’s dinner hour at The Big Traveling Potluck. I head straight for the kitchen. Three of the ladies behind The Potluck—Erika, Pam, and Sharon—garnish the succulent smoked lamb and pull the vegetable skewers out of the oven.
Tina, a strong Finnish woman and host of the night’s events, hands me two spoons and a silver tray piled high with lamb and lollipops of vegetables. “Let’s go,” she says.
It was almost a year ago when I first volunteered my hospitality services to The Big Potluck founders, Maggy, Erika, and Pam. I wanted to apply my hospitality skills and restaurant experience so I could help to relieve them of the organizational pressures of the event and they could be free to do what they do best.
On November 29, 2007, I made a decision that would start a chain reaction of transformation and change. I wrote a recipe for a dish I developed and clicked the “Publish” button for the first time on. Five years ago today, I staked a place for my little blog, Food Woolf.
Even the smallest action can result in big change. Just ask a ship captain how a simple adjustment of just one degree–sustained over time–can seriously alter a boat’s final destination.
A life changing meal in Panicale, Italy brought me the awakening I needed to wake me up to the need to enjoy my life as an artist. I was an isolated, frustrated screenwriter with few film credits to her name and no Hollywood sale to pay the bills. I was constrained by my art form. The act of screenwriting felt far too futile and dedicated to the constant practice of living in fantasy.
The decision to start my blog was the result of a resolution to try something different. Food Woolf would be my place to offer up weekly literary homage to food, cooking, and my life as a restaurant professional. I would use the blog to motivate me to leave my home and document my life in the world.
I’ve attended more than my share of food blogging events over the past five years. I’m a veteran of icy cold air conditioned conference rooms, Power Point presentations about stats and SEO, and hallways filled with anxious participants who fear being irrelevant. I’m no stranger to food conference agendas, food vendor giveaway frenzies, the anxious shaking of hands, and camera/gear/gadget/logo/design/fashion/friend envy.
But at the Big Summer Potluck–a third annual gathering for new and veteran food writers, photographers, and recipe developers put on by my good friend Maggy (Three Many Cooks), her mother Pam, and the lovely Erika (Ivory Hut)–everything is different. The focus is on small and intimate. The food is simple and made by people you know (or will know) over the course of the weekend. Speakers like Joy (Joy the Baker, Molly O’Neil (Cook n’ Scribble, and myself shared about what matters most in our hearts. Great food making demos from Marissa (Food in Jars) & Max Hansen offered attendees insights into invaluable techniques for canning and curing they can use at home.
Rather than focusing on technology or new frontiers of financial success, the retreat’s themes were on sharing, vulnerability, honest work, and mindfulness. The location itself–at Silver Buttons Farm and the Anderson’s secluded home in the Pennsylvania woods–invited frank discussion and forging of friendships.
Thanks to the masterful work of the team behind The Big Summer Potluck, attendees felt safe enough to get honest. We opened up about the things that scared us and mattered to us most. We got still. We put away our cameras, stowed our iPhones, and spent time listening to each other, rather than running off to the next thing. We shared personal issues and realized we weren’t all alone.
“You know what I can’t stand?” a food writer recently said over dinner. “How many people feel the need to say they’re honored and humbled whenever they write about all the great things that happen to them.”
The table of creative types groaned and rolled their eyes in agreement. I sat in stunned silence. What’s so wrong about the words honored and humbled?
Another friend added, “I understand if you’ve got lots of great things going on in your life. But don’t waste our time with honored and humbled when a simple thank you would suffice.” Conversation faded to the background. My mind spun. What about these two words could be so offensive?
The more I thought about it, I realized what my friends were really saying wasn’t that the words honored and humbled are bad. Not at all. What they were complaining about was how those words had become trite. But why had so many people (even people like me) used “honored and humbled” so much? Those questions got me thinking about what might really be going on.
What’s the big deal?
It seems that whenever the words honored and humbled appear online, they tend to be followed by a brief announcement of some personal success. If you’ve ever followed @humblebrag on Twitter, you’ll see my friends aren’t alone in noticing a trend in how people communicate good news online. Some people honestly mean what they say, while others use words like honored, humbled to subjugate a self-congratulatory agenda. Unfortunately, for those who use this phrase often, the predictability of the combination of words has become so clichéd, honored and humbled hold no truth within them any more.
The struggle between balancing core values and a public persona has many of us bloggers scrambling for words that will protect our sense of identity. But the thing is, no matter how humble we may be, the instant transfer of important and mundane details of our daily lives to hundreds, thousands, or millions of followers on Twitter automatically qualifies us as social media show offs. No matter what words we use to try to ease our discomfort in our situation, the truth of the matter remains, our relationship with social media has many of us experiencing an identity crisis.
Going on a summer vacation isn’t a unique concept. But a group of food bloggers vacationing together? It’s a somewhat unusual idea, considering how our friendships all began.
We started as strangers with a common bond. We got to know each other over website pages. We forged friendships over Twitter and the occasional get together. Press trips and conferences followed. But rare are the times when we food professionals come together without an conference or PR event to motivate long periods of time together. Unfamiliar are moments that aren’t devoted to networking, talking technology, and sharing food stories.
We’ve perfected the art of eating together. But a vacation?
The plan was simple. A small group of food blogging friends–Matt Armendariz, Adam Pearson, Maggy Keet, and Gaby Dalkin–would gather together at a retro-house in Palm Springs for a mini-vacation. There would be no agenda and no to-do list. We would be without PR wranglers and our time together would be devoid of “break out sessions”. The only objective was to spend time together and relax by the pool.
Later, I would find out there would be wigs. But more on that later.
I’ve spent my entire artistic career quietly dreaming of a day when I would be invited to sit at a table with great thinkers, writers, artists and confidantes. I never could find my fellows in the performing world. I failed to locate true collaborators in film school. Was my dreamy ideal of a 17th century salon–a place where great thinkers and artists would come together to inspire, critique, and develop their craft–a pipe dream?
Truth be told, it wasn’t until I joined the food blogging community almost four years ago, that I began to experience a modern academy. How we food bloggers influence, encourage, and drive each other to achieve great things through our online work and social media maneuvering is something to behold. It is exactly what I had been yearning for all these years.
It wasn’t until I took my place at that gaping-holed dining room table in Palm Springs with the likes of Matt Armendariz, award winning photographer and designer; Adam Pearson, a professional food stylist; Gaby Dalkin, a personal chef, driven business woman, and online personality; Maggy Keet, a writer, visionary, and co-founder of the non-profit Bloggers without Borders–that I realized that the hashtag #PSSalon was a true representation of what was happening. We didn’t push. We didn’t schedule. We just let things happen. We coaxed each other to investigate our motives and our professional opinions. We explored hard topics, engaged in witty banter, and artistic criticism.
When many of us in the food blogging community learned of the tragic loss of Jennifer Perillo’s husband, Mikey, we felt the compelling need to give something of ourselves. We banned together in great numbers and reached out to each other and to Jennie with prayers, words of hope, and images of compassion. Thousands of us followed Jennie’s simple suggestion of baking a peanut butter pie in remembrance of her beloved. The baking and sharing words of support via the #apieforMikey Twitter meme, soothed our collective ache of grief.
Late Friday night I received an email from my big-hearted friend, Shauna from Gluten Free Girl. She asked via a moving letter if a handful of trusted friends would be available to help participate in an effort to raise money for Jennie. Her email explained that with Mikey gone, Jennie faces some rather significant challenges in the not-so-distant future. Their medical insurance will end in December. The policy’s monthly renewal rate will cost more than the family’s monthly mortgage.
Shauna suggested we offer up gifts of ourselves–a service, a food item, a piece of art–for a fund raising auction. Thanks to the assistance of a non-profit organization called Bloggers Without Borders, every item auctioned off will result in real dollars to be donated into a fund created specifically for Jennifer and her two little girls.
In case you haven’t heard of Bloggers Without Borders yet, it’s because it is a newly formed non-profit organization for bloggers, by bloggers. Co-founded by my friend and accountability partner, Maggy Keet (Three Many Cooks) and Erika Pineda-Ghanny (Ivory Hut), this non-profit organization strives to use the diverse resources of bloggers to help other bloggers and people in need.
You can follow what’s happening on Twitter with #AFundforJennie. #AFundforJennie is a call to action for anyone willing to give generously of themselves via donations of money or of items of self. This fundraiser is our chance to step beyond what feels comfortable and give in a more substantive way.
To make a direct donation now, click that big BWOB DONATE button above.
A piece of me for a friend in need
As a restaurant consultant, I am in the business of service. I help restaurant owners and leadership teams focus on their long-term vision for their business, empower staff, and educate teams on how to give great service to customers. The more I teach the art of customer service, the more I realize that the work I do has roots in the ancient teachings of compassion and generosity. Great spiritual teachers throughout the ages teach the need to make a purposeful effort to improve the conditions of others. The lesson is simple: if we want to have happy and fruitful in business and in our lives, we have to be generous of spirit and give of ourselves authentically.
So when you live a life of service, there isn’t space for hesitating when you are called to be of assistance to a friend in need. All there is room for is YES, WHEN, and HOW MUCH. You just do it.
A great trip lingers with you long after you return home. A successful vacation is one where memories are unpacked long after the suitcase is emptied and the laundry is done. For me, the best journeys are the ones that get inside my heart and rearranging things.
It’s been more than a week since I came back from Louisiana and I’m starting to realize that my trip reorganized a few things in my life while I was away: I’ve got new beautiful friendships to foster and a whole new set of cravings to grapple with.
Since my return to LA, my imagination whirls over gems of stories of the Louisiana food world. My daily routine is peppered with flavored memories of diners, ice cream shops, a water-side bar where the locals cook up craw fish outside under a tent, and the all-night beignet restaurant littered with empty plates covered in powdered sugar.
Those memories have been just the reason why I’ve been spending so much time in my Los Angeles kitchen (the other LA), trying to recreate some of my Louisiana culinary experiences.
Food isn’t just a meal in New Orleans, it’s a way of life.
Of all the states I’ve visited, I have never been to any other American city where its inhabitants are so closely aware of their cultural history and culinary traditions.
New Orleans is a mélange of spicy cultures (French Canadian, Spanish, Africans, English, German, Italians, and Native American) that has created a uniquely colorful people with strong ties to family, food traditions and a shared heritage. I was charmed by the stone-lined sidewalks, Creole townhouses with iron-worked balconies, and hotels like the French Quarter’s Bourbon Orleans Hotel that have marketing materials that tout ghoulish history more than amenities. Brass bands paraded through the streets as second-liners [see glossary, below] danced a two step and waved handkerchiefs over their heads in celebration of marriage.
Always, the locals repeated this constant refrain: indulge in the city’s most famous dishes and forget about the caloric aftermath.
The food tour
For almost one full week, the food blogging tour of Louisiana was given unlimited access to culinary professionals and abundant samples of the state’s culinary bounty. Luckily for our bellies, our itinerary of eating started slow. But as the days went on we managed to shock even ourselves–professional eaters that we are–by the sheer amount of food we were able to consume.
On our first night in the city, Blake Killian, the man behind BlakeMakes, summoned us to our first dinner at Bistro Maison de Ville. Bow-tied waiters served a multi-course dinner dedicated to the theme of showcasing the best of Louisiana seafood. Course after course, we marveled at the freshness of the seafood and the firm texture of the perfectly cooked shrimp.
The following morning I joined a small, ambitious group of professional eaters (Chichi Wang, Maggy Keet, and Daniel Delany) to sneak in an extra meal before our first official eating excursion of the day. Daniel lead us to Camillia Grill, an all-day favorite with the locals since 1946. We ordered a few classics, including a show-stopping stack of pecan-studded pancakes. I don’t often shorten my words here at Food Woolf, but OMG.
After polishing off a Manhattan Omelet (corned beef hash, cheddar cheese and potato stuffed eggs) and pecan pancakes, we staggered through the oppressive heat with swaying bellies. We gathered together under the watchful eye of Blake for a festival celebrating Creole Tomatoes, Cajun Zydeco music, and Louisiana Seafood.
“When you think of all the news you’ve seen about Louisiana, what images flash through your mind?” asked Mike Voisin, a seventh-generation Louisiana oysterman. Voisin, the CEO of Motivatit Oysters, paced around the air-conditioned conference room as he spoke to his visiting guests.
An assortment of bloggers and food writers from across the States–hand-picked to observe Louisiana’s seafood industries and partake in the state’s diverse food culture–sat around the conference room table conjuring up images: submerged homes, flood-stranded dogs, desperate men and women on rooftops waving white sheets for help, oil-slicked wildlife, and tar-soaked birds.
“We are not what the perception of what the media has made us,” Voisin said. Despite the fact that almost one hundred percent of the state’s fisheries are open and functioning and have passed national and state testing for health and safety, much of the seafood buying public fear the Gulf-state’s products aren’t safe to eat. According to Voisin, the unprecedented attention of the media has given Louisiana’s seafood industry a bad reputation.
“It’s kind of hard to get that image of an oil slicked pelican out of your mind when you’ve seen it a million times, isn’t it?” Voisin said. “Louisiana has a branding problem…We have shrimp, crabs, and oysters but what we don’t have are people willing to buy.”
The uniquely difficult challenge facing the Louisiana seafood industry is exactly why Louisiana Seafood Promotions and Marketing Board decided they needed to reach out to consumers in a revolutionary way–through food.
An Invitation to see the real Louisiana
When it comes to news headlines, a couple of things sell really well: natural disasters, tragic loss of life, celebrity gossip, hero stories, and adorable animals. When one single news event touches all these aspects with one soaring narrative, it’s a media goldmine.
Blame it on the perfect storm of natural disasters that’s befallen Louisiana over the past seven years, but the state has certainly been the source of a lot of headline news. With Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Deep Water Horizon’s oil spill in April of 2010, international media teams swooped into the coastal state to document the disasters. Stories of tragedy, redemption, faith, hope, celebrity interest, and distress were easy to find in this Creole/Cajun state.
Thanks to a huge influx of money to the state of Louisiana, much progress has been made in just one year since the oil spill. Houses and businesses have been rebuilt, fisheries and rice fields are producing again, and tourism is improving (According to the tourism board, the state earned 5.3 billion dollars in tourism last year). Yet despite the positive changes and commitment to becoming a strong and successful state, Louisiana’s seafood industry is struggling.
Seeing a problem, Louisiana’s Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board did some research and quickly realized the general public couldn’t get over the horrifying images of the past so easily. So, in order to change perceptions about the seafood and motivate people to start buying Louisiana seafood again, they began devising a different sort of plan to get the word out.
Rather than coming up with slick slogans, cunning advertising, or a give away contest, the Seafood Board decided to call upon a handful of trusted voices in the food world to come and experience Louisiana from a culinary and cultural point of view. Who better to get the word out about a food crisis than a bunch of hungry and inquisitive food bloggers?
Something I would never expect happened to me today. I was browsing in the baking section at one of my favorite cooking supply stores and day dreaming about baking. I know. It’s a miracle. Or maybe it’s the Food Blogging Bake Sale for Share our Strength that’s got me thinking about something other than getting over my fear of baking.
Today is a day dedicated to all things baked because I’m helping with all sorts of preparations for tomorrow’s nation wide bake sale. The second annual Los Angeles Foodblogger Bakesale—organized by the fabulous and extraordinary Gaby of What’s Gaby Cooking—is the flagship city for the nation-wide event that gathers the nation’s top bloggers/food writers/and chefs to raise money for Share our Strength, an organization striving to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. I’m excited to be part of this talented pool of food lovers who are gathering up all their best baked goods to bring awareness to this very real problem that’s happening in your city and, more than likely, in your neighborhood.
I couldn’t think of a better reason to spend all day in the kitchen.
Several months back I shared a deeply personal story about a difficult time in my life when I was a hungry kid. Luckily, childhood hunger wasn’t something I had to face for a very long time, but those early experiences of asking for help and being denied assistance changed me. Having a door slammed in your face when you’re a hungry kid has a way of affecting your relationship with food and the rest of the world. It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable sharing my story, but I knew it was important to reveal the honest truth to bring light to a subject matter that many people believe only affects a marginal group of people in our country.
But the fact is, at least one kid in ten is hungry in America. Not just in the cities. Not just in the poor rural areas. In just about every school in America, there are kids struggling to find food to fill their empty bellies.
There’s more hunger in the classrooms than you’d care to believe. In rural and urban schools, a majority of kids (65%) aren’t getting fed well at home and must rely on school lunches for their main source of nutrition. Considering the fact that many children must rely on schools to feed them, SOS has a number of summer lunch programs in place to make sure summer vacation is something all kids can look forward to.
So whether or not you are in Los Angeles or are near another city that’s hosting a Food Blogger Bake Sale, you can donate a few dollars here to support the cause. And if you are in Los Angeles and have something of a sweet tooth or want something healthy and good, I highly recommend you swing by BLD (7450 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036) for a treat. You will not be disappointed.
I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan when everything changed. It was October, and I was like the trees of the college town—tall, proud and newly painted with the vibrant colors of transformation. I was a sight to behold—a woman with a heavy backpack and camera around her neck—proud, energized, and flush with the bright hues of an internal revolution. I glowed with happiness as the passing days brought life-altering change. I gave things up. I invited change. I stopped wasting time. I found a new way of writing. I found a new kind of love. I felt like a long-limbed Maple in full flush.
As pieces of my former-self scattered with the altering winds of November, I embraced the conversion. I begged for change. But by the end of December, I was stripped bare of all that I once was. I was as simple as a line drawing of a tree on a snowy hill.
In the austere simplicity of my new life, I realized I needed to live simply. Like a tree, all that I truly needed was food, water, and the all-powerful light from above. Without these things, I realized I could not thrive. And yet–before the Fall of change—I was living life on much less. Food, wine, and work was all that sustained me. Water and light were an occasional luxury. My roots were never tended.
But now, all of that has changed.
The most significant thing is how much light I have in my life now. And water. For what may be the first time, I seek out nourishment. Food fulfills me, rather than covers or mutes deeper problems. I’ve turned away from the numbing comforts of wine and cocktails and embraced being in the moment fully. I dedicate myself to plugging in, not checking out. I find inspiration everywhere. Now, I shy away from my blog’s stats page and listen to the analytics of my muses.
According to the voices of inspiration, it’s time I start writing about chocolate.
Sometimes you have to drop off the radar, invest in yourself, and find inspiration to go deeper in your work and life. Maybe that means taking a class, reading a book, studying with a mentor, or attending a conference where you can be surrounded by all sorts of great teachings and insights. Food Blog Camp, a small gathering of some of the food blogging community’s most inspiring leaders, is all of those things in one gorgeous, entertaining, and tropical locale.
This year’s Food Blog Camp event was held in the luxurious Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort in Cancun, Mexico. Infinity pools, gorgeous vistas, heaping bowls full of guacamole, an endless supply of fresh juices, jungle wildlife, and luxury suites (so large I could have moved my entire apartment inside), created an otherworldly feeling that transported imaginations to uncharted places and happy tastebuds. As in past years, the location of the event was key in giving attendees a break in routine so that they could make room for innovative thinking.
If you are longing for inspiration to bring your blog or website to the next level, I suggest you follow a few of the following lessons and insights from the Food Blog Camp panelists.
Hunger is a powerful thing. In a country where status and positioning get valued above happiness, shame can be even more powerful. Shame has a way of hardening up like a thousand pound bead of amber that drops through the depths of your heart and deposits itself on the very bottom of you. It’s still there but it can no longer be seen. It’s only until you bring shame to the surface and deal with it, that you can let it go.
Shame can stop you from doing things. It can stop you from admitting to doing something wrong. Or even telling the truth about something you did right. Shame may be the main reason why childhood hunger is such a huge problem. Struggling families with kids feel so much shame they don’t take the help that’s available to them. Often, shame trumps the pain of hunger.
My most recent post about Share Our Strength (an organization looking to eradicate childhood hunger in America) wasn’t as honest as it could have been. I let deadlines take precedence over the need to be honest. I did a little research, quoted a few good stats, and attached a recipe. Infused vodka makes a very nice gift. That’s enough, right?
The thing is, I was afraid to tell the truth. I was once a hungry kid.
I hesitate to write this for fear of hurting anyone in my family. Yes, I was hungry once. No, I wasn’t hungry for long stretches of time. But the pain of being hungry as a child and powerlessness I felt because of it, marked me. Neglect lived everywhere in my childhood home. But nothing affected me as much as the neglect I experienced in the kitchen.
That’s why I’m taking the time to circle back, get humble, and open myself up to the honest truth. Because, in order for me to do the work that I’m supposed to do in service and in writing, I need to be vulnerable and honest in everything I put down on the page.
Luckily, I don’t have lots of memories of being hungry. But one day in particular–the day I tried to get help—sticks with me. It sticks with me because the cry for help was ignored and judged by a trusted neighbor.
There may not be snow on the ground here in Los Angeles but the twinkling lights, lawn ornaments, Christmas trees, and car-top menorahs are a clear indicator that many in this city are celebrating the winter holidays. December rolls around and people all over our country begin planning the many ways to celebrate the joy of the season. But not everyone has the means to fulfill those dreams. Many struggle to find the money to pay the bills and put food on the table.
What’s worse, there are millions of hungry children (two in every ten kids in America) that will slip through the cracks without a meal because of the social stigma surrounding hunger. Many would rather skip a meal than reach out for help. Silent suffering needn’t be the answer.
Share Our Strength, a non-profit dedicated to finding a way to get food to our youngest and neediest citizens, wants to eliminate childhood hunger in America by 2015. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and supporters, Share Our Strength (SOS) created 4.5 million meals for needy children in 2009.
It was an honor to be asked to participate in this year’s virtual dinner party as a cocktail contributor. I wanted to write about holiday cocktails because I think it’s important to remember that cocktails, like gifts from the heart, don’t need to be over the top to be good. Sometimes, its the simple and thoughtful things that are most appreciated.
With simplicity in mind, I decided to share with you my recipe for a simple infused vodka. Though an infusion does take a little time to bring out the flavors (I recommend about two weeks at least for a good infusion), this recipe for crab-apple-infused vodka is so good it made me re-think my assumptions about vodka. The sweet flavors of the crab apple are delicate at first, but over time the flavors of the crab apple become more substantial. Make no mistake, there is no jolly-rancher green fake apple flavors to be had when you make your own crab apple vodka. As a matter of fact, this crab-apple vodka is so good, it’s the kind of thing you’ll want to make several batches of, just so you can keep some on hand for yourself and give the rest away as gifts.