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.
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.
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?
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.
Everyone has their own way of seeing the world. No one perspective of a moment in time is more true than another. Where and how we stand defines the perspective we have. Some of us feel comfortable in the corner, far away from the swarm. Others love to be in the center of activity, drumming up the energy of the event. Some of us are in bodies that are strong, frail, tall, short, thin, or wide. We are fearful, fearless, energetic, slow, curious, and apathetic. All these differences make us who we are and how we see things.
The soup of reality is what makes living in the world so damn fascinating. We’re all in it together, but we all add something different to the pot.
I think that’s why I love reading wrap up posts of food blogging events so much. It doesn’t matter if I was there, center stage, or watching from the side lines, I get so much from reading and seeing the differing perspectives.
I scan the photos and think—I didn’t see that! Ooh, I remember seeing this happen!—and read the words—How come I didn’t taste that!I wish I had a moment so affecting—and find a well of knowledge I didn’t know I was missing, filled up.
How I come to these conferences is constantly changing. Sometimes I have high expectations, other times I walk in anticipating nothing. Either way, I’m always surprised by what I discover—be it in the form of a new acquaintance or experience—regardless if it’s a positive or negative.
With just one day separating me from my life changing week of training at ZingTrain in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my trip to FoodBuzz in San Francisco, I didn’t have much room for day dreaming about what would happen once I arrived.
As I boarded the plane to SF with my LA friend Jen (of Devour the World), I began organizing my thoughts for the trip. Though I wasn’t sure what to expect, I did know I was excited to be part of a food writing panel. Even more, I was looking forward to sharing a quiet moment in time with a handful of foodbloggers, to see what we could create with words.