An assortment of scones, bagels, muffins and croissants lined the breakfast table of the Kelly Writers House — a perfect way to launch the Penn Food Summit.
On Sunday morning, foodies and writers spilled out from the crowded House’s Arts Café for the Penn Food Summit, the first ever formal gathering of college food magazines and gastronomy club leaders across the east coast.
College senior and former editor of the campus food magazine, Penn Appétit Alex Marcus, headed the Penn Food Summit Planning Committee, which recruited the panelists that spoke Sunday.
A year ago he applied for the Kerry Grant, a grant intended to support a Writers House program, and he won the prize to launch the Food Summit.
The Committee organized two panels, one on food writing and the other on food sustainability.
“I come from a family of bossy and aggressive eaters,” said Drew Lazor, associate food and drink editor at Philadelphia City Paper, a free alternative news weekly and an author of its food blog, Meal Ticket. But he never thought of food as a career path, he said, he just fell into it.
Rick Nichols, who wrote a food column for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years and now teaches journalistic writing at Penn, stumbled into food writing as a reporter. “I’ve been in newspapers forever,” he said. One day, he just found himself writing a food column.
On the other hand, Deb Perelman’s food writing career started with food, not with writing. “I really just like to cook. I like playing around with recipes.”
When she started her blog, Smitten Kitchen, she thought it would last six months. It’s been almost six years and she’s publishing a cookbook this fall.
Her mother had cooked her way through Julia Child’s cookbook, but Perelman didn’t start cooking until she was married and could share the recipes with someone she cared about.
“People are so enthusiastic about food right now,” Perelman said, and food blogging is getting more popular. And while all three panelists agreed that both print and online critics play important roles in food writing, they also criticized sites like Yelp.
“Guess what happens when you get a free meal? You’re instantly compromised.” Food critics on sites like Yelp cannot write unbiased pieces about the food they taste when each meal is a gift, Nichols said.
Perelman added she doesn’t use Yelp because in order to trust reviewers, “you have to get to know [them] and their taste and how they lock in with yours.”
The next three panelists discussed food issues like sustainability, obesity, local food growth and the challenges of helping lower-income families access healthy food.
Although Mary Seton Corboy owns an organic farm and runs the Neighborhood Urban Agriculture Coalition, she sometimes goes out of her way to buy a bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. “I like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, sue me!” she joked.
But that doesn’t diminish her devotion to the local sustainable food cause. “All I ever wanted was a decent tomato,” Corboy said. When she found herself in the middle of Philly’s local food movement, she realized, most other people “couldn’t care less [about] local foods.” The problem is, consumers are not aware of what the right choice is.
Angela Wagner, food policy coordinator for Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, agreed. “The healthy choice should be the easy choice,” but it’s not. She wants “to help remove barriers” and provide access to healthy food instead of cheap food. The problem is that many people can only afford cheaper products.
The final panelist, Judy Wicks, had founded White Dog Cafe, transformed the it into a restaurant that serves only local and cruelty-free foods and now spends much of her time at her non-profit, Fair Food.
The audience admired these women for their advances in the field of sustainable food systems, and left with at least one good tip: absolutely taste Sugar Philly food truck’s milk and honey meringues.
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