Liveblog: Food Diplomats and Cuisine Ambassadors

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Voice - Food Diplomats and Cuisine Ambassadors ."

Here's the description:

Elaine Wu of Virgo Blue and the marketing programs manager for BlogHer.com

Srivalli Jetti, from Cooking 4AllSeasons - flew here from India!

Donna Pierce from BlackAmericaCooks.com - from Chicago

Laura Beck from Vegansaurus.com

ELAINE - Srivalli, you were telling us earlier about how your family, kids were such a big influence on starting your blog.

SRIVALLI - When I started in 2007 I had infants on hand, needed a method to our madness. We started writing down exactly what we were going to make for the whole week and strictly follow it. It really helped us, knowing what to cook. Most of us have the big question "What do I make for dinner?" My 9 year old daughter is a really fussy eater. It's tough. I thought, why not make a kids' menu? My daughter would literally tell me what she wanted to eat -- because she chose it she would eat it, and she got invested in me writing about her on my blog.

ELAINE - Donna you have a journalism background but you decided to start a blog about your heritage.

DONNA - Before blogging I wrote a weekly column about my son for 5 years. I was in a small town, won some national awards, people would tell me, it's a food column but it's always about something else. That's what a lot of us do with our blogs. I was at the Chicago Tribune for 7 years, you may have heard about its struggles, the same week I decided to take a buyout my entire department was cancelled. It wasn't an accident -- it was an opportunity to write about something so important to me: Forgotten African American contributions to cooking. I paid $200 a month for storage of old cookbooks. If you go on my site you'll see pix of me in my empty nester condo which is lined with cookbooks. It gave me a chance to share and document things I've learned.

ELAINE - anyone who things food blogs are one - dimensional, so not true. Laura, you were telling me just because you're vegan doesn't mean you're not a foodie.

LAURA - I became vegan 7 years ago and for the first year and a half I subsisted on tater tots, I was a total junk food vegan. My parents got really concerned. I realized I was living somewhere that didn't have a lot of vegan restaurants and I realized I had to learn to cook - I grew up in San Francisco on takeout. I got some vegan cookbooks and started taking the Joy of Cooking and veganizing recipes I thought were awesome and then I got obsessed with cooking. I had no appreciation for food when I was an omnivore, now my mind is so completely open. Last night I made Ethiopian injera! I am so thankful for it making me go there.

ELAINE - I love you're dispelling the myth that vegans can't enjoy food.

LAURA - it's a celebration, not a deprivation.

ELAINE - How do you 3 see yourselfs as diplomats/ambassadors?

LAURA - a lot of people have a very specific idea of what veganism is and think it's my whole identity. I don't eat nuts and berries and I don't just eat potato chips - through my blog I want to show people the awesome things vegans eat. Right now we're veganizing Top Chef: Just Desserts and my mom makes the nonvegan version and my dad is judging. So far we're about 50-50. Though my mom's a terrible cook. So through my blog I'm still part of a food community and sharing that.

QUESTION - Susan. I have a vegan friend and adapting recipes is not that hard I find, but it's brutal when anything baked has to rise. What do you suggest?

LAURA - there are some great vegan blogs that apply to the chemistry of specific recipes. Go to the Post-Punk Kitchen blog - search "eggs" within it.

DONNA - I first heard that when I corresponded with BlogHer and it brought tears to my eyes, it's exactly what my concept for the blog and experience as a food write has been. I'm feeling historic lately because of the times I grew up in and realize how different I am from some of you. I had a home office when nobody did and a gigantic fax machine. The reason I went into food writing after fashion and business journalism -- I spent a year in Europe and realized how that culture appreciated food in a way that made us want to do the same with our traditions. On the train to Italy I met 2 young German women from Berlin. I said I wanted to spend most of my time in Italy because I loved the food, and Doris said I must spend time in Germany and call her when I got there and she invited us to our home. It was 1982; the Wall was up. Our train stopped in East Berlin. The guard was there; there were only 3 Americans -- me, my companion and a man who won Jeopardy. A camera crew took pictures of us. We got on a streetcar to the crossing; they were only allowing old people to cross east to west. When we got there Monica the other German girl was waiting for us. She called us "the Americans." In the US I'm used to being called "African American." And she threw a party for us and made her mother's roast. We toasted in the kitchen and someone said "Here's to world peace. If people were like us, we understand each other sitting here in this kitchen." I can meet people I don't agree with but we can sit and talk about food and family.

SRIVALLI - I was thinking back on some conversations with my readers. Indian cuisine has a lot of disparate preparations. I mostly blog Andhra Pradesh (S. Indian) food. This reader had a love marriage and her husband was from there, she was from elsewhere and didn't know the food and wasn't getting along with her in-laws. She saved her marriage and impressed her in-laws by cooking from my blog! I learned this food from my mom and it has been being passed on for ages, you do feel like you're getting a culture out there for everyone to know when you have that experience. This platform gave me an opportunity to get out there to people I wouldn't have met otherwise.

ELAINE - I hear a lot of family, community, friends in your stories. How important is food to these relationships?

LAURA - I was most afraid of alienation from my omnivorous family when I became vegan. I was kind of lucky that my family doesn't have a strong food relationship; my grandma's diet was cigarettes and bourbon; I never had to turn down her casseroles. I remember my first Thanksgiving as a vegan and my gung-ho presentation about turkeys and slaughterhouses didn't go over well. They rolled with it and I toned it down and the next year I was able to incorporate vegan options and we can integrate. The vegan options are usually tastier anyway (as I said, my family doesn't cook). I have friends who come from families where food is more important and emotional and they have a hard time explaining "I'm not rejecting you with this choice."

DONNA - This morning I talked to my sister in Chicago who has 3 young grandchildren. She put her granddaughter on the phone and she wanted me to bring her rolls from San Francisco. I'm the roll maker in the family. I'm the family cook and I learned southern yeast harbor house rolls from my grandmother. I know exactly how they are supposed to look and feel, how you are supposed to pinch them, the color, the smell. I was so flattered that she would spend this time with me. This grandchild is that person in this generation, she and my niece who puts on her apron and toque and we cook together. I lived in San Francisco for 12 years and revisited my old route in the city last week. When I was here I had just started a new job and my grandma died, my mom told me not to come because I had just started my job. She said just do something to celebrate her. I invited all my friends and cooked all her recipes. I have never made better gumbo.

SRIVALLI - Connecting with what's been done generations ago. My mom is an excellent cook but she still says HER mom is the best. Connecting to children through cooking is the best way. Ultimately food is everything.

QUESTION - about preconceived notions. I was at a restaurant where the waiter made a disparaging comment about vegan potatoes then apologized when I said I was vegan. How do you become an ambassador to people who are not your willing blog followers, who may be a natural critic?

LAURA - Great question. My blog is based in San Francisco, we do a lot of local food blogging so we're part of that community, we get picked up by local media often. We'll post something that's well received in our community then it runs on the Chronicle and the comments there are a whole other can of worms, and I have to go defend myself there. I write about veganism on local media like SFist, as well. But slowly I build relationships and expand the circle of people who know I'm not a loon are willing to try it out. I do feel that because we're at the communal table and part of the conversation, we're seeing more acceptance. We need to be around, be out there in the community, not only eat at vegan restaurants but announce veganism at every restaurant. "We walk amongst you."

DONNA - my blog is specifically for black Americans in terms of soul food and in terms of capturing the recipes we are in danger of losing and making them more healthful. But they are southern recipes. Politically there is a different twist on that. I was on the board of Southern Foodways 7 years ago. What I found was that they were specifically narrowing down what was the South. You had to be born and raised in the South; they asked about grandmothers. But because African Americans had two great waves of migration to the North and because people moved to California, Chicago, New York, we have retained the southern food that was our heritage almost more intact that people in the South. Southern Foodways did a trip to Chicago when Edna Lewis was still alive and John T Edwards saw some dishes there he doesn't see any more in the South. So much has been borrowed, so much came from people in the kitchens, I want to make sure African Americans understand these are recipes that we helped to create. It's attraction and not recruitment. Other southerners will look at my okra dishes and like them but I'm not going to convince anyone to love okra. It's not possible. No way. My son was born in San Francisco and my mom said "If you want a son with a southern palate you have 2 years to make him like grits." And I served him grits and he loves them.

SRIVALLI - there are different opinions about Indian cuisine. And it's so different from the rich, creamy "Indian food" projected internationally. It's about the simple lentil dish. That's what I make on my blog and people say "that's what my grandma used to make" and I am documenting it -- cookbooks favor the popular to the everyday Indian home food.

QUESTION - Ann of East Bay Ethnic Eats has a politeness question. I feel like food is a way people can understand other cultures. As an outsider, is there etiquette and ethics for me to follow? How can I talk about authenticity?

SRIVALLI - If you talk about Indian culture, it differs family to family. People refer specifically to their family culture. Each state has a different culture too, and they're proud. I blog about how I celebrate the festivals I follow, and people respond with how they do it. You have to follow what's being taught in your home and can learn new things.

QUESTION - How would you feel about me writing about Southern Indian cooking if I had an informant or went to the market?

DONNA - YES! When I reviewed restaurants of cultures of which I was not familiar, I always made sure there was someone of that culture to come along and explain and make sure I wasn't misrepresenting. It is important to have diversity at the table. When I was at the Tribune, I pitched a giant story about Juneteenth. Was a Texas celebration with red tea, soda. Recently there is a big movement all over (http://www.juneteenth.com/). I met a man who had ridden to his first Juneteenth in Texas in a wagon. When I pitched this story, "How unusual to go to a white tablecloth soul food restaurant" was the common reaction of food writers -- which was not respectful. I sat at that table and insisted that I wanted the story and images to be respectful. There is a link on my blog to the favorite cover I ever ran. The photographer, the food stylist, everyone understood we were talking about something that was cherished, that needed respect.

ELAINE - as an Asian American you are neither Asian nor American. I was American in Asia and Asian in America. The fact that you're acknowledging that there's a chance you could be inaccurately reporting about another culture and you care? That's hugely important. My parents think my Caucasian husband is more Asian than I am. He's hugely respectful..

QUESTION - Susan. I am from the Jewish culture and also learned to cook from my grandmather. She did not write her recipes down and they died with her. I don't have an idea how to go back and start figuring out. Do I find a recipe and start playing with it to recreate what I remember?

DONNA - My mother passed away 7 years ago. When a great cook is gone it's like a library has closed. I had learned almost all her recipes, but at Christmas I woke up and realized Oh my god, I don't know how to do the pralines. Fortunately she had a friend she used to make them with who could tell me. I have a new blog launching, Skillet Diaries. It's to help people save their family recipes. One of the things -- the pinch or whatever, get a Flip and videotape someone doing the recipe. I have some irritable aunts who refuse to measure. There will be ways to share your family recipes. Even if you, your kids, your siblings hate to cook you still owe it to the next generation to get it down.

SRIVALLI - there are a few traditional family dishes that can only be made right with practice. There are a few breads my mother in law is expert at. I took a video of how she made them and it got me closer, I can always go back. That's a wonderful way of recording the past.

SUSAN - My mom has put together a very simple binder of family recipes.

QUESTION - Beth of OMG! Yummy - is there anything about 2 generations away, everyone is talking about their amazing grandmothers. My grandma was born in 1929 and there was always food. None of her 6 kids even my mom learned that, but I learned it from my grandma. Did something happen during the Depression? Why didn't any of the kids learn?

DONNA - It was the 1950s, the can opener cookbook, the idea of modern convenience. My mom was born in 1930 and thought the quick cooking was fabulous and traditional recipes were old fashioned. When I decided to write about food my mother was aghast. My brother is a doctor my sister is a lawyer, why would I go into food at a time of first wave feminism?

COMMENT - I am from Texas, not African American but grew up going to Juneteenth, Mexican and German cultural celebrations in San Antonio. I learned from my grandmother too, my mom doesn't cook. My grandmother refused to eat from a box. That's a niche we can capitalize on, there is a backlash of eating from boxes. Going forward we will be able to give that to our children, going back to slow food. You don't get heritage from a box.

ELAINE - we're ambassadors for families and cultures too, like Laura.

LAURA - yes and this "no box" idea is part of my culture because factory farming is getting worse, we're just starting to learn not to listen to what corporations are saying and learn how to get healthier as a nation by listening to what's healthier for you.

QUESTION - My grandmother had 9 kids, everyone cooked. We loved it. Every Christmas everyone came over and cooked. With my blog I am having issues with my aunts, mother, family saying "You can't put THAT out there! What are you doing?" They don't have a problem with me sharing traditions with family, but sharing with the world? My grandmother was the queen of sweet potato pie and she does not want her church to have that recipe. So my blog is traditional foods of my family but with my healthier twist. By god if I shared my family secrets I'd be hung, seriously.

ELAINE - blogging is a great way to archive and document, not just educating others.

COMMENT - response to the 1950s comment. The whole country was rejecting not just cooking but ethnicity. You weren't expected to speak your grandparents' language or traditions. We're not re-embracing our roots. Also everyone thinks their grandma's recipes are secret but they're not.

DONNA - Leah Chase of Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans is great. Leah says "there are no secret recipes. What we need to do is share them for the rest of the people cooking or they definitely will be gone."

SRIVALLI - I also blog about diabetes, it's very common in India. When I blog about recipes for diabetic people there should be nothing secret about it. My father is a diabetic doctor who wants to bring awareness to it.

LAURA - My dad was told to eat low cholesterol before his hip replacement, his doctor told him he should eat vegan, which was kind of the ultimate victory for me, coming closer to my dad through his operations.

ELAINE - What are your long term blogging goals?

LAURA - to make veganism more accessible. You don't have to be vegan to eat vegan. And to keep showing people that it's a part of what I am but not the whole and that most of my friends are omnivores. I have found a vegan community through blogging, we come together and share and then go share out to our omnivore friends and family.

DONNA - in my culture, black Americans and Creole cooking is most important to me but I celebrate other backgrounds and I want to encourage and assist everyone to preserve traditional foodways and also make old recipes more healthful. One time I cooked everything for my son with lard and he didn't know it, and he exclaimed about every single thing, "These are the BEST!" So there is something to lard, but I cook very healthfully. My business card is a recipe card with the healthiest most delicious soul food recipe in the world -- roasted eggplant, okra and greens.

SRIVALLI - Good food is always with memories, when you're sharing your memories you're creating new memories for your audience. It has to be reaching out to larger audience that they get some benefit from what I want to share.

I'm your liveblogger, BlogHer Managing Editor Julie Ross Godar aka Honeybeast. Email me if you have any questions!

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