There are times when a unique and inspiring Knoxvillian will make my brain purr with warm and fuzzy admiration. To think, for the past 16 years, I have unknowingly been crossing paths with such a creature nearly every time I have visited McKay Used Books, CDs, Music & More. It turns out the store’s “& more” includes a twisted heart and a feverish brain that has been turning a literary daydream into a reality.
Kelly Robinson, a professional book buyer and irreverent media blogger, had always wanted to be a freelance writer. Five years ago, at age 40, she aggressively began submitting unsolicited articles to magazines and Websites, and her efforts have been rewarded with bylines in a variety of diverse publications like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Mental Floss, and Rue Morgue. Even the comedic big daddy, Cracked.com, has been susceptible to her prosaic charms.
Robinson has also created a food writing niche that includes two articles published in Smithsonian Food and Think online magazine. Her gourmet food column on enterprise.com caught the attention of Good Food Ireland, an Irish marketing group that guides tourists and locals to restaurants and food producers that use local food products. In April of this year, Robinson was part of an all-expense paid, seven day whirlwind culinary tour of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, and Wickford.
“People laughed when they heard I was going on a food trip to Ireland,” Robinson says. “We tend to judge their entire food system based on the Irish Potato Famine, and that’s not fair. That would be like judging American food on what we ate during The Depression.” Robinson, along with other food writers, and a few contest winners, were treated to Good Food Ireland’s itinerary of 5-star restaurants, delis, bakeries, cooking schools, and farms where local foods were showcased.
This gastronomic odyssey began in Dublin with a behind-the-scenes tour at Guinness Storehouse where an archivist shared quirky Guinness memorabilia and the chef prepared a “light” lunch tasting menu of multiple courses including Guinness infused salmon, a variety of shell fish, Irish soda bread, brisket, Guinness and beet root brownies, and many other treats, all paired with a variety of Guinness stout.
“You learn to pace yourself. You know plenty of food is coming and you can’t eat all of it. You sample small portions. I didn’t eat a full Irish breakfast every morning, either,” exclaims Robinson.
Three hours and one long walk after the Guinness smorgasbord, Robinson attended a multi-course dinner at the 5-star Merrion Hotel. The menu included: duck breast; 28-day dry-aged ribeye; Irish Milleen cheese baked with white port, thyme, and garlic; truffle and Parmesan fries; rhubarb cake; and specialty chocolate.
An extensive art collection was also featured at the hotel. Afternoon tea at the Merrion Hotel is an “art tea” with a menu of afternoon pastries designed around specific works of art. “The chef spent almost two years developing this tea menu. So much dedication went into all the food at the Merrion.” Fellow traveler Eric Cathcart says, “We had a lot of moments where we were just floored by the level of craftsmanship and deep understanding of good food. [We had] a high reverence in understanding that the providers and people who made [our] food are some of the best in the world.”
Robinson’s favorite respite was in County Cork at the Bally Maloe, a one hundred acre working farm with a stately farmhouse, a bed & breakfast, and a cooking school. “Everything we ate came directly from the farm, even the well water.” Other comfort food favorites were found nearby at the Farmgate Café. “All the food served at the café came from a market located below the restaurant. Whatever meat, fish, and vegetables the market had for the day was incredibly fresh and tasted fantastic.” This was traditional Irish food: Irish lamb stew, tripe, spiced beef and cabbage, and leg of mutton. “One of my other favorite stops in Cork was at Cork Butter Museum. One of my favorite things is when food and history intersect. I enjoy learning about where food comes from and about food traditions. This museum detailed the food history and early commerce of butter.”
“One of the great things about the tour is that the country is not real big and we kept meeting people that our professional chef/tour guide knew. Even though they may be rivals in the restaurant business, they are very supportive of each other. The interconnectedness of their food scene is wonderful. We were at a 125 year old bakery in Waterford when a scruffy looking man came in and bought a loaf of bread. It turned out our guide knew him as a forager who searches the local woods and seashore for flowers, mushrooms, and other garnishes for The Cliff House Hotel’s Michelin-star rated restaurant. We had dinner at The Cliff House later that night and it was amazing to know that the pea pods and edible flowers were collected earlier that day by the man we met at the bakery.”
Upon returning to Knoxville, Robinson is back at work and planning more magazine articles. “ I learned so much [in Ireland] and I want to share it with people.” She is also looking forward to attending a fall writer’s residency she was awarded at Wild Acres in North Carolina. There she plans to expand her Rue Morge article into a book about lost horror films. “I had applied for a residency there in the past and I didn’t win it. I almost didn’t apply again, but when my article “Ghosts of Horror Past” was nominated for a prestigious film research award, I decided to re-apply, and I won the residency this time. I knew if I didn’t start writing when I was 40, I would never get around to doing it. I knew I would regret it. So far, I have received validation all over the place. I feel like everything has been pointing in this direction.”
Photos by: Kelly Robinson
© Debra Dylan, 2013