The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference 2012

I spent all day last Friday and Saturday at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference here in NYC, listening to some of the top people in food sharing their expertise and experiences: Melissa Clark, Judith Jones, Peter Kaminsky, Molly O'Neill, Laura Shapiro, Bonnie Slotnick, Tanya Steel, Joe Yonan, Grace Young...and so, so many more.  My favorite part, though, was that all the panelists shared stories with us.  Storytelling was actually a major theme of the conference, I think, and the story-loving librarian in me just soaked it all up like a dry sponge.  I felt elated, inspired, fired up, excited...and I also felt so far out of my league that I hardly introduced myself to anyone.  Aw well.  There's always next year, right?

I took a crap-ton-load of notes that I'll share with you, and I also pulled some of the tweets from #cookbookconf.  I highly encourage you to check out the hashtag for the complete rundown, including different perspectives, discussions, and notes.  (Side note: what did we do at conferences before Twitter?  I love that it enables us to experience panels we can't attend, and it allows for a multi-layered discussion and engagement.)

Without further ado, here is a sample of my (copious) notes from the conference:

  • Peter Kaminsky shared with us the three things we all need to be healthy: 1) Don't eat processed food, ever; 2) buy the highest quality, most full-flavored food you can afford; and 3) cook - or at least live with someone who does. 

  • Betty Crocker wasn't a real person!  Did you know that?  I didn't...  Not surprised, of course, but still...

  • June Hersh stated that the ubiquity of recipes means that the future of cookbooks is in the stories.  I can definitely see it coming, and I'm thrilled: the stories behind the recipes are my favorite part!

  • I learned that some people - namely Jane Lear and a number of the people in the room at the time - are not MFK Fisher fans.  I'm a die-hard groupie so I was floored to learn that there are people out there who don't love her writing.  I still don't see how you couldn't...

  • Speaking of Jane Lear, there was a lively discussion on the panel about "food TV" and how it has complicated things.  People watch shows like "Iron Chef" and even Ina Garten and "they don't see the A to B, let alone the Z."  So when it comes time for viewers to cook for themselves, they overstretch themselves, not understanding that cooking actually isn't all that easy.  Then they end up frustrated and give up.  I personally know so many people who have had this experience.  That said, though, food TV can often be the gateway to getting people into the kitchen in the first place so I don't feel like I can completely condemn it.  But, yes, it certainly complicates things.

  • I loved what Peter Kaminsky shared about planning a menu for a dinner party.  You need to think carefully about the progression of each dish, how they work together, building everything to a crescendo.  He quoted, "A diva wouldn't start the aria on the highest note."  I'm sooo going to remember this the next time I host a dinner party!

  • We also talked about authenticity and ethnicity quite a bit.  In particular, I found Krishnendu Ray's points to be illuminating (for me).  He pointed out that chefs master French techniques and, once mastered, they are considered truly skilled and accomplished chefs.  However, ethnic food is still seen as a list of ingredients that a chef is familiar with, rather than techniques that are mastered; it certainly isn't considered haute cuisine.  He also held up various cookbooks: the ones that are Euro-centric (i.e. The French Laundry Cookbook; NOMA) have covers that are cream or light-colored.  Cookbooks that feature "ethnic" foods have covers with "ethnic" colors: blue, green, red, orange (i.e. Indian Home Cooking).

  • A major theme of the conference was that "Perfection Is OVER."  Gone are the days of Martha Stewart's example of shiny perfection and seeming effortlessness.  The whole structure of the family meal is oppressive and romanticized.  Books like An Everlasting Meal and The Improvisational Cook feature much more democratic, creative ways of cooking.  Molly O'Neill said that there's more chaos in the American home these days; cookbooks bring order.  Embracing your failures in the kitchen is honest and authentic.  So, everyone, you can breathe a sigh of relief now. 

  • As a blogger, one of the major things I am taking away from this conference is that I can reach out way more than I do.  I'm an active user of Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest...but I'm not reaching out at all to authors.  A perfect example is that I LOVED Georgeanne Brennan's A Pig In Provence (I reviewed it), and I'm an evangelist for Laura Calder's French Food at Home (I cooked from it here and here).  But I never reached out to those authors, or any of the others I've mentioned here.  There were lots of authors at this conference and the overwhelming majority seemed eager to reach out to and collaborate with bloggers.  So I'll remember that going forward - I'd love to reach out to some of my favorites and let them know that they're inspiring me and that I'm spreading the word!

  • I didn't go to Judith Jones' panel, but everyone was tweeting up a storm while she was speaking.  First, she apparently had on a salmon-hued pleated Hermes scarf that was To Die For.  Second, she shared her distress that chefs seem to be ruling the food world these days; chefs and their dramatic, titillating cookbooks have very little relevance to the home cook trying to get dinner on the table for a family.  I couldn't agree more.  Many people buy chef's cookbooks because of the name recognition, but these cookbooks are intended to intimidate; they are inaccessible.  This makes their books a form of literature, rather than true cookbooks.

  • Grace Young was easily one of my favorite panelists: her passion, knowledge, and stories were inspiring.  Additionally, her rage at the mutation of traditional Chinese cooking got me fired up (particularly when I learned that my $100+ stainless steel wok is damn near useless for traditional Chinese cuisine...but at least it's better than a nonstick wok, which Young said was the worst thing you can use for Chinese cooking.  The high heat gives off poisonous chemicals and all you get out of it is a "soggy braise").  Young also shared beautiful stories about cooking with her mother, and I took away the importance of passing recipes and food from generation to generation; oftentimes, food is the "iron thread" that binds us together.  Lastly, she spoke what was one of my favorite moments of the whole conference: "Record what is real because it has meaning.  It has legs.

  • As I said before, one of the major themes of the conference was the idea that you need to make connections and relate on a personal level.  Jennifer Abadi shared gorgeous, poignant stories about trying to record her grandmother's recipes; ultimately, she said that "it was about more than recipes. It was about history, stories, culture, connection, so much more."  On that same panel, Susheela Raghavan shared that "it has be personal.  That's what it's all about." Indeed.  And amen.

I know, this is the Longest Blog Post Ever.  But I was just so inspired and had so much to share!  I hope to attend this conference annually - it was an invaluable experience and I learned a tremendous amount.

Thanks to all the panelists and organizers!  Thanks as well to the Roger Smith Hotel for hosting, as well as to all the sponsors who provided us with such yummy treats!

Eat, drink, and share your stories.


carina said...

Don't apologize - It was so interesting to read! Off to go to some of the links.

Deborah Niemann said...

Thanks so much for posting this! I wish you could have posted more! I discovered the conference as it was happening on Friday, so I watched one of the session online -- the one with the agents -- which was very cool!

Nancy Horn said...

Celia! Do not ever apologize! The reader makes the choice to stay on this page and read, non? Thank you for these notes! Fascinating and affirming!!!

See you soon,
Nancy Horn from Dishcafecatering.com in Reno

Nancy Horn said...

Oops Laura! I thought I was on Celia Sacks' blog! Recovering from neck surgery so didn't realize I clicked through to yours!!! Thanks for this post!


Nancy Horn

Mamun said...

What a thoughtful posts. It was enough to get me to browse through your earlier posts. I'm really glad. You've created a great spot to visit and I'll definitely be back. I hope you have a great day.
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