Andrea Blum has spent much of her life following others. She once followed a cheesemaker back to his village in Italy to learn about where the milk came from. That's also how she ended up in a butcher shop in Switzerland watching the curing of meats, or in a basement in Austria sampling homemade schnapps.
"It's a passion of mine to go beyond what I'm eating and find the story behind it," Blum says.
That curiosity about the people behind our food led her to create My American Pantry (MAP), a start-up company that promotes regional food and drink producers across the country. Blum is laying the groundwork for an online marketplace with a series of aerial photos of food artisans with their goods.
"I think of it as a Kickstarter for food artisans, where people can launch their businesses but in a very curated, beautiful and artistic way with recipes, videos, multimedia," says Blum, who is a culinary artist in residence at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga.
MAP just held its second aerial photo shoot in Santa Cruz on Sunday with nearly two dozen local food and drink makers, including the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing Co., Creative Cultures, Uncommon Brewers and Shelley's Biscotti. The first aerial photo took place in Marin last month.
The aerial photos are a way for Blum to bootstrap her company while she fine-tunes her business plan and raises capital. She says she may turn to Kickstarter herself to drum up funds so she can travel around the country taking photos of food and drink makers.
Blum plans to stitch the photos together into a multi-layered atlas. Users will be able to view food makers by region, along with their personal stories, recipes and videos. They would also be able to purchase products through the online marketplace, which she hopes to launch later this year. Blum also envisions regionally-focused cookbooks with recipes from the MAP producers.
One of the first videos MAP produced is a profile of Connie Green, who is something of a local legend who leads chefs on foraging expeditions and owns Wine Forest Wild Foods.
"She talks about her passion of collecting things in the woods, collecting mushrooms," Blum says. "She was able to make it into a business that really represents herself. She made it her life."
In Santa Cruz, a new group of food and drink makers gathered at the Homeless Garden Project farm in Santa Cruz with examples of their products, including apples, jams, sausages, mini-kegs and even a mild-mannered black duck.
The farm is community supported with some 1,200 volunteers, which Blum realized added another layer of meaning to the photo. This gave her the idea of also highlighting non-profits that are contributing to local food systems and economic development in future aerial photos.
To take the aerial photos, Blum uses a camera strapped to a remote-controlled helicopter built by her brother and fellow collaborator Kenny Blum. It rose above the group of food and drink makers assembled in a grid.
"As a food producer, you don't get to lay down very often," says Melinda Harrower, owner of Melinda's Gluten Free. "It was nice to just lay in the sun in a field."
Shelley Fryer, owner of Shelley's Biscotti, read about the photo shoot in the local newspaper and loved how Blum arranged the first group of artisans in Marin to resemble a quilt. Fryer hopes people will appreciate the diversity of food makers represented in the MAP photos, some of whom she'd heard about but had never met.
"I work all the time so I don't really see other people who do what I do," Fryer says. "I'm aware of them but haven't had the chance to connect, so it was nice to have that opportunity."
Kristen Cederquist, co-owner of Serendipity Saucy Spreads, also doesn't get many chances to hang out with fellow food producers in such a laid-back setting. She even discussed a potential collaboration with Chris LaVeque, a butcher with El Salchichero.
Cederquist sees the MAP project as another way to tell her story and add a human dimension to her products. She and her mother have been making fruit preserves since they were both children and they created their company out of this family tradition.
"It's not made in a factory," she says. "Everything is made with our hands and we love what we do."