Seeing Culinary Stars At Wesleyan FOODSTOCK

Here’s the thing about seeing some of your food heroes in person: It’s simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

On Saturday morning, I found myself in the third row of Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall with sister-in-food Amy, when a trademark tangle of dark hair entered stage right. It was Ruth Reichl, she of the world-famous memoirs, piles of writing awards (including 6 Beard Foundation nods) and storied career as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and editor of Gourmet magazine. Not to mention her Twitter account, full of evocative, lilting, haiku-like pearls that spawned a brilliant parody.

Ruth Reichl and WNPR's Faith Middleton

Reichl and several food stars were on hand for Wesleyan’s FOODSTOCK conference, a celebration of “books and cooks” bringing together local and national culinary figures and passionate food lovers.

During a 45-minute moderated Q&A session with WNPR’s Faith Middleton, Reichl discussed her career path, food politics and ethics, her latest project (a novel – something she said she found much tougher than nonfiction writing) and the changes in food that correspond with the economy.

Among Reichl’s most interesting responses, when asked by Middleton if restaurants had become “the primal scene of modern life”:

“That’s exactly the attitude that made me stop being a restaurant critic and go to Gourmet,” she said. “…The moment where we’re spending all of our private time in public spaces, we have lost something really important. When you invite someone into your home, it’s an intimate act. You’re becoming vulnerable in a way that you never are in a restaurant. Restaurants are safe…I think there’s something so important about having people to your home…I think it’s one of the real problems of modern life. We’ve lost some of that intimacy. I hate it. I really wanted to encourage people to start cooking and stop spending all their time in restaurants.”

Next up was New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, who was easily my favorite speaker of the day. If anyone had license to be snobby about wine, it would be the authority such as himself, writing for the national paper of record. But he couldn’t have been more refreshingly laid-back and nonchalant about his job and his body of knowledge.

“We’ve focused entirely too much on the issue and mechanics of tasting. It almost seems as if the whole discussion of wine is taken from the methods of professional tasters…these elements are all completely unnecessary to ordinary consumption and enjoyment of wine. It disturbs me that it comes immediately to mind when we think about wine at all,” he said.

Asimov with Faith Middleton

Asimov noted that the New York Times pays for all the wines tasted (they don’t depend on receiving free samples from the industry; they don’t want to be obliged to anyone to write anything.) It also serves for a better sampling of coverage – they’ll taste a cross-section of wines that will be available to consumers in stores, rather than what’s sent to them.

He also advised the audience not to be afraid to enlist the help of a restaurant sommelier, informing them of a budget and asking for suggestions. “Most of the time, you’re going to come up with something that’s good and surprising and pleasing,” he said.

I’ve come across quite a bit of pretension and condescension among wine professionals in the time I’ve been doing this kind of work. It’s unfortunate, and intimidating. I wish more people took the same approach as Asimov, because we’d have a whole new population of wine lovers much more comfortable with their tastes and preferences.

Lunchtime was a jungle of food trucks – and long, long lines…

Munchies Food Truck, based in New London

Long lines at Lucky Taco, based in the Hartford area

I went with this creamy-sweet-tangy-gluttonous-holy-crap-delicious Brie and bacon marmalade blend from Whey Station, a Middletown-based grilled cheese truck.

(I took this pic while balancing a glass bottle of soda. Don’t ever let anyone tell you multimedia journalists aren’t multi-talented.)

The first post-lunch session, a writing seminar with Molly O’Neill, was accompanied by a handout with the title “So you want to be a food writer HAHAHA.” (Nothing I haven’t heard before.)

She counseled attendees to secure a “really good ‘B’ job” for financial security while pursuing the food writing avenue. I refrained from raising my hand to ask if journalism was considered a good “B” job.

But sobering economic reality aside, the following session, “The Business of Food,” reminded me of just why I love being a journalist.

During the hour, I got to hear the stories of Kashia Cave, a Trinidad-born chef who heads up My City Kitchen, a nonprofit cooking school and culinary education center. Then learned even more about the exciting backgrounds of Branford restaurateurs Arturo and Suzette Franco-Camacho -  I’ve interviewed them several times but never knew that Suzette worked for Disney, or that Arturo cooked in Maui, Madrid and Japan. And fourth panelist Josh Goldin of Alliance Consumer Growth, a company that invests in food and beverage products, sheepishly admitted that his firm passed on Zico coconut water.

There were sessions I missed (as a longtime Roadfood fan, would have loved to hear Jane Stern’s presentation) but I suppose that’s a hallmark of a solid event. Too much good stuff going on at once.

I’m already crossing my fingers Wesleyan will host FOODSTOCK or something like it next year. Beyond the huge-name speakers and fascinating discussions, the campus was beautiful, the event was well-organized and the student volunteers were incredibly helpful and eager to please.  I drove home from Middletown inspired, re-energized, grateful for my career opportunities thus far and motivated to emulate my food-writing idols (and of course tickled that I’d been in such close company.)

Epilogue: On the way out, Amy and I snagged cupcakes from NoRA for our respective other halves, and I’m here to tell you that you need to get yourself there post-haste to try the Irish Car Bomb. Chocolate stout cake, Jameson-laced dark chocolate ganache and Bailey’s frosting. Trust – this Irish girl will not steer you wrong.


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