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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.

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