by Katherine Hysmith
Food writing organization Cook n’ Scribble, host of the Longhouse Food Writer’s Revival, posted a tweet a few days before the event proudly boasting that the upcoming weekend would be like “’Burning Man meets Oxford Symposium’: food, photography, writing, blogging, video, spoken word, painting. #foodrevival.” After learning about food freaks and the communal food revivals in Warren Belasco’s books and classes, this conference seemed less scholarly by the tweet. With the promise of a “pop-up” magazine and a network of eager food writers, the conference seemed worth it.
A few hours away in the sleepy little hamlet of Rensselaerville, a hundred or so people gathered in a renovated red barn, complete with an improvised kitchen, to talk about food. Among them were famous writers like Molly O’Neill, world-traveled photographers like Penny de los Santos, Edible Magazines publisher Brain Halweil, NPR host Kathy Gunst, representatives from various food companies such as local Taza Chocolate and ConAgra Mills flour, food bloggers, culinary scholars, and a handful of eager young students from food programs across the nation.
Huddled in the drafty old barn away from the windy fall weather, we watched a screen made from a swath of burlap tacked up to one wall with a projector set up in the hay loft above. The theme of the conference was “Mexican Diaspora in the Hudson Valley” which was highlighted by sentimental oral history interviews, a guacamole presentation, a poem read dramatically from iPhone screens, and finally a traditional Oaxacan pig roast prepared by Mexican Chef Neftali Duran.
The morning schedule flew through presentations about multimedia, photographic storytelling, the edible soundscape (the sizzle of sliced nopales or prickly pear hitting a hot frying pan), and the challenges of the printed word in today’s online media. The heart of the conference was a round table discussion themed, “The Revival.” Sitting in a large circle, we embarked on a multi-hour discussion of the merits of media and the false divide between the older generations and the new. Perhaps it was inexperience with the “third screen” (aka the smartphone), or maybe the smoke that now filled the barn to the rafters, but the round table discussion quickly became a blame game with ample finger pointing. Finding, and keeping, a job was the theme of the afternoon, dotted here and there with useful tips on blog marketing and self-branding from a few attendees eager to reroute the conversation. In the end, we found common ground in collaboration and using each other’s strengths to build a reliable and well-written medium.
We learned that the collective model is like making a meal together; we each make a dish, prep ingredients, set the table, clean the dishes or even compliment the food profusely after all is said and done. Ultimately, future successes in food writing will be a combination of the gumption founded in old media mingled with the savvy sleekness of new media. Despite our differences in the barn, once the doors opened we found camaraderie in pulled pork, smoky starlight, and food stories from around the table.
Katherine Hysmith is a second year Gastronomy graduate student and a food blogger at www.youngaustinian.com. She also writes and does freelance photography for the Boston Globe.