Friday, August 2, 2013

Thoughts On Free Stuff (and Potato Cakes)

On the way home last night, I found myself listening to an NPR story about foraging.  I'm no stranger to the concept; I know that NPR has done reporting on it before, and I've read about it in magazines and online.  Last year, our town had a "free market" that offered goods and services, gratis, and included a small food table with delicacies made from foraged ingredients.

Foraging is sort of a contested practice.  Foragers argue that they don't eat anything that anyone else would want.  They find edible weeds in the grass, they pluck mushrooms, they pick fruit that goes unpicked by fruit tree owners who have no time to care for trees, they make pesto from stinging nettles, and they even (sometimes, though I find this utterly repulsive) eat squirrels.  The people who are trying to end the foraging movement say that foragers are vandals, thieves, and worse.

Talking with some experts, the NPR correspondent discussed the ways in which foragers in parks have actually become caretakers of their environment, and how foraging seems to make people more appreciative of what we often pass by without a second glance.  The story suggested that there might even be ways for foragers to work in the service of parks, educating people about the natural world.

I haven't ever gone hunting for my supper, and I'm unlikely to do so any time soon, much as I prefer to make my food from scratch rather than purchase it in packages or from take-out.  But the story about foraging resonated with me today because of a discussion I've been having with some other bloggers about the things that are free.

This past weekend, I attended BlogHer.  While there have been lots of great follow-up posts about networking and conference learning, there has also been a lot of controversy this year about the parties that happen on the periphery of the event, a phenomenon that's referred to as "outboarding."  Several conference attendees got their conference passes revoked for hosting these parties.

I attended one of these parties this year.   I confess, I was curious; I remembered watching people walk out of the hotel with bags full of swag--the likes of which I hadn't seen at the Expo, where my biggest score was a water bottle--and felt a little left out, like people had gone to a birthday party where everyone got presents, and not invited me.  Some of these bloggers were obviously going to these parties to connect with brands in a meaningful way as an extension of their conference experience, but many of them, it seemed, were going to collect free stuff. I remember feeling astonished that people could go to BlogHer and never see the inside of a single conference breakout session.  It smacked of middle school, and I hated middle school.  Still, when I was offered a ticket by a generous blogging friend who wasn't going to be able to get to Chicago, I jumped at the chance to hang with the "cool kids."

Except I also felt a little awkward about it from the beginning.  Now was one of the people who was the "insider," the one who had access to the cool free stuff that other people would covet.  I knew one person who was going to go to the party, and many other people who weren't.  I was participating in the anti-BlogHer, the exclusive un-conference.  And--in case you couldn't tell from the lack of advertisements here--I don't care much about brands.  It so happens that the party I attended didn't conflict directly with any of the official conference sessions, but that made it even more awkward, in some ways.  When I ran into people who asked me if I had plans for that night, I said, vaguely, "oh, I'm going to a thing."

A thing?

Most people I'd seen online flaunted their invitations, dropping party names like celebrities.  Why wasn't I doing that, too?

And I began to think more about what "free" really meant in that context.  I wasn't going to the party for the swag, but I was going to do something that didn't jive exactly with my values, the ones that Jory and Elisa and Lisa hold dear, too: the values of inclusivity.  Why couldn't those vendors and brands be part of the Expo?  Was the price of attendance compromising my values a little?

What do we give up in order to attend these parties?  Are we just lured by the swag?  Or do we really want to have conversations with these people?  During her keynote, Ree Drummond talked a little bit about her decisions to choose her affiliations carefully, and to maintain the integrity of her brand.  Do we give up our integrity when we promise (implicitly, even) to go proselytize on behalf of these companies in return for the stuff?  Which then, of course, isn't free at all?

I subscribe to our local Freecycle listserv, where I often post things, probably more often, even, than I pick them up.  The great thing about Freecycle is that stuff really is free.  No strings attached.  In fact, that's part of the TOS that you agree to when you become a member.  No reselling, no picking and choosing.  You offer something, and someone picks it up.  You give things away because you don't need them, and you pick them up because you do.  It's like foraging, in a way, except more community-sanctioned and organized.  And that's the way free stuff should work.  No strings attached, no guilt, no hard sell.

I don't actually want to villify the outboarders.  I'm glad that I went this year, to see what that scene was like.  I think that it's great for bloggers to connect with brands if that's their thing.  (It's not mine.)  But I don't like the feeling of exclusivity (my experience has always been that sometimes the people I don't already know turn out to be the best resources and advocates for my brand, or program, or whatever), and I don't like the feeling I get from these parties that bloggers can be so easily bought, by toys and food and alcohol.  Our opinions mean a lot, and we should be choosy about whom we represent, and how.  We are a powerful group of women who should support each other instead of excluding each other, and we should not be for sale.

I hope that there is a way to resolve some of these issues for next year, to integrate the brands that want representation, and give them equal access to everyone, and everyone equal access to them.  They might be surprised to find some diamonds in the rough--or maybe just some plain old diamonds.  As for me, I likely won't be at BlogHer, because I'll likely be at the professional association conference for my new job, where, I will add, there are no parties, and no swag.  I'll miss the networking, and the sessions that rejuvinate me as a writer.  If you go, I hope you'll do so with your eyes wide open, have an hors d'oeuvre, and think of me.

Potato Cakes
Here's a recipe that you can make from foraged ingredients, either from your cupboards, or ... somewhere else entirely.  They can be made small, as hors d'oeuvres or larger for dinner.  Why, you ask, would she take a perfectly good potato, mash it, and fry it?  Well, I counter, why would you take a perfectly good potato, boil it, chill it, and smother it in mayonnaise?

3/4 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1" cubes
1 egg
2 T. scallions, minced
1/2 lb. ham, torn (or roasted corn or anything else you like)
salt and pepper
oil to coat the pan
2 T. flour or cornmeal

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Add potatoes, boil until soft, about 10 minutes.  Drain.

Mash potatoes well, and let cool just a bit.  Add eggs and mash some more.  Add scallions and mash some more.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Roll the potato mixture into golf ball sized cakes, and flatten a bit.

When you are ready to cook, heat oil in a pan on medium heat.  Place the flour or cornmeal in a shallow bowl and roll the ham cakes in it so that they are lightly dusted.

Fry the potato cakes for about 3 or four minutes on each side, until just golden.
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  1. Really great post. I love that you thought about the issue and didn't just jump to a conclusion.

    Also, the recipe looks delish.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Awesome post Justine. I remember feeling a little left out last year when people went to off-site parties. Not that I didn't think they should go, but a little like I hadn't been chosen for a team or something.

    I wish brands would figure out a way to work better with the conference so they don't create these awkward feelings and situations in future.

  4. Well, as someone who won't go to private parties (or really, any parties), I'm a little biased.

    I think there is a huge difference between being a forager in the wilderness and being a forager in an agrarian community. Taking from the wilderness may affect the wilderness if we forage out of balance, but overall, we all own the wilderness. By which I mean that no one owns the wilderness. But we all equally don't own it.

    Whereas BlogHer is more like an agrarian, organized community, and when you forage there, you're affecting the people who own the farm. It's their land. They worked that soil, they planted the crops. And now, they should have a say in how the farm is used/gathered. Other people can start their own farms if they don't like the farm rules. But they can't squat on the farm and start their garden there. They really don't own that land.

    Now, we're talking about human beings with free will and not land. But still, I think there is something to be said for where you forage.

  5. I've never been to BlogHer, and probably will never go, so I can't comment on the subject :)

    But those potato cakes look YUMMY and easy enough for me to make with my limited cooking skills.

  6. 1. Oh, yum.

    2. I live in a part of the country that I've had students, poor students, who have grown up hunting squirrel. For serious.

  7. Thank you for writing and sharing so much of what has been in my head too (at least related to this subject), since I returned home from BlogHer`13.

    I am not ashamed to admit that I am the other person you knew going to the party. I also admit to having enjoyed the experience attending with you, though I felt uncomfortable at times and guilty for participating in something that I fully understand and realized at the time is frowned upon by those who created and continue to lead BlogHer, among others (including some of my friends/bloggers) whom I respect so much.

    I have such mixed feelings about all of this and how it could/should be resolved. As with so many things in life, I believe there are not easy answers and grey areas that all parties involved need to consider in trying to come to a solution or at least a better way to work together or beside each other.

    As someone who goes to BlogHer for many wonderful reasons, least of all being the swag, it saddens me that it seems to be a focus/priority for many. But I also get that we all blog for reasons that make sense to and work for us.

    These days I blog for the love of writing, to try to pay it forward after years of being supported during my journey through secondary infertility and loss, to connect with others who understand what life is like after infertility and loss, to raise awareness about so many issues that people deal with in our day to day lives that are misunderstood by the general population.

    All of this said, I have done some sponsored posts in recent years and have been proud of how I handled the experience. I believe that I wrote about the products in a way that was true to myself, honest with my readers and helped promote products that I believed in. I also appreciated the opportunity to get paid to do something I love (writing and sharing with others). But I know that isn't what this is about.

    I wish when it comes to brands and BlogHer's annual conference there was a way to get everyone to play by the same rules, to be fair and to be inclusive.

    That can be said for so many challenging issues that we face in life... If only everyone got to play by the same rules, to be fair and be inclusive (whether the topic be marriage equality, immigration, awareness of infertility, loss, special needs and/or mental health, etc.).

    So that is my two cents, more like ten cents, regarding my thoughts on free stuff. Thank you for not being afraid to write and share about this. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud of you. ;)

  8. I am not against the swag or the outside parties - and maybe those who work with the brands believe in those brands while others don't. I treat sponsored posts like commercials. I remind myself that they are getting compensated for what they are saying about that brand. As for me, I am not here to plug yoga mats or wine, at least not now. But one days, who knows? Great story you relayed with a great moral, as always.

  9. Squirrel? I'd like to see you try to make THAT into a tempting recipe. If anyone can, it's you.

    I think I land with Lollipop on this one. One, because of the inclusivity/exclusivity issue you mention, and also because it seems in bad form to piggyback on someone else's event when they've asked you not to.

    That's easy for me to say, though. I'm more of a small pond partier and have zero desire to go to a larger pond with all the cool kids/big fish.

  10. I don't know anything about how Blogher is set up, but every engineering conference I've ever been to has the private parties and suites where a select few are wined and dined. I thought it was just a typical thing to do and I'm never invited. It does seem callous to keep doing it when the organizers ask people not to.

  11. I went to two outside parties this year, and it was the first time I did so. I've been going to BlogHer since 2007, and I felt like trying something new. That was kind of my theme for this year - do things a different way at BlogHer.

    I could go on, but it's like you got inside my head and pulled out what I've been trying to put together in my thoughts ever since I got home.

    Yes. All of this. Thank you for saying it and saying it so well.


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