Eat, Write, Retreat 2011 – A Recap (and a Treat for You!)

When I shuffled into an airport cab in the wee hours of the morning last Friday, the lilac bush outside my back door was covered with clusters of tightly furled buds.

Just three short days later, as I dragged my swag-laden suitcases back into the house on Sunday evening, I realised that very same lilac bush had burst into bloom and was full of gloriously scented purple blossoms.

I think it’s a fitting metaphor for the way I feel after this weekend’s trip to Eat, Write, Retreat in Washington, DC – my mind is still a jumble of ideas and images, but it’s clear that something that had been lying dormant inside of me has been coaxed into riotous bloom after spending three days learning from some of the most inspiring, talented and hilarious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Since everyone else seems to be doing their recap in a numbered list, I figure I may as well do the same. So, without further ado, here are the Top Five Things I Liked Best About Eat, Write, Retreat:

5. Monica Bhide’s Writing Workshop:
I’d read Monica’s blog before, so I already knew her as an engaging and inspiring writer. What I didn’t know is how engaging and inspiring she is as a teacher. Her workshop made me want to run back to my hotel room to write everything down before I could forget a single word. She made me realise I’ve gotten lazy with my writing, and that I could do so much better if only I took the time to choose my words and stories more carefully.


It probably helps that Shauna James Ahern was sitting at my table during the workshop, and just blew me away with her ability to effortlessly string words together in near-mystical ways. I offhandedly described a handful of bamboo rice with “it smells like Play-Doh”, and like magic, she spun my rather mundane comment into a poetic reference to hungry children with small, chubby hands. I want to write like that when I grow up.


So I plan on taking a lot of Monica’s advice to heart. I will write with all my senses. I will begin reading, not just voraciously (as I already do), but indiscriminately – my vocabulary has suffered from its steady diet of corporate policy and fluffy chick lit. I will write something each and every day – not blog posts or policy briefings, but write solely for the sake of writing, like pounding out piano scales one after the other until it becomes stored in muscle memory and ceases to feel like practice.

leviscafe4. Soul Food at Levi’s Port Cafe:
On Saturday night, we took a walking tour of Capitol Hill to explore the sights and tastes of the iconic DC neighbourhood. Capitol Hill is utterly charming, with its colourful houses and lush gardens, so I have to admit I was a little taken aback when our guide literally took us to the wrong side of the tracks (or rather, the wrong side of the underpass) for what was billed as some of the best soul food in town.
While Levi’s is in a slightly less charming part of Capitol Hill, there’s plenty of charm to be found as soon as you step inside. I loved everything about this place… the cool glass of sweet tea sitting on the table, the antique stained-glass windows, the genuinely warm and friendly service, and (most of all) the generous portions of vinegar-doused Carolina-styled pulled pork and creamy mac n’ cheese. It’s proof that the best food is sometimes found in the most surprising places.
A big, big thanks to DC Food Tours for taking us on such a delicious adventure.

nightflag3. The Mall After Dark:
With a jam-packed schedule, there really wasn’t much time left over for the typical touristy things like museums and souvenir shopping and sight-seeing.
That’s why I’m glad I managed to overcome my tiredness after the Capitol Hill tour on Saturday night, and joined a small group of other attendees for a late-night walk down the Mall to check out the illuminated monuments.
Mind you, we only managed to check out the Washington and WWII monuments before my feet decided they’d had enough punishment for one day, but at least I got to play tourist for a short while… plus, I got some pretty kick-ass photos out of it.
Many thanks to Maisha from Girl Born Hungry for taking us out-of-towners under her wing and showing us around her hometown. She’s a fantastic tour guide. I hope I can return the favour someday!

mandoline2. Engaging with Sponsors:
Aside from the huge bags overflowing with swag that were handed to us as soon as we arrived at registration, we were showered all weekend long with products and demos from sponsors like Calphalon, Oxo, California Endive, Lindsay Olives, Jarlsberg Cheese, Goo Goo Clusters and more, we also had plenty of opportunities to chat one-on-one with many of the sponsors’ representatives who sat with us side-by-side in seminars and tagged along for outings.
And not just the sponsors, either… all the writers and editors and photographers who shared their wisdom and experience with us in workshops and panels were there for the rest of the weekend, sitting among us “lowly” bloggers. If there were inflated egos in the room, I certainly didn’t notice them.


I really enjoyed getting their point of view on blogging, and on what we bloggers can do to engage brands in ethical and appropriate ways. It can be done – it’s just a matter of choosing carefully.
And did I mention the swag? I had so much to take home, I had to sit on my suitcase to zip it shut! A waffle maker takes up a surprisingly large amount of space… go figure.

1. Bonding with Bloggers:
christinaThis weekend felt like a long-overdue reunion with a lot of old friends I’d never met. I can be a little tongue-tied and intimidated when surrounded by a large group of strangers, but I think the fact that all of us were incredibly passionate about food, writing and/or photography really helped to smooth the way. It probably helps that the group was small enough that I had a chance to speak to almost everyone at some point during the weekend.

I knew I was among friends when Dan announced “I just want steamed crab in a bag” as we cabbed down to the wharf for lunch on Friday, or when I looked around the table at the McCormick & Shmick’s lunch on Saturday and realised everyone else was also taking photos of their main course before diving in. These are people with that same itch to reach out and grab life by the tastebuds, and then to turn around and share it through words and photos and recipes. They get it. They really do.


I’m so glad I finally got to meet some of my blogging and Twitter buddies in person, and even more wonderful to make some new connections with bloggers I’d never met before.

Sadly, I didn’t take nearly enough photos at the event. I think I was too busy eating and talking and enjoying myself… but here are some of my favourites from the weekend:


ethancrab bagocrabs


Halibut in Miso Broth buffet
Dan Lara

Thanks again to Robin Webb and Casey Benedict for organizing such an inspiring conference, and to the team of volunteers who helped them make it happen. Great job, ladies!

I also want to give a big shout-out to one sponsor who wasn’t able to join us for the weekend: Canadian Beef. This magical experience couldn’t have happened without the conference scholarships they generously offered to five lucky Canadians, myself included.
(PS – Canadian Beef is running another contest right now, and you could win all sorts of prizes ranging from free groceries to kitchen gadgets. Check out the Canadian Beef blog for more info.)

Photo Credit: Olga Berman

Also, the wonderful folks at Calphalon seem to think they didn’t give enough away this weekend, because they’re offering my readers an exclusive 10% off on online purchases* at between now and June 6th by using promotional code C95926.

So there you have it. I came, I saw, I ate… and by golly, I can’t wait to do it again next year!

* Note: Clearance Items and Gift Certificates do not qualify for 10% discount. Excludes John Boos & Co. Cannot be combined with other special offers or applied to previous purchases. Terms subject to change. Offer valid through June 6th, 2011.


  1. Maya@Foodiva's Kitchen says

    Isabelle, I get you, I totally do. And I love this post… if your writing’s been dormant as you’d said, it certainly didn’t show or else was reawakened by this wonderful gathering! I don’t often get misty-eyed reading food blogs, but this post was heartfelt, and yes, I felt it ;-). Oh, I also didn’t realise you’ve revamped your old blog to this crazy-chic one. In fact, you’re still the Bad Girl, in an amazingly good way!

  2. Jackie says

    Those are amazing photos! Do you know, if it was hosted in Canada then it was always going to be awesome… ;)

    Man. I want to come next year! At the very least I must make it up your way to play!

    Jax x

  3. Valerie says

    HI Isabelle! Thanks for the recap. It was great to meet you. I hope we'll keep in touch and see each other at next year's EWR.

  4. Christina says

    What a wonderful recap! It was truly a pleasure meeting you this past weekend. The experience definitely left us all with an astounding craving to better our skills for not only ourselves but for our readers. It was a pleasure and hopefully our paths will cross again soon!

  5. Johnna says

    What a great recap. Your photos have really captured the experience. It was great to meet you!

  6. Colleen (Souffle Bombay) says

    This was a wonderful recap! You nailed it :) It was great meeting you last weekend!
    Your photos are just beautiful!!
    I love the crab shots – I wish I would have made it for crabs!! YUM!!

  7. The Experimental Gourmand says

    Hi Isabelle! It was so great to meet you at the dinner on Friday night, and I wish we'd gotten to hang out some more. Love to meet up with you guys the next time you do a crabfest. I can tell from the photo, that Dan might have needed a hand cleaning all of those!

    @Ruth, there is a conference for UK bloggers in August in London. I have the link on my website under Food Events/Markets.

  8. Isabelle says

    @Foodhound and @Mardi: From what I've heard of a big conferences like BHF, it's easy to get overwhelmed… lots of people, lots of events, lots of noise. Doesn't really sound like my scene. This, on the other hand, felt just right.

    @Betty Ann: It was a pleasure meeting you. I, for one, am glad you're giving your mother's recipes away for free! :) I've been dying to discover Philippino cuisine, so I can't wait to read more about it on your blog.

    @Kimmy: Yep. That's you and Ethan shooting the bag o' crabs at the wharf. I love how half of my photos involve someone with a camera in front of their face, taking a picture of their food. If that doesn't sum us up, I don't know what does! :)

    @Ruth: I might be mistaken, but I think there's a food blogging conference planned for the UK later this year. Might be worth checking out… there are some lovely Brit bloggers (many of whom I hope to meet someday).

  9. Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite says

    Great recap Isabelle. EWR and BHF are two completely different events and I know for now that I am done with large events (having done IFBC, Foodbuzz and now BHF). Here's hoping there are more scholarship opps next year for this event.

  10. Kimmy Bingham says

    ((hugs)) I love your photos and your description of the weekend. It sums it all up perfectly. I think Ethan and I were taking photos of the crabs there weren't we? Such a great weekend!

  11. Betty Ann says

    Great post! You captured our sentiments so well. Thanks for sharing. It was nice meeting you, even if it was so brief!

  12. The Food Hound says

    I am jealous!! I just got back from BlogHer and I think EWR was better based on what people are saying about it :) So glad you had a great time!

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