So in the weeks leading up to this year’s Big Potluck, when I would excitedly tell people that I would be “GOING TO A CONFERENCE IN BUCKS COUNTY!!!” They would inevitably respond “Why on earth are you so excited about Bucks County?” Bucks County is nice and all, but it’s not a hotbed of tourism. Technically, we were staying in Bethlehem, PA which is either in Northampton County or Lehigh County (and I don’t feel like taking the time to sort that question out with specificity), but the conference itself was held at Fordhook Farm, which is the test farm for the Burpee Seed Company, in Doylestown, PA (which is in Bucks County.) Pennsylvania has a lot of counties. IN ANY EVENT, I am not here to write about counties. I’m here to write about a food writing & blogging conference, so here we go!
I went to the Big Summer Potluck last year and had a totally fabulous time. In many ways, this conference is out of my league. Many of the attendees make their careers out of food writing, either through writing cookbooks or food-specific journalism or sponsored/paid foodblogging. Maybe for a second I felt intimidated by this, but I quickly resolved that hey, conference tickets are open for sale to anyone who would like to attend, and the hosts and attendees are all extremely welcoming, no matter how long your food writing resume is. As a matter of fact, you can’t tell the professionals from us amateurs, unless you really start digging in conversation. And you know what, this ended up being really cool, getting to so casually meet people who have made such big careers out of a field I so casually dabble in. I have no plans to ditch legal practice for food writing, but I think it is invaluable to get out of my law bubble, and get to know people in all kinds of different walks of life and industries.
Our lodging was the Bethlehem Sands resort, which was actually pretty cool. Part of the Bethlehem Steel mill has been turned into a hotel, casino, and outlet mall. They have a couple Emeril’s restaurants in the resort, too. I drove into Bethlehem itself because I needed to make an emergency nail polish purchase, and the town looks really cute. I wouldn’t mind going back.
The remaining steel mill structure looked absolutely gorgeous against the autumn leaves.
We started things off by picking up our swag bags. The Big Potluck has the absolute best swag. Hands down. It’s a small conference (60ish attendees), with big sponsors like Gourmet Garden, Kerrygold, OXO, KitchenAid, Sabra, Terra Chips and many others. This isn’t a hard-sell kind of conference. The sponsors know that the attendees love cooking and love food, and these companies all make top-of-the-line products, so the sponsors use the opportunity to show off new and unexpected things that their products can do.
The first night of the conference was a pizza party at an absolutely GORGEOUS home. I can’t even describe how amazing this place was. It had it’s own little garden alcove where you could sit and chat, just like a little secret garden. Absolutely amazing.
Dinner the first night was grilled pizza. Last year, we did a make-your-own grilled pizza. For an indecisive glutton like me, that was a problematic approach, because I loaded up my pizza with every single topping available, and it was a hot mess. This time, they offered 5 or so pre-made gourmet options, all of which were just delicious. I liked this approach much more, because the chefs were much better at identifying delicious combinations, and exercising the appropriate level of topping restraint, than I would ever be.
We also gorged ourselves on mountains of roasted and fresh veggies and amazing amazing Sabra dips. I usually just eat hummus plain, but there was this hummus with caramelized onions and pine nuts and other stuff that I just could NOT get enough of. #FancyHummusFTW
The next day we ventured to Fordhook Farms for the main conference. Autumn in Bucks County is simply gorgeous. The air was crisp, the leaves were beginning to turn, the sky was clear, everything was amazing.
The speakers including James Beard Award winning author, Barry Estabrook, who discussed the very real ethical issues of factory farming. I’ve for so long toyed with the idea that we need to, at a minimum, eliminate mainstream factory-farmed meats from our diet, and if we don’t eliminate animal products entirely, at least restrict purchases to ethically farmed meats. I keep beating myself up for not just jumping in and doing this, but it feels like such a huge effort, when it’s so easy to be willfully blind and opt for convenience.
Christopher and Melissa of Canal House (pictured above) shared the journey of opening their own food photography studio and publishing house, and their work to share the delicious, simple cooking, suitable for home cooks. I am eager to check out some of their cookbooks, and hopefully improve my seasoning/spice game in my home meals.
Karen Thornton shared her experiences researching her family’s history, and cooking history. I think her talk was the most meaningful to me on a personal level. She talked about feeling like her family did not have much in the way of “food culture,” but how you can make a food culture, from the things that are meaningful to you, your parents, your children, your siblings. I’ve often felt that our family’s food traditions were few, even though my cousins made an effort a few years back to make a Farina Family Cookbook. What I lacked wasn’t a family food culture, but perspective on that. Even if we did not create certain recipes themselves, they are recipes that are meaningful to us, and that we share with the ones we love. This is tradition, this is a food culture.
Our lunch of grilled veggies, soup and salad, was delicious. I love being at a conference where everyone is snapping pics of their plates.
We had an activity where everyone was given an apple and sent out to take a picture I took the one above, and just loved it. I showed it to Christopher (of Canal House) and she complimented me on it, and it made me extra-happy.
A new component of the conference was a writing exercise led by Cheryl Sternman Rule. I started the exercise somewhat unenthusiastic, but by the end of it, wound up with a quick piece of writing that I really enjoyed (and will share in a later post). For the “Open Mic” session in the later afternoon, adventurous writers shared what they had written. All the writing dealt with food, but in such incredibly different ways. One writer had the most amazing, emotional, stirring piece, that I think literally everyone in that room had tears in their eyes. The room was absolutely silent after she read, but reluctant to wrap up the Open Mic on such a serious note, I volunteered to read my piece, which was a funny one. It was a nice balance, and a lot of people came up to me afterward to tell me how much they liked my piece, and how they absolutely could relate to it.
We had a late afternoon ice cream break, because OMG YES WE NEED ICE CREAM. They had several different varieties, all of which I tried (oink oink), but the bleu cheese ice cream with candied pecans was absolutely divine. It sound so disgusting, but it was amazing. It was sweet and creamy, with just the tiniest hint of the pungent bleu cheese.
We wound down the day with some delicious, fresh cocktails and, OMG, tethered hot air balloon rides!!!
Taking a hot air balloon ride was one of the unfinished items on my 30 before 30 list. A tethered ride isn’t exactly the same as a real ride, but I was sure as heck not going to pass this opportunity up. I’m so glad we got to go up in the air!
I was really amazed at how smooth the hot air balloon rides was. I hardly noticed when the balloon lifted up into the air. We only went about 70 feet up, but it was a gorgeous view and we just loved it.
We wrapped up the evening with plenty of wine– white, red and bubbly– and a simple but delicious meal of antipasti, spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread.
Mr. Beez and I end up going to a lot of conferences, but this is the first one that we went to together, with shared interest in the subject matter. We had such a nice time together, sharing a weekend of learning about something that is big in both of our interests. In the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of my (limited) free time on conferences and other structured activities. I’ve hit a point where I need a little more unscheduled time, if anything just to hang out with my family and teaching Baby Beez about all the cool things to explore in our city. I’m not sure if I’ll attend again next year. If I do not attend, it is absolutely not a reflection on the conference itself, but rather a refleciton on how I need to prioritize my time at the moment. The Big Harvest Potluck was amazing, fun and inspirational.