Report from Iowa City
Food writing conference offers a feast for all the senses
Imagine leaving South Bend on a sunny autumn morning to drive to Iowa City to attend a food writers’ conference. Now add this: A new friend, hours of engrossing storytelling, bouts of ridiculous humor and Katie’s flourless oatmeal dark chocolate chip peanut butter cookies. Our trip to Eating Words: The Edible Institute Food Writing Conference was already rewarding and we weren’t even there yet.
We headed west on the first Friday of October, a beautiful time in the Midwest. In the October light, the rolling hills of Iowa, dotted with barns and silos and tattooed with wavy parallel lines of dry brown corn and swaths of gold-green soybeans, were as poetic as the vineyards of Bordeaux.
After we checked in to the downtown Sheraton on Friday night, met many of the other 100+ Eating Words attendees and chatted with our own Edible Michiana editor, Maya Parson, we went out to dinner. At everyone’s recommendation, we headed for Devotay, the downtown restaurant of the local food power duo Kurt and Kim Friese, who are the publishers of Edible Iowa River Valley and co-organizers of this first Eating Words conference. Although all the food and drink at Devotay was delicious, and their flourless chocolate cake rendered us both first mute and then laughing with pleasure, the golden beet and tomato salad, topped with Sweet Pea sorbet, was the real standout.
Molly: Sweet pea sorbet: as much fun to eat as it is to say. It’s like a sly and clever gustatory joke: the common frozen pea elevated to high art with a genre-bending simple twist of technique that confounds expectations. Instead of sorbet’s usual sweet but tart remarks, it whispered serenely of green fields and healthy pleasures.
I asked Devon Friese, the owner’s son and bartender, “What is in this?”
He cocked his head to one side, considered, and then said, “I think just sweet peas and water. Maybe a little lemon juice?”
My word, it was good. So good that, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, I’m sitting here writing and remembering, and enjoying the granular, melting greenness of it all over again.
Katie: Saturday morning, I woke early to tour the Iowa City Farmers Market with a small herd of other morning people from the conference. There I met the inspiring Trisha Hughes, a food photographer from Omaha and blogger of EatYourBeets.com. We walked around the market together, photographing the artfully stacked carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips and more. We sampled locally made raw chocolate from The Raw Chocolate Man, who uses honey instead of refined sugar in his artisan chocolate bars, and we sipped a fancy cup of joe from Brass Ring Coffee before heading back to the conference.
Molly: Although defiantly not a morning person (I know, it’s definitely, but if you knew me … ) I did straggle down to the market in time to be awed by its bustle and its bounty, and to enjoy a local hen-of-the-woods mushroom, goat cheese and chive omelet. I had myself some of that coffee, too. Iowa City can certainly be proud of their Saturday farmers market!
Katie: The Saturday keynote speaker was Brian Halweil, editor of four Edibles in and around New York City, a sustainable food writer and activist and a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. In his talk, he addressed the challenges and opportunities of digital versus print media. Halweil assured us that print is not dead, but content strategy for both digital and print must evolve. He reminded us, “If it doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t work.” And he showed compelling data on the popularity of stories that offer the reader something to do, like mapped ice cream tours to follow on foot and lots of links to follow from your chair.
Katie: During lunch hosted by Iowa’s own Frontier Co-op, Clint Landis, the company’s chief sales and marketing officer, spoke of the co-op’s history and sustainable mission and vision. He described the stellar work environment for employees, with subsidized childcare and an organic cafeteria, and the Well Earth Program, which assists small sustainable farmers across the globe by digging wells and providing schools for rural farm workers’ children. After his presentation, I was ready to move to Iowa and join the team. Alas, they’re not hiring, neither in marketing nor public relations. Probably nobody ever quits.
Molly: As a longtime fan and customer of Frontier, I asked Clint Landis for the table decoration, a jar of their Simply Organic Vietnamese cinnamon. I get to save it as a memento, since I can buy Frontier herbs and spices and teas at our local food co-op, the Purple Porch.
From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, the Eating Words presenters came at the subject of writing about food from many angles. We listened to Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian, who founded Edible Communities. We heard from and workshopped with memoirists, bloggers, cookbook writers, photographers and local food magazine publishers.
Sunday morning’s speaker, Barry Estabrook, whose work encompasses most of the aforementioned genres, displayed a huge graphic behind him as he spoke, which read, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” An award-winning food writer, Estabrook’s work as an investigative journalist helped mitigate the plight of the Florida tomato workers. You can read about it in Tomatoland and watch the documentary Food Chains, which is based on his work.
I bought Estabrook’s latest book, Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Guide to Sustainable Meat, and will read it as soon as I finish Poor Man’s Feast, the memoir by food writer and blogger Elissa Altman, whose breakout session on memoir writing was terrifically informative and entertaining—she is my new writing hero!
Katie: I was most inspired by the actionable matter-of-fact presentations led by writer, editor and recipe developer Joy Manning, author of Almost Meatless. The message presented in her session “The Art of the Interview” outlined practical steps to listening well and telling a story effectively. One of Manning’s most compelling suggestions for planning an interview was to arrange a ride-along to really become a part of the story. Step into the everyday activities of the person you are interviewing. Learn to milk a cow. Tag along on a produce delivery route. Get into the kitchen and watch as a chef prepares dinner.
Our own editor Maya Parson took us out to lunch on Sunday, at Short’s Burger and Shine. Short’s serves local beef, Iowa craft beer and their own whiskey. Over burgers and iced tea, we played it cool as we discussed many of the writing and storytelling ideas we could bring home to Edible Michiana. And, on the walk back to the conference, Maya asked us to write about our experience for Edible’s website. We said we’d think about it.
Not really. We said “Yes!”
Molly: Sunday afternoon as Katie and I headed back to South Bend, she pulled out Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast to read aloud as I drove homeward. As a native New Yorker, Altman has enjoyed lifelong access to foods of the world, so before long Katie quit trying to sound out the difficult words and just Googled the pronunciations and definitions of food words from foreign tongues. Lest you think either Katie or I are either callow or not well-read, here is a partial list of what we were up against: epoisses, Teleggio, Larousse Gastronomique and miroton. And that was just the first chapter.
Switching off behind the wheel, we read to each other through sundown and beyond. Katie’s cookies gone the way of all cookies, we moved on to my local Honeycrisp apples and non-local walnuts.
“I wonder where walnuts come from,” I mused.
“Walmart,” said Katie, without hesitation. “Definitely.”