DAY 1 - 13 Sep 2010
Howdy all and welcome to the liveblog from the 20th Annual Food Writers Symposium at the Greenbrier Resort in beautiful White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The Symposium has hosted nearly all of America's best food writers over the last 20 years, probably including your favorite. It's 4 days of intensive seminars on all aspects of the business of writing about food. On the first day, for example, we'll answer the question "What are the Big Food Blog Stories This Year?" watch Symposium attendee Roger Sherman's film The Restaurateur, discuss "A Sense of Place and Palate," and study "Cookbooks, Past, Present and Future,"
After a very pleasant ride aboard the Amtrak Cardinal from Chicago I am here for a week of celebrating and commiserating (and of course lots of eating and drinking). I'll interesting be posting food, good quotes from panelists, interesting blogs from the bloggers who are here, and so on. You can also follow along at HuffingtonPost.com, and my twitter feed @KurtMFriese. Please bear with the typos and the lack of links, which are hallmarks of a liveblog. I'll fix and add as I can...
What are the Big Food Stories and Why?
Thus far we've had intros of the 70 or so remarkable people who are here, and been introduced to cool new (to me) sites like EatTV.com. Next, we're about to enjoy a panel discussion on "What are the big food stories this year and why?" with Elissa Altman of PoorMansFeast.com, Kirsty Melville of Andrews McMeel, and Saveur founder Dorothy Kalins.
Further discussion of Gourmet's shuttering and the impact of the iPod are sure to ensue, along with the closing of a NY kosher butchery and the launching of Canal Press. More as I hear it....
Dorothy Kalins says "everyone is trying to master the electronic version of what we (food writers) have always done." Says that when she first saw the iPad she knew it would change everything for magazines.
OK! We're back from a great lunch of 3 kinds of BBQ, and (get this) a milk shake bar - yum. Now we're are enjoying a screening of Symposium attendee Roger Sherman's film, The Restaurateur
Kirsty Melville says the coming generations will be well beyond the dislike of cooking from a screen as opposed to a cookbook page, in fact many already are
Kirsty points out that food writing is becoming, to a much greater extent, about politics as much or more than recipes. Also laments the recent cooking shows that are getting further and further from being about food and more about entertainment, about the drama and backstabbing of "reality" show kitchens. Dorothy agrees and thinks celebrity chefs and TV food porn distances people from food as they become frustrated about not being able to cook at home the stuff they see on the shows.
"It's really important for us as writers to encourage our readers to COOK!" Dorothy says, and Elissa notes that we can get people to go to the farmers market, but it doesn't matter if they don't know what to do with the 5 pounds of beets they bring home. Fer Crissakes Williams-Sonoma s selling home foamers to people who can't roast a beet.
Kirsty Melville: "A great food blog is a marvelous thing, but there are so many bad food blogs that aren't worth the paper they're not printed on."
The discussion turns to restaurant reviews, and how the bar has dropped to where we can write real reviews of any ol' taco truck. Its no longer about the white linen restaurant. And it's interesting that bad restaurants can be reviewed in stylish, interesting, entertaining ways.
Dorothy returns to the idea that so many people can't cook, even people who know and love food, can analyze and dissect any food from the French Laundry to the local burrito joint, but wouldnt have the slightest idea how to prepare their own dinner at home.
Yelp and UrbanSpoon
The panel was asked to comment on the food review sites, and the consensus on it is that everybody's a critic, but not everyone should be. The sites can be useful, but you need to know how to weed out the cranks - the folks who got bad service because they deserved it or that simply don't know anything about food.
Kirsty calls for a return to simplicity in the wake of being inundated with nutritional information. "Just eat food." And save money by eating less (but better) meat. Conversation has turned to whether one can eat well on a budget (I insist you can, see my article from last year on KFC's propaganda saying you can't).
We then begin discussing the impact of subsidies, and why cheap food is so cheap, and how the more investigative-reporting types among us need to dig deep into the billions of dollars the likes of Monsanto is getting from subsidies while the real farmers they peddle to are barely scraping by.
Next there came a call for a return to Home Ec in the schools - old school type Home Ec, with actual cooking, not choosing between Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. A Berkeley resident touts that there it is not just about the Edible Schoolyard but all over their school system.
Elissa points out that sadly we can't all live in Berkeley. How do people who don't have the access that they have in the "People's Republic of Berkeley" eat with seasons, locally and healthfully?
And we wrap for lunch here... more in an hour or two.....
As a lifelong restaurant professional, despite never approaching the caliber of the folks in this film, I can certainly identify with the trials these folks are enduring. Deadlines, menu design, air conditioning that doesn't work, contractors who break promises, "key guy at the building department is on vacation next week," staffing dearths and on and on.
They point out what folks don't consider about launching a restaurant, that you often have large amounts of people on staff for sometimes months before you open - so lots of payroll with no income. But Meyer says "We're building these restaurants for keeps."
Despite all that though I do dearly love the feel of a restaurant that's a week or so short of opening. Maybe it comes from my younger days, in high school or college when I fancied myself an actor on the stage. That caramel-thick tension right before a big opening, the smell of dust and paint and new stainless steel and the smell of protective oil burning off the new iron on the new stoves - few things in life are so enrapturing.
The film does a fine job of capturing the drama, the joy, the pain of launching a restaurant, and even if you're building a place that's not going to be the equal of Meyer's places or was never mean to be, those thrills and pressures are the same.
For the record, in 30 years in the biz, I have never seen a restaurant open on it's original target date.
The Restaurateur suddenly jumps ten years, from opening in 1999 to where they are in 2009, and the impact that a single restaurant review can have in a place like NYC. 11 Park got a new chef (Daniel Humm) and a whole new feel to the menu. Interesting from a cinematic point of view because the viewer doesn't expect the story to go past some glorious opening night. Instead you see a true evolution and even people who have never worked in a restaurant can get a firm grasp of what it's like and how, while it might share this or that with many other occupations, there is really nothing quite like it.
Another New York chef, Charlie Palmer, put it best when he said, "I'm a cook. It's a simple, direct profession. I prepare a dish, I send it out to the guest, I see the results immediately. On a busy Saturday night when the juices are really flowing I get to score a touchdown minute. And I can think of no profession that is more convivial, or more rewarding."
A Sense of Palate and Place
James Peterson (author of one of the 1st cookbooks I've ever owned BTW), leads a discussion on the connection between palate and place. He connects place not just to terroir but to a writers voice as well.
Christopher Hirsheimer talks about taking some of the first photos for the first few issues of Saveur, and how using natural light (a rarity at the time, but a necessity for her then) helped give the images a sense of place, because it was shot with real light from the restaurant window. "You could allow it to be as rustic and as real as it is."
Molly Wizenberg discusses how food does not exist in a vacuum and how she likes to write about food in its context.
James Peterson wondered, if a food can evoke a place, can a place evoke a food? Perhaps in a Pavlovian sense? I contend that of course it can, as each time I return to Paris I dream of that first Grand Marnier crepe I bought at a street vendor booth for 20 francs. The rich batter of the crepe and the heady orange aroma were an awakening for me. It revealed tradition and history and complexities that were well beyond my 19-year-old sensibilities. Most 19-year-old boys certainly do not go to Paris looking for culinary epiphany, yet it stuck with me better than anything else I saw or did on that trip. I have had many better crepes since, but none more important to me. Paris is many things to many people, but to me it will always be a Grand Marnier crepe. So yes, James, place can undoubtedly evoke a food.
Opening up for discussion on the subject of including the people around the food to give a sense of place - something that may seem obvious but is all to often ignored. And to speak of those flavors that can carry a person to a place in time teaches you so much about that person. Kirsty Melville, who grew up in Australia, spoke lovingly of the comfort granted to her through a simple piece of toast spread with Vegemite. Lin Yu Tang once said, "what is patriotism, after all, but the love of the food we ate as children?"
Molly told of her affection for the writing of Jonathan Gold in LA, and his ability with metaphor, describing a maitre d' as "like a linebacker," or the "Iggyisms, pre-Iggysms and post-Iggyisms" of a waitstaff at a particular brunch spot where the servers are probably more hungover than you are when you have brunch there."
Christopher mentioned her fondness for that moment, at the table, perhaps halfway through the first glass of wine, when you become present, recognizing that many of our best moments in our lives are spent this way. James points out that this is true communion, and that there is more than one reason why the Catholics have that ceremony.
Kirsty Melville lamented the loss of Chicago's historic Berghoff, and talked about the sense of place that so many generations of people had by being brought there by their grandparents, and by bringing their own grandchildren.
Many are talking about a favorite story or writer who can evoke hunger with the written word, and for me that would be John Thorne's Serious Pig, and his description of how to fry potatoes. Read the book.
Cookbooks: Past, Present and Future
Featuring Kirsty Melville, Carole Bidnick, Rux Martin, James Peterson
Kirsty notes that electronic media are likely to dominate this conversation. the new outlets create many new opportunities for food writers. There is of course the question of money, which she promises to return to.
A new site to aggregate recipes that Kirsty likes is Yummly.com, and wonders what it will mean to those who wish to get paid for their recipe writing. It will likely bring to a head the fact that recipes cannot be copyrighted (though often the descriptions of the process in the recipe CAN be)
A great question that this is all bringing up is what is the role of a publisher now? Still the "vanguard of quality" as Kirsty believes? Or becoming less and less necessary?
Rux Martin, who is from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, points out that it is even more difficult o get a book published now than it was before the "9/11 meltdown of the publishing world" of the electronic inundation of the publishing world. She noted the shrinking of food sections in newspapers and the "seismic" loss of Gourmet.
TV now will only speak to the established chefs and a small cadre of well-known authors. Some TV shows are now charging guests to come on and plug their books.
The authors who are going to make it national are the ones who invent how to navigate these new seas. The rise of Amazon appears to be one beacon that is pointing the way.
Good news though, the effect of all this is to bring your book (or blog or whatever) closer to the reader. It is no longer removed behind the great wall of publishers. One of the great strengths and weaknesses of this world is that bloggers have made the review immediate and universal, so whether your book is great or terrible, your whole audience will know the moment it's on the shelf.
Rux told the unlikely success story of Hello, Cupcake and What's New, Cupcake?, and how she was a lone cheerleader for the book at HMH, and was proven right. The point though was that it was successful due in no small part to the authors' connections online.
"Books take blogs to the next level and blogs and tweets take books to the next level"
Next James Peterson is going to talk about Cookbooks Past. He starts with Apicius, a 2000 year-old cookbook that is a great curiosity
Le Mesnagier de Paris is a good example, as all cookbooks from that era, of how the rich ate. We don't have good records of how the poor ate then, unsurprisingly.
Le Viandier de Taillevent is the oldest French cookbook known, and James' passion for French food lewd him to use this to inspire new dishes of his own
Le Cuisinier Francois is what differentiated French food from the rest of Europe
La Cuisiniere Bourgeoisie was the first cookbook (18th century) for someone other than the rich.
La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Sant-Ange has just been translated into English by 10 Speed Press and Peterson calls it "indispensable."
Many more books followed, each a lesson and a fascinating tour of culinary history, of great use to food writers today.
Justin Renard is a member of the Kindle content team at Amazon. He's brought us a lot of metrics (he says Amazon is a very metrics-driven company). He showed us the remarkable growth of Kindle during 2010. From 13 electronic editions per 100 physical books in February '09, they now sell 60 eBooks per 100 hardcopy editions, and more electronic than hardcover overall for the first time last month. There are now 629,000 trade books available on Kindle, plus free books that put it in the millions of titles.
Clearly Kindle and systems like it are harbingers. Media has gone this way and will continue to. Writers who ignore it will be left behind.
One other good point, eBooks never go out of stock.
Follow Kurt Michael Friese on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KurtMFriese