Thursday, August 11, 2016

Baggage Claim: Unpacking IFBC in Sacramento Creates Renewed Fervor for Food Blogging

Unpacking the experience of Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference two weeks ago is a bit like actually unpacking my huge swag bag of goodies from the Friday Night "Taste of Sacramento" bash, a task that took me several days since I had to hit the ground running at work when I returned from the weekend.

There were some obvious treasures, like the bamboo and silicone cooking spoon, "spork," and spatula from the California Cling Peach Board. There were some things that had intrinsic value but that I didn't know yet what to do with, like the generous bags of succulent dried figs from California Figs and the candy-like glass beads that I bought at Capital City Beads. And there were things that I am reluctantly letting go of, like the uber-yummy box of "Tango" cherry tomatoes from Windset Farms that I rationed out for a week (where in the world can I get more?!)  - and the original draft of this post, which to my chagrin, I accidentally deleted.

Peachy keen: Caprese salad with cling peaches,
basil, and walnuts, served up by the California
Cling Peach Board.
But the truly lasting souvenir of my visit to the "Farm-to-Fork" capital of the Golden State has been the effect of attending IFBC. Although I learned that there are a few other such events for food bloggers, the idea of gathering with other like-minded individuals - many of whom also have day jobs that advocate in the interests of the public - has been inspiring. If one can feel more grounded in a pursuit that at times can seem indulgent and frivolous, I can honestly say that IFBC did that for me.

It was heartening to learn that not all food blogs are dedicated to dreamy photos of perfectly iced cakes or truculent declarations of what constitutes perfect barbeque. And it was enlightening to not only hear from bloggers, diners, purveyors, and chefs, but from a largely unsung part of the foodie hierarchy - the farmers, growers, and ranchers who produce the foods that not only California but the entire nation, depend upon and enjoy.

Driving up the 99 - my choice because it would be more scenic than the 5 - was one long meditation on food and the environment that creates it. I had never seen the central part of the state before, and the scenery seemed organically synced to my driving soundtrack. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt's 17-minute version of "Bye Bye Blackbird"  played me out until I lost the signal to KJAZZ 88.1 somewhere between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield. Switching to the crate of CDs I had brought along, Los Lobos and Bruce Springsteen added a poignant aural backdrop to the serenity of cows and sheep grazing in arid, Manila envelope-tan fields. Orderly rows of grapevines, almond and pistachio trees, and corn appeared a bit more promising. Even the road afforded a surreal sight, with trucks pulling huge steel-mesh trailers dotted the highway, filled with hundreds of pounds of opalescent tomatoes, white onions that scattered their papery husks like confetti in the wind, and other vegetables. I would follow them distractedly as Atalanta went after the golden apples, lose them in my lead-footed haste, and meet up with them again, miles away.

A merry chase: Apples are a girl's best friend - sort
of. Persistent suitor Hippomenes thwarted
Atalanta's alpha female by tossing
shiny objects in her path.
Sacramento proved a great host city for IFBC with the unofficial and overarching theme of "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital." While there are many regions in the U.S. where farm-to-fork is also a movement, you have to admit that California produces a staggering percentage of the nation's produce, including specialty crops like wine and nuts.

A 2013 article in Western Farm Press states that thanks to California's soil and climate, the seemingly endless variety of crops grown here - including walnuts, plums, celery, and garlic -  represent percentages in the the high 90s of the nation's harvest. Indeed, the label of "California" that precedes figs, walnuts, olives, almonds, and any number of other signature crops has long designated their pedigree of sunny fields and an idyllic Mediterranean climate.

A verdant flatbread pizza with
California Figs, served up
at IFBC's "Taste of Sacramento"
Sadly, that famed climate in California is cause for concern with the ongoing drought. For miles, I saw signs for a local movement throughout the San Joaquin Valley that archly inquired if growing food was a "waste" of water. For example, almonds are a notoriously water-consuming crop. But without these signature products, the state's economy - to say nothing of its identity as the land of plenty, would be jeopardized.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote, "First we eat, then we do everything else." I would amend that to say that before we get to eat, there is everything else to do. IFBC showcased not only the great talent among writers, chefs, farmers, and other stakeholders in the state's food community, but the inherent humanity among those who spend their lives and careers in the study of how we eat.

A panel discussion featured three food bloggers whose passion for writing and food led somewhat organically but surprisingly in directions to do good. Amber Stott founded The Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit based in Sacramento that goes into low-income elementary schools to, as its mission statement declares says, "inspire kids to eat their vegetables." Catherine Enfield was able to create the Sacramento Food Film Festival, which organically has become the Food Literacy Center's signature fundraiser. And Rodney Blackwell, who writes Burger Junkies, ended up founding the Sacramento Burger Battle to highlight the city's best burger chefs and raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

Another notable session was a blind tasting of olive oils led by Dan Flynn, director of the UC Davis Olive Center and Henry "Hoby" Wedler, a sensory scientist and founder of Accessible Science, a nonprofit that provides blind and visually impaired youth with learning experiences in science, utilizing their heightened senses of taste and smell. Wedler also hosts the "Tasting in the Dark" experience for Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Their presentation addressed the many controversies over olive oil quality, use, and health benefits.

Along with discussions of the more nobler aspects of social justice, and the conscientious production, purchase, and preparing of food, delegates to IFBC had the opportunity to participate in one very critical activity: eating. Proximity to vineyards, world-renowned produce, and the creative food community of Central California, Sacramento has become a foodie mecca that rivals even a metropolis such as Los Angeles - without the traffic.

Lindsay's new Party Picks can turn that next martini
into one of your "five-a-day" with more than the
ubiquitous olive.
The "Taste of Sacramento" reception on Friday night started IFBC with a bang. For me, there was a nostalgic thread running through it, with exhibits that recall a Southern California childhood. Jimboy's Tacos were an unexpected treat that channeled my favorite Taco Bell crunchy tacos - but way, way better and without the politically incorrect signage.

I finally learned that "cling" peaches are a variety of fruit that does not easily release the stone when ripe. This allows the peaches to retain their shape when undergoing the canning process. While I am not a great fan of canned fruit, having eaten my share of it in the culinarily beige 1970s, I was pretty impressed by the "Caprese" salad of cling peaches, walnuts, basil, and mozzarella cheese served up by representatives of the California Cling Peach Board. And Lindsay, purveyors of those buttery black olives that as kids we all liked to wear like thimbles on our fingers, previewed Party Picks, tiny skewers of their cocktail olives and pickled vegetables, ready to embellish your next shaken-not-stirred.

Poached pear in wine at Aioli
Bodega Espanola.
One of my favorite parts of any trip is souvenirs, especially the edible kind. I went off the IFBC grid on Saturday afternoon and had one of the best meals of my life at Aioli Bodega Espanola, a local favorite on L Street, in an artsy neighborhood near the Capital. On the way back to L.A., I picked up treats from Nugget Market, including my favorite Guittard chocolate chips for baking or nibbling, and picked up some Santa Barbara Pistachio Company - in Santa Barbara, which felt way cooler than buying them at Whole Foods back home.

Whenever I return home from a trip, it still feels like I am in a new place, even though I have returned without fanfare to my usual routines and habits. For a while, all of those well-worn path, while familiar, seem to harbor new possibilities.

I'm looking forward to IFBC next year, which will be held again in Sacramento. Being able to see where our food comes from In the meantime, as I recall the conference in this blog, enjoy my edible mementos, and share my experiences with friends and family who have been so supportive of GMS, I will continually unpack my "suitcase" of impressions and with them the ability to see blogging about food through new eyes and think about where it will lead me in the future.

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