At 9am on Saturday, Sept 13, the bell will ring for the first day of Alimentary school.
A "festival of Food and Words," Alimentary Ideas is the brainchild of Zahra Sethna and Stephen Mostad, editors of South Shore-based Rustik Magazine. An online magazine focusing on modern homesteading and exploring food tradition and small-scale farming lifestyles, the themes of Rustik—food, community, celebrating a local sensibility—are nothing if not fertile grounds for interesting discussions, so Sethna and Mostad decided to grow their concept to include offline events.
"We want to make sure that all of the things that make Nova Scotia important when it comes to food are celebrated and not forgotten and not treated as sort of cute anachronisms," says Sethna. "Traditions are really important, and they're in danger of being lost very quickly, so it's important to remind people of the heritage that is so mixed and so interesting in NS, that it still exists."
"It's clear that food is a topic that generates a lot of excitement in Nova Scotia," says Sethna, who is excited by the Slow Food movement in particular. "While Devour"—the food film festival—"focuses on films, we, as a magazine that focuses on words and the literary side of things, thought there was scope to have an event built around that.
"We did a little research, and not only is there nothing like it similar in Nova Scotia, but across Canada there isn't a food and literary festival that we could find. There are literary festivals that have food as a theme, as a one-off, and there are food festivals that feature cookbooks or book tents, but nothing along the same line as what we were looking at, which was food and words."
The festival is a brief one, spanning just one day in Chester, primarily made up of four hour-long sessions. But the agenda is a thoughtful one, focusing on an exchange of thoughts and a feast of ideas rather than the ravenously listless consumption of your standard trade show-style food festival.
On the literary side of things, Mark Singer, staff writer at The New Yorker, and Scott DeSimon, deputy editor of Bon Appétit, will each sit for a conversation about their contributions in food journalism and the culture surrounding food.
"When you think about literary magazines, The New Yorker is basically the first one to come to mind," says Sethna. "Mark writes about a whole host of topics, food among them. And he's just an interesting and great character. I'm sure everybody will be interested in hearing a kind of behind the scenes take on how is it put together, how do you get those stories, what's it like. It stands apart in the magazine world."
DeSimon, has a varied career: a founding editor at ESPN: The Magazine, he also spent time writing for VH1 before returning to the magazine world and eventually landing at Bon Appétit.
"It's one of the last remaining food magazines of its kind," says Sethna. "Its sister magazine, Gourmet, started 70 years ago and folded about three years ago, which was a shock to many die-hard fans. Somehow Bon Appétit survived and is still thriving. It's really changed with the times; it's very current. It's different from some of the other magazines on the rack today that really kind of focus on celebrity or a Food Network-style approach. That's what we kind of hope to explore with him in that conversation: how do food magazines survive in the world that we're in with the internet and smartphones?"
The hope is that writers, readers, farmers, producers, chefs and anyone interested in food culture will become a part of the conversations started by DeSimon and Singer.
"The format is sort of like a talk show format, very informal, very engaging," says Sethna. "It should be a lively discussion between the moderator and the guest and then we've left ample time for an interactive discussion between the audience and the people on the stage. We don't want them to feel like they're coming to a university lecture, we want people to feel like they're watching a session that's, in essence, like reading an interesting magazine article."
With words taken care of, the other two sessions that make up the festival schedule will focus on food. In "Taste and Talent," chef Jeremy Charles from Raymonds Restaurant in St. John's—considered one of Canada's best restaurants since opening in 2011—and Tanya Kelly, the woman behind Blunt Roll aprons and the Blunt Roll Chef's Syndicate in Toronto, will discuss the changes they've seen in Canada's culinary landscape over their careers. That session will be moderated by George Christakos, co-owner of Halifax's Brooklyn Warehouse.
Kelti Butler, the executive director of Farmers' Markets of Nova Scotia will moderate the other session. In the "Kitchen Condimental: Two Ways David Beat Goliath" discussion, William Allaway, CEO of Acadian Maple Products, and Scott Norton, co-founder of New York ketchup company Sir Kensington's, will be discussing their experiences as small condiment companies that have managed to build off of their locally sourced products to become important players in their field.
"Hearing their stories is a powerful way to envision our own success and potential," says Butler. She can't contain her excitement to be taking part in the conversation that Alimentary Ideas hopes to start, one with an audience that she sees as "a community of people engaged in many different ways to a homesteading lifestyle, from urbanites canning peaches in their small apartment kitchen to rural families raising chickens for the first time."
The opportunity to network and gain inspiration, Butler says, is an important part of the foundation of a solid community. "Nova Scotia's farmers' markets—and events like Alimentary Ideas—are building a vibrant food culture across Nova Scotia, playing host to community conversations and celebrations of food. These conversations are building from kitchen tables to government meetings," she says. "The impact potential for our province and our producers is tremendous."
That Alimentary Ideas is a celebration of ideas is important to the folks at Rustik. "We're trying to stay away from really heavy, politicized issues and really make it more about bringing people together who care about these issues: people who love to read, who love to eat, who love to cook, to all just feel inspired by what's going on and what could be the potential of new ideas," says Sethna. "Hopefully everybody will walk away with new connections, feeling energized to do what they can in their own space."
Alimentary IdeasChester Playhouse, 22 Pleasant Street
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