One of my grandfathers was a consummate storyteller. He alternately raised and lowered his voice as he spun a yarn, and his eyebrows wriggled across his forehead as he spoke. We hung on his every word.
Preachers are good storytellers; so are insurance salesmen and actors and successful real estate agents. Farmers? Scientists? Usually not such great storytellers - or if they are, their story hasn't been getting out.
For the past few decades, farmers have been delivering their onions and apples to the back doors of vast supermarkets; we walk in the front doors and select our produce from gleaming, shiny heaps without any knowledge of the farmer, or the farm, or the people who harvested our food. Scientists bend over lab benches and discover amazing things, but their findings are usually printed in obscure journals that no one reads.
Thankfully, that's changing. We're starting to hear stories from farmers and scientists, and real, measurable change is occuring as a result. Case in point: Al Gore turned global warming into a gripping story, and it spread like wildfire. A good story turns facts and figures into meaningful components of the human experience. When we know what happened to the cow we're about to eat, or we know where our carrots came from, or when someone takes the time to explain what genetic recombination in soy beans really means, it changes the whole dynamic of our experience as consumers.
One of the Taste3 sessions was called Storytellers, but it was immediately clear to me that the whole conference was about the art of telling a story. The presenters who knew how to communicate their passions in the form of a story had me on the edge of my seat.
These were some of my favorites:
Jeffery Henderson. I met Jeffery, otherwise known as “Chef Jeff” in the hallway between sessions, and got to hear his story before he delivered it onstage. A striking man, Jeff grew up in a poor neighborhood, and began dealing drugs while he was still a teen. He spent 19 years in prison, and afterwards turned to cooking as a way out. His is a riveting story about redemption, determination, and the power of a dream. Will Smith has already purchased the rights to this tale; I’ll be first in line for a movie ticket. But first, I’m ordering Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, From Cocaine to Foie Gras.
Dennis Van Engelsdorp. I’ve never met a bee expert before, but listening to Dennis made me want to don a jumpsuit and a faceguard and walk amongst the bees. He was witty and gregarious, while making it clear that the recent mass bee deaths are more than just a random occurrence; they’re a tragedy that will ultimately affect all of us. Are the bees the canaries in the coal mine? he asked. That's the million-dollar question...
David Arnold. Hilarious. The audience was in stitches as David described his quest to create the perfect gin and tonic – it’s all about the bubbles! and the tangy, crisp citrus-y flavor! – and his relentless pursuit of the proper equipment to achieve said goal (“So I got on eBay…”). He brought out plastic bags filled with various powdered things such as citric acid and quinine and repeatedly forgot how to use the laser pointer. Later in the day, he offered samples of his concoctions, assisted by none other than Harold McGee. I'll never be able to drink Schweppe's tonic water again.
Observation: Harold McGee is always smiling. I only got to chat with him for a few moments, but he seems like an incredibly nice person. He told me that the guy who won “Tea with Harold McGee” in the Menu for Hope drawing had to leave the country for a few months, so they haven’t gotten together yet. Bummer! He'd be a delightful person to chat with over tea.
Georges Halpern. This man has so many credentials to his name that you might think he would be insufferably boring, but oooh no. He had the crowd in giggles as he spoke about the pleasure principle – don’t do what you don’t like! Be happy! Guilt, he said, gives us sore throats. Sample quote? “When you eat what you like, it’s good for you. The rest is nonsense.” Can I get an amen?
Blair Randall. Gardens blooming all over San Francisco = Victory. Blair described the mysterious ways in which gardening can infect people and neighborhoods; how an accountant can become obsessed with heirloom apple trees, or a stark city yard can turn into a sea of bok choy. Down with concrete, and up with peonies! It made me want to get my hands dirty.
David Molyneux-Berry. Intrigue. Scandal. Thievery. Who knew that all of these words could be applied to the well-heeled world of wine? Mr. Berry, dressed in a white suit, gave a compelling account of the underground world of wine fraud. He spoke of hushed negotiations in darkened wine cellars, of terse conversations between wine appraisers at the best auction houses in the country. As he spoke, I pictured an erstwhile counterfeiter bent over a vintage wine bottle in a dim basement room, etching a fake signature into the glass. I smell a movie script... where's George Clooney?
Dan Barber. He had me at the first sentence. Dan was the last speaker at the conference, and anyone who slipped out before he came on stage truly missed out. He told the story of the afternoon he saw a beautiful girl on a bus as he was traveling towards Blue Hill; he was so besotted with her that he started talking about what he wanted to do with his life. "You want the carrot to be... the carrot," she enthused. His conversations with her helped to shape his nascent vision. Love, obsession, frustration, root vegetables... it was all there.
Other people are writing about Taste3:
Heather Irwin from The Press Democrat:
Meredith Arthur and Lessley Anderson from CHOW:
Sara Deseran from 7 x 7 Magazine:
Photos above (taken by me):
(top) The Taste3 stage inside Copia
(bottom) David Arnold (left) and Harold McGee (right)