Friday, July 31, 2009

A Pre-Cursor to the eGullet Heartland Gathering

[Ed. Note: For the past three years I have attended a local(ish) annual gathering of fellow eGulleters who get together for food, fellowship, and fun. This year it's going to be in Kansas City and one of the organizers, Aaron D., asked if I would be willing to talk to a local reporter. Of course I agreed. Here is the email exchange that happened between the two of us.

This email was originally addressed to three of the attendees this year. I've changed just a few words so that it appears that it was only sent to me. Hopefully this will avoid any confusion. Names have also been shortened to protect the innocent.]

Hello Tom:

Aaron D. gave me your contact info because I'm preparing to hang out with you as you make your way through the KC food landscape. I'll be writing a magazine story. I'd be interested in getting a little information from you in advance, so I can get a sense for who some of you are and why you're so passionate about food that you'd make this annual trip. So....just tell me a bit about yourselves, your relationship to food and what you know or expect to find in Kansas City. Have you been here before?

I understand you have done all of the annual gatherings (true?): What keeps you coming back? What have you learned (about food, travel, specific locations?) in previous trips?

Anyway, I hope you're game for this. Looking forward to meeting you.

Steve Paul
Senior Writer and Arts Editor
The Kansas City Star

Steve –

What a pleasant surprise it is to meet you. When Aaron asked me if I'd be willing to talk a little bit about my past Heartland Gathering experiences, I truly felt honored. Before I go into your myriad of questions, I must first dispel the myth that I have been to all of the Heartland Gatherings that have been held: I have not. However, this will be my fourth annual gathering and I am just as excited about this one as I was about the first one I attended in Ann Arbor, MI.

A little bit of background about myself. I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH to study computer science. In fact, I hold a Bachelors of Science degree in Computer Science. With that degree, I've spent nearly my entire “real” career as a IT consultant and computer programmer. I do enjoy the technology side quite a bit and I suppose there will always be part of me that needs to geek out from time to time, but I have really gotten to a point in this career where I need something else to occupy my time, even if it is part-time and unpaid.

Back in 2006, I enrolled in the Western Reserve School of Cookery located in Hudson, OH. I've slowly progressed through their culinary program and I have one pastry class left before I finish their program. While I'll be the first to admit that the school is not even close to being as rigorous as an actual culinary school where you go full-time for 16 or 18 months, the WRSoC has allowed me to take the classes when I had the time to do so and when I could afford them.

As part of this transition period, I also started catering part-time, mostly small parties for friends. The largest party I've ever catered with just myself was a 50 person wedding reception. I was doing between 1 and 2 events per month while still holding down the day job as a computer programmer. This went on for a while until about mid-2008 when the economic downturn really started to grab hold of people's pocketbooks. Just like that everything catering related has seemed to dry up.

At first I was a little distressed about losing my outlet for being involved in food, but after reading a friend's food-related blog one day, I thought to myself that this might just be a nice way to use the right half of my brain to express my inner foodie. Honestly, when I started my blog, it really was just for me. I figured I'd get a handful of my foodie friends and maybe some family members following along. I started writing back in December 2008 and have continued with roughly 3 articles released per week about whatever strikes my fancy, most always food-related. Most of them are anonymous reviews of restaurants that I have eaten at or want to try, but there are a few cooking-related ones thrown in there as well. And you can be certain that I will be writing about my upcoming weekend in Kansas City. I'll include some links at the end of this in case you want to check it out (hopefully I'm not being too presumptuous).

As for eGullet, I joined back in January of 2006. At first I was a lurker, only reading what others had to say. My forte is breadmaking and that forum was where I started making comments, slowly at first. Even when you are a die hard foodie, you quickly realize that there are people even more hardcore than yourself, and the last thing you want to do is make a stupid or incorrect comment. So I played it safe for a while. When I saw that there was a planning thread for a Heartland Gathering to be held in Ann Arbor, MI in early August, I realized that 1) this would be a cool way to meet some actual people who had a similar interest and 2) no one had offered to bring any bread. So with only two weeks before the event, I stated my intentions and pledged to bring bread.

Interestingly enough, I was fine with this until the night before I was set to leave. I was in my kitchen making the breads I would be taking with me to Ann Arbor the next day and the sudden wave of realization washed over me: I was taking my pride and joy to a group of people with highly trained palates. What if they poo-poo'd it? I knew my bread was good, but was it good enough? At that point I had committed to going and half of the bread was already baked, so I figured I'd throw caution to the wind and just go for it. I'm so glad I did.

What I took away from that first gathering was a sense of community, of shared responsibility, of the love for doing things the slow way – the right way. The idea that if you take the time to get to know the farmer and the products he or she is offering and in season, your food will simply taste better. The idea that while it's enough for most people to throw flour, water, yeast and salt into their automatic bread maker and let the machine produce a loaf of fresh bread for them, if you take a little time and take the bread maker out of the equation, fresh bread can be elevated from nourishment for the body to nourishment for the soul. And these people understood that. It's as if I had been speaking a foreign language to everyone around me all of my life and for the first time, someone could speak back because they understood what I was saying.

What brings me back every year is not the expectation that everything I put in my mouth is going to be succulent and perfectly seasoned, but that people are making a concerted effort to be conscious about the food they are putting into their own bodies as well as the bodies of relatives and friends. The fact that I have made so many good “real” friends and not just ethereal Internet-based usernames just adds to my need to come back year after year. Kansas City is definitely the farthest I've traveled to go to an event, but even with me only being able to attend Saturday and Sunday's events, I am confident that I will find what I am looking for.

Unfortunately, I've never been to Kansas City. Even more unfortunately, given my limited time in Kansas City this weekend, I won't get to experience the Kansas City food experience that Aaron and Judy have worked so hard to prepare for everyone. Probably the furthest west I've been in the “Heartland” was St. Louis back in the mid-90's. Back then I was just a budding “foodie”. At the time I thought as I'm sure most people think, good food must mean expensive food. But, of course, over the years I've evolved to the point where I understand that a “foodie” can be just as happy eating the best cheeseburger in a 90 mile radius for $6 as well as doing the twenty-six course tasting menu (The Tour) at Alinea in Chicago and spending $300 to do it.

To address the “what have I learned” question you originally asked, and not to sound glib, but, pace yourself. Seriously. The dinner on Saturday actually begins with noshing much earlier in the day and you will continue to eat until about 9 or 10 pm. You will get to a point where you want to eat more, to try just one more taste, but the physical pain will finally make you want to cry, “Uncle!” On a more serious note, what I've learned from all three Heartland Gatherings I've attended (Ann Arbor, Cleveland, and Chicago) is that the camaraderie of cooking and sharing a meal together is the best way to bring people together and create a common bond. There are no racial, ethnic, sexist, or homophobic boundaries. We are all there as a group, doing what we all love to do.

I hope that my little diatribe has successfully answered some of your questions. If you have something specific you'd like me to talk about, please feel free to email me back and let me know.

While you are of course free to peruse any article on my blog, I've picked out a couple that I think are representative of my style and what I am trying to achieve.

Cocktail Nirvana at the Velvet Tango Room

Kismet Is a Thing of Beauty

Passover Seder, Pt. I

I think I strive to accomplish one thing in my writing: To tell a good story from a particular point of view. I'm fortunate that the blogging medium allows me to use both pictures and words to hopefully achieve that goal. It's hard enough remembering all the details about the food itself. Having to remember all of the other salient details of a restaurant visit like the d├ęcor and ambiance might just drive one to walking around with a notepad constantly (or I suppose in this day and age, a netbook).

I look forward to meeting you on Saturday.

Best wishes,
Tom Noe


moosnsqrl said...

I am ashamed to admit that I never responded to Steve's introductory email. I was just too overwhelmed with planning at the time. I have a feeling that, before it was all said and done, he got all of the insight into my food POV he ever wanted - and then some!

Thanks for taking the time to articulate this so well.

Randi said...

Has the article appeared in the paper yet?

Tino said...

Randi --

Funny you should ask your question when you did. Steve Paul just tweeted me this morning to let me know it would appear on August 30th. I'm planning on including a link in my blog so that people can read his account as well as the one that I tell.

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