by Krissy Scommegna
40 people. 9 shared meals. 20 participant-driven workshops. 4 days of culinary bliss.
This is Eat Retreat: a collaborative weekend for leaders in the food world where skills and knowledge are shared, meals are made and dishes are washed together, meaningful connections are solidified, and indulging in good food and drink is highly encouraged.
I first heard about Eat Retreat in 2013 when founder Kathryn Tomajan and director Heather Marold Thomason stopped by the Boonville Hotel where I was working as a sous chef. They were looking for a good meal, an interesting community, and insights about hosting an event in the Anderson Valley. While I was immediately interested in attending, I wasn’t sure if I was really qualified to be there. I had only been cooking for a few years and didn’t really consider myself a “food leader” of any kind. But I applied thinking I may as well see if I had something to offer.
Even if I was the token local, I couldn’t have felt more honored, and incredibly nervous, about being selected to attend as a 24 year-old. I packed up pounds and pounds of the dried chiles my family grows and drove 10 minutes down the road to the camp where I would spend the next four days.
This sounds incredibly cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway: what was waiting for me was truly life-changing. I gained confidence in myself, in the work I was doing, my skills as a chef, and made connections with people I wanted to be when I grew up. Eat Retreat helped push me to be in and stay in the food industry, where there were genuinely good people doing cool things.
When I learned that this year’s Eat Retreat would be hosted in my home state of Wisconsin, I applied without even thinking twice. There was no way I could miss out on this. I wanted to spend the weekend extolling the virtues of Wisconsin supper clubs, the iconic relish tray, and the importance of a squeaky cheese curd. And I did just that.
In mid-September, a select group of food professionals from around the U.S. and Canada converged at a summer camp in Delevan, WI. I was there to greet them with the best cheese whips and curds the state had to offer and the perfectly mixed Brandy Old Fashioned, a Wisconsin tradition.
These are my people. My Eat Retreat family. A story-driven photographer with one of the best collections of agricultural photos around. An organic olive oil and almond producer. A food journalist. A founding fisherman of a community supported fishery. A sustainable protein and cricket enthusiast. An advocate fighting rural hunger. A handful of artisan food makers. A food anthropologist. Food writers and food stylists. A member of the Vermont Workinglands Enterprise Initiative. A butcher working to improve and localize supply chains. A certified olive oil taster and miller. And me—a chef, dried chile pepper producer, non-profit program director, and graduate student.
There was even a fellow Friedmanite! A 2005 graduate of the Nutrition Communications program, Cathy Carmichael is a Registered Dietician currently working as the Project Manager at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. Cathy had this to say about her experience: “Eat Retreat brought together an eclectic group of food professionals passionate about sharing their craft through formal and informal learning opportunities. I left the retreat with true admiration for my colleagues and their great work in an complex industry.”
At this point, you’re probably wondering what happens on Eat Retreat. Attendees plan and determine the weekend’s workshops, making the event different every year. Everyone is encouraged to dream big, meaning that anything and everything can happen.
We talked about Midwestern food traditions and how Friday Fish Fry’s and meat raffles are the norm. We had a domestic cheese tasting, featuring over 35 different cheeses. We learned the delicate art of cocktail mixology and even made our own bitters. We discussed the Alaskan salmon industry and learned how to butcher a Coho. We experimented with sourdough and ferments. We learned different techniques for baking pies. We discussed the process of creating a food facility.
We talked about body image, food guilt, and the interplay of food and sex. We discussed local food cultures and the difference between amplification and appropriation. We had a bourbon and ham tasting and ate a Tamworth ham that our resident Vermonter cured in his basement for four years. We cooked each meal with local fare and other ingredients brought by attendees. We shared cutting boards and allowed for professional chefs and home cooks to teach each other in the kitchen. We became friends, stayed up too late, and had a stupid amount of fun.
I ate too much. Laughed until I cried, and maybe almost peed a little. I shared my passions about food with people who genuinely cared and felt similarly. Got suckered into tap dancing. Cooked some pretty delicious food. Caught rainbow trout, cleaned it, and ate it for dinner. Roasted marshmallows over the campfire. Swigged Malort. And went to bed each night feeling overly nourished from the food, fun, and community that filled my soul and woke up ready to do it again the next day.
Next year when the call for applications rings through kitchens across the country, consider applying for Eat Retreat. We at Friedman have an interesting story to tell about food and the role of our studies in the broader world of nutrition and agriculture. As the next leaders in food policy, our voices contribute to the wider conversation about the current and future state of food in our country. Facilitating conversation between policy advocates and those actually working in the food industry is important and necessary. We can be the ones to make it happen and Eat Retreat can be a way to make those connections possible.
Krissy Scommegna has been to Eat Retreat twice and is pretty proud of the quark ranch dip, potato gratin, and pecorino + piment d’ville popcorn she made. Her biggest accomplishment of the weekend? Learning how to properly sharpen her knives.