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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reflections on the 2010 International Food Blogger Conference in Seattle

As I sit down to reflect on my Seattle food blog conference experience, I remain moments away from Pike's Place Market, in the stage of the night I can only describe as pajama brainstorming.  The post conference pajama dress code was necessary after a busy schedule of sessions and a celebratory walk "home" past the market, through the streets between downtown and lower Queen Anne, and back to the apartment complex where I'm staying.
Aside from the locals, most of my other blogging counterparts have since traveled home to their respective origins, but I planned my flight with a one-day cushion so I could absorb some unstructured observations of the city.  Luckily for my travel budget, a good college friend Peter has provided me a couch to call my very own in the lower Queen Anne neighborhood.  Since tonight Peter is otherwise engaged at an out of town wedding, I sit here in his empty apartment, a tired temporary resident determined to gather my thoughts from conference.
To help me in this endeavor, I am armed with an Itunes library that is not my own, thankful for a large and thoughtful collection of indie, rock, folk, and other musical genres I am certain should help stimulate blogging inspiration (blogspiration, if you will.)  No longer able to rely on the steady stream of conference wifi, I struggle to find a local connection and take a few swigs of the Darigold chocolate milk I purchased from the Mercer mini mart during my walk home.  My nightcap, adorned with a grinning cartoon cow, stares back at me.  Internetless, passwordless, and miles away from the Theo Chocolate Factory (conference headquarters), I take comfort in Andrew Bird's song "Tenousness" appearing on the playlist that is currently the foreign soundtrack of my night.  Full of surprises, Peter’s Itunes playlists will serve as my own personal Pandora as I spread out my conference notes, camp out in the living room, and take sips of cold milk in between keyboard approaches.   Reassuring in its cheerfulness, the personified Darigold cow has a shockingly red mohawk and wears wraparound sunglasses, both familiar accessories I might see on any given day around the streets of Los Angeles.  In a way, the punk rock cartoon cow staring at me in between swigs of moo juice really brings the conference full circle.  
On our first night, Morgan Spurlock, most known for his Super Size Me film, spoke about our country's current convenience-driven food paradigm and his goal to bring people back to cooking fresh, unprocessed meals around the family table with their kids.  The discussion led to banter within the crowd about using cartoon characters on health food packaging to attract young consumers, much like the manner in which corporations adopt animated mascots to peddle fast food to our nation's youth.  Continually more intrigued by the spokescowperson, I slurp up some more moo juice and learn (guided by my Iphone connection and twisted curiosity) that he has a Facebook profile under the name Smooth and that he is “looking for Friendship”.  I wonder to myself if Morgan Spurlock would approve of Darigold’s cartoon cow marketing efforts. Could punk rock dairy icons be a part of the solution?
With internet no longer possible, I go back to cavewoman status by simply opening up a word processor document and tapping away at the page. As I sit here wi-fi-less, it is striking how strange it feels to be so disconnected considering that just hours before, I was breaking bread with bloggers from as far away as Canada, Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia.  Attending the conference was a great opportunity to meet a lot of writers, photographers, and others romanced and captivated by the culinary world.  In particular, bloggers from Seattle were well represented and generous in sharing local hole in the wall food finds or suggestions for bakeries I should try.  Aside from networking with fellow bloggers, I was able to listen to and learn from a group of tremendous speakers.  
James Oseland, Editor-in-Chief of Saveur and self-described food blog addict, told the audience passionate stories of dishes discovered in faraway lands, journeys during which he connected with local food bloggers in order to gain the full culinary experience his destinations had to offer.  Oseland said he was a “food blogger before the web” who now uses technology to transform the way he explores the gastronomy of a city. Before traveling someplace, he examines online reviews and blogs to get a richer and more immediate experience.  Oseland’s delivery of his culinary adventures felt deeply personal, as if he were sharing travel diaries among old friends sipping wine in his living room.  His stories accompanied by exceptionally beautiful and vibrant food photography, he shared with bloggers his appreciation for our world, one where food obsessed people have a platform and support group.  And perhaps this is why James Oseland felt like such a kindred spirit, and really, why all of us bloggers ended up sitting together in a room at the Theo Chocolate Factory being moved by his words.  James Oseland, with the heart, soul, and travel inclinations of a food writer,  is like many of us whose wanderlust seems to naturally revolve around the romance of flavors that await in each city.  Oseland understands the thrill of the hunt for the authentic and local meal, each meal an opportunity to discover the way people live.  He expressed that blogging should never be a popularity contest, but that writers should respect their material and use their content to bring people together.  True, this is a message that could be considered in conflict with the Search Engine Optimization session, a session that emphasized maximizing traffic and using keywords to draw in readers.  However, it could also reflect the fact that the conference offered an excellent mix of practical strategies for bloggers combined with pure inspiration. Furthermore, whether you plan to aggressively pursue search engine optimization or simply write for the love of the culinary hunt, it was a rare opportunity for us to gather and appreciate one another as members of a creative community that deeply respects food.
A “Pitch to Publish” session on Sunday featured practical yet encouraging advice, emphasizing to bloggers that the most important thing to establish is what you want to say to the world and how to say it with excellence and purpose, whether your platform is print,  blog publication, or podcast.   This session discussed bloggers' relation to the publishing industry, often a very hyped subject in the blogosphere since many writers lust after the blog to book phenomenon.  Panelists included Victoria von Biel (Executive Editor of Bon Appétit), Kirsty Melville (President, Book Division at Andrews-McMeel) and Molly Wizenberg (Bon Appétit columnist,  Orangette author, and author of A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table.)  They offered candid commentary on the relationship of blogs to the print world, a relationship their dialogue helped to demystify for the audience.
There were many other informative conference sessions, such as the Art of Recipe Writing with professionals Kristine Kidd (who just launched a new blog), Dianne Jacob, and Amy Sherman who discussed strategies for recipe writers based on their experience within this industry.  Surprisingly, they said a common (but very avoidable) recipe writing mistake was listing ingredients in the needed materials only to forget to include all of them in the recipe's prep or cooking instructions.  (A particularly humorous part of their panel included a passionate debate about semicolon use.)  The moral of the story: if you're a writer, you should learn to enjoy proofreading, regardless of your semicolon politics.  Kathleen Flinn’s session on “Writing with all Five Senses” provided bloggers with interactive writing exercises and a chance to feed off of one another’s creativity, which only brought me closer to the realization that I wish I had about 1,000 more hours in my day to write.  These exercises were also a fun way to become familiar with the styles and voices of other bloggers. In another session, Penny de Los Santos of Saveur offered bloggers a vision of food photography so compelling that I was inspired to further develop my photography skills. Though I have always been a writer at heart more than a photographer, Penny certainly made the case for “making pictures” thoughtfully, passionately, and with creative intention, and watching her describe her beautiful photographs was enthralling.  Bloggers had access to yet another impressive body of work through Dr. Myhrvold’s presentation on modern cuisine. During this session, we had the opportunity to listen to behind-the-scenes stories about the making of his soon-to-be published 2,400 page food science and modern cookbook, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.  All I can say is these books look like an epic and fascinating read! There was also a session that featured commentary on specialized diets, including vegan and gluten free. While I do not follow a specialized diet, I was thankful for this session since I have so many people in my life who could benefit from additional culinary resources in this area. As an advocate for people with special needs, I think it is important to bring inclusiveness into the conversation and I appreciated this was a part of the conference dialogue.


Another conference highlight was my tour of the Theo Chocolate Factory, conference headquarters and home to a fair trade, small batch chocolate company.  
Exterior of Theo Chocolate Factory, IFBC conference headquarters 2010
Along with other conference attendees, I covered myself with a company mandated powder blue shower cap and was ushered through the factory by an enthusiastic tour guide Nicole.  
Pictured above, a powder blue hat that can only be described as "functional factory tour fashion" at my Theo Chocolate Factory tour. As you can see, I am dressed warmly as I am a Southern California weakling who cannot handle the slightest bit of Seattle chill in the air
While I have never had a chocolate factory tour guide before, I am convinced she might be the most endearing one for all of her passion for Theo Chocolates and their socially responsible company ethos.  Championing their fair trade philosophy, she started off the tour with giving “a shout out” to cocoa farmers and explaining how chocolate is made, an explanation that included a variety of delicious samples.   After giving an outstanding tour, Nicole explained that after three years working for Theo, her work has inspired her to embark on a travel expedition to explore Central American cocoa farms.  With our group of bloggers being one of her last tours, chocolate fans may be able to hear more by reading her blog about sustainable food systems called Our World in Food.  
 Aside from the conference stimulating dialogue regarding the way we think about food, it also provided food to sample.  The tasting aspect of the food blogging conference is arguably what defines it as more enjoyable than any other existing conference one might consider attending.   They certainly started things off right by providing breakfast from Bakery Nouveau, with a beautiful spread of pastries.  After catching a glimpse of Bakery Nouveau’s blog, it is clear that behind this bakery are people with a passion for food and a sense of community, as they donate cakes each month to different charitable organizations.  The last day of the conference featured Top Pot Doughnuts for breakfast, a privately owned local donut chain known for its “hand-forged” doughnuts.  While the doughnuts were delicious, they actually make a bear claw so big that even I was defeated in trying to finish the whole beast's fried and frosted paw.  (I knew it would be important to save some room for our later meals!)


A longtime street food devotee, I appreciated that one conference lunch was devoted to “Food Trucks of the Northwest.” Among other small bites, we were able to sample several dishes including Skillet’s slider burger, a burger so juicy and delicious that I guiltily went back to their airstream trailer for a second taste.  The grass fed beef burger was topped with arugula, their trademark bacon jam, and cambozola cheese resting upon a soft roll.  The cambozola cheese, a harmonious hybrid of bleu cheese and creamy brie, may have been what I loved so much about the Skillet experience.  
An especially enjoyable addition to our lunchtime was the fact that Pike’s Brewery was on-site to provide some beer tastings, a perfect compliment to our street food fare and a small glimpse into Northwest beer culture during a fairly wine-heavy conference (not that I’m complaining!)  Pike’s Brewery offered tastes of their Naughty Nellie golden ale, as well as a seasonal white ale called Dry Wit, but most memorably, a Scotch style ale called Kilt Lifter (easily the tastiest of the three options.)  After a tall glass of beer and a few Skillet burgers, I was able to explore the Sunday farmer’s market taking place just feet from the conference.  Since finding the local farmer’s markets is a key staple of my travel experiences, I was happy this all worked out so seamlessly during our lunch break!  


The conference also included a beautiful dinner featuring a series of dishes from local Washington chefs.  Easily my favorite dish at this dinner was the beef cheeks with squash blossoms, along with the dish from a team of two chefs featuring both a gritz and a polenta component as a take on both of their styles.  While I enjoy every style of food, my roots always bring me back to comfort foods, foods that I just can’t resist after a hard working day of learning about blogging strategies!   While I tried to sample every dish, there was an intimidating amount of food-- so my only regret is not having more room in my stomach.


If I have any criticism of the conference, it would be that most attendees did not stay long enough to enjoy the closing film Today’s Special, a hearfelt story about family and food culture told through the lens of a struggling family-owned Indian restaurant in New York.  Certainly, bloggers can find a screening of the film upon its release in their respective cities, but it’s hard to replicate the experience Foodista created (in a genius move) when they arranged for warm trays of Indian food to accompany the screening.   I am hoping bloggers everywhere will come together to plot a guerilla marketing campaign where baskets of homemade samosas are smuggled into movie screenings across America (or, try a pot of curry if you like, but this will be decidedly more messy.) Now, it’s not that the movie can’t stand alone, because it is a great film.  However,  I guarantee you that the overall experience of the movie will be better if you have a warmly waiting samosa resting in your jacket pocket, ready to consume during any one of the many inspiring cooking scenes.  (Operation samosa jacket pocket, coming to a city near you wherever Today’s Special is screened.)
Overall, as you can probably tell, the conference was a great experience.  There were wines to taste, beers to sample, beef tartare dishes to devour, and tastes of virtually anything you might imagine.  I plan on posting separately about some of the food, coffee, and baked goods I was able to explore outside of the conference, so stay tuned! Until then, thanks to Foodista and Zephyr Adventures for organizing such an enjoyable event!
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