By Bryan Voell

Curious about the intersection between the culinary arts and the library? Look no further than Johnson County (KS) Library’s An Edible Discussion program series. Launched in 2014 by Information Specialist Caitlin Perkins at JCL’s Corinth Library branch, this unique monthly series has only grown in popularity over the last three years, bringing local chefs, business owners, culinary experts and dietitians (not to mention lots of food) to the library to the delight of many patrons. Caitlin Perkins was kind enough to provide some background and insights into these delicious programs. Enjoy!

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Give us your elevator speech about An Edible Discussion. What is it and what are the mission, vision and goal(s)?

An Edible Discussion is a monthly food program that focuses on a different food or genre every month, such as Paleo, breakfast foods, Mexican, chocolate, etc. The program is a community potluck where everyone attending brings a dish that is in line with that month’s theme. Patrons are provided with a variety of cookbooks in the month leading up to the event and encouraged to experiment with recipes in their own kitchen. The other component of the program is an educational element where we feature a guest speaker who is an expert in that month’s theme. These speakers can be local restaurant or business owners, chefs, certified experts, dietitians, and so on.

The goals of this event are to bring together people in the community who have similar interests, to promote local businesses, and to educate about a variety of every changing topics within the realm of food. Food is a great equalizer and a wonderful way to pull people of variant backgrounds together as one.

Tell us how An Edible Discussion originated. What were the challenges to bringing such a program to the Corinth Library?

The idea sparked from a program run in Lawrence. I can’t remember the specifics of that program any more (I read about it in some article at that time), or even if it was a one-off or a monthly, but it involved food, cookbooks, and a speaker and I thought it was genius. I half-jokingly pitched my half-formed idea of a monthly program with different speakers and themes to (Adult Services Manager and former Corinth Manager) Kinsley Riggs and she (a fellow foodie) supported it! While I was surprised, I quickly began forming a real design plan. Joseph Keehn (JCL Events Producer) was instrumental in getting the ball rolling and fielded the idea to a non-library focus group who helped form the official title.

The biggest challenge in the beginning was getting the word out to patrons. I drove around Prairie Village asking any business I thought might agree if they’d let me post a flier of the program. I was well received, but like any program, my attendance was low at first. Then I got a big break: Mary Pepitone, a writer for the Kansas City Star and Corinth patron, heard about the program and asked if she could feature me and the program in the Star. Of course I agreed and BAM! Literally overnight, the program grew. I had tons of patrons coming in asking about it and my attendance more than tripled. Now I have the opposite issue where the Corinth Meeting Room isn’t large enough some months, depending on the presenter/theme (both chocolate and tea brought in 50+ people).

The program also seemed really expensive at first when I had to order all the plates, bowls, cups, napkins, utensils, etc. Since I now only order when something is running low, there isn’t quite the sticker shock of ordering everything at once, and buying in bulk (now that we know the program will continue) also cuts down the cost.

Photos: An Edible Discussion at Johnson County (KS) Library’s Corinth Library

What are the ongoing challenges to running An Edible Discussion program?

The biggest continual issue is getting a monthly speaker and theme that will be both engaging and intriguing to the public. Sometimes I send out a bunch of invites and don’t hear anything back for months. I don’t want to extend too many feelers in case everyone eventually shows interest, but I also can’t wait forever in the hopes that they’re just slow to respond to emails. Sometimes I have someone who actually seeks me out (which is awesome), but it’s on a theme we’ve already done (sometimes we’ve already done it twice even!). In that case, it becomes a game of finding a related topic that’s different but that the speaker still feels comfortable speaking on and will properly highlight their restaurant/business/specialty. It takes a lot of time and thought to continually solicit new speakers who will come for free.  

What new partnerships were created with An Edible Discussion, either with organizations or individual community members?

Well, I think we’ve had around 40 speakers come now, so that’s 40 organizations that we’ve been able to promote and who’ve had a positive experience with the library. I love when a presenter tells me at the end of the evening that they’ve had a great time and would love to do this again, either with the same topic or a different topic. To me, that’s the ultimate win.

I’ve also seen friendships bloom among habitual attendees. I know of two gals who are now great friends (and who come to other programs together now too) who first met at An Edible Discussion. There is a brother-sister duo who have been coming for years and shortly after that started attending, they told me this has rekindled their relationship. They plan ahead of time what they’ll make and they do a test run beforehand. This gives them an activity together and a date night, plus then coming to the program together as an additional event together. These wonderful feel-good stories from the program are numerous. We have a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duo who also use this as a bonding activity, countless husband and wife duos who cook together, and we’ve even had a few kids come with a parent, proud of whatever dish they’ve made. I’m always touched and amazed by the heart that people put into their food and the joy they get from sharing it with strangers.

What advice do you have for other libraries thinking about doing a similar program?

Gauge your community and the level of food interest. Restaurants or businesses that aren’t chains make for more interesting speakers, so a wide range of speaker options is important. Spreading the word about the program may take time, but word of mouth has been crucial to An Edible Discussion’s success at Corinth. Talk, talk, talk about the event with as many patrons as you can. If you see that someone is checking out a cookbook, mention to them the fun monthly program we feature, and the theme for this month. And don’t be afraid to go out into the community when seeking out new speakers. It’s often easier to talk to someone in person and on their own turf about the program than it is to describe all the details in email. I’ve noticed that meeting face to face also makes the program more personal and I’m often more successful recruiting a speaker this way. Oh, and lastly, personability with those attending is key. Make them feel welcome, try to remember the regulars by name, and always reiterate that bringing a dish is not required and that all are encouraged to eat, with or without a food contribution. ALL are welcome!

Bryan Voell is currently the Local Arts Librarian for the Johnson County (KS) Library. He received his MLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007 and has worked for public, academic, and research libraries in various capacities since 1997. He is also a collage artist and you can see more of his art here.

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