the big summer potluck of 2012 and reflections

I spent last night in a shiny, modern hotel in Manhattan, on Crosby Street in Soho. It was my last night in the city, and the first night since leaving the Big Summer Potluck in Pennsylvania. The previous two nights, I’d shared a room in a Bethlehem hotel with two talented and beautiful friends, Winnie and Lindsay. But last night, I was by myself again, soon to head home to my family.

In the elevator on my way down to breakfast this morning, I caught myself avoiding looking at my reflection in the mirrored elevator walls. I’ve never liked seeing myself in mirrors. When faced with mirrors, I tend to focus only on the necessary parts, singularly – the contour of my eyelid as I put on eyeliner, the center of my lip as I apply lipstick– but rarely as a complete person. I realized, in that mirrored elevator ride, that by avoiding my image – avoiding myself – I was doing the exact opposite of what I’d spent the weekend doing at the Big Summer Potluck. During the Potluck, a retreat for food writers, photographers, and bloggers, I’d spent hours reflecting on myself as a whole, looking inward, delving deep, and taking stock of both who I am and where I’m headed.

While food was a focus of the retreat (I refuse to call it a conference), the Big Summer Potluck was, to me, less about food and more about enjoying and embracing the community of writers and creative types who make up this food blogging world. It was about finding meaning and purpose in what we do, be it making beautiful photographs, creating nourishing food, writing the book we’ve been dreaming about for so long, or lifting up and supporting those we love and cherish.

Brooke spoke of mindfulness and of finding moments of stillness that can serve to reconnect us to our lives. She spoke of being fully engaged in everything we do, be it washing dishes or eating a meal or reading a story to our children, regardless of how trivial that action may seem at the time. Brooke’s words resonated with me and reinforced a lesson I’ve learned often (and forgotten, just as often) from the cancer patients I care for – we should live this day, this moment in time, as if it were our last.

Later, I caught Molly in the upstairs of the barn, when it was just the two of us, and – after introducing myself – I explained that I struggle with knowing exactly where my writing is headed. There’s a book in me, I confided to her, but I don’t know how to get it out, or even what form it will take. I confessed that I feel scattered, especially given the multiple components of my life that compete for my time, none of which I would trade for all the money in the world, but all of which manage to blur my focus. She spoke later of her own path as a writer, and her words were comforting and encouraging. I’m not sure Molly said these words exactly, but what I heard was, “Just write. You can do it, I know you can.”

I’m pretty sure I felt an imaginary hug in her words, too. A strong, warm, and encouraging embrace.

Joy sat in a folding chair on the grassy hill behind the barn, before the rains came, and talked of being inspired by the creativity we see in others’ work. Marissa made plum jam, slogging through the steamy heat rising from the simmering pot of jam-in-the-making to share her trade secrets with us. Max prepared omelets for 80+ and discussed the finer points of making smoked salmon. Pam created much of the food that was served, including heavenly buttermilk waffles and fried chicken, and then she discussed the art of recipe development.

Various attendees stepped up to the microphone and chimed in with their stories of self-doubt and fear of not being good enough, stories of success, and tidbits of wisdom. Melissa’s words, spoken through tears, of being brave and strong, and of ignoring the 13-year old jealous child within, had me nodding as she spoke, and earned her a big hug later in the weekend. Maggy wore a white tank top with a huge red heart in the center, and somehow this was fitting. Her personality shines with enthusiasm and vivaciousness. The Big Summer Potluck simply wouldn’t be what it is without the dynamic and awe-inspiring trio of Maggy, Pam, and Erika.

And so, after meeting a friend for one last breakfast in Soho this morning, I returned to my hotel to check out and head to the airport. With my handbag and tote slung over my shoulder, I maneuvered my overfull, wheeled suitcase to the elevator. Once inside, I pressed the button for the lobby. I glanced in the mirror ahead of me and saw myself reflected back. I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw, but I wasn’t appalled.

And most importantly, I did not look away.

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17 Responses to “culinary institute of america – the boot camp, day two”

  1. Rachel @ Not Rachael Ray — October 7, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    Another great post! Glad you had a good experience, food looks gorgeous. PS: I’m TOTALLY jealous. PPS: We all already knew you could cook!

  2. Kay@chopstix2steaknives — October 7, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    I love reading about your experience and those early waking hours is something that I don’t look forward to as I am not a morning person. Am glad you got what you seek out with going on a 2 day bootcamp course.

  3. TikiPundit — October 7, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    Thanks for these two great posts. It’s clear that you enjoyed the experience and it’s also clear that you can write very well. This was a great summary of a tempting expedition for me!

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — October 8th, 2011 @ 8:23 am

      Thank you so much for that sweet compliment on my writing.

  4. Liren — October 7, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    The chef’s whites suit you! And of course you *can* cook, we knew that all along 🙂

  5. Macaroni Mama — October 7, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    Sounds like a fun trip!

  6. MikeVFMK — October 7, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    Yes you can! What an incredible experience that will no doubt leave you with memories for a lifetime. The chef white’s suit you perfectly!

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — October 8th, 2011 @ 8:22 am

      Ha ha! Thanks, Mike. 🙂

  7. Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite — October 8, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    MJ – of COURSE you can cook. What a wonderful post – I felt like I was there with you!

  8. Gail — October 9, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    I know exactly how you felt at bootcamp. I had the same feeling when I went to culinary school. Such a wonderful experience!

  9. Mary Constant — October 10, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    I’m glad that you loved the experience! I have taken some classes at the CIA Greystone and loved them. Both Hyde Park and Greystone are the most beautiful old buildings , both formerly Catholic institutions of one sort or the other. (Greystone was the Christian Brothers Winery)

  10. Peter — October 10, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    It was great to meet you, and I’m jealous of your adventures.

  11. Adrienne — October 10, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    What an incredible experience! Of course you can cook! You are a woman of many talents.

  12. Paula — October 10, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    What a great wrap-up of your experiences on day two. It is clear that you were so much more comfortable finding your way around the kitchen and working with your wonderful team. You all seemed to have jelled together quite easily. Your dish look great, you look wonderful in the whites and your sense of accomplishment from the past two days is evident in your face and in your writing. My son-in-law is a chef and I have always admired the skill level and pure physicality required to work in a professional kitchen. Most patrons in the dining room truly have no idea. Looking forward to what you decide to create with much greater confidence in your own kitchen.

  13. Connie — October 11, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. My husband and I just completed the 5 day boot camp with Chef Bruno. From your menus, it sounds like we cooked the same things. But I can’t imagine doing everything we did in 5 days in only 2! We had so much fun that we are planning to do another boot camp next spring – probably the Bread Boot Camp. This was one of the most fun vacations we have ever had and we loved every minute of it!

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — October 12th, 2011 @ 7:03 am

      That’s so great to hear, Connie. I’d love to do a 5-day boot camp, but I’d never get my husband to go along with it. I’d have to plan a solo vacation. 🙂

  14. Rose — October 12, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    Just got around to reading this along with some other great recipes and stories. This is an amazing blog! One would think you are a professional writer. It is put together so well. I can’t imagine the time and effort you put into this but it’s absolutely beautiful. I will definitely be back! Happy birthday in case I miss it.

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