Healing through Food & Friendship at Food Blog Camp

by Amber on January 17, 2011

The first time I stepped off a plane in a foreign country, I was 16 years old. I had just signed up for a year abroad. Thankfully, I was not alone on this trip. I was traveling as a Rotary Exchange Student, which meant I had the full support of a host family, a Rotary club, and plenty of other exchange students from around the world. Most importantly, I had my fairy god sister, Rachel.
Rachel and I had known each other our whole lives, and no one could convince me that she wasn’t my real sister. In fact, I always joked that I was secretly adopted from her parents, and that’s why I was lucky to have two families.
Me, Rachel, and my biological sister, Amy, the day before Rachel and I left for Denmark. July 12, 1993.
That year in Denmark, the world changed me. I grew from 16 years old to 30 in the span of 12 months. And while Rachel and I weren’t living in the same town, we saved our pennies and traveled to see each other at least every other month. In between visits, we wrote each other letters daily. She was my home, and I was hers.
If living in another country changed me, so did my fairy god sister. When we first arrived and couldn’t speak the language she gave me a tip: just laugh. Laugh at everything. I tried it. And it worked. Soon enough, I was engaged in conversations without knowing a word of Danish. It’s a trait that has stuck with me to this day—I laugh a lot and laugh often. In fact, people tell me they can locate me in a room just by following my laughter.
Rachel also helped me commit to becoming vegetarian. We had each gained about 30 hefty pounds dining on ham fat, pork, and a variety of rich, creamy dairy desserts. We were kids—we wanted to eat everything! One day, she suggested we tell our host families that we were Methodists (a religion they knew little about), and tell them we weren’t allowed to eat meat during lent. We just wanted vegetables instead of pork, but didn’t know how else to ask! It worked, and 18 years later, I still don’t eat meat.
If Rachel and I believed we were sisters before traveling to Denmark together, we were bonded on a much more intimate level after our experience abroad. We shared a secret language, a year of experiences that only we knew about, joys like inside jokes, pains nobody could understand, and moments that no one back home would ever share. Like having a magical fort you have built in the woods behind your house, our shared experience was ours alone. We understood each other in a way that no one else could—or ever really has.
That was 18 years ago. Rachel and I shared many sisterly moments after that year—weddings, holidays, college adventures, and the usual girl talk over a cup of coffee. You have to understand the importance of that particular year and my connection to Rachel to understand the gravity of all that has taken place in the past year and all that food blog camp came to mean in its wake.
Rachel and me goofing off at my wedding in 2003.
Fast Forward
Fast forward to May 8, 2010. It was a warm and wonderful Saturday, and I was participating in one of my favorite activities: planting the summer garden! Wearing shorts and a tank top for the first time in months, I dug my hands into the supple earth and watched with glee as worms twisted through the dark dirt and ants scuttled out of the way. I pulled plant after plant from its safe, tiny pot and patted it firmly in place inside my garden beds. Nine kinds of heirloom tomatoes, two rows of sweet and hot peppers, 3 beds filled with melons of every kind: muskmelon, watermelon, honeydew.
The bounty (picked in summer) from that spring planting.
The sun wrapped its warmth around me. The clean spring air cleansed my mind. The firm earth beneath my feet left me grounded, content with my place in this world. The happy rows of plants stood like tiny hands waving. Joy.
The next morning, May 9, was nothing like the day before. I rose early to find the sky darkly clouded. Rain was imminent. I decided to leave early for the farmers’ market in hopes of beating the weather. I was swift at the market, hoping to return home dry and warm.
My next stop was the grocery store. I needed a few ingredients I couldn’t get at the market. I pushed my cart into the aisle when my cell phone rang. Strange. I rarely receive calls that early in the morning. Maybe my husband needed me to pick something up at the store?
It was my dad.
“Amber?” he asked.
“Yeah?” I said, curious.
His voice cracked.
“Rachel’s gone,” he said.
“What?” I was unsure of what I had just heard. I made him repeat it, hoping it would be a different story.
He repeated it. It was the same.
“No. No. No.” was all I could say.
I abandoned my grocery cart, fumbled through my pockets for my keys, stumbled into my car, and drove home through blinding tears. Flashes from the past 33 years came swirling around my clouded mind. The skies opened. Giant, swift raindrops pummeled my windshield.
A Rachel hug!
Back home I spent the day on my bed, sobbing uncontrollably. I also spent it on the phone first with Mom, then Dad, then my biological sister, then my brother, and then repeating the process. Then calling friends. And my fairy god parents—Rachel’s mom and dad. The world was a blur.
And the world continued in that blur for months. There was a funeral. I gave a eulogy. There was her birthday, my wedding anniversary, and Christmas. I read and reread everything she ever wrote to me. I flipped through every photo we were ever in together—spanning 33 years. I cried every day at first, then a few times a week, and then just once a week. The pain was crushing. I wasn’t sure I could go on like that.
But I picked myself up each day and went to work. I put a smile on for the world. I baked cookies and posted recipes. All the while, I was dying too: on the inside.
Food Blog Camp 2011
On January 5, 2011, I stepped off another plane in another foreign country—not unlike Rachel and I had done when we were 16. I wasn’t staying a year this time. I was staying only 5 days. I did not expect anything life-changing to occur. I simply hoped I would learn something new to improve my blog, meet some interesting people, and find some warmth from the sun.
I had just arrived at Food Blog Camp, an exclusive opportunity for less than 40 bloggers from around the world. Our home for the week was the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, a posh resort with pristine swimming pools, immaculate beaches, peaceful jungles, attentive staff, all-inclusive gourmet fare and fancy cocktails. At the very least, this setting should ease away the stress of life and perhaps bring me some peace of mind for a few days.
Rachel would sure like it here,” I thought. Who wouldn’t?!
On the first night of camp, although I was among many strangers, I had the pleasure of dining with a familiar friend from my home of Sacramento: Elise Bauer. Elise introduced me to several other California-based bloggers, and I started to feel welcome immediately. While others talked about their personal struggles with their blogs and finding their voices, I dared not say what was on my mind. And I was glad no one asked. I missed Rachel, and I was sad. Not exactly cocktail conversation.
Elise Bauer & David Lebovitz, two of the leaders at camp. Photo by Carrie Vitt.
Instead I listened. I learned about some wonderful people, their joys, their day jobs, and their food memories. We scraped our plates clean after a four-course French meal and some wonderfully decadent desserts, and then headed back to our rooms. Elise walked beside me and put her arm around me.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” she said. My heart melted. It was so encouraging to feel the warmth of friendship.
“Me, too,” I said.
Friendship
The next four days only added layers of warmth to that moment. Through photography classes, I paired with amazing women to take photos of food, chefs, and creamy Kerrygold butter. (Kerrygold was a camp sponsor, and each of us was hoping to take the best butter photo to win a camp contest.) At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I met someone new—almost 40 warm and welcoming people eager to make new friends and share ideas about blogging skills learned through experience.
Just as I had in Denmark many years ago, I met women who spoke Arabic, French, and Spanish, had lived in Columbia, Brazil, and France. Some had children and husbands, dogs and cats. Some loved writing, some photography, some fashion. And each carried a passion for food and for life.
By the end of camp, some of us were finishing each other’s sentences. We would sit by the pool laughing at full volume, sharing stories of love, loss, and travel. We became friends.
Marie & Me. Photo by Sally Vargas.
And when camp was over, none of us returned home quite the same. It might only have been five days, but the bonds were made. We now write to each other using the gift of social media, already planning our next gathering—somewhere involving lots of delicious food.
Although the sky has been dark and cloudy since my return to Sacramento from sitting poolside at camp in Mexico, the sun actually made an appearance yesterday. It was bold and warm and wonderful! I went for a run, and while my nose pulled firmly at the clear air and sent it swiftly to my head, for the first time in a long time, I felt happy.
I will always miss Rachel—not a day will pass that I won’t think of her. Yet the laughter and joy she so plentifully and unselfishly gave to me are now mine to share with others. That shared gladness will live on. And now I realize that.
Thus, as the New Year begins, I welcome it with a smile. I’m so grateful for the chance I was given to go to food blog camp, and the opportunity I had to make such memorable friendships.
Aimee & Me.
My reader, I know you will find stories of these new friends on these blog pages throughout the New Year—and beyond. And you’ll see improvements to this site as I implement all that I have learned from those friends.
Now, before the sun fades on this bright, cheerful day, I am heading outside to plant a winter garden. I have not planted anything since May. I have avoided the place I once found healing. With my heart newly filled with friendship, I return to that place to plant life-sustaining food and bring new joy to my world. I think if she were here, Rachel would like that.
Laughing over tequila at Food Blog Camp 2011. Photo by Marie.
And she’d like my new friends, too. To those friends I have made along the way: thank you.
“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Hilarious camp video.
Another clever camp video.
Food Blog Camp 2011 Leaders
Adam Pearson
David Lebovitz
Matt Bites Matt Armendariz
Simply Recipes Elise Bauer
Steamy Kitchen Jaden Hair
White on Rice Couple Diane Cu and Todd Porter
Food Blog Camp 2011 Organizer
Prose and Co Kate Moeller
Food Blog Camp 2011 Participants
A Communal Table Nancy Buchanan
Acorns and Apples Aimee Seavey
Adventures of an Amateur Foodie Marie Tran-McCaslin
Angela in Provence Angela Billows
Awake at the Whisk Amber K. Stott (that’s me!)
Bake Cupcakes Sally Vargas
Confections of a Foodie Bride Shawnda and Jason Horn
Couch Surfing Cook Wylie Goodman
Daily Nibbles Sarah Reid
Deliciously Organic Carrie Vitt
Dianasaur Dishes Diana Johnson
Eating Clean Recipes Jennifer Kalinowski
Family Fresh Cooking Marla Meridith
Fast Feasts Lillie Bavendam
Food for the Thoughtless Michael Procopio
Food Woolf Brooke Burton
Frantastic Food Fran Feldman
Garlic Escapes Robin Cherry
Indigo Days Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Kitchen Conundrum Renee and Ari Iseson
Kitchen Corners Damaris Santos-Palmer
Ladles and Jellyspoons Lucy Lean
Loaded Kitchen Maggie Cubbler
Mommie Cooks Julie Mastbrook
Pinch My Salt Nicole Hamaker
Recipe Renovator Stephanie Weaver
Sally Cameron: In the Kitchen | On the road | Through the Lens
SaVUry and Sweet Rosa Vu
Spoon and Chair Diane Miller
Swoon My Spoon Susan Loren-Taylor
The Urban Baker Susan Salzman
Together in Food Stephanie Morimoto
Undercover Caterer Sarah Singleton
What’s Gaby Cooking? Gaby Dalkin

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

undercover caterer January 17, 2011 at 12:53 am

Aww, that's a sad and sweet story. Hope we can keep in touch now that we're back home!
–ss

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acornsandapples January 17, 2011 at 12:55 am

Oh, Amber…what a beautiful post. I am so sorry for the loss of your fairy god sister, but I know are taking her with you on every journey you go on and carrying her in your heart.

True friendship is such a blessing. I am so, so, so glad we got the chance to meet and bond at camp, and I am already looking forward to our next gathering!

You're an amazing lady.

xoxo Aimee

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moowiesqrd January 17, 2011 at 12:58 am

Well. I don't often tear up when I read blogs, but I guess it had to happen some time. I know I can't possibly say anything that would ease the pain of your loss, but I sure hope I can help make the future a bit brighter. It's funny how the lessons from FBC seemed to end up meaning more than how to write for a site on the interweb. Thanks to you, too, Amber… FBC would not have been what it became without you.

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Amber January 17, 2011 at 1:03 am

Your words and friendship comfort me. You guys are the best! Thanks for the much-needed laughter last week.

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Damaris @Kitchen Corners January 17, 2011 at 1:04 am

What a beautiful post. You are a beautiful person full of warmth and light. Thanks for opening yourself up to us. You are so loved!

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Diana January 17, 2011 at 2:00 am

Wow Amber, your post grabbed me by the heart. Thanks so much for being so vulnerable and transparent in posting what Food Blogger Camp really meant to you. I now understand a little of the depth of character I saw in you that week. Meeting you was one of the highlights of camp for me and I look forward to keeping in touch. Will be praying for you in your continued journey of healing.

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Emmy January 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Thanks for contributing. It’s helped me undserantd the issues.

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Stephanie Weaver January 17, 2011 at 2:42 am

Amber,
I am so glad that you were my roommate, even though you only hinted at your loss. I learned so much from you, and thank you for helping me feel so welcome when I arrived late. I know we will stay in touch. Thank you for this beautiful post.

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Jennifer January 17, 2011 at 3:06 am

Thanks for sharing such a moving story. Just beautiful.

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renee January 17, 2011 at 3:57 am

Such a lovely tribute to your friend. I am so sorry for your loss. I am glad you were able to enjoy yourself a bit last week in spite of the circumstances. Be well and take care of yourself. It was great to meet you!

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Shen Milsom & Wilke January 17, 2011 at 6:14 pm

What a moving post. Thank you.
Have you read David Liebovitz's chocolate book? Fascinating.

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Nancy January 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Amber,

I am so, so sorry for your loss Amber. After almost:-) 50 years of living and having felt that same pain and grief that you are experiencing I can tell you this – it does get better. If I have learned anything it is that those we love never truly leave us – they are in our hearts and in our minds. Your "sister" Rachel is always with you – she is in your laugh and in your smile – she is a part of who you are.
I am so glad that I met you at FBC and I hope that our paths cross again – sooner rather than later!

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togetherinfood January 19, 2011 at 7:19 am

Amber, You are an excellent writer…reading this post, I could imagine how you felt at each point in your life that you described as well as what the world looked like around you. What a beautiful dedication to your friend, Rachel, and her memory. I hope you find solace and rejuvenation in your winter garden; I certainly find peace and "centeredness" in mine.

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Amber January 20, 2011 at 5:51 am

Thanks to all for reading this and helping me keep Rachel's memory alive through joy. And thanks most of all for your friendship.

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Lisa@ButteryBooks January 22, 2011 at 8:15 pm

This is such a great post! So sad, but so inspiring.

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David January 26, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Hi Amber: Am just catching up with all the "campers" that I didn't get to read when I was whizzing my way through Texas after the trip. So glad you had a good time and it was beneficial to you in more ways that you (or we!) could have imagined. Keep on writing-obviously you're very good at it! It was a pleasure having you along..

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Barbara January 26, 2011 at 10:37 pm

A beautiful post Amber.

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CityMinx January 26, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I'm sorry to hear about your friend… I was a Rotary Exchange Student too, Sweden though. I know what you mean about all the heavy, albeit delicious food! May I ask what year you were there? I lived in Sala in 89-90, and did the European bus tour with all the other Rotary exchange students from Scandinavia afterwards…. could it be we were there at the same time?

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The Lemonade Connection February 8, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Oh my…word…I am so moved I want to bawl. I completely love what you did in this. And my heart just broke for you. Truly. you're a beautiful writer and I adore you sincerely.

I'm so sorry for your great loss. So sorry. Your friend would be so very honored by the way you wrote this.

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Sarita March 3, 2011 at 5:17 am

Amber,
I have a friend who means exactly what Rachel meant to you. I have tears in my eyes as I type this, imagining what it would be like if Ashley went ahead of me.
Thank you for showing us this side of you.
I am a new blogger. This post shows how food writing can be such a movingly personal experience. Thank You.
Sarita

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Suzanne May 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm

This story is beautiful and moving. You are an inspiring writer, Amber.

So sorry you lost Rachel, your fairy god-sister. You put it beautifully when you wrote of the laughter and joy she gave to you that you now give to the world.

Your writing is a gift. Thank you for sharing it.

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admin May 14, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Suzanne, thank you for your warm words and for reading this story that means so much to me. It’s so wonderful to have girl friends!

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Lauren May 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Two soggy Kleenexes later — I am so sorry for the loss of your fun, wonderful, loving friend. No doubt she delighted in you as much as you did with her.

Your writing demonstrates the beauty of vulnerability. Thank you.

Big hugs.

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admin May 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Lauren, Thank you for reading this story and sharing Rachel’s memory with me. It means a lot.

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Ann Murphy June 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Amber…I had such a hard time reading this beautiful tribute to Rachel through the tears. I remember as if it were yesterday the going away party for the two of you as you embarked on your exchange. We were so proud to have you representing our Rotary Club and community and both of you have only expanded our pride in the years since. This has been a tough year for all of us who knew and loved Rachel but the memory of her beautiful smile is helping to ease some of the pain. God bless you for posting this. Wishing yo0u much success with your blog.

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admin June 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Ann, Thank you so much for reading this and for your warm words. Rachel and I were so proud to be chosen by Savanna’s Rotary Club that year! I’m so grateful I had that experience with her. I miss her every day, and those memories offer joy. It’s wonderful to have such a supportive community of hometown friends and mentors to keep her memories alive. Thank you!

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