As I continue to discover new places, traveling or moving from one to another, I find myself thinking about first impressions. From my time abroad, I can remember my initial reaction to the winding, steep roads and vast landscape of Wellington, New Zealand; it felt, at first, complicated and inaccessible. But within the first couple of weeks, I was using shortcuts to get to class and had at least four different running routes.
After five months, on my way back to the airport in a cab, my body swayed in harmony with the now familiar curves of the road. We passed by Westpac Stadium, where I saw my first rugby game, and Fidel’s Café, where I was served coffee in a small bowl instead of a cup.
First impressions of places are just initial responses to new environments, waiting for associations to transform them into something familiar.
In July, I traveled to Denver for the first annual Slow Food Nations weekend of events. Throughout the weekend, there were countless tastings, markets, workshops, and seminars around food. This also happened to be my first time in Colorado, so it was an opportunity to discover a new place, new food, and catch up with old friends from college all at once.
I expected to be surrounded by snow-topped mountains when I landed at the airport, but was surprised to see mostly flat land, with just shadows of mountain ranges in the distance. I tried to get a feel for the area as my friends and I went to get breakfast the following morning. Denver felt large in size, even spacious, with a noticeable lack of morning commuters. Despite the absence of people on the street, there was still a wait for a table for breakfast. While we waited, groups of people drank mimosas outside in the pleasantly dry heat, discussing weekend plans, while others sat on the curb, soaking up the sun.
On Friday evening, I attended the Colorado-Made Block Party. I entered the gated area to see a crowd of people buzzing about the selection of edible art on their plates. Food tents framed the outdoor space with strings of Edison lights serving as the ceiling. I was overwhelmed with choices, as groups broke their conversation to offer recommendations to people passing by. Purple chips rested in brown paper trays, blanketed with a goat cheese sauce. Smoked Colorado beet tartare was topped with farro and “umeboshi apricot tapenade.” Short lines seemed to move quickly at every table, strangers becoming friends by the time they reached the front. It seemed like the event was a gathering of friends rather than food-curious locals and tourists like myself.
There was one table that remained popular throughout the night. I wound up chatting with the man in front of me in line, who was from Oregon. The wait was worth it, he said: this was his third time in line. I approached the table to see clear cups full of ice. A man stood behind the wooden counter, pouring an assortment of liquids into a cocktail shaker. He shook, then poured a pale pink concoction onto the ice and placed a piece of thin-shaved watermelon on top, along with a few leaves of sage.
The man then began a new mixture, a honey-colored drink, finished with a grilled peach and a sprig of rosemary. Then he introduced the two drinks, vibrant against the dark green of his apron: the first was gin and watermelon; the second, a whiskey-peach cocktail. He spoke proudly of his recipes and answered questions about his relationship with food, his restaurant down the street, and his family in Denver. He had no problem repeating himself to the new faces that kept appearing, and moved seamlessly into more intimate conversation with those who returned for a second or third time. Tall tables scattered around the space encouraged people of different ages and professions to mingle and chat while enjoying their food and drinks.
Later on in the evening, my friends took me to one of their favorite restaurants near their neighborhood. I walked in and was immediately asked if I was a Collier. I have two older sisters and an older brother, and my sisters and I are often mistaken for each other, but I hadn’t expected to be recognized here. I turned to see four men I realized I knew. They were friends of my older sister, whom I had met at her graduation from Bates College, over four years ago. It was one of those small-world moments that brightens your day. At the restaurant, I recognized faces from the Slow Food Nation events and the block party.
Later that weekend, my friends and I stopped to get a cup of coffee downtown. We sat at a table near a window in the small café. I looked up just in time to see the man who created the popular cocktails at the block party walk by the window and into his restaurant. Denver began to feel like a smaller, warmer, more intimate place.
Later on that day, I was looking out a bigger window as I sat at gate B17, waiting to board my flight back to the east coast. The mountain ranges were no longer a far off silhouette of blue and purple, but close, cozy, familiar.
Food is a catalyst for discovery and new experiences. The sound of crackling eggs and bacon can be the motivating factor to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes the smell of garlic cooking in olive oil is the only reason to pause a Netflix marathon and join your family in the kitchen. Big-time foodies take the opportunity to do their research and travel long-distance to attend festivals and culinary events throughout the country and abroad. Food is what motivates people to action, but it ultimately becomes a catalyst to reach the people, places, and overall experiences that surround the food.
This summer, food allowed me to catch up with friends in Colorado and see the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk. It led me to discover locations in New York City I may never have stumbled across on my everyday path. In July, on behalf of Foodlyn, I headed to the Good Food Mercantile in Brooklyn.
I considered my options for transportation from Manhattan and ended up on the ferry. My walk to the ferry terminal led through different, zigzagging paths of lower Manhattan. I walked along the water, passing morning joggers, and finally found the crowds of people waiting for their ferries. I mingled among them. Every now and then, there was a lull in their conversations to let the noise from helicopter tours pass. I found a spot in the shade to observe the city waking up.
On the ferry, as we made our way toward Brooklyn, I looked back to see the historic buildings and factories of the Lower East Side and the distinctive architecture of the Financial District. The reflective sides of the Freedom Tower functioned as a mirror to the buildings around it. I’d never seen New York, my home just for the summer, from this perspective before.
I stepped off the ferry in Brooklyn into a small park with paved paths and benches packed with readers. Someone meandered past with an ice cream cone in hand. It was still morning. I was exactly the right place.
It took a few wrong turns to find the Mercantile at the Expo Center in Williamsburg. Once I stepped inside, my senses were overwhelmed. Over 90 food crafters from the east coast and beyond were packed inside, in aisles sprawling across the massive warehouse.
But even though the space was huge, the vendors made it feel cozy and quaint with their charisma and positivity. Table after table displayed spreads of cheeses, chocolates, coffee, confections. Fragrant honeys filled glass cylinders alongside a table of truffles topped with gold flakes. Elixirs of natural flavors — some bubbly, some flat — could revive your senses in time to try a sample of mustard or nut butter.
Each display was simple and organic, allowing the products to speak for themselves. Burn, a small-batch business based out of Santa Cruz, California, had an eye-catching display: three small, white dishes on a table, each pooled with fermented hot sauce. It was the indescribable color of their habanero-bell pepper hot sauce that caught my attention. The sauce emanated the richness of an egg yolk. I can only describe its hue as the pure concentration of a habanero pepper — neither orange nor yellow, but an exceptional blurring of the two. It was evident, throughout the show, that each product was made with the same level of intention and care.
Real Food Real Stories is a Bay Area nonprofit whose gatherings give people the chance to hear powerful stories of local food-producers and change-makers over thoughtfully sourced food. With each event, RFRS aims to forge community and inspire listeners to care about their local food system. RFRS recently hosted its first annual benefit StorySlam to raise money for their storytelling efforts and to celebrate local food-makers. The night included an auction, food markets featuring multiple vendors, and performances from ten food leaders who shared unique stories around the evening’s theme of “salty and sweet.”
This culminating event was the last of a four-part series of story gatherings, held at Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco, to spotlight leaders in the Bay Area food system. In May, the series featured Steve Sullivan, co-founder of popular Bay Area bakery, the Acme Bread Company. Then in June, the series brought organic produce distributor Veritable Vegetable’s co-owners Bu Nygrens and Karen Salinger to the stage.
And on September 27th was the StorySlam. Airbnb hosted a lineup of ten food-loving storytellers, ranging from passionate bloggers to prominent restaurant owners and even a shepherdess. Though grander in scale than most of the series’ events, the StorySlam embodied all the core elements of a typical Real Food Real Stories gathering: thoughtful food leaders and consumers, heartwarming and insightful stories, and, of course, delicious food.
The evening began with savory and sweet food markets, where guests could exchange tokens for a selection of the night’s dazzling display of locally produced fare. Mushroom-gruyère croissants from Portside Bakery were served next to tasty Venezuelan arepas and ceviche from the Mission-based eatery Pica Pica. Down the line, Genji Sushi prepared unique sushi donuts, round rings of rice covered in a variety of toppings such as salmon, shrimp, avocado, fried shallots, and mayo glaze. Cheese lovers delighted in the freshly cut and melted raclette from Garden Variety Cheese, and to round out the evening, chili sauce producer Spice Mama whipped up bacon and date waffles.
The sweet market on the opposite side of the venue also delivered. From Alter Eco’s sumptuous truffles to Petit Pot’s pot de crème, each booth prepared eaters for what seemed to be the grand finale of the dessert aisle: the gelato cart. As word of the incredible gelato buzzed through the crowd, the line behind the cart swelled in size. San Francisco artisan food companies Coletta Gelato and Nana Joe’s Granola served up unforgettable combinations specially made for the evening. The sea salt finish of the coconut cranberry granola accented the sweetness of the strawberry sorbetto, and with these flavors still lingering on my tongue, I was ready for the night’s stories.
The speakers came up one by one to the black stage, lit only by the glowing letters RFRS and a single spotlight. The “salty and sweet” theme allowed storytellers to weave together lessons from both food and life and speak vulnerably about their experiences.
Dilsa Lugo of the restaurant Los Cilantros began the night with a story about the versatility of maiz as an ingredient and how she’s come to appreciate the role that cooking and family play in her life. Chefs Laurence Jossel of Nopa and Yoni Levy of Outerlands described, with humor, the searing trials they experienced working their way through many kitchens. Whereas Levy tackled the salty-sweet theme by speaking about how this balance is the key to eliciting flavor from a dish, Jossel spoke of the heartbreak that came with a painful divorce and rebuilding his life alongside his culinary career.
Later on, Nik Sharma, writer of the blog A Brown Table, and Margo True, who edits the food section of Sunset Magazine, spoke about the power of food media to promote social justice. Sharma told a story of what it was like to find his voice through food photography. Early on in his blogging career, he encountered negative comments about his race that made him hesitate pursuing photography professionally. However, upon observing that food media often did not reflect the racial diversity he noticed in the kitchen, he decided to photograph people of color in order to highlight their important role in the food system. For her part, True spoke about an encounter with an old friend whose world views diverged sharply from her own, and how she learned to remain humble while speaking up against intolerant views.
The night concluded with an entertaining and moving story from Pim Techamuanvivit, who founded Kin Khao Thai Eatery in San Francisco. She talked about taking creative risks to open a Thai restaurant that actively questioned and departed from the typical norms of American Thai cuisine: for instance, pad thai is intentionally absent from her menu. And, with grace, Techamuanvivit spoke about the year she was both diagnosed with breast cancer and awarded a Michelin star.
Real Food Real Stories’ first benefit StorySlam revealed the importance of story in bringing communities together to support local food producers and change-makers. That evening, each story and its respective storyteller captured a bit of my heart, made me laugh in recognition, or hold my breath in compassion. I realized that it’s impossible to truly value the food we eat if we do not first try to understand the stories of the people who helped make that food.
Rebecca King, a local cheesemaker and one of the speakers of the evening, repeated the phrase “eat my poem” throughout her story. Like an incantation, it reminded us, the audience, that the food we eat is imbued with, and in fact inseparable from, the struggles, triumphs, great love, and clear vision of food producers themselves. I left — as I imagine most other audience members did — feeling invested in each storyteller’s life and their work. In the end, food, and food media, intimately connect us to other people’s lives — and this is exactly how it should be.