big traveling potluck btp1

Discovery Wednesday

1 May 2013

My blogging life is usually just me and my glowing laptop screen in the 2 a.m. darkness. This weekend was a happy change. I left my computer at home (which caused me even more separation anxiety than leaving my kids) to attend The Big Potluck, a community-oriented gathering of food bloggers in sunny southern California.

At first it was like attending someone else’s reunion – many people knew each other or came with friends – but I soon found that food bloggers deserve their reputation as a warm and welcoming bunch. Writing is a solitary activity, but this was a generous crowd that celebrates good company as much as good food. This weekend had both in abundance.

The Big Summer Potluck was created three years ago by Pam Anderson, bestselling cookbook writer formerly of Cooks Illustrated magazine, her daughter Maggy, who with her mom blogs at Three Many Cooks, and their friend Erika of Ivory Hut. This weekend’s gathering of 75 bloggers in Murrieta, CA, dubbed The Big Traveling Potluck, was their first event outside the Andersons’ home turf of Bucks County, PA.

When an event is planned with care and good intent – whether it be a party, a wedding, a reunion, or a conference – it’s an entirely different experience than events planned primarily with logistics in mind. Though the logistics of this weekend were flawless – the food, the incredible hilltop settings, the thoughtful agenda – the really amazing thing about the conference was the atmosphere. No business cards were exchanged, or rehearsed elevator speeches. People talked much more about who they are than what they do.

That kind of environment doesn’t happen naturally – it comes from a warm, honest tone, set from the top, that allows everyone below to relax and disarm. Huge props to Pam, Maggy and Erika for creating such a safe haven.

And now for my discoveries…

A smart map app

How did I live without Waze, a mobile phone app that provides real-time, traffic-informed navigation? Not just a map, Waze tells you based on current conditions, the fastest way to get from A to B. Waze gets its information, including drive times, traffic accidents and roadwork, from its user base (34 million at the end of 2012 and growing rapidly). Waze also tells you where the cops are, where the closest gas stations are and what the price per gallon is at each one.

Created by an Israeli company, Waze won the Best Overall Mobile App award at the 2013 Mobile World Congress. Currently it covers the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Israel, among others. I’m sure all my LA friends are all way ahead of me on this one.

Avocados and snickerdoodles

Between a guacamole contest, an avocado-themed dinner (featured in appetizer, main course and dessert!), as well as fresh avocado piled on toast for brunch, we ate a pretty mindblowing quantity of avocados this weekend. It’s prime avocado season, and we were fortunate to have the California Avocado Commission as the major conference sponsor. With all their buttery deliciousness, avocados made everyone happy – the vegetarians, the vegans, the gluten-frees, the paleos and of course the run-of-the-mill omnivores like me.

We also toured an avocado grove belonging to our hosts (yes, avocados are a fruit that grows on trees), and learned a few things:

  • California produces 90% of the nation’s avocados, grown mostly by small family growers with average grove size of 10 acres. 60% of California’s avocados are grown in San Diego County alone.
  • A single avocado tree produces 150 avocados a year on average but can produce up to 500.
  • Avocados self-pollinate, with flowers opening as male one day and female the next. Don’t ask me how this works.
  • Avocados never ripen on the tree. The ripening process only begins after they are picked or drop naturally.

The lesson from the guacamole contest: you can add pretty much anything to guacamole – lemon or lime, onions or garlic, goat cheese, mangoes, bacon – and it’s still divine.

(And for the avocado-obsessed, Gaby Dalkin of What’s Gaby Cooking just came out with an all-avocado cookbook, beautifully photographed by Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites. Try the goat cheese guacamole recipe at Weelicious.)

I’ve had a snickerdoodle aversion ever since my friend Lisa and I made a giant batch of cookies in second grade and ate them until our tummies ached. But I got over it this weekend thanks to snickerdoodle bread from Barbara Bakes (a moist buttery cake with cinnamon chips) and snickerdoodle blondies from Recipe Girl (dense, cinnamony and butterscotchy). Both are sure to be family favorites.

Baked goods would have been easier to transport to the potluck, but I took the unsexy route and brought a giant slaw-salad as well as three heads’ worth of roasted cauliflower. I checked a bag on the plane just so I could bring my balsamic vinaigrette. What can I say? I am a hopeless vegetable evangelist.

Let food be thy medicine

This weekend I found a number of food bloggers driven by personal experience to share the power of food in health. The radiant Carrie Vitt of Deliciously Organic overcame daily migraines and a thyroid condition through changes in her diet. Jessica at Sodium Girl brought herself back from the brink of kidney failure.

Even our avocado-growing host developed his love of the rich fruit in part because of the major role avocados play in his son’s ketogenic diet, a high-fat, low-carb therapeutic diet that significantly reduces seizures for people with related disorders.

We are what we eat; no joke.

Boston Marathon

Some of the kindest people I met this weekend hailed from Salt Lake City, including Barbara Bakes (of the snickerdoodle bread) and Dara of the wonderful Cookin’ Canuck. Dara and her family were in Boston for this year’s tragic marathon, and she recently wrote her moving firsthand account of the fateful day.

The Boston tragedy brought to mind a 2009 TEDTalk by Dean Kamen, founder of Segway, about a robotic prosthetic arm his team has been developing with the Defense Department to help veterans. It is an incredible, inspiring 20-minute story about using the skills we have to help others – DARPA twisted Kamen’s arm to take on the challenge – and Kamen delivers it brilliantly. You can watch the talk online or download the audio to iTunes. Here’s to hoping the technology can also help the amputees of Boston.

Scarves for good

A highlight of the weekend’s gathering, not related at all to food, was a talk by Barrett Ward, founder of fashionABLE, a Nashville-based organization that takes women out of sex exploitation in Ethiopia and trains them for a career weaving gorgeous scarves out of pure cotton.

As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in their bestselling book, Half the Sky, putting money in the hands of women in the developing world benefits children, families and society as a whole. (Whereas putting money in the hands of men too often goes to alcohol or gambling. Sorry guys, but it’s true.)

Barrett and his wife also have two adopted girls from Ethiopia, one of whom was in an orphanage until age 5. Barrett strongly recommends The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis as an invaluable resource for guiding such a transition, and I’m getting it immediately for friends of mine that just adopted two boys from Haiti.

If you hurry, a fashionABLE scarf would make a fantastic Mother’s Day gift. The scarves, the most intricate of which take three days to weave, start at $32. And I’ll remind us all again at Christmas.

Fun posters

I just bought this reproduction of a 1917 poster, which showcases one of many messages put out by the US Food Administration during the food shortages of World War I. The retro design is fun, but the timeless message is also perfect for my kitchen:

food
1 – buy it with thought
2 – cook it with care
3 – use less wheat & meat
4 – buy local foods
5 – serve just enough
6 – use what is left
don’t waste it

This poster, which reads, “Ma’am, STEP AWAY from the computer” is one my family would buy for me if they knew about it. From a letterpress studio in Amsterdam, I love the font design. And of course the message is pretty great too.

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