An Interview with Susan Coss, Director of the Eat Real Festival

eat real festival 2010

Friday, August 27, 2–9 p.m.
Saturday, August 28, 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m.
Sunday, August 29, 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m.
Jack London Square in downtown Oakland


Edible East Bay: Susan, what is the Eat Real Festival?

Susan Coss: Simply put, Eat Real is a three-day celebration of the good and delicious food grown and crafted here in our region. We showcase the best local street food, artisan beers and wines, cheeses, ice cream and all those good things, plus the ingredients themselves from regional farms. We also have a lot of programming that we think will provide some truly spectacular food craft performances—from butchery to noodle pulling—and an entire area dedicated to the ins and outs of urban homesteading. We want people to walk away from Eat Real excited about all of the good local food options, and with new knowledge of how to use the power of their food dollars to support a regional food system.

EEB: Where did the idea for last year’s first-ever emergence of this event originate?

SC: Eat Real’s founder, Anya Fernald, was the executive director of Slow Food Nation, and several of our staff, including myself, worked with her on that event. It was a beautiful gathering that showcased the amazing artisanal food being created in the United States. But there was also a public perception that it celebrated food that was elitist and not accessible to a larger population. Based on our experience, we wanted to create an event that would reach a broad audience and show that delicious and sustainable food could be convenient and affordable. What began as an idea to have a taco truck and beer festival using local ingredients grew into the Eat Real Festival.

EEB: Why do you think last year’s event was such an amazing success?

SC: Timing is everything, and there were a number of factors at play. Last year, “street food” was the hottest new food trend out there and people were definitely curious. That was combined with the downturn in the economy, which meant that no one wanted to spend any money. By having a free event that featured street food, with no food item over $5, I think we really hit a trifecta. And I think having a food festival in Oakland—a city not usually known for hosting major food events despite its history as a major food hub—amplified that success.  And perhaps most importantly, we really tapped into the fact that people are increasingly interested in learning more about food:

Where it comes from, how it contributes to a healthier environment, and how it builds stronger communities.

EEB: What were the highlights last year and what is your favorite thing about the festival?

SC: I don’t even know where to begin.  We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather, though it could have been a few degrees cooler. Just seeing so many people, and the unbelievable diversity of the crowd, hanging out and eating together, and having such a good time, that’s a memory I’ll carry for a long time. That, and the amazing selection of delicious beer.

On a very big-picture level, it was great to have a platform in which we could really talk about and directly show how supporting small food entrepreneurs helps support a regional economy. We worked with more than 250 regional businesses—food producers, farmers, printers, builders, restaurants, architects—and at the event alone, generated more than $300,000 in new sales revenues for them. That’s a really powerful figure.  But I think what really blew my mind was how many people showed up for the butchery contest—an event that I thought might draw a couple hundred people—watching the two teams of butchers, entranced and fascinated.

EEB: What do you think people carried away from the experience last summer and what else do you think the festival has spawned?

SC: That’s a great question. When you’re planning these events, and putting a lot of energy into programming and curating, especially when the educational component about the food is so important, you can really question if people, number one, care, and number two, retain anything. I have to believe they do, otherwise I couldn’t do this.  But that nagging question remains.

I remember an evening a couple of months ago, sitting on my neighbor’s porch, talking.  We got on the subject of planting gardens, and one of the people there mentioned how he had been at this festival in Oakland last year called something like “the Real Food Festival” and learned this amazing fact about how you can fertilize your garden by planting a fish, something he had never known and was now actively doing. He also talked about this great talk a woman had given about the history of the Mexican popsicle in Oakland and how awesome it was to hear that story.  He had no idea that I was involved with the festival.

The values of Eat Real definitely resonated, because we get calls and emails from people all over the place wanting to know how they can do an Eat Real festival in their community.  In fact, just the other day, I got an email from a woman in New Jersey asking us if we could do an Eat Real at the Jersey Shore!  For us, it is just further proof that there is real interest in knowing more about real food—people want to know not just where to find it, but about making it and growing it.

EEB: How will this year’s festival be different?

SC: Amazingly, it’s going to be a little bigger this year, with more food vendors; in fact, twice as many as last year. We’re also adding a “wine barn” in addition to the “beer shed.” I think the biggest difference is that this year, not only are we continuing to celebrate real food, but we are also celebrating the professionals who make it—cheese-makers, butchers, tofu-makers, brewers, coffee roasters, bakers, etc. These are oftentimes the unsung heroes of local food, and we want to bring them more respect and dignity and celebrate their contribution to creating a healthy and sustainable food system.

And of course, we’re adding a whole urban homesteading zone where we’ll have demonstrations and workshops talking about backyard chickens, vertical gardening, homemade beer and kombucha, canning and preserving, beekeeping, cheese-making, and more.

EEB: We all talk about the food sustainability movement. What is your understanding of that movement and how it is being carried out? Who’s in charge? How does this festival play in?

SC: I find it fascinating that people refer to it as a singular movement, something that is organized with a clear plan. I think it is more accurate to say “food movements,” because there are so many different elements involved, and there is absolutely no singular leader. This is hard, because the subject of food—how it is grown, where it comes from, who has access to it, how it affects our health, how we process it, where we sell it, how we cook it—is now a national dialogue and we have a tremendous opportunity to change the current food system. I recently heard it put this way: we’re like the dog that finally caught the car.

In terms of Eat Real’s role in all of this, we believe that by creating affordable events that celebrate good food, we can reach a wider audience.  And with that audience, through innovative programming, we can talk about the various components of a healthy food system, including healthy and affordable food, entrepreneurship, and economic development in a very fun and not heavy-handed manner.

EEB: Is there anything more you would like our readers to know in closing?

SC: That this is going to be one great festival they don’t want to miss!

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