Foodventurous: Austin

About six months ago, I received an e-mail from my oldest son that said something like, “Hey Mom! This sounds like you!” Attached was a link to a food blogger conference to be held in Austin, Texas. My first reaction was laughter. After all, I’m a rookie. My second reaction was shock. Am I such a rookie that I didn’t even think that there might be conferences for bloggers? And specifically food bloggers? My third reaction was curiosity.

I clicked the link.

April … Austin … food … oh yeah, better check out the agenda!

I expected cooking and gardening classes but found social media panels, SEO management, photography and video editing sessions, advertising and marketing. So many things about which I knew next to nothing.

Isn’t that the best reason to go to a conference?

My husband’s reaction to my idea? “Can I go with you?”

A little over a week ago, we boarded a plane for Austin: warm weather, some time with my cousin and her family, and facing the fear of the unknown.

  1. Would I be the oldest blogger attending? (I wasn’t.)
  2. Would I be the blogger with the smallest following? (Pretty sure I was.)
  3. Would I stick my foot in my mouth? (Yep!)
  4. Would I get to eat my way through a great city? (SO glad I packed loose-fitting clothes.)
  5. Would I learn enough to make the expense feel like an investment? (Definitely!)

To tackle fears head-on, you need to surround yourself with people who will encourage you and tell you to your face that you are being ridiculous … in my case, that calls for family!

When you come from a big extended family, there aren’t many places to travel without family near. For some people this might be a deterrent, but not for me! My extended family is a riot. And one of the best parts about Austin is that my cousin, Nicole, her husband and two adorable boys live there. We spent two nights with them, enjoying their pool and patio, sampling the areas best BBQ (Big Cat BBQ – get the ribs!) and donuts (Donut Crown – get the apple fritters), playing with and reading books to the boys, and catching up.

A mini-family-reunion broke out when Cousin Lynn, who lives in Fort Worth, drove down with her sweet daughter, and Cousin Kevin and his wife, from Austin, came over to see us. Southern hospitality at it’s finest! And laughter … loud laughter. It’s inherited.

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Memories are made when you make peanut butter brownies with a 2-year-old in his Superman jammies! This guy has chef skills … he listens well, he is careful, he let me help him, and his mom and dad taught me a thing or two about the culinary world (can you say “sous vide“?).

We said good-bye to family and hello to downtown Austin.

As I mentioned earlier, this conference was not about food but the food of Austin was highlighted at every opportunity. Early registration took place at the Embassy Suites on South Congress where we were staying. It was during this time that all my fears disappeared. After all, I had just entered a room full of food-loving, blog-writing, creative and curious people. The ice-breaking, conversation-starting statement was “So, tell me about your blog?”

It didn’t hurt that the room was also filled with amazing small plates and plenty of adult beverages prepared by the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, SoCo Bar & Bites!

Over the next two days, the organizers of the conference would woo us with incredible amounts of regional favorites: food trucks & caterers, cupcakes and pies, biscuits, fries, and grilled cheese (a.k.a. “melts”). Here’s a glimpse of all the food I ate … I mean, all the food that was offered to us. 😉

Yes, the food was impressive but equally impressive was the venue. Our days were spent at the beautiful Mercury Hall: inside for sessions and outside for breaks and eating.

So the food was great, the location was great, the weather was great … but what about the meat and potatoes (can’t pass up a good food analogy) of the conference? The information, instruction, and demonstrations? We were instructed, encouraged, and challenged by veteran food bloggers, advertising gurus, viral video entrepreneurs, and brand representatives. We were guided through the mazes of SEO (search engine optimization), advertising options, photo and video usage and editing, social media interactions, revenue options, and brand contracts.

After 20 years of owning my role as a stay-at-home mom, my brain was working hard to retain as much of this fast-paced information inundation as possible. I cut myself a little slack when during one of the presentations the speaker asked us to raise our hands if we have more than 100,000 followers and the hands of about half of the attendees went in the air. It was at that moment that I thought: “Girlfriend, you just concentrate on the topics and points that apply to you and your blog right now.” The future will take care of itself!

One of my favorite parts of the conference was when we were given the opportunity to implement the instructions we had received on staging and taking photos of food. We were given all kinds of salad ingredients, placemats and backgrounds, vegetables and herbs, fruits and plates and were asked to build a beautiful plate and take pictures of it. The first picture above was the very first picture I took and the one on the left was the last. Not perfect … but it was very rewarding to watch the pictures progressively improve.

I think the greatest gift of this conference was getting to know some really remarkable women and the ability to follow their blogs, learn from their perspectives and bounce ideas and questions around with them. I can’t wait to try some of their recipes and share them with you via Facebook!

Our evenings were free for us to explore Austin on our own. Downtown Austin is ideal for walking and discovering. The first night we headed north on Congress to a recommended restaurant called Moonshine Grill for some “Classic American Comfort Food”.

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Now this place may be described as “Classic American Comfort Food”, but when you see things like “Rosemary Fries” and “Green Chile Cheddar Grits” and “Chipotle Cream Gravy”, you know comfort food has been taken to another level. I debated long and hard on what to order. I was stuck between the Green Chile Macaroni and the Chicken and Waffles.

Any guesses what I had?

I never really understood the concept of chicken and waffles. It always seemed too sweet for me (which is saying something). But this waffle wasn’t as sweet as breakfast waffles and the crispy, light coating on the chicken had a good kick of spice and salt that balanced it out. Fear of it being too sweet did not keep me from pouring maple syrup over it. After all, the chipotle cream gravy had a job to do too.

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After all of that comfort food, it was a good thing we had to walk back to the hotel. We had crossed a big bridge on our way to the restaurant and on the way back, that bridge was packed with people. We had heard about a bridge in Austin that housed a bat colony during a certain time of year but didn’t realize it was the bridge a block away from our hotel. Our timing was perfect because within 10 minutes of our arrival, the bats started flying out from under the bridge (in a 4-6′ area) and created a cloud of bats moving through the evening sky.

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This evacuation of hundreds of thousands of bats lasted long enough for us to cross the street, walk down the sidewalk to the area where the bats were emerging and find a place directly over the bats where people were already leaving. Over the edge we could see a crowd had formed on the bank of Lady Bird Lake and the cruise boats and kayaks were filling the water with those wanting an extra-special vantage point.

Even if you are queasy about bats, this is nature at its finest. I truly felt like I was witnessing a miracle … the instincts and migration patterns alone are astounding. And we just happened to be crossing a bridge at the exact right moment.

Our second free night, we returned to the north side of Lady Bird Lake and found a contemporary Mexican restaurant with, my favorite, outdoor seating. La Condesa is the perfect place for those with a foodventurous spirit. I will let the pictures and menu descriptions speak for me …

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El Cubico Cocktail (pictured below with tacos)

whole leaf tobacco infused cazadores reposado
vanilla-infused brandy
lemon
grilled-pineapple juice
mezcal essence
volcanic saffron salt rim

 

 

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Hamanchi Ceviche

yellowtail
calamansi broth
avocado
crispy garlic
charred onion
habanero truffle oil

 

 

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Conchinita Pibil Tacos

achiote-braised pork shoulder
black beans
pickled red onion
habanero escabeche
cabbage

 

 

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Dulce De Leche

dulce de leche pudding cake
sweet corn cream with saffron
cream cheese ice cream
caramelized popcorn

Dining out has become about much more than just eating for me. My best experiences happen when I am captivated by ingredients that are new to me, or the presentation is its own work of art, or the wait staff is visibly pleased to be asked about a menu item. La Condesa provided that kind of experience.  And that’s not just the tequilla and brandy talking. (HIGHLY recommend the El Cubico, by the way!)

It would be safe to assume, after this lengthy description, that this was the conclusion of our trip. But it wasn’t. The amazing organizers of our conference arranged for an optional bus trip to Waco, Texas, to … you guessed it … Magnolia Market! This bucket-list trip and an explanation of the empty picnic table pictured here deserve an independent post.

Foodventurous: Magnolia Market

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