is a recovering Catholic and longtime food writer who has been fortunate enough to experience a good chunk of the world thanks to excellent editors, a decent credit line, and a consort who both scores great gigs and keeps track of frequent flyer miles.
I always refused press trips, for reasons both ethical and pragmatic. And then I succumbed to one and added psychological to that list.
This was a couple of summers ago, when the food writing biz seemed at its nadir—publications were paying a pittance, contracts had become meaningless. A charming flack appeared in my email out of the blue with an offer of a trip to a local/sustainable food oasis in Vermont. All it would cost me was a couple of Metrocard swipes to get to and from the pickup point for the “luxury” van. Since all I was doing was squandering my life on the Twitter (she didn’t add), why not?
And it turned out Shelburne was definitely vaut le voyage, almost on the level of Cajun country for a genuine sense of place in a country that feels so homogenized. We hit the ground drinking, with a tasting of wines from both bottles and fermentation tanks at Shelburne Vineyard. I walked in thinking “wine? from Vermont?” and came away persuaded, as I was on actual assignment in the Finger Lakes, that the best thing winemakers can do is work with cold-hardy grapes that grow naturally in their region, not try to ape California styles. No wonder these win awards year after year. (And their maker should win one just for the idea of selling wine not in boxes but in bags.)
First we were plied with local cheeses and sausage, then set loose on a buffet table on a terrace overlooking rows and rows of deep green grape vines, that included burgers from a deli that were surprisingly great even at room temperature. And we finished with another choice of red or white: plum crostata or apple, baked by the winery’s marketing director, who is wife of the winery’s owner and organizer of our tour, Gail Albert. That would be the one awesomeness someone tracing my footsteps would not be able to experience.
We spent the night in a newly opened inn overlooking misty Lake Champlain that once housed the commune where Bernie Sanders lived, which in 2014 sounded like a positive. It was so quiet I actually slept with the lights on. We had been shown the basket of Vermont butter, bacon, eggs and pancake mix in the refrigerator that paying guests could use, but breakfast was at a restaurant in town opened by a sweet young couple who had met in Jersey but are now living the dream of making everything, bread to jam to meat, from scratch and serving it with their own style.
From there we were trotted to a cooking class given by an acolyte of Charlie Trotter’s in her Hamptons-worthy cookware shop, and somehow it seemed perfectly natural to be making corn tortillas in Vermont. This was real America. We had an extended beer tasting at a brewery where we were advised: “Don’t fall in love with anything because it’s once and done” because “the industry is heading toward traveling to taste beer.” Lunch was literally through a doorway into a pizzeria with no liquor license. (Turns out it's no coincidence that it is located directly across the highway from the winery—BYO growler or bottle.)
Then we got just enough of a respite to keep me from feeling like a goose ready for foie gras, time I used to go explore the local grocery store and see why Gail said she used to drive up from New York City with the car full of food and now could do the same in the opposite direction. Its shelves held at least two dozen local cheeses among other staples you won’t find at Zabar’s.
We were then trotted off to the very famous Shelburne Farms, which was into local/sustainable early on. I now know how clothbound Cheddar happens (in the days before refrigeration cloth was dipped in lard to produce a medium for growing microbes on curds, which were then aged in a cave). We were shown a sow and informed “she makes tasty little babies.” And we were loaded into a trailer and driven around by tractor by a scion of this old Vanderbilt estate-turned-teaching farm and summertime resort. Dinner was on a terrace where the sunset over Lake Champlain almost distracted from the our plates holding the sort of fruits and vegetables we had just seen growing.
And it wasn’t over yet. Next morning we all made short work of that breakfast basket, then were herded off to a farm/bakery for a bread tasting and maple syrup-sweetened lemonade appreciation. Finally we crawled back in the van one last time, wedging ourselves in among boxes of take-away wine. As one of the professional junketeers noted, the whole trip had been great because “the four-star resorts never want you to leave the hotel.” This was not about a business but a community, a very collaborative one. I could have mentally drafted a “36 Hours In” after what felt like 36 hours until we entered the Lincoln Tunnel.
But it turned out there is no such thing as a free trip. I had traveled into a quandary. None of my regular outlets would be so “impure” as to take a “compromised” story even if it were $$$ or new! enough. Any outlets I was new to would brand me as a hoor if I pitched and confessed the deets were compromised. So I just sat and stewed, as Gail kept in touch with press releases and emails on the winery winning awards, and then sent along the cookbook she produced and had published while I was dithering. My guilt was overwhelming, to the point that I could not even post on my website, let alone on Medium, where I could have easily atoned by following FTC rules for bloggers and confessed upfront that my tantalizing content had been sponsored.
Which is bizarre, since I knew the flack from so many lunches and breakfasts at the ’21’ Club. We all knew the goal was just to as, Larry Gelbart memorably put it, just get the asses in the seats, produce an impressive turnout for the client. No follow-up coverage seemed expected (I presume other guests wangled trips to the luxury resorts being promoted at those lunches; I was happy with just an apron.) It was the same with so many promo dinners—five lavish courses at Gotham Bar & Grill for Spanish olive oil? Sure. Fine. I’ll take the swag bag. But there was something about sleeping over that made this different.
What no one wants to fess up is that publications, old and digital, rarely want to pay expenses but won’t take “compromised” material. Back when my consort was shooting for British magazines, we both thought they had the ideal compromise themselves: Take the flight and hotels, just disclose that up front (or at least at the end of the article). I also have seen sausage made and know that one way old-timers have always had of dodging the rules is not to take the press trip with a bunch of sorry-ass travel writers but alone, with the same itinerary. Then it’s “clean.”
Clearly, my mistake was getting in the van. I should have demanded a private car.