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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The pair saw an opportunity to work outside of the Internet's limitations. "It's a way for people to know me better," Wilson says of the retreat, "because Joy the Baker is sort of me, but it's a part of me -- in some ways, it's like a character, because I sometimes swear in real life and I have more problems than I talk about on my blog." The concept behind Homefries U, then, presents a curious paradox: The Internet has been the very means by which Wilson first reached and cultivated her audience, but it is imperfect, placing a cap on the depth of connection that it helped to initiate in the first place. The retreat physicalizes an experience that began, but could not be "consummated," so to speak, online. This is to the retreat's advantage. A huge part of its appeal is the opportunity to spend time in a leisurely setting with an online personality that one has already gotten to know and likely admires; much of the legwork has been done before the retreat even begins. Michael Friedman -- who co-founded Homefries.com with Wilson -- observes that the guests, familiar with her work online, arrived equipped with shared shorthand: "So many people tell us that listening to the podcasts feels like 'hanging out with my best friends.' Homefries U allows that to happen, in real life," Friedman says. "Unlike other food conferences or public events, the guests arrive feeling connected to each other. People know the same stories and jokes from listening to the podcasts, so there's an instant sense of community."

Fifty people are already on the mailing list for the next retreat, which is planned for March or April of 2012 and will feature a live streaming component.

Homefries U can seem conceptually simple, but it's a striking reminder of Wilson's deft interweaving of new media platforms and something as straightforward -- and heavy-handedly traditional, some might say -- as face-to-face interaction. The retreat is oddly modern and orthodox at the same time. In every new project, Wilson does not forge ahead with one of these two aspects without bringing the other along. Given her trajectory, one that has consistently prioritized relatability and intimacy, the retreat is an inevitable next step. At the root of her blog's popularity, after all, is the ease with which readers can affix a personality onto Wilson's virtual presence. There is no "About" button; instead, visitors can "Meet Joy" on a page filled with spunky, declarative statements that are characteristic of her writing ("I really suck at wearing lipstick"), interspersed with a video of herself at work in the kitchen and photos of Los Angeles and her cat Jules Stevens (get it?). Some of today's most popular food blogs radiate a quality of refined professionalism: the prose is graceful, the photographs precisely lit, so that the food looks like museum pieces. The author often seems like an impossibly perfect kitchen goddess. But Joy the Baker specializes in the everyday -- its small joys and even its relatable mishaps. Wilson, who freely uses words like "totes" and "whatevs," wants her readers to know that she does not have her act together -- that she is, in fact, the type of person whose coffee table falls apart without warning and who daydreams of running into her ex while looking "fatally fantastic." After coming to know her so well online, it seems only natural to meet in person.

Fifty people are already on the mailing list for the next retreat, which is planned for March or April of 2012 and will feature a live streaming component for those unable to attend. "Homefries U: Spring Break," as it's been called, will be able to take about 50 guests, Friedman predicts. Any larger, and the retreat runs the risk of losing its essence of accessibility. Rather than erecting some vast, faceless empire, Wilson is interested in providing her niche audience with quality programming, directly from her laptop -- and, in the case of the retreat, with quality events that she takes a direct hand in organizing. As Friedman says, Wilson is a case study of how bloggers have the potential to disrupt "old media" by developing a free-standing media platform that does not require the permission of traditional gatekeepers. Wilson, however, certainly does not shy away from more conventional venues: as timing would have it, she will have published her first cookbook through Hyperion by the time the retreat takes place. But we all know that pictures never taste quite as good as the real thing.

Images: Joy Wilson.

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Esther Yi does story research for The Atlantic.

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