It’s always such an adventure at IACP, but this year’s conference in Portland seemed more adventurous than ever. Whether it was the frenetic energy of a food-crazy city—or the fact that 900 food-obsessed people had descended on it—this year’s conference was the most manic I’ve ever experienced. Manic, but inspiring, fun and wholly memorable.
It makes coming home a bit of a let-down. Let’s face it, as a writer (and especially as one who works from home), I spend a lot of time by myself. I type brilliant little things into a computer and they disappear into the ether, and that’s about it. I celebrate when I have a conference call and someone says that they liked my piece. I do happy dances when I get published. But, for the most part, it’s me, at my desk, staring out the window, making pots of tea.
And then something like IACP conference comes along, and once a year I am thrust into a group of people who get it. They understand the agonizing frustration of not being able to get words onto paper (well, proverbial paper—screen, more like), the unending guilt of procrastinating and the internal struggle between writer and editor. And the food geekery? The fact that I can wax poetic about dumplings or go off into a dream state thinking about sandwiches…well, that’s not weird at IACP. It’s totally par for the course.
I come back from conference each year simultaneously refreshed and inspired, and exhausted. The exhaustion is to be expected after a week of eating and drinking, without much sleeping. The refreshment and inspiration comes from being with people who get it, who have done it, and who keep me going on this crazy food path that leads to weird places. And I look forward to seeing them every year to get guidance for my next steps down this wacky road. One of these people is Cheryl Sternman Rule, who wrote a wonderful blog post and captured some of the lovely people at the conference. She even managed to make me look good, despite my complete and utter lack of sleep all week.
Lest you think I’ve gone all soft on you, here are some of my favourite moments of the conference.
Salt and chocolate
The best possible way to kick off a week of elegant gluttony: a meet and greet of the most gastronomic proportions. Thin sushi slices laid on Himalayan salt blocks so that one surface is almost cooked; one shockingly salty surface that melds into the buttery richness of tuna. Oysters with mignonette. A craft cocktail bar. A chocolate bar. Fresh radishes with creamery butter and different salts. Bowls of popcorn, with different salts. Wood-fired pizza with mushrooms, arugula, cheese. Fabulous people, coming and going late into the night.
Chicken, cocktails and hipsters
The IACP host city opening reception was spectacular. Restaurants like Paley’s Place served pillowy soft gnocchi with fresh crab, while the premiere food cart in town served signature Hainanese chicken on oily rice. Around the corner, Pix Patisserie served teeny tiny mousse cakes in front of a tower of croquembouche. Still further, Nel Centro‘s swiss chard tart with raisins in pate brisee collapsed in my mouth like buttery dust. Taylor Shellfish brought 100 pounds of Kumamoto oysters, freshly roused from their beds. And sprinkled in between, local wineries and breweries. And a cocktail bar manned by cute hipster boys in plaid shirts and tight pants.
And of course, the absinthe salon that smelled of licorice, sin and secrets.
Vegan soul food
If you know anything about me, you know that I’m no vegan. I was curious about this session, led by food writer Bryant Terry. I expected militant veganism, maybe a manifesto about the evils of meat. What I got was a truly beautiful presentation that included history, personal story, a tribute to grandparents, rap, music, social and political commentary and the best collard greens I’ve ever tasted. I mentioned this session to a friend who had also attended, and he teared up at the memory of it. One moment in particular, when Bryant sang a song that his grandmother used to sing in the kitchen, brought the entire room to a standstill. No one breathed. And then he paused, opened his eyes and continued his story. It was, to be honest, one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a long time.
I was lucky enough to get invited to a secret midnight supper, held in a space that will become Caffe Vita‘s foray into wood-fired pizza. In the interim, the room was set for us with communal tables and candles and promised us the culinary talents of Michael Hebb, Naomi Pomeroy, Mark Fuller and Jason French. As the night continued, food kept coming. Each dish was more delicious than the last: grilled asparagus, pizza, clams, chicken livers and—the highlight of the night—lemon and parsley crusted pork belly on greens. All of it washed down with red wine drunk out of tumblers, while listening to the fabulous local band Y La Bamba, talking food and wine with beautiful people. Termed a “meeting of Seattle and Portland,” this Vancouver girl felt very lucky to be part of the magic.
Edit: Check out the lovely Maggie’s photos of that magical evening. Just looking at them sends shivers down my spine.
Butchery and charcuterie
It’s not every Saturday morning that I’m greeted with an entire pig, gutted and splayed out on two cutting boards. And it’s certainly not every Saturday morning that I get to watch two expert butchers break down half a pig each. Adam Sappington showed us an American approach, breaking the pig down into neat square and chops for his Whole Hog dinners. Each part was neatly stacked on top of itself, forming an almost Lego-like deconstructed pig. Dominique Chapolard, a pig farmer and butcher from France, showed us his approach: seam butchery.
**IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH, VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN, YOU MIGHT WANT TO STOP HERE. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.**
Seam butchery is, quite honestly, beautiful. We watched as Dominique took a knife and separated the entire rib and backbone section from the meat. The silence in the room was only broken by sharp intakes of breath as we realized what he was doing. Then he deftly removed the inner bones from the ham, pausing only long enough to remove the skin in one piece, and then cutting each muscle group free. He laid all the pieces out on the board like some kind of Damien Hirst exhibit and explained that he would take the pieces to market and French consumers would request particular cuts from him. It really highlighted the connection between animal and meat; muscle and bone, rather than pork chops and bacon. That may sound graphic and violent, but it was respectful and dignified. It was stunning.
The conversation then touched on the difficulties of becoming a butcher in North America, how the North American and European farming systems are drastically different, the lack of female butchers (though there were two in the room that morning!) and how a holistic approach to food starts with the animal, includes the entire food system, and finally ends up with the consumer. It was a conversation focused on meat—and specifically, on pigs—but could have been applied to any number of food issues that are currently being debated.
We concluded with a selection of charcuterie from Dominique, Adam and Olympic Provisions, plus Pudding River wine. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning.
Read more about that morning’s events from the oh-so-well-coiffed Michael Ruhlman. I’d also be totally remiss if I didn’t tip my hat to the wonderful Kate Hill.