Interview: Brooklyn Food Book Fair Founder Elizabeth Thacker Jones

05/09/2012 10:41 AM |

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With its world-renowned restaurants, artisanal food products, and glut of food writers residing here, Brooklyn has become the epicenter of food culture in New York City, if not the world. Should you need any further proof, the first-ever Food Book Fair, a three-day conference of panel discussions and unique food experiences and dinners, took place in Brooklyn from May 4-6 at the newly erected Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, and featured presenters such as cooking guru Harold McGee, nutritionist Marion Nestle, and food justice advocate Bryant Terry. But rather than focus on, say, just restaurant trends or sustainability, the long list of panels covered a plethora of broad topics related to food, from food and art, to cooking for change; and several nighttime events that include a dinner inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

The event’s creator, Elizabeth Thacker Jones, shared her thoughts on how the Food Book Fair got started, and where it might be headed.

So we know the Food Book Fair is “the first ever event bringing together food publications from around the world alongside a dynamic set of events celebrating food writing, reading, and activism.” What other multi-faceted events that you were inspired by?

I was inspired by the interest in talking about food as well as eating it — Just Food CSA in NYC Conference, Brooklyn Food Conference and the Young Farmers Conference — I’ve attended them all. I was also inspired by Pop!Tech and the 92nd Street Y and gatherings like PSFK. There’s a community of writers and artists whose work isn’t just about moving a conversation about food systems forward even if they ultimately do push it along. I want to believe that people are talking about food so much because it’s fun but also because we are craving to know more about the supply chain. It used to be fairly simple to track—now food changes many hands and if a chef is clued into it, they might be writing about it in addition to recording their recipes. Can we chalk it up to our culture showing interest in food systems? I’d like to find out.

Was there an overarching theme to this year’s fair?

The lines between a systems conversation and a culture conversation are being redrawn — I’ll give Michelle Obama credit for that. Her planting a victory garden at the White House and coupling it with a conversation about America’s nutrition is propelling this movement too. I think first our goal is make sure people know that “food books” are not just cookbooks. People keep saying, “I can’t wait to come to your cookbook fair!” and I have to correct them. We’ve had inquires to bring the Fair to other conferences whose themes are very specific; hopefully what we have to bring is the ability to connect the dots—authors who are writing about one topic who are coming from completely different perspectives and trades. We had several designers and artists involved this year and hope their presence will be reoccurring.

Is this event something you think could be replicated in other cities, and if so do you plan to start them elsewhere?

San Francisco and Chicago has shown interest but we need a sponsor to take us under their wing. We could scale up or down (narrowing our bookstore to 100 was probably the most difficult part of putting this all together) but I think what’s most stand-out this year are the discussions and that’s a lot of planning. Some of it is luck. On Sunday, Maite Gomez-Rejon was on a panel with Paul Freedman. Together, they spoke about food scholarship which is a pretty new concept. It’s an essential subject but is just now becoming more prevalent in academia and in the public. So we were validating not only ourselves as the Food Book Fair but new ideas. We’ll have to see if they catch on.