Homefries U: Joy the Baker's Unconventional Food Convention

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Joy Wilson has found a way to take the relationships she develops with readers of her popular food blog off of the computer screen

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Joy Wilson is not alarmed that complete strangers want to be her friend. She can empathize. When visiting a food blog, the first thing that Wilson clicks is the link to the "About" page: What does the author look like? What color is her hair? Is that the kitchen behind her? Wilson recalls how, in the days when she was an avid follower of the online food community rather than one of its most beloved celebrities, she left the author's page on one of her favorite blogs with her curiosity unsatisfied. "She only had a tiny picture of herself and you couldn't tell what space she lived in. I just wanted more. I remember being like, 'If she did a post about her kitchen and what she does, I would freak out,'" Wilson says. "I recognize that need in other people, so it makes sense that people would have that sort of reaction to me. I get it. I'm as nosy as everybody else."

Without the distraction of getting business cards into the right hands or vying for the attention of blog celebrities, guests would be able to genuinely connect.

Wilson, 30, is best known for her blog Joy the Baker, a patchwork of sweet and savory recipes, photographs of her cat sneakily pawing at her baked creations, and colloquial musings on everything from family and dating, to nail polish and Sunday service. Launched in 2008, the blog now gets between 75,000 and 80,000 hits a day, and Saveur magazine named it the Best Baking & Desserts Blog of the year. Despite the site's success, the Los Angeles resident has not been content to limit her engagement with readers to Joy the Baker. To give them the backstage pass that she desired as a reader herself, Wilson has diversified her platforms: She uses Facebook and Twitter, of course, and earlier this year she co-founded Homefries.com, which hosts podcasts about food and lifestyle (how else would you know that Wilson giggles often, low and mischievously?). Her latest project, Homefries U, aligns with this longstanding goal of intimacy, but makes the unique move of taking the relationship off of the computer screen entirely and back to the basics.

In late September, Wilson and Tracy Benjamin -- a close friend and the voice behind Shutterbean -- rented a five-bedroom house in Palm Springs, California, took preparatory shots, and welcomed around 25 guests, only two of whom the hosts had known prior, to stay for the weekend. Food, it was hoped, would unite all. In the open kitchen, Wilson and Benjamin conducted informal cooking demonstrations, preparing a rich menu of garlic bread, spaghetti, baked brie, chocolate chip cookies, eggy breakfast pizza, and finally -- as a send-off that threatened to incapacitate the overstuffed guests for good -- powdered and chocolate-glazed donuts (Wilson once ate nine donuts in a day; it's true). The weekend was like a sleepover edition of Emeril Live where, in between sets, audience members enjoy cucumber vodka spritzers by the pool and make friendship bracelets. Wilson and Benjamin also organized a few low-key workshops: Michael Friedman, Wilson's business partner and an Emmy Award-winning producer, taught a course on audio, video, and photography; Whitney Adams, a sommelier, and Nathan Hazard, a cocktail guru, led sessions about their respective areas of expertise. The key, Wilson and Benjamin decided, was to create a retreat that they themselves would sign up for. This meant less emphasis on the mechanics of food blogging, and more on the tastes and friendships that inspire a love for food -- and presumably, blogging about it -- in the first place.

In its earliest incarnation, Homefries U was known as the "International I-Can't-Believe-This-is-a-Legitimate-Convention Convention." The idea began mostly as a joke during an episode of the Joy the Baker podcast on Homefries.com earlier this year: co-hosts Wilson and Benjamin made light-hearted commentary about food blogger-centric conferences, a few of which had taken place over the past week. "People were, like, mingling, schmoozing, 'so-nice-to-meet-you'-ing, exchanging business cards," Wilson said in the podcast. "Which made me think: We need to have our own conference. You and I." But instead of an attendance number in the hundreds, the Wilson-Benjamin affair would host around 20 people for a cozier gathering. Without the distraction of getting business cards into the right hands or vying for the attention of blog celebrities, guests would be able to genuinely connect with each other. Formal talks about blog traffic and search engine optimization would be replaced with a nacho fountain, a lot of bourbon, heaping bowls of spaghetti, and heart-to-hearts about cats and kids. Perhaps even a Real Housewives marathon. The response was so overwhelmingly positive, that Wilson and Benjamin returned five episodes later with the news that an inaugural retreat was in the works for late September.

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Esther Yi is a journalist living in Berlin.

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