Category Archives: Background and General Food Thoughts

Eat, Write, Retreat 2011 Conference Recap

This past weekend, I attended the Eat, Write, Retreat food bloggers conference in my hometown area of Washington, DC.  It was an amazing experience filled with great food to eat, informative and dynamic lectures and workshops, and really nice and wonderful fellow food writers.  Having never been to one of these events before, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, and I walked away feeling completely reinvigorated about the writing on my own blog as well as totally inspired by my fellow attendees.

I’m still trying to process some of this experience, to be honest, as well as trying to get back in the swing of my usual crazy, hectic life.  Having gotten to listen to and interact with some of the food folks whose writing and recipes that I’ve followed for years was just part of this fantastic conference.  Now, I have to go through my notes, business cards, and materials to try to sum up what I took away from it all.  The word that keeps coming back to me at the moment, however, is PASSION.

From the moment we checked for the weekend at The Madison Hotel to saying our goodbyes and promising to be in touch on Twitter, Facebook, and in the blogosphere two days later, the passion for the topic of food was tangible in the air.  Fran Brennan kicked off the conference on Friday night with the story of how her media background led her to create the incredible culinary news aggregator website (and newsletter) Food News Journal.  We heard from other authors and writers throughout the panel discussions about how their personal paths and drivers drew them into this new wild, and sometimes wacky, world of writing and blogging about food.

We had advice from Monica Bhide (photo above) during our writing workshop about how to describe what we taste, touch, smell, and hear about what we see and experience.  She talked to us about how to keep our blogs fresh and alive and full of the joy that made us delve into this topic in the first place by testing our senses and our memories and our vocabularies.  Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl and the Chef and others emphasized writing on subjects about which you care and which mean something to you; don’t fake it as your readers can tell.  You need to protect your brand, as Jennifer Perillo from In Jennie’s Kitchen pointed out.

Whatever your topic is, be authentic.  Listening to our own voice and communicating that through our own words also came up several times.  As Domenica Marchetti pointed out, there are lots of blogs and cookbooks out there, but maybe your unique point of view has not been expressed yet.  For sites that post recipes, making sure that they are written correctly and accurately is a responsibility that bloggers have to their audience.  Personal stories were interwoven with useful tidbits and words of wisdom.  I made several pages of notes so that I wouldn’t forget any of them.

The workshop on food photography and styling by Lisa Cherkasky and Renee Comet taught us how to visually express what our words try to say about our chosen subject matter. Remember, we eat with our eyes first, as the saying goes, doesn’t it follow then that our readers devour our blog posts by what they are drawn into by their appearance?  The two photos below show the before and after shots of Lisa’s careful editing of what our group was trying to convey with the foods that we picked out from the product displays.


In addition to the sage advice from established writers in the field, we also got to hear from the other side – the people who hire food-oriented types to product articles and material for them.  The PR and media speakers Brona Cosgrave of Lewis & NealeJoe Yonan of The Washington Post, and Justin Schwartz of John Wiley & Sons pressed some of the previous points further as they gave us tips about how to work with them as we seek to move beyond our blogs into the larger food writing arena. Even the basic things like grammar, spelling, or getting someone’s name correct can determine whether a pitch is accepted by a publication, even before an email or letter is considered for the content within.

From the social media angle, Priya Ramesh from CRT/tanaka gave us a presentation about using electronic communication to promote our sites.  This last topic dissolved a little bit into a discussion of numbers.  The short answer given by all of these panelist is that, yes, your numbers do count.  Firms want to see them when they are taking on a new writer with whom to work.  At the same time, as figures don’t always tell the whole story, depending upon the relationship a publication or PR agency is seeking to build with a blogger, your statistics might just be part of the whole package that they consider when evaluating your influence and standing.

As this was a conference about food writing for food bloggers, you’re now thinking that I left out the most important part – what I ate all weekend.  Lots of good things is the short answer, as my Facebook photos can attest.  I’m going to start off with the best thing that I think I tried, which was, no surprises here, a dessert.  This is the Strawberry Rhubarb Shortcake with Mascarpone Cream at McCormick & Schmick’s, which we had for lunch on Saturday as part of a wine pairing put together by the restaurant and another conference sponsor, Mirassou.  It was paired with their 2009 Riesling, but I think that it would have been more appropriately matched with the first wine that we had, the 2010 Moscato.  Still, that didn’t stop me and the others at our table from wiping our plates clean.  The richness of the cream sauce matched perfectly with the sweet-tart compote and thick slices of juicy macerated strawberries.  The shortcake held its own as well and provided the perfect soft, slightly crunchy platter from which to enjoy all the gooey goodness of the other ingredients.

We also had a chance to do some cooking this past weekend at CulinAerie.  This is a relatively new space in the heart of downtown Washington.  Susan Holt, one of the creators and founders of this enterprise, has cooked in some of Washington, DC’s notable restaurants (like 1789) and was an instructor at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.  From her, participants learned new skills and in the space of an hour or so, we were taught how to make three dishes using a conference-sponsoring ingredient endive.  Again, I’ll send you to my Facebook photos for all of the results, but one dish that I thought was unique and especially interesting was this Braised Endive with Gremolata (we didn’t actually do any of the braising).  Soft, delicate, mild-tasting leaves, livened up by a bright, garlic-herb-citrus topping that had a slight crunch to it.

For my first experience attending a food writers conference, I have to say, I don’t think that I could have picked a more perfect setting, a better group of people with whom to spend a weekend, or a more interactive atmosphere.  Everyone’s passion for their chosen topic was evident and positive-energy generating.  I have to pull out a quote from a fellow attendee, Diane Eblin from The Whole Gang, there were No Divas.  The conference sponsors and speakers participated in the sessions alongside the bloggers, which was great for us as it allowed for better networking and a keener understanding of how we all interact together in the wider food arena.  Traffic size didn’t matter at all when working next to someone in the kitchen area or trying out the varieties of Goo Goo Clusters (another sponsor).

I found new sites to follow and also have more helpful resources to add to my stable of referrals for gluten-free and vegan cooking ideas.  Several of us have met on Twitter or elsewhere electronically and were thrilled to match a face with an avatar.  I can’t wait to keep up with everyone’s progress and to see where we all might be in 2012.  Thank you so much to Robyn Webb and Casey Benedict for pulling together a terrific group of panelists, sponsors, and participants. Please sign me up already for next year!

Buon appetito!

Here’s a list of posts from some of the other attendees with their photos and impressions. You can also follow these folks via Twitter and Facebook.  For a complete list of the conference program and sponsors, please see this link.  We received samples in our goodie bags from several food companies, as well as cooking utensils from Oxo and Calphalon.

52 Sweets

A Nesting Experience

Always Order Dessert

Asian in America

Celiacs in the House

Comet Photo

eat. drink. smile.

Eat Well Eat Clean

Eat Write Retreat 2011

Eating is Art

Flamingo Musings

Food & Wine 365

Fork You! No, Fork You!

Girl Born Hungry

Good Cook Doris!

Good Food, Good Wine, and a Bad Girl

Good Spoon

Healthy Delicious

Healthier Kitchen

The Kitchen Minions

Kumquat

Lighter and Local

Live Laugh Eat

Maroc Mama

Penny Pinching Epicure

Souffle Bombay

The Spiced Life

Tastes Better with Friends

The SIMMER Blog

Travel Wine Dine

The Whole Gang

Verses From My Kitchen

Way More Than Cheesesteak

Welcome to the New Site!

Welcome to the revamped website for The Experimental Gourmand!  After more than 5 years on Blogger, I decided to move to WordPress and to my own domain name.  It’s been a lot of work over the last month or so, but I think that the new location will be worth it.  Hopefully, you’ll see the results in greater functionality and a sharper look to the site.  I also made the post font size bigger for easier reading about all the Food Events, Market Trips, and Recipes that are the features of this site.

Buon appetito!

The Food Cranks

This weekend I spent time with a significant portion of my family to celebrate a batch of birthdays. Not surprisingly, we talked about food many times over. We discussed what to do about feeding the little kids among us and how to handle the different meals we’d all be eating together. Given that it is also Lent, some of us had other dietary restrictions to consider as well in the menu planning. Along the lines of that latter topic and fasting for religious reasons, we segued into talking about The Food Cranks.

Just what are these, you ask? Well, as someone who is notorious for having them, I should warn you that they aren’t very pleasant. My sister who is an EMT defined it as not just about being hungry. It’s more like getting to the point of needing to eat where your blood sugar has started on the swift decline towards crashing and you become very irritable and, well, really, really cranky. You reach the stage where you’ll snap at everything and everyone for no rational reason until you can get some food and raise your blood sugar back up to normal operating levels. For me, this also happens if I have to wander around from place to place to find something to eat, if what I really want isn’t available and I really need to have a meal at that very moment.

Since we were dealing with a lot of little ones this past weekend, feeding them before the Cranks set in and Meltdown became imminent was very important so our meals revolved around their little tummies. As my other sister pointed out, however, I am also one of the folks’ whose natural constitution needed to be factored into that equation. This came back to me when I was traveling last month. With my internal time clock out of sync, I had to be very careful to make sure that I was heading towards food when the first sign of being hungry appeared. This didn’t always work out so well, but I managed not to have too many problems. It had been a while since I’d really had to consider the Cranks and their impact on my personality.

One of my sisters used to phrase it like this when we traveled together or were on a family roadtrip. The minute I made the tiniest comment about kind of getting a bit peckish or saying, “I could kind of go for something to eat in a little bit,” she’d holler out, “We need to find something right now for lunch/dinner/snack!” She never wanted to tempt the Cranks out of hiding. All of my siblings seemed to agree with her on this. (Nothing like having four of your five siblings agree, “Yeah, you do get really, really cranky when you need to eat something.”) I didn’t realize that they had such a reputation.

I’ve tried to be better over the years about making sure I listen to my body to know the signs and that I carry snacks with me. Unfortunately, sometimes I just forget, and with the amount of running around I do during my day going from meeting to meeting, there are times when I just don’t realize how long it has been since I last had a meal until it is almost too late to short-circuit the process. Other times, there’s just nothing that I want to eat or nothing suitable to eat at the time I need to put some proper nourishment into my body. A street-cart pretzel doesn’t really cut it. So, I do apologize in advance if you end up meeting the Food Cranks on my behalf. They don’t really mean to be so irritable; they just can’t help it. They’re kind of hungry right now.

Buon appetito!

No St. Patrick’s Day Recipes Here

For someone who is about 50% of Irish ancestry (or a bit more or less depending upon how accurate the genealogical records are), it’s probably really surprising that if you do a search on this site for recipes to make for St. Patrick’s Day, you won’t find any.  The reason is that my family didn’t have any recipes to hand down from The Olde Country.  My father’s family came here, pre-Revolutionary War which would have likely made them Scots Irish and not oriented towards the meals we now associate with that land, and my mother’s Catholic Irish predecessors came over during the potato famine so didn’t have many great food memories to import.  What does this mean that I usually make to celebrate the upcoming saint’s day?

Periodically, my mother would try to make Corned Beef and Cabbage, which I generally find a dreadful combination of too salty meat and too slimy vegetables (I actually have a cooked cabbage phobia left over from primary school cafeteria food memories.).  I don’t ever recall her making Irish Soda Bread at all.  It is a bit sad, then, that the only other food things I find associated with this holiday are kitschy green items like bagels, beer, and other fare dyed for the occasion.

Even if you pick up the book 97 Orchard Street (did you know that some of the foods we eat today without even thinking about it – like pickles! – were deemed “suspicious” and “unhealthy” when they were first introduced to the American palate), you’ll notice that the chapter on the Irish family who lived at that address is the shortest one in the book.  No wonder that I have a difficult time bragging about my food heritage.  If you happen to walk into a bookstore (quaint, I know), pick it up and check out pages 62-63.

This is the shopping list and budget for food for a week for an Irish immigrant family of ten. Notice anything?  The diet is heavy on starch and dairy.  I can tell you that this is definitely one of the traditions that carried over from the old world to the new.  The author also specifically comments on the fact that the Irish dependence upon potatoes for dietary sustenance was still a predominant feature in their daily lives in New York.  My littlest nephew must have inherited this gene, as he can probably eat his body weight (which isn’t much) in french fries, he likes them so much.  What is the longest chapter in the book?  The one about the Italian family who lived in that dwelling.  I often wish that my family had those culinary traditions to hand down.

So, tomorrow I will not be raising a pint at many of the places at which to over-imbibe or painting my face green.  I won’t even be making shamrock cookies (which I do some years). Instead, I will pause at some point in the day to thank my ancestors who came to this land in search of a better life and more food to eat for them and for their children.  I keep trying to convince my parents that all our relatives really wanted when they got off of the boat in New York Harbor to was to enjoy a really great slice of pizza or a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

Buon appetito!


Serena at Seriously Soupy has a recipe for Irish Beef Stew.  This is one of the dishes that I can say that I did enjoy, when my mother made it.  Unfortunately, I don’t have her recipe for it.

Ode to Lutefisk

The Experimental Gourmand has decided to run away to Italy for a few days. She’s turned the keys to the blog over to her brother-in-law to write about one of his own food history stories.
 
We are told that one of the best ways to understand a country or people is to eat the food that they eat.  I don’t know if you gain understanding, but it certainly is a way to get beyond the tourist experience.In the small towns and farm country of the upper Midwest, this means a Lutefisk Dinner.  
 
For those of you who don’t know, Lutefisk is a traditional cod dish from Scandinavia.  Back in the day, cod was used to keep the population fed, and Lutefisk was a method of preserving it.  (The filets are dried, then later reconstituted by soaking it in a lye mixture, and then in plain water to flush the lye – thus Lutefisk = lye fish.)  It was finally cooked by being boiled.

Nowadays, Lutefisk is an echo of the old days.  For the Scandinavians that settled in this region, it is seen as one of the last links to the old countries.  So, as the leaves fall from the trees, and the wind becomes raw, the Lutefisk Dinner becomes a staple of small town life leading up to Christmas.  It is often both fundraiser and social event.


In South Dakota, one of the larger dinners is served in the town of Summit.  Summit’s claim to fame is that it is located on the highest land in the Eastern half of South Dakota – a range of hills that is too windy and too rolling to be much good for farming.  Summit is small by anyone’s standards – only about 250 people call it home, although it swells to several times that size during the Lutefisk Dinner.
 
Back in 2002, my wife and I drove out to South Dakota to visit my grandparents, and when we arrived, my grandmother was beside herself with excitement about taking us to this meal.   So, we loaded up in the car at 5pm, hoping to get to Summit about 5:30, and then into the dinner shortly thereafter.  As we approached the town, I could begin to smell the fish.  By the time we parked the car two blocks from the community hall, the smell was almost overpowering.  Then we walked into the building, and it was like walking into a Lutefisk flavored sauna – the temperature and the odor became even more intense.

We stood in line to get our tickets and were assigned numbers 351-354, and were then instructed to sit until called.   We sat, just in time to hear numbers 185-192 being called.  These lucky souls eagerly hurried to a table, where they were promptly served.  In came the bowls and platters heaped with corn, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, lefse (another Scandinavian treat) and, of course, Lutefisk.  The diners tucked in as if it would be their last meal – soon calling for refills, especially on the fish.

Finally, two hours after arriving in Summit, our numbers were finally called.  We took our seats and got started.  It was probably the best “mass-produced” meal I’ve ever eaten.  The ham was smoky and salty, but still moist.  The potatoes and gravy obviously had plenty of butter and cream, and the corn was as sweet as though it had been picked the week before (although rumor was that it came from a can.)  


But the fish was the star of the show.  Summit serves fish the ‘Norwegian’ way, with melted butter, and the tray made its way steadily around the table.  Most of our co-diners were taking huge spoonfuls, saving about half their plate for it, and dousing it liberally with the drawn butter.  When the tray came to me, I took just enough fish to be polite.  The truth is that, despite my heritage and family tradition, I have never liked it. And yet this time, I began to understand the appeal.

Yes, it can be kind of disgusting to look at – translucent and gelatinous almost to the point of slimy – and the smell has been unfavorably compared to wallpaper glue.  But when done right, it can be tasty.  The truth is that the actual taste itself is very mild.  Cod, after all, is not a strongly flavored fish, and the preservation process takes even more out of it. For the first time, I really understood what my grandfather meant when he called it good fish, year after year.  It is good because it is an enduring tradition.  This meal was a reminder of every other Lutefisk Dinner – from big social gatherings like this to more intimate Christmas gatherings with the family.  It is a tradition that always speaks to goods times and celebrations of the things that really matter.

I’ve had Lutefisk several times before and since, but I’ve never had a meal that has helped me understand people more.  I don’t know that I will ever like it , but I do know that there is something about sitting down to a tradition that makes for an incomparable experience, and one that I am not ready to let go anytime soon.

Valentine’s Day Blogger Round Robin

This year, we’re spreading the love around a little bit on the blog-o-sphere.  Friend and local market expert, Karen of Markets of New York City rounded up some of her blogger colleagues, including me, to co-post our write-ups for Valentine’s Day.  Here are the links below to connect with some other great writers and hopefully discover some new favorites to follow!

Andrea Davis: Pure Food Nutrition: Valentine’s Day Chocolate: Good & Good for You?
The Bitchy Waiter:  Fuck Cupid
Brooklyn Flea:  You Gotta Have Heart
The Experimental Gourmand: :  Valentine’s Day Special Dinner
Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market  A Blog Affair to Remember  

Kumquat Cupcakery:  My Messy Pink Kitchen  

Markets of New York City :  Love is in the Air: Three Great Valentine’s Dates at the Markets

Metalicious Jewelry:  Well Hello February