Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Slow Food: Too Much, Too Fast in the Age of Instagram

I've lost the photo that should accompany this post. In it, my bowl of pasta Bolognese is being photographed by my friends in a dark restaurant. The shot depicts a pair of hands daintily holding up a snowy white napkin as a makeshift scrim. Another hand is held up opposite, in an attempt to deflect the light from a cell phone that is poised to capture the shot.

Of course, I too was frantically trying to capture the food and the moment with my phone. I took the aforementioned photo of their tabletop food styling session. The next morning, as I whizzed through the previous evening's photos, I caught a glimpse of the photo and assumed that it was one of multiple images of the same thing, and accidentally deleted it. I do have several photos of the same bowl of pasta as it was bathed in the light of a streetlamp that shone into the window above our table, but they don't tell the story as well.

Moodily-lit Pasta Bolognese at Uovo
The instantaneous sharing of every moment of our lives that we choose to broadcast online has produced way too many "perfect" images for us to process, share, and envy. But how long do any of these stay with us for very long? I can now recall all the times that I wish I had a camera, or, in an effort to just be present in the moment, opted not to pull my camera or phone out to capture life as it happened. These memories are more deeply ingrained in my consciousness than the ones on record - and I am in no danger of "deleting" them.

People euphemistically call living "an art." However, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by individuals who actually are artists in one way or another. They don't self-consciously create art every time they set the table, dress themselves, or entertain. Perhaps art is only in the eye of the partial beholder - friends and family that cherish you and your ways of doing things.

That night, my sister gave me a pin in the shape of a typewriter. Our generation is probably the last to have had typewriters, dial phones, black-and-white TV, and a childhood without the internet. I remember our blue Sears electric typewriter in its snappy carrying case, the hefty Adler my parents gave me on my 10th birthday when it became evident that I was going to spend a lot of time writing, the iMac my friends all pooled together for my 30th birthday in the 1990s, and the various computers I've had since.

Technology makes this blog possible, both on my end and to broadcast it widely. But we shouldn't become slaves to the medium. Social media doesn't have to be an evil - there are times when it does a great deal of good for creativity, connecting, and even society. However, its allure needs to be harnessed by the user, not the other way around.

After our pasta-fest, we walked around the 3rd Street Promenade and got some ice cream. The conversation of old friends turned to past and future travel adventures, my nephew's latest adventure at a cooking school, the upcoming holiday season. As we ordered our gelato-on-a-stick desserts, some of which were dipped in chocolate and rolled in various toppings, I resisted the urge to whip out my phone and take pictures. And amazingly, I remember the evening a lot better.

IFBC 2017: Sacramento Soliloquy

In the morning light of late September, the dome of the California State Capitol building looked like a fancy cake topper made of alabaster fondant with a chocolate cap. I had arrived the night before for Foodista's International Food Blogger Conference and was walking to breakfast at the Fox and Goose Public House, not far from my hotel.
Morning at the California State Capitol

Walking down 10th Street early on a Saturday morning was a rare treat for me, being from car-choked L.A. I envisioned how the traffic would have already picked up back home at this hour, with the throngs in trendy neighborhoods headed for breakfast, shopping, and other weekend pursuits. Here, I had the sidewalks all to myself, except for volunteers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention who were busily setting up a coffee kiosk and other exhibits, along with a barrage of balloons for their event on the Capitol lawn.

When I reached the Fox and Goose, I was surprised to find it fairly empty except for about five people, but it was only about 7:45 in the morning. I settled myself in the empty patio that girded the front of the pub. I had never had a "full English" before and was intrigued by the cacophony of flavors that it promised with eggs, sautéed mushrooms, bangers and bacon, roasted tomato, and beans.

Solitary, man: Enjoying the quiet at the
Fox and Goose Public House
Sacramento's historic R Street District.
As I waited for my meal, luxuriating in the quiet and gentle glow of the morning sun, a woman who had just parked across the street asked me if the blue Honda belonged to me. I told her that it did not, and she said that there was a mouse roaming inside of the car. We laughed and she went into the pub, where I could hear her asking within if anyone had a blue Honda. Apparently nobody did, and the woman came out again and told the story to a friend who had just arrived. They went inside and when I was busily jotting notes down for this post, someone got into the blue Honda and drove away. Hopefully, they weren't startled by their tiny passenger while the car was in motion!

Bangers tend to be softer than most sausages, with their tender pork filling. I learned that in World War I, the filling was augmented with wheat rusks to make the meat go further. They may seem a bit bland at first, but are savory enough to complement and be complemented by the piquant flavor of the Heinz baked beans, the eggs, bacon, and the tomato and mushrooms. I also had a side of miniature berry-studded scones with some sunny homemade lemon curd, "for pudding," as they say across the pond.

After this hearty start to the day, I walked back around in a bit of a circle to the Hyatt Regency to prepare for the day's sessions. Sacramento is known as the "City of Trees" and I enjoyed the verdant cityscape, walking past charming houses and apartments that were set in unusually lush greenery for an urban environment.

The full English breakfast at the Fox and Goose
When I returned to Capitol Park, I heard bagpipers. Men and women were decked out in kilts, practicing for what I found out was a California Firefighters Memorial Ceremony also taking place at Capitol Park that day. As I headed into the park, distractedly taking a photo of the very large redwood in my path, I head a voice say, "You have to take a picture of the Dior cedar."

I turned to see a Bruce Boxleitner look-alike, who appeared to have been jogging. "It's over here - it has a portal." I followed the guy over to the tree, and saw the sign that read, "Deodar Cedar, Cedrus deodars. Native Region: China." I asked him what he meant by a portal, and he took a four-inch long quartz crystal out of his pocket.

Gigantic deodar cedar in Capitol Park
He indicated a small triangular space where the branches had grown and fused together and began trying to lob the crystal through the opening. I asked him where he thought the "portal" led, hoping that it didn't eventually lead to impaling one of our skulls with the airborne crystal as we stood under the tree. Finally, he stopped trying.

"I just like to think that it leads somewhere," he laughed.

The tree was truly an impressive specimen, as was the redwood. "Bruce" pointed out the other gargantuan trees, as if I could miss them. I thanked him for the mini-tour of his ad hoc arboretum and made my way back to the hotel.

The IFBC sessions I attended that day were somewhat geared toward more solitude, namely writing, which requires a certain lonerdom. When I left the convention center, I was undecided as to whether I should drive or get an Uber to Biba, and almost went to dinner in what I wore to the conference. But I had this feeling that I should get dressed up a bit, so went back to my room to engage Uber - which I failed at due to a faulty connection with my phone - and to change into the one nice dress I brought with me. I decided to drive and found that the restaurant was only about eight minutes away.

Grilled salmon at Biba
After parking my car, I walked into Biba, expecting the standard interior of an upscale Italian restaurant. I was really glad that I had changed into my dress, because I was standing at the edge of a dimly-lit room with only about ten tables and a piano bar. Older couples, the men in sport coats, seemed to freeze, like in the movies. I felt like Ferris Bueller and his pals trying to get into a swanky restaurant and was considering introducing myself as "Abby Froman, the Sausage Queen of Chicago," when the surprisingly friendly hostess whisked me into the larger dining room, which was considerably brighter, noisier, and full of all kinds of people in various types of dress, cheerfully eating their dinners.

My server was a friendly older gentleman who had been at Biba's for nearly 20 years. He was pretty busy with other tables as well, but very helpful and knowledgeable about the menu. He even offered to bring me half portions of salad and pasta since I couldn't eat full helpings and did not have a refrigerator for leftovers - when did they start taking those out of hotel rooms?

Fill-your-own lemon cannoli and 
Greek salad snack at Corti Brothers
I don't have any halfway acceptable photos of this experience. The room was lit, but dimly so. Elegant for a meal, not great for cell phone cameras. And after a long day at IFBC and around town, my battery was flagging.

So, I simply enjoyed the grilled salmon special, a generous filet resting on a raft of wilted spinach and roasted turnips that had a delightfully rustic look with their untrimmed roots. A pool of corn puree bedaubed the plate below this assemblage, brightening the dish with both flavor and hue. The half orders that preceded this - grilled vegetable Insalata Siciliana and ravioli with prosciutto cotto, topped with buttery chanterelle mushrooms - were like a meal by themselves, but I wanted to try as many things as I could.

Conti Brothers is an institution, having been in the same spot on Folsom Boulevard since 1947. The whole place looks a very well-preserved toy supermarket from the 1950s, except it's real. The shelves look as if they are straightened regularly on the quarter-hour, and are stocked with a cornucopia of exotic but genuine ingredients to please the most curious or persnickety of chefs. The deli is famous for its sandwiches - I was saving my appetite for Biba, but in retrospect, should have had one! And the staff is courteous and helpful. Corti Brothers was truly a throwback to old-fashioned grocery stores, but with the modern-day consciousness of buying and selling what is fresh, local, and just plain good.

A backlog of bevvies and bread at a live
blogging session at IFBC
I did need to have a small lunch of some kind, and the DIY cannoli kits in the deli looked amazing. The sunny yellow filling, which I scooped with a plastic knife into the lightest, and crispest cannoli shells ever, had a subtle sweetness and a balanced, natural lemon flavor. I figured that, alongside a Greek salad of feta, cucumbers and tomatoes would hold me until dinner at Biba. I also stocked up on sweets to bring home as presents, including gingersnaps and springerle cookies made by the Sisters of St. Benedict in Indiana - not local, but indicative of unusual products at Conti Brothers.

Later that afternoon, there was an live food and wine blogging session at IFBC, where local growers, wine reps, entrepreneurs, and other spokespersons showed off their wares for about five minutes at a time as we bloggers listened, took pictures, tweeted, and most importantly, tasted. It was like a wacky game show where we had to scarf or swig numerous samples of food and drink while digesting a lot of information very quickly. It was a lot of fun, but kind of hectic.

The company reps were great sports about this activity. IFBC is the only food blogger conference I've attended so far, and I'm guessing that they may have done presentations like this before. But as novel and energizing as the live blogging was, it might have been more enjoyable if we had more than 50 minutes total and if each table only experienced five or six vendors rather than ten.

At IFBC's live blogging session, California Strawberries
featured local farmers on their labels.
I didn't mean to be antisocial this year at IFBC. I think that I just needed to process things more quietly this year. The takeaway from my largely solitary experience at this year's conference is that the act of fully appreciating food takes a lot of time and attention. Ambience is not limited to fine dining. Every occasion of interacting with food has a level of ambience, even when you are eating a clumsily-assembled lemon cannoli while sitting in a breezy patio in front of a grocery store.

The best thing about being a food blogger is that one becomes adept at deeply experiencing food with new eyes, ears, nose, hands, and tastebuds in order to impart its story to the world. The daily routines of shopping, cooking, and eating take on new dimensions as we work to tell our stories. And while the actual writing of a blog demands solitude, gathering the information can be either solitary or communal. And, I have found, it is often the shared experiences that are the most nourishing.
Not just olives anymore:Lindsay's new
nut butters at IFBC live blogging session.

I brought some of my IFBC swag and a few presents to my sister’s house, where my youngest nephew Kenzo was the only one at home. I gave him a bag of chocolate-studded Nibby Cookies from Andrae’s Bakery and some blueberry powder that I thought he could use in one of his famous smoothies. 

I showed him the sample vial of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and said it was for his parents, but that he could try it if he wanted to. A budding chef on his own, Kenzo didn’t hesitate. He cut the tiny plastic “bottle” open with a scissors and poured half of its contents into a small dish. He took a package of tiny orbs of burrata out of the refrigerator, dipped one into the vinegar and took an appraising bite.

“It’s good,” he said. And coming from a 13-year-old, that means a lot. I look forward to watching him come into his own as a cook and an enthusiastic lover of food. Maybe someday, he might even write about it.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Looking for the Write Stuff at IFBC 2017

Looking forward to driving up to Sacramento again in late for my second International Food Blogger Conference - the second one held there in two years - I had priorities. Now that I was more familiar with the city, the conference, and the herculean task of a seven to eight-hour drive, I could concentrate on making some informed choices for the weekend.

Hospitable water tower in Kingsburg, California
From last year’s trek through the Central and San Joaquin Valleys, I remembered a giant flower-bedecked coffee pot that hovered hospitably over a town called Kingsburg. Making my way up the 99 in late July’s swelter and trying to make it to Sacramento before dark, I didn’t pull over and investigate then, but made a mental note to do so on the way home this time.

I also hadn’t followed a friend’s recommendation of Biba Ristorante Italiano last year, so I made a reservation there for dinner on Friday night. Another friend who grew up in East Sacramento had rapturously described the famed Corti Brothers market, and it on my list as well.

The drive along Highway 5 was fairly uneventful. I chose the 5 because it was a bit more direct, if not as scenic as the 99. I wanted to make the “Taste of Sacramento” event and check out all the yummy samples and swag bag loot that kicked off IFBC last year.

 Idaho Potato doll reps his home state in style.
Foodwise, road trips are always a challenge, since I need to avoid soy. Stopping for lunch or a snack is no longer a fun thing, as a) there is nothing but fast food out there when you drive across the state and b) most fast food places fry in soybean oil and/or use soy flour in their bread and breaded coatings. Fortunately, I was able to winnow it down to chicken tenders and fried zucchini at Carl’s Jr. Or was it Jack in the Box? The two are interchangeable in my mind, and I rationalized the calorie-fest with the fact that I still had several hours on the road left.

Overall, there was little traffic, except for rush hour near Stockton. I had to concede defeat and call Biba to cancel my reservation – it didn’t look like I was going to make my 6 p.m. reservation. I tried to schedule a lunch for the next day but they don’t serve lunch on Saturdays, so I made a reservation for dinner on Saturday night.

I finally made it to the Hyatt Regency, which was next door to the Sacramento Convention Center. I decided to splurge on valet parking since it was about 4:10 and the Taste of Sacramento was in full swing, leaving my luggage and checking in until later.

Breathless from rushing through the Hyatt and across the street to the convention center, I entered the hall where various IFBC sponsors and featured vendors greeted bloggers and treated them to snacks, samples, and swag. My favorite things were an anthropomorphic Idaho Potato doll, a bar of Euphoria chocolate (soy-free!), and a nicely turned wooden cutting board commemorating “Avocados from Chile.” I surveyed the scene and enjoyed a glass of wine before heading out to check into the hotel.

Banana and roasted pistachio gelato from
Eatuscany Caffe on L Street.
After getting my luggage settled in my room and freshening up, I decided to take a walk around the neighboring Handle District. It’s been my habit to stop eating after 5 p.m. for the most part, unless something special is happening, so I thought I could get away without dinner that night and save my calories for the weekend ahead. I thought I would venture over to Capital City Beads, which I really enjoyed last year. But walking up L Street, I remembered the great gelato at Eatuscany Caffe. I walked to CVS eating the best banana and pistachio gelato ever. I stocked up on bottled water and Smokehouse Almonds to nibble between sessions the next day and headed back to the hotel.

This year, I decided to focus on the presentations that would help me with my writing. Margaret Andrews' talk on "How to Write a Scroll-Worthy Blog Post" was incredibly helpful. A few weeks before IFBC, she offered the chance for attendees to submit their blogs for critique, and GMS was one of the blogs that she addressed in her talk.

An apt criticism that has been pointed out to me before is that I don't describe how food tastes, which is ironic because this is a food blog. (I missed it again, just two paragraphs above!) And I don't give the most colorful descriptions of people, places, or things - I guess it's from all these years of trying to write objectively - blame my Journalism 1 class in  high school. And I have this annoying habit of assuming that everyone knows what I'm talking about.

While I still think it is a great skill to write objectively, there are times when a bit of embroidery is engaging, if not necessary. Like in a food blog. So, the need for more descriptive language is duly noted. Appealing to the senses will organically embellish a sentence, which I will attempt to do in the remainder of this post.

Andrews reminded us to avoid using cliches, provide a "hook" at the very beginning, and make our posts seem shorter than they are - which means make it interesting. She warned against what she called, "the dump post," which is SEO-based and only written to keep up posting. And probably the best advice of all: if you are bored, so are your readers. There is so much vying for readers' attention online that only the most riveting writing keeps them (and me!) scrolling to finish reading a post - and hopefully, looking forward to the next one.

The Taffy Exercise
Jennifer Flinn's presentation, "Hungry for Words - Details & Feeding the Beast," addressed one of the main challenges of blogging: consistently writing fresh and engaging content. An award-winning journalist, she has carved out a dream writing career, with books on food and the culinary arts, including the NYT best-seller, "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry," an account of her time attending Le Cordon Bleu, and "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School," which has been enthusiastically embraced in Japan, where the it has been translated into "Miracle Recipes for Bad Women."

While preparing for her talk, Flinn cautioned us not to eat the saltwater taffy that was being passed around the room, at least, not yet. She talked about the importance of vivid descriptions and gave what is sound writing advice: you don't have to load your writing with vivid descriptions - just choose the best one(s).

Flinn instructed us to look at the pieces of taffy in their crisp wax paper, and write a description. We were told to unwrap them, consider the appearance of the paper and the candy, smell the taffy, touch it and stretch it - and write more descriptions Finally, she said to eat the taffy and describe that.

My taffy was of the "Neapolitan" chocolate-strawberry-vanilla combination flavor. It felt squishy in the middle, but firmer on the sides where the wax paper wrapper was twisted into little pigtails. When I unwrapped it, the edges of the sticky candy held the wrinkly imprint of being encased in the wax paper wrapper; the little opaque square was now flattened on my table, creased with evidence of having been twisted.

I didn't smell anything when I unwrapped the taffy, but when I stretched out the bite-size piece into a colorful strand, a synthetic but not unpleasing aroma of strawberry scratch-and-sniff sticker wafted from it. I popped it into my mouth, and the sticky texture gave way to a creamy meltedness. I ended up swallowing what was left when I panicked at the thought of my fillings being yanked out by the sticky confection.

Taste of Sacramento Gift Fair at IFBC 2017
Flinn is a great storyteller. In between anecdotes of her life as a writer and elsewhere, she offered other thought-provoking exercises and tips. Interviewing oneself with lead-ins like, "I'm happiest when..." or "The question I hate getting asked the most is..." leads to some intriguing self-examination and prose. A list of dilemmas can help create conflict-driven narratives (hopefully, interesting ones, not like the conflicts I started this post with!), and a list of what is lurking in one's freezer/pantry would also make for some very revealing analysis.

This post from the early days of GMS has been consistently on this blog's "most popular list for nearly a year. I don't know if it a) is a common readers' point of entry to GMS; b) comes up in searches for "Scarborough Fair," "The Graduate," or "chicken soup; or c) is really that good.

I finally got up the nerve to read it again, all these years later and I have to admit that it is way more personal, creative, and nervy than I have been recently. The rigors of trying to "feed the beast" while working, dealing with people in my life who don't appreciate being mentioned in the blog, and the restriction of soy from my diet - which limits foodie adventures to a surprising and disappointing degree - have somewhat quelled my enthusiasm and whatever joie de vivre that GMS used to have.

But I still want to do this. As Flinn noted in her talk, when you're a food writer, everything turns into a food story. As John Lennon wrote (I said I'd avoid cliches - quoting songs is another matter!), life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

My first book is most likely not going to be based on GMS as I had decided to do when I started this blog. But food is always going to be there, and is always going to intrigue me in numerous ways. My posts only really come alive when I'm fired up about something, not when I try to fill the SEO void. So watch this space for what will hopefully be passionate, funny, and/or informative (and descriptive!) posts on an infrequent but fully lived basis.