For those of you not yet hipped to the big foodie news in Denver this week, the International Association of Culinary Professionals is in town -- a kind of traveling circus show of food writers, food editors, food pimps, chefs, authors, wine gurus and associated tradesmen. And, of course, Jason Sheehan is embedded right in the middle of all the action, causing trouble, sponging up free drinks and generally comporting himself in as disreputable a way as possible. His reports from inside the convention will be running throughout the week.
Wednesday, April 1, was the real start of the festivities. Things kicked off at 7 a.m. with a variety of educational forums for food entrepreneurs, food photographers, nutritionists and cooking teachers. I slept in.
Lunch? A couple pints at the bar. Catching up. Met a couple of the writers in town to network, and they all seemed rather sallow and skittish, constantly checking out each other's badges and drinking too slow. After that, it was the food writer's forum -- a discussion of the food writer's dilemmas. I assumed they'd be talking about digestive troubles, the employment of wigs and disguises, how to trash an acquaintance's restaurant in print without getting your teeth kicked in. Man, was I wrong...
I once had this fantasy about being stuck for hours in a small, closed room full of women. Food women. Ladies who cared passionately about eating and drinking, who'd done time in restaurants and traveled and lived the good life because it was the life they'd chosen -- the only one they could possibly want.
Why? Because food writers (all food people, really, but the writers in particular) are good in bed. They're sensualists by profession, libertines of the best stripe. They touch and taste and smell everything happily, excitedly -- giddily, even. They are people who have no fear, who live every day as an adventure and will put virtually anything in their mouths at least once. I had this dream about being locked up in a room with such a crew because, to me, there ain't nothing about food that isn't also about sex and love and delight and obsession.
I don't have that dream anymore.
It was a tough room -- in the basement of the Sheraton, crowded and serious. I had to crash it, talking my way through the door and waving credentials because, come to find, one had to sign up for this little hootenany well in advance, and I hadn't. Once I was inside, I was immediately buttonholed by a very nice woman -- a cooking school instructor named Julie Logue-Riordan, in town from Napa -- who began asking me personal questions about what I'd eaten lately and what I felt guilty about.
This was a meet-and-greet -- an icebreaker for a bunch of insular and (occasionally) completely socially retarded writers, forcing them to get up and mingle and talk to their fellow scribblers. And once I figured out what was going on, I dove in with gusto. What had I had for dinner last night? Six pints of Guinness and some macaroni and cheese. What was my favorite guilty-pleasure meal? Why, madam, there is nothing I eat that makes me feel guilty, but if I had to choose? Let's say corned beef hash. Out of the can. Cooked in the microwave and flavored with generic onion salt.
Julie had been at Bones the night before. Ate the lobster ramen. Loved it. And her guilty pleasure? Oreos and champagne. See what I mean about sensualists, baby? My kind of people.
But after that, it was downhill fast. I heard from people who'd eaten at the Fort and the Buckhorn, at Root Down (and enjoyed it!) and the Mercury Cafe, and were drooling over the attention given them by the staff, the chefs, the discussions of locality and organic this-and-that. One woman (and this crowd was virtually all women) insisted that her biggest guilty pleasure was brown bread with fresh ricotta cheese and (blush) unrefined sugar. Another said she felt secret guilt and joy over eating white foods. Another bashfully admitted to white bread like she was talking about some freakish kink.
And once the seminar portion got under way, it was nothing more than me in a terrible room with terrible jungle-themed carpets, listening to cookbook writers and ex-writers-turned-PR-flacks talking of recipes and home cookery, of corporate consulting and spokesmanship gigs and the awful things they have had to do to make a living. They talked so much of Facebook and Twitter that I thought I might cry, and about how to sell out just a little without going completely over to the dark side.
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These were not my people. This was not my scene. Just let me do what I'm good at -- all day, every day -- and I figure my "brand" will take care of itself. About midway through the second half of the seminar, I had a nightmare that this was what my life might someday become if I stayed too long in this game -- that I, too, might someday find myself standing up before a room full of arching, frantic foodie hopefuls, explaining how to turn yourself into the sort of person that the local news might call for a comment the next time fifty people catch the clap off the Olive Garden salad bowls.
Three hours in the basement felt like half a lifetime, and I left in a lather of fear, brain stuffed full of advice on Twitter and talent profiles and how to extend my brand. I went outside, smoked three cigarettes, went to the bar, calmed my nerves with a bit of Sir Arthur's best and kept my head down. I had several messages waiting on my phone. Blog meltdown at the office. New BBQ joint coming. Wife was pissed. My boss wondering what I was doing other than hiding out at the bar since I hadn't yet written a word about the goings-on at the conference. I smiled. Outside, the snow was starting to come down and the light was starting to fade. I had an hour before my scheduled dinner, a long walk ahead of me.
I stretched against my bar stool, cracked my back, knocked off another half of my pint, turned to the woman next to me and asked, "So, you here for the conference, too?"