I have to start with the chair, because it was green, so bright green, and it greeted me with such gusto and verve as I entered my Greenbrier room and began acclimating to the hyperactive wallpaper (which I obviously had the chair as hostesses to) somehow reassuring me that the week I would spend there would end up being one filled with learning and good food and it would all begin with this rolling fit of laughter as I got to know and love this green chair, my green chair that I’d sorely miss.
I went to the Greenbrier Inn last week to attend the Symposium for Professional Food Writers. I had been chosen as a finalist for the James Peterson Food Writing Passion Scholarship and arrived with every arrogant intention of launching my career into high gear. But just as soon as I arrived and started attending the talks, I realized I may need to tinker with a thing or two before hitting the best seller list. For starters, a lot of talk revolved around the ever-changing blogosphere and I quickly questioned my tactics on this venue. Paired with the blog talk was the word “platform”, which got thrown around a lot: building one, having one, nurturing one, engaging with one. Platform is who you are as a writer and how you sell yourself as one. Logic has never been a forte for me but I soon realized that without any scheduled appearances on Oprah or any best selling books my platform = my blog = you guys.
Sitting on my green chair after many grueling sessions loaded with information and self-discovery, I munched on tangy orangettes (provided by the Greenbrier as a welcome snack), I knew I had to improve my platform by revising my blog and making it interactive. Extremely. Interactive. I love posting my thoughts, but this whole set up has become quite lonely. I need you guys to help me out. Which means, you don’t have to get out of your green chair (or rocker, or car, or Starbucks, or wherever the warped sensed of curiosity strikes you to view Culinary Compulsion) but it certainly would be fabulous to have you participate a bit.
It’s kind of hard not to bond with a bunch of food writers when you are spending a whole week nestled in the hills of West Virginia in a gargantuan relic of a hotel nicknamed “Old White.” We’d cruise down abandoned corridors luxuriously decorated by the legendary Dorothy Draper (rumor has it our group of 45 where the only occupants in the 800+ rooms hotel), devising plans to film the remake of The Shinning here (picture twins and tricycles).
And, in between sessions about platforms, blogs, and publishing, we’d eat. Floating from meal to meal we’d sit at tables littered with an endless supply of (opened) wine bottles, and talk food, politics, and life.
I could send out a big thanks to absolutely everyone for that intense 4-day experience, but particularly to Steve Dolinsky, Chicago’s “Hungry Hound” for ABC News who taught us about the art of brevity (key to any good writer.) Don Fry, speaker and writing coach who seemed to subsist on an endless supply of Tab (neatly lined up for his consumption) claimed that he lacked social skills but went on to teach and dazzle about the art of finding your writing voice. He proudly sports several, one of which can be enjoyed on his blog. Check it out and then let me know.
Let me know.
Let me know.
(Remember the word platform.)
Michael Ruhlan, author of a ton of interesting books (Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft For Every Kitchen and The Soul of a Chef: The Pursuit of Perfection, to name a few) was one of the guest speakers. One would be tempted to easily get lost in the piercing blue eyes of this tall, tanned man with lightly tossed wheat blonde hair and a relaxed aura until he opens his mouth and you forget about all that and are quickly transfixed in his cool, calm, and level-headed advice on publishing, blogging and marketing: words that seemed to evaporate from his skin and readily be absorbed by the attendees. One session consisted of Michael and Russ Parsons, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, sitting on their own set of bright green chairs and casually chatting to each other about the writing process. It was Food Writing Porn: we sat perched on the edge of our seats in this scrumptous moment of voyeurism: two food writing greats to be savored fully and quietly.
Other speakers shared their personal publishing journeys. Andrea Nyguan used her experiences from her new dumpling book to emphasize platform and inevitably left my stomach growling each time. I slipped her a card in the hopes she’d consider me as a taste tester on her next book! Ann Taylor Pittman, editor of Cooking Light, and Martha Holmberg, from The Oregonian Food Magazine talked about demystifying the query letter while literary agent Judith Weber and editors Sydny Miner and Bill LeBlond where there to beg us to never send book proposals in a pretty binder. Never. Ever.
And then there was Andrew Schloss, simply known as Andy, whose sheer energy force would serve as enough inspiration (who else sleeps two hours, volunteers to hosts extra sessions, and bike rides?) Andy was the alloted money man and by the end of the conference his name had turned into a verb: to schloss something means to make it profitable. By day four we were all transforming our writing from the tiny baby we nourish and cradle and love to a product for sale worthy of big bucks; worthy of schlossing. I think I fell in love with Andy’s advice when he announced he doesn’t believe in the word “rejection” when talking about query letters and book proposals. Like in the film Jerry Maguire when the teary-eyed vulnerable chic claims ‘you had me at hello’, Andy got me with his rejection of the word rejection. His alternative word, “pass” feels much better. As he explains it, your proposal or query letter is merely a venue to sell a product and if an editor sends you a rejection letter, he or she is merely sending you a “pass” on your product and you must just go on and sell that product elsewhere. Clean. Simple. No tears or bleeding heart or even extra tequila shots necessary. Just a sale that didn’t take place yet. I dig this. I dig this a lot. And so I begged Andy to shrink to the size of a small African grey parrot so I could place him on my shoulder to whisper such advice on those dark and gloomy lonely days as a writer, but the shrink bit didn’t fly with him, he seems to be a man of his own agenda, so I look forward to the advice continuing in other venues, if not off my shoulder.
Of course the Symposium was bombarded with food. Although it was not running at full capacity (a sidekick of the recession), the kitchen is large and worthy of its reputation, with apprentices competing to attending two-year stints. The pressure was on for these folks hosting a bunch of food writers. One day a group of us were invited on a kitchen tour. As we wandered the underground tunnels that run alongside the famed hidden bunker (built by the U.S. government as a fallout shelter for the members of Congress during the Cold War) I tried to envision this place 100 years ago, in its fullest glory, filled to the brim with chefs and food and orders, a constant buzz of energy and cuisine.
Dishes ranged from Southern Classic (country grits) to Southern Classic with a Twist (lobster burgers with a slab of foie gras) and even jumped away from American cooking and into the futurist high-cuisine coined “molecular gastronomy” inspired by the famed Spanish chef of El Bulli restaurant, Ferran Adria.
Some attendees where generous enough to bring food. Barbara Sharon, the Big Yummy Gooey Lunch Box Cookie Lady scattered brightly striped lunch boxes filled with samples of her baked goods such as Mocha Chews and Oatmeal Raisin. Her sister, Linda Sendowski, came bearing colorful tales of their Sephardic Jewish upbringing highlighted with culinary proof housed in tiny silver boxes bearing two cheese bourekas up to par with those served by my Great Doda Rachel in Jerusalem (it made all the painful cheek-pinching from mothball-smelling relatives that I endured as a child all the worthwhile). Then there was Mark Bitterman, simply known as “The Salt Guy”, and rightly so. I’ve never met someone so passionate and knowledgeable about salts and I’ll tell you now, such enthusiasm is dangerously contageous. Mark set up a salt tasting for us using only tidbits of buttered bread, thin slivers of cucumber and the salts from his Portland store, The Meadow. My palate learned of salts from Iceland, Japan, Australia, France and the Himalayas, and after those two hours I came out of there never looking at salt the same way.
Varieties and usage are endless and the flavors vary as well. Did you know that the Japanese have a salt extracted from seaweed and then smoked? Man, that stuff is hauntingly good! Check Mark’s store out and change your salt attitude for the better. Then come back and tell me about it.
Of course, guiding us through this entire electric creative process was the ever-calm and ethereal presence of Antonia Allegra, the Symposium’s director, simply known at “Toni.” Toni made it a point of welcoming each and every one of us with a warm and genuine embrace and constantly nourished both first-time attendees and old-timers alike. Everyone gravitates towards Toni, and, spend five minutes with her and you’ll quickly know why. She is calm and graceful yet matronly and nuts-and-bolts about everything; offering a safe-haven for writers to replenish and nourish while extending a practical venue to equipt oneself with the tools to thrive in the trying career as a food writer. So I got this idea while munching on my orangettes:
I think I’m gonna shake things up around here, give you foks the opportunity to be more participatory, because, I am told, that is what blogs are all about. And I promise not to ramble on like this again. I am just beyond myself with information from my week at the Greenbrier and am banking on your goodwill to use this venue to spew thoughts out.
Summer is at our doorstep so I am thinking of tackling fruits and veggies head on. I suggest a series on these and invite you to join in on the conversation: share a memory or recipe or delicious link. If you’d like to see a topic covered, please do tell.
Oh, and if you see a bunch of Spanish stuff you may not understand, don’t panic, I’m not keeping a culinary secret from you. I’m just trying to follow advice first given to me by my Spanish brother-in-law and reconfirmed by a new Greenbrier friend, Kris Rudolph, owner of La Cocina cooking school in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico), both of whom adamantly insisted I open up my thoughts and recipes to my Spanish-speaking friends. Asi que, bienvenidos, empezaremos pronto con compulsiones en español!
So there you have it, a week filled with inspiration and growth! I look forward to our culinary conversations!
A welcome gift at the Greenbrier, these snacks launched a tasty week.
1 large navel orange
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup chopped semisweet chocolate
Using a peeler, cut 3-inch long, 3/4-inch wide strips of orange peel from the orange. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and simmer the orange peels for 10 minutes. Drain the peels, rinse them with cold water, and boil them in fresh water for an additional 10 minutes; repeat this process 1 more time.
Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan and stir occasionally until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has reduced in volume just a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the orange peels and continue simmering the mixture for 15 minutes. Transfer the candied orange peel to a wire drying rack and allow it to sit undisturbed for 45 minutes.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water, and stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Dip the 2/3 of the length of each candied orange strip in the chocolate, leaving 1/3 of the peel exposed, and place it on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Allow the chocolate to set before serving.