For the first time ever, Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT hosted a brand-new (and free!) event called Foodstock. Take one look at the list of speakers and you’ll see why I was so excited to attend – and learn.
You also may notice that this event took place back on Saturday 5/5…oops. That was right around the time of my Fitfluential adventures, and life has been go-go-go since that week, so I haven’t had a chance to share my Foodstock experience! But despite the fact that it’s been over a month since that educational day, I want to write about this because I left campus feeling truly thankful to Wesleyan for putting on the kind of event I never dreamed I’d be able to attend after just a fairly short car ride.
I attended with Bethany of More Fruit Please (she lives about 5 minutes from me!) and we arrived just in time to catch WNPR’s Faith Middleton interviewing Ruth Reichl, the highly accomplished Editorial Adviser to Gilt Taste (and former food critic and Gourmet Magazine Editor-in-Chief). She’s also written four memoirs, which have gone on my Goodreads to-read list, of course. Despite the fact that I am an NPR fanatic as of this past winter, I had never listened to Faith’s show before. I really loved her conversational, laid-back interview style and the way she carried herself, with such confidence, grace, and intelligence. She and Ruth discussed the great inequality that exists between classes in America when it comes to the way people eat. A story was told of a woman Ruth knew who lived on food stamps for a period to see what it was like, and reached a point at which she was crying in the middle of the grocery store, weighing a sweet potato and realizing that despite the fact that her body was craving its nutrients, she simply did not have enough money to buy it. I don’t remember everything Faith and Ruth talked about, but I certainly remember that.
Next, Faith interviewed Eric Asimov, chief wine critic at The New York Times (and a Wesleyan alum). This was one of my favorite sessions of the whole day (hello, wino). Eric has such a passion for wines and a lot of his conversation with Faith resonated with me. I wanted to just jump on stage and join in! He spoke of local neighborhood wine shops and losing them and the associated experience to the big box liquor stores (hello, I love you, Sonoma), and savoring wine and food pairings, and how some people out there are way too snobby about wine and scare others away from drinking it and trying different kinds.
Luckily, I got the chance to speak with Eric about all this after the interview wrapped up! I also was able to walk up to the stage after the session’s end and shake Faith’s hand. She has a whole show about food called Food Schmooze and is even hosting a Martini Competition at the end of this month! It looks like an amazing event, with tons of CT restaurants and their mixologists participating. I like how there is a lower price for DDs!
Some of the students on the planning committee thanked us for coming before we broke into our “lunch break”. There was a designated period during which no sessions were running, so that local vendors and food trucks could serve up lunch and patrons wouldn’t have to worry about missing any speakers. Bethany made the local vendors gathered in Wesleyan’s student union, Usdan, our first stop.
I sampled some of the olive oils on bread and purchased a baby bottle of the garlic-infused flavor, of course!
Sticky Nuts were there. As in an edible kind. Is it sad that I didn’t get the innuendo behind this company’s name until Rachel responded to something I tweeted from the event about them? I was a bit afraid of what would happen when I Googled them just now to get their website’s link.
There was the smallest farmers’ market in the world going on outside the student union (I believe it was an awkward between-spring-and-summer-season weekend), but there were still a few troopers out there.
In one of the campus parking lots nearby, a bunch of food trucks had gathered – it was such a cool concept, like mixing a food truck fest into a food learning fest! Hmm..what to choose?
I was having a hard time deciding between the Ethiopian food (above) that I’d never tried before, and the famous falafel (a food I already know and love) of Mamoun’s that I’d heard so much about. I ended up going with a falafel pita, and Bethany got a gyro after The Whey Station line proved to be moving too slowly. Oh man it was amazing – the best falafel I’ve ever had! Bethany put together the below “montage” for me 🙂
Bethany enjoyed her gyro as well!
Totally dripped tzatziki sauce on my $13 Wal-Mart shoes while waiting for the next session to begin – fail! Good thing they were, well, $13 from Wal-Mart. Oh, the shopping I did at 1AM at the 24 hour location near campus in my UConn days.
Bethany decided to attend a different session than I did after lunch, so we parted ways and I sat in on a lecture/Q&A called “Writing So They Can Taste It” (do you see why this one jumped out at me?) with Molly O’Neill, a food writer and online food writing instructor. Molly’s sassy personality and to-the-point advice made the session so rewarding to me. I raised my hand and commented that I feel like I use the same adjectives over and over again when I’m blogging about restaurants, events, and meals. Molly laughed and said she’d heard that before – and that I’m right, I need to stop using adjectives like “delicious”. I so wish I had the extra cash to spend on some of Molly’s virtual courses – or in my dream land, cash to spend and vacation time to use on Cook n Scribble’s retreat to Alaska.
Molly passed out a handout titled “Why Write About Food?”, which listed quotes that answered that very question. Some of my favorites:
- “‘What’s good to eat around here?’ tends to go over better than ‘Had any good sex lately?'” – Matthew Amster-Burton
- “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star.” – Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (um, I agree)
- “Food makes it possible to tell stories that can be difficult to tell (especially family ones).” – Anne Bramley
- “You can write about anything while appearing to write about food. You can change the world…” – Molly O’Neill herself
- “I feel powerless when I read most stories about the environment and politics and the economy, but when these subjects are framed by food, they still touch a raw nerve, but they can leave me energized and convinced that I can make a significant contribution.” – Simona Carini
Her lecture was extremely helpful and had several main messages:
- It’s essentially not possible to make a living as a food writer right now, so if you’re going into it, be prepared to do something else as well. Be prepared to keep trying, to get rejected a LOT, and to constantly have to put effort in to even make a partial career of it. (May seem bleak, but I like her honesty.)
- The world of new media (blogs, Twitter, etc) creates amazing opportunities and outlets for food writing. But again, the revenue is the problem. It works as a hobby, and is nearly impossible as a full-time career.
- All food writers had to work another job to start. A lot of them still do. Accept that you will have to! And try to make the other job(s) somehow useful toward the food writing career, even if they give you something as nearly-unrelated as negotiating skills or plenty of free corporate lunches at fabulous restaurants 😉
After Molly’s wonderful presentation, I met up with Bethany again back in the student union to learn about The Business of Food from people who have made food their business, but in different ways.
- Kashia Cave founded My City Kitchen and even brought two of her students with her that day. She started out as a businesswoman, and still is, though she ended up creating a non-profit organization due to financial constraints. Her aim is to help kids learn healthy eating habits, channel creativity through cooking, and take pride in the food they eat.
- Arturo and Suzette Franco-Carmacho ran restaurants in New Haven and currently run Tacuba Taco Bar and Swill Wine Bar, both located in Branford, CT.
- Josh Goldin, a Wesleyan alum, co-founded Alliance Consumer Growth. This investor group finances healthy food and drink products from aspiring vendors, like the ones I’d spoken with earlier that day and the ones at CT Veg Fest.
I can’t imagine being a restaurant owner, let alone being one with my husband! Suzette had some stories to tell and insights to share on being parents and running a restaurant. Imagine explaining to your daughter that a day in NYC for her birthday likely wouldn’t work because it’d have to be on a Saturday, due to school, and the restaurant just cannot be left on those kinds of days. These are the little things that we as consumers do not see! Josh’s job sounds so interesting to me. I’d love to help passionate people that just want to spread their healthy products to others, like the folks I spoke with at the Coventry Farmers’ Market and CT Veg Fest. Of course Josh also has to look for those who can make a profit, but it’s hard to make that balanced call. For example, his company passed on Zico! Oops! They’ve still had success with Plum Organics and Evol, both of which I’ve heard of (except Evol’s burrito was listed as the “not that” in Women’s Health’s “Eat This, Not That” feature – oops again!)
As accomplished as all the above mentioned speakers are, I was honestly most impressed by Jacob Eichengreen, the manager of Wesleyan’s student-run cafe, Espwesso, and a current Wesleyan student.
The non-profit cafe is NOT run through Wesleyan Dining Services, and as a result the university does not allow them to be open during “peak” hours, so that all on-campus cafe needs are forced to be funneled into Wesleyan’s cafes. Therefore, Espwesso is only open from 6pm-12am, but they get packed! I can totally see myself studying there in the evenings during my college career.
For Foodstock, Espwesso was able to make a rare appearance in the world of daytime operations. I’m so very glad because that meant I got the chance to try a cup of their locally roasted drip coffee – for only $1! Since the labor is provided through work study, Espwesso can offer high quality coffee at a low price.
I asked for my coffee with a splash of steamed skim milk, and Jacob himself (acting barista for the day), happily provided me just that – except the milk was anything but “splashed” into the cup.
Beautiful! Espwesso trains all its baristas in the art of coffee-making. They all receive a coffee education and go through training and tutorials to foster a true appreciation for the drink.
Attendees of “The Laptop and the Coffee Cup” had the chance to receive a similar coffee education from Jacob; he used a modified version of the training Power Point shown to his new baristas.
Added bonus – he also set out two different kinds of coffee for taste testing/comparisons. I drank both black and it was honestly some of the best coffee I’d ever had. I couldn’t get over it and had to go back for more. This occasion called for the breaking of my one-cup-a-day rule.
I sat back and learned more than I ever thought possible in 45 minutes about my favorite bean (yes, I will declare coffee my favorite bean, even above the beloved black bean).
Just like all other food and drink, coffee seems to be LOADED with certifications and symbols. Some are legit, some are purely profit-driven. Just look at them all!
Did you know coffee is one of the most highly traded commodities in the world, right after oil? And that when coffee is decaffeinated, a LITTLE bit of the taste is sacrificed? But not so much that someone would really notice…and check out all the different stages of the coffee bean!!
A bit of a heated debate broke out after an attendee would not stop arguing against the points (good ones, in my opinion) Jacob made regarding why Espwesso doesn’t roast its own beans. I mean…they’re a student run cafe in the corner of an academic building, only allowed to be open 6 hours a day, opertaing on a limited budget and with a restricted amount of work study hours for staff. I’m not really sure why this man expected Espwesso to not only sell locally roasted coffee and improve coffee education among its employees and patrons, but also roast their own coffee and change much of their current operations to do so. I raised my hand several times during the exchange and defended Espwesso – I just wanted them to know how much I appreciate what they’re trying to do on the Wesleyan campus! I certainly think that a huge school like UConn could use a cafe like that. Trying to take on too much by adding coffee roasting would probably hurt the small cafe more than help. This entire session and discussion definitely made me miss my days as the assistant manager of a cafe at UConn.
Bethany and I met up after our last sessions (she’d attended “Writing the American Road”, about a couple that hit the road to tour restaurants and wrote about it) to walk back to our cars. It was a great day and I learned so much! I’m really grateful to Wesleyan for putting on Foodstock for free and educating CT residents on food writing, eating local, the business of food, coffee, and more!
Would you have been interested in attending any of these sessions?
Am I the only one who missed the innuendo behind the product name for Sticky Nuts?
Are you a Faith Middleton fan?