"Oh, it smells so good up there!" said the concierge manning the front desk at San Francisco's InterContinental Hotel on Friday, glancing longingly up the stairs to where the 2nd annual BlogHer Food Conference was in full caffeinated swing. "I saw Nutella, and chocolate, and someone making some kind of melted-cheese thing..."
The 3rd floor did smell enticingly delicious, probably to the distraction of all of the other meetings happening in the adjacent rooms.
Surely emissaries from the nearby Oral Therapies conference were longing to sneak past their sugar-free snacks and mint-flavored flossers to browse the packed sponsors' tables crowding the ballroom foyer, stuffing their pockets with Scharffenberger contraband and downing cappuccinos steamed on a shiny silver Pasquini machine ("For Music, Puccini; For Art, Bernini; For Espresso, Pasquini"). Who could concentrate on cavities in the face of dozens of baguette slices smeared with Nutella and topped with raspberries?
Indeed, Nutella crostini were just one of the many tasty, chocolate-covered ways to get distracted on the way to panel discussions like "Professionalizing Your Photography," "Be Your Own Food Network," "Blogger Ethics," and "Kids, Cooking, and Health." For the sponsors--like Seattle's Best Coffee, Kraft, Nutella, Nature's Path Organic, and Athenos, to name just a few--it was a dream opportunity to get their products into the happily chatting mouths of a few hundred women (and a handful of men) who write about food for fun.
So, a nutritionist pushed Nutella as part of a healthy breakfast for kids, because, of course, the only way to get whole-grain toast into your kid is to goop it with sugary, cocoa-flavored palm-oil-and-hazelnut goo.
Over in the corner, the smiley team from Kraft touted the virtues of their soon-to-launch Cooking Creme, tubs of flavored, cream-cheese-based stuff that might, just might, puncture the hegemony of cream-of-mushroom soup in the cutthroat chicken-casserole arena.
And a brassy, pink-jacketed chef in an Underwriters' Laboratories apron handed out purple-and-magenta corn chips dolloped with guacamole, warning of the dangers lurking in kitchen appliances. "Immersion blenders!" she intoned. "People forget to unplug them when they put them in the sink. I got a call from one woman, she cut up her fingers and had to go to the hospital!"
But away from the salty, crunchy, creme-rinsed enticements of the demos-and-samples room, a whole lot of discussions were going on. Already, this year's BlogHer Food Conference, a targeted spin-off that grew out of the much larger annual BlogHer Conference, had swelled to 2 days of panels, interviews, parties, and food tours.
Last year, said BlogHer co-founder Elisa Camahort Page, attendees spent the one-day event in the hotel, talking about food & cooking but not getting out to see what San Francisco had to offer. This year, since half the attendees come from outside the state, Page and her staff decided to show off a little, adding a 2 hour excursion to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and the Ferry Building on Saturday and a seminar on Urban Farming with Novella Carpenter and Sunset Magazine's food editor Margo True.
Page hoped that the conference's four tracks of panels, tracked into Values, Visual, Vocation, or Voice would mean something for everyone, newbies and SEO-savvy pros alike. But of course, the real value lay in the face-to-face time between women in the community, creating a place for gluten-free girls (not to mention gluten-free moms & gluten-free teens) and kim-chee kitchens to come together. (In fact, if there was one takeaway trend from this year's conference, it would be the rapid mushrooming of gluten-free and celiac-themed blogs and products.)
"It's like summer camp here," said Tara Austen Weaver, as clusters of her cross-country blogging buddies came up for hugs. It was also a chance to grab tips and swap cards with stars of the food blogosphere like Ree Drummond, Jaden Hair, David Leite--people who'd made it beyond the what-I-made-for-dinner online world, who'd broken into the larger public consciousness by scoring those still-coveted old-media contracts for cookbooks or television appearances.
The Voice panels, with topics like "Storytelling" and "Writing Tips: The Basic Tools in Any Writer's Gear Bag" could have been taken from any writers' workshop, save for the power strips lined up on every table and the clickety tap-tapping of laptops and handhelds making a crickety background to the panelists' conversation.
Discussion swirled around the room: about what comes first, the writing or the photographs; finding tricks for fighting off writers' block, and again and again, how to discover and burnish your own unique, pick-it-out-without-a-byline personal voice. One woman worried that when she was writing at her most true and enthusiastic best, her grammar and spelling sometimes went by the wayside.
Longtime political writer turned hunting-and-fishing blogger Hank Shaw's advice? It's okay to use slang and non-traditional grammar, if you know the rules you're breaking, and only if it's true to how you really speak. Readers will know when you're faking it, and they won't hang around.
Once you've found your voice, then do what every freshman-creative-writing class teacher would tell you: condense your prose, use vivid verbs, write fast and loose on that first draft. Don't judge your writing to begin with, just dump it all out onto the page, even the terrible cliches. "Cliches work for a reason, they're mental mnemonics," said Shaw. "But then go through and change each one of those cliches to make it yours."
Read your work out loud, urged Cheryl Sternman Rule, because what's beautiful in your head can be "incredibly clunky" on the page. And, with more and more people reading blogs on hand-held devices, think twice before pounding out more than a monitor-screen's worth of prose.
"I spend more time writing my opening sentences than the whole rest of the piece," said S.J. Sebellin-Ross. "If they're good, everything else just flows." And then there's brevity, still the soul of wit. "Say what you want to say, and then stop."
Or, as Rebecca Crump quipped, "I like to hit it and quit it." Crump also likes to think about the personality of food, anthropomorphizing a peach cobbler, say, into a "naughty dessert that spanks you without using a switch."
Over a Kraft-sponsored lunch in the Grand Ballroom (oil-glossed roasted vegetables, grilled halibut, multicolored ravioli, and buckets of white sauce made from the inescapable Cooking Creme), the French-born chef Dominique Crenn of the hotel's Luce Restaurant discussed her career path, and the challenges of being a woman in the still very much male-dominated world of French kitchens.
On leaving France for the States, she said, "I wanted to show the world what I had...maybe it took me longer, but I'm glad I went through the struggle I did. It's a hard profession, but you just have to push through. I'm all for women on top!"
And what would a women's food-blogging conference be without something cute, something pink, something chocolate...something like a maroon velvet cupcake (made with beets & cocoa) swirled with rosewater-raspberry icing and topped with popcorn? At the end of the day, pastry superstar and Scharffenberger spokeswoman Elizabeth Faulkner (Citizen Cake, Orson) was on hand to guide conference-goers through an assemble-your-own-cupcake adventure, choosing from an assortment of Falkner-made cupcakes, fillings, icings, and toppings. Holding up her stout-laced Chocolate Pub Cake topped with chocolate ganache, salted peanuts, Meyer lemon rind, and ancho-chile-laced cocoa nibs, she told the audience, "It's like the best bar snack ever, in a cupcake!"
Can BarSnackCupcake, the blog, be far behind?