Edible Ojai: A Long and Winding (10-year) Road
by Tracey Ryder & Carole Topalian
Ten years ago, I had the pleasure of writing the first words ever for an “edible” magazine. It was the premiere issue of Edible Ojai and I introduced it to the world with an editor’s letter that briefly told the story of how we arrived at taking our first leap into the world of publishing and where we hoped it would go:
“Edible Ojai grew out of a particular longing I had to eat right out of the garden again. To be able to be connected to my community, its land, and its agriculture in a way that helps every one of us eat from our collective garden, and to know where our food comes from. The goal of this newsletter is to be a resource for our community that makes eating, growing, and enjoying our local abundance an everyday pleasure.”
A full decade later, it is rewarding to know that the original goal we put forth in that first issue was a viable tenet that remains front and center in the work we still do today. We no longer refer to the publication as a newsletter—Edible Ojai has grown from its fledgling 16-page, black-and-white beginnings into a much thicker, full-color magazine—and has been joined by 70 other titles across the United States and Canada, all published under the Edible Communities brand by talented people who live and work in the communities they serve.
During the past 10 years, my partner and Edible Communities co-founder, Carole Topalian, and I have traveled across North America more times than we can count. We have met farmers from all 50 states and from several Canadian provinces, have attended homespun country fairs and have eaten in fancy New York City restaurants—each event full of remarkable tales and tastes. There have been deep dives taken into the politics of food—from the Farm Bill, to food security, to food justice and everything in between. We have celebrated the successes each community has made in these areas and have commiserated when the wheels of any given government, local or federal, have come to a grinding halt before our eyes.
Over the past decade we have watched the concept of local foods go from being a marginal topic into the “almost-mainstream” in ways we could never have envisioned. The small but mighty group of food enthusiasts, who long ago cared about knowing where their food came from, has now been joined by thousands of others—making what was once a personal mission into a full-fledged movement today. And while there are still challenges to be overcome, great progress has been made.
In the early days of the transition from one magazine to many—from Edible Ojai to Edible Communities—we spent most of our time on the road trying to explain what exactly it was we were trying to do. Often, we were teased by the questions: “But how do you eat a community?” or “Why is my community Edible?” Fortunately, these days there is almost nowhere we visit that someone is not already familiar with their local Edible magazine, and we get teased a lot less!
We have enjoyed favorable press over the years and the respect of our peers. The pinnacle came in May 2011, when Edible Communities was honored with the James Beard Foundation’s Publication of the Year Award. More recently, Carole and I were named to Gourmet Live’s “Top 50 Women in Food” list and have been humbled ever since by all the attention that has brought us. We now have five cookbooks to add to the roster of Edible publications, a podcast radio station (www.edibleradio.com) and a handful of apps (available at iTunes). And from that first year of publishing Edible Ojai, when we printed 40,000 copies of the magazine, Edible Communities publications now collectively print over five million magazines each year (and with very few typos, thanks to our friend and very brave copy editor, Doug Adrianson).
There are many things to which a company can attribute its success when looking back across a 10-year span—most have to do with profit-and-loss statements, marketing efforts and balance sheets. When Carole and I look back over the years we’ve had the pleasure of being at the helm of Edible, we think more about where it all began and about those who helped us get our start. We remember a series of seemingly small yet poignant events that, when strung all together, have led to a very positive outcome.
It is impossible to produce a comprehensive list of all the little things that led to where Edible is today, but we feel it important to list a few of the highlights. They feel so strongly aligned with the Margaret Mead quote that says: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
We remember …
… the first time we met Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis on the porch of our friend Anna Mayers’ rustic little cabin in the middle of an orange grove in Ojai’s beautiful East End. We spent an evening eating sushi, laughing and talking about music. Over the years, Jim and Lisa contributed to the success of Edible Ojai and Edible Communities in immeasurable ways. For their help and ongoing support, we will always be grateful.
… heading to Jane Handel’s for dinner one evening in the winter of 2001 to tell her we had the idea of launching a food newsletter called Edible Ojai and asked if she and her daughter, Ramona Bajema, would be willing to contribute. They were willing then, and today not only are they still contributing— Jane as editor-in-chief and Ramona as a writer—but our friendship has evolved into family.
… hearing about two LA transplants who had moved to the Upper Ojai and that one was a cook and the other a farmer—so we drove up and down the upper valley until we found Steve Fields and Sims Brannon and got ourselves invited for lunch. Soon after, they both became enthusiastic, longtime contributors.
… sitting in Anna Thomas’ cozy kitchen and having her call Larry Yee on our behalf. The call went something like this: “Larry, it’s Anna. Call me back. You have to meet these women and you have to get involved with what they are doing. It’s called Edible Ojai.” Click. All these years later, we smile each time we think of the enduring friendship we enjoy with both Anna and Larry today (even if we don’t see them as much as we wish we did)!
… going to a fund-raising concert at Libbey Bowl and hearing the lovely and talented Perla Batalla singing barefoot on stage while being backed up by her chef-musician husband, Claud Mann, and wondering who we knew that might be able to introduce us to them. Today, we’re stunned by the good fortune of having them both be co-publishers of Edible Ojai, along with Jane.
… starting to sell ads for the premiere issue and quickly finding out that our community trusted and believed in us—they bought ads way back then—and several of those charter advertisers have not missed an issue in the whole 10 years (thank you all)! … bringing Doug and Dianne Langeland, publishers of Edible Cape Cod (the first brave souls to sign a license agreement with Edible Communities and now our dear friends), to Bonnie Lu’s for breakfast when they first visited us in Ojai. Chicken fried steak has never tasted so good!
… standing in line at Rainbow Bridge when the late Marty Fujita (whom we hadn’t met until that very moment) came up and asked: “Who should I talk to if I want to start a school lunch program in Ojai?” I responded with the one name I knew would produce results: Jim Churchill. Today, Ojai schools enjoy fresh, seasonal foods in their cafeterias thanks to those early efforts of Marty’s and Jim’s—and now, to the efforts of dozens of others as well.
In Ojai, it’s often said that the old cliché about “six degrees of separation” is for amateurs. We heartily agree, especially when looking back over the long and winding road that carried us from one to 70 (magazines, not miles per hour) in just 10 years.
We thank the community of Ojai for giving us the best possible start. Each of you helped build our confidence, our courage and our character. So much so, that shortly after the first issue was published and a reader remarked: “That was a great first issue but what other food stories are there to write about in a town of only 8,000 people?” we paused for only a second before saying, “Plenty.” And a decade later, that is happily still the case.
Thank you, Ojai!
Tracey Ryder & Carole Topalian