Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Key West Literary Seminar

I wrote this report up for the food website, but never heard back from the editor in charge of the site, so I have given up on them and decided to post here.
Now in its 29th year, the Key West Literary Seminar focuses in 2011 on “The Hungry Muse: An exploration of Food in Literature.” Many participants will be familiar to dedicated foodies, including Ruth Reichl, Judith Jones, Frank Bruni and Molly O’Neill. The seminar has been broken into two halves; the program repeats, in slightly different format, two weekends a row in Key West.
Ruth Reichl began the conference with a talk in which she attempted to explain the reasons behind the explosion in food writing over the past twenty years or so. Her thesis was that as we have become disengaged from the production and preparation of food, we seek that connection through reading about it. Throughout the seminar she was an energetic and enthusiastic participant, with masses of dark curly hair and very skinny legs.
The rain disappeared and the first reception, at the Audubon House, went off as planned, with platters of moist turkey, an elaborate cheese table, and appetizers of grilled grouper wrapped in bacon, shrimp ceviche on toast, and lamb lollipops. The occasional raindrop filtering down through the high treetops was balanced out by liberal wine pourings.
Former poet laureate Billy Collins kicked off the Friday morning session with what was billed as “A Gravy Boatload of Poems” -- his own and others. His first choice was Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry,” which begins with an arresting image of ink running from the corners of the poet’s mouth as he devours poetry.
Other Friday programs included a panel discussion between Jason Epstein, Darra Goldstein, Molly O’Neill and Calvin Trillin on the topic of “Transubstantiation: Madeleines, Anyone?” Sadly, as with many of the panel discussions, panelists hadn’t prepared in advance, made little attempt to stick to the topic, and rambled as they pleased. Did you know, for example, that Molly O’Neill couldn’t wait to get out of her hometown of Columbus, Ohio? I know that now-- since she mentioned it at least four or five times, pretty much during every panel where she spoke. I have to say I know an awful lot about her (I’d never heard of her before) because she pretty much repeated her biography as part of every panel she participated in.
The panelists were usually charming, with the exception of the elderly Mr. Epstein, who mumbled and fumbled and sometimes seemed confused as to where he was. But he was balanced out by the charming Judith Jones, who brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to every panel she participated in. She mentioned that she felt we have bought into the idea that cooking is work, forgetting the pleasure involved in preparing food. She noted that the generation after World War II wanted to be liberated from the kitchen, and that packaged foods facilitated that liberation.
She also told the “true story” behind the scene in the movie Julie and Julia where she cancelled her dinner at Julie’s. Julia Child was horrified at the language Julie used in her blog and asked Jones not to have anything to do with Julie, even though Jones had been planning to make her visit about protecting the publisher’s rights rather than validating Julie’s project.
In cookbooks, Jones looks for works that use words precisely and explain what’s being done. The joy of Julia Child, she said, was that Child taught you techniques which you could then use in preparing your own recipes. She is also interested in books that focus on the pleasure of eating.
The program organizers worked with a number of different Key West restaurants to set up special menus for seminar participants. I ended up at the Banana Café, a French restaurant which served us an awesome seven-course meal, from appetizers of lukewarm spring potato filled with a goat-cheese-crème fraiche mousse topped with ossetra caviar and a marinated cherry tomato filled with a crab remoulade all the way through fish, duck and cheese courses, finishing with a chocolate truffle served on a tiny spoon. Each course was accompanied by French wines, and a representative of the wine distributor came to our table to explain each wine and how it matched the food.
One of Saturday’s highlights was a presentation by Julia Reed entitled “Drinking and Other Southern Pursuits.” She had the audience laughing to stories of after parties at her parents’ home in Mississippi, and the food and drink served then. In a hit-or-miss program, she was a hit, while a twenty-minute reading of a recipe for a stuffed leg of lamb was a definite miss. Molly O’Neill, who followed that speaker, even asked the audience, “Anyone out there awake after that?”
Roy Blount Jr. and Calvin Trillin shared the stage for the concluding event of Saturday night, entitled “What ever happened to chicken a la king?” They spent a couple of minutes wondering about lost foods-- then went on to joke about a dozen topics, some of them actually related to food. But their delivery was worth the price of admission.
The concluding reception was held at the Custom House museum, featuring cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres, but with a focus on desserts including key lime pie, chocolate mousse, bananas foster and bread pudding.
The most provocative panel was one of the last, late on Sunday morning. Jason Epstein, Judith Jones, Molly O’Neill and Ruth Reichl addressed the catchall topic of “Food in America.” Epstein insisted that all you needed to learn how to cook was a cookbook and a good set of Japanese knives, though he did admit that he learned everything he knew about cooking while working in restaurants. Molly O’Neill differed with him, saying that she felt the Internet could deliver an immersive experience in demonstrating cooking techniques that a book couldn’t match.

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