Special ingredient: food
Erin Whitcomb had just returned from a friend’s 30th birthday celebration when she heard the news.
She’d been laid off.
Having dedicated 11 years to the PBS station in Seattle, she was devastated. In the throes of an identity crisis, Whitcomb packed her bags and moved to Orange County to be nearer to her fiance, Adam, a new graduate student at Chapman University.
Accustomed to working long hours, she suddenly found herself filling her days by cooking, reading and maintaining a sparkling clean house.
“I was going stir-crazy and there were simply no jobs to be had,” she recalled. " I wanted to do something nostalgic and fun that would bring happiness into the world — sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”
That was when inspiration hit.
The longtime frozen treat enthusiast began experimenting with recipes and traipsing around to student film sets and wrap parties with her concoctions, so Adam’s classmates could try them. When they “freak[ed] out” and lauded her efforts, she took the next step — toward one blender and a pop cart.
Since early 2011, Whitcomb’s project has grown from a sole cart in the American Legion Hall in Placentia to a wildly popular brick-and-mortar shop in Old Towne Orange called Front Porch Pops. Her seven carts and 12-person staff sell seasonally inspired ice pops, ice cream bars and pies and will soon unveil a pretzel line.
Whitcomb, 33, of Orange, is one of about 120 food artisans poised to participate in Costa Mesa’s first-ever Patchwork: Edible Edition on Saturday and Sunday.
Brimming with enthusiasm over the imminent opportunity to attend Evan Kleiman’s pressure-cooking demonstration, Whitcomb said she also wants to learn about pickling and making lattes.
“I’m so excited to be participating in an event that not only encourages people to come and taste stuff, but to go home afterward and cook,” she said.
‘Sense of community’
Creators Delilah Snell and Nicole Stevenson envision a summit featuring chefs, bloggers and vendors. Attendees can partake in a weekend’s worth of eating, learning and shopping at SoCo Collection, where the playbill includes food-inspired jewelry and apparel, panel discussions and hands-on workshops.
Patchwork debuted in 2007 as a festival that provides artists, craftspeople and vendors a venue to sell their goods — a service they felt was lacking in some parts of California.
Brainstorming over margaritas, chips and salsa, the women began with one word, “make,” on a sheet of paper and added others that came to mind. It wasn’t long before they combined “patch” and “work” from the collection of terms.
“Patchwork insinuates the making of something but also brings to mind the sense of community,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson, a do-it-yourself workshop instructor and founder of the clothing and accessories line Random Nicole, and Snell, an environmental education and food sustainability expert, decided to run with the idea.
Occupying a parking lot for about 25 cars behind Snell’s Road Less Traveled store in Santa Ana, they drew more than two dozen vendors and close to 500 guests. Since then, the biannual event has also reached Long Beach and Oakland, where several city streets are cordoned off to accommodate it. The growing turnout is also graced by live entertainers, photo booths and perhaps even a bike valet, hair dresser or pet sitter.
To the aunt-and-niece team, both 37, there is no greater pleasure than helping people do what they love. And not just as a hobby or downtime activity, but as something they can make a living from.
“For one of our vendors, our show was the first show she ever did,” Stevenson noted. “She had a day job — bartending — and she hated it. This year, she was able to quit her job because her business had built up. It’s amazing to know that we were part of something that is helping someone make their life what they want it to be.”
Both find such gatherings increasingly critical at a time when ATMs are replacing bank tellers and self-service is often picked over a grocery checker’s station.
“This was a really good opportunity to return to that sense of local community and have people interact with each other,” Stevenson said. “Meeting a vendor at Patchwork could lead to a conversation, and then people might find that they live a few blocks apart, maybe with kids of the same age who can start playing together, or they can start a crafting night.”
Snell commented that working behind the scenes, they’d noticed an uptick in interest among the area’s artisan food vendors. This is in keeping with the movement of “modern domesticity,” with people wanting to know what they are eating, where it was grown and and how it was prepared, she said.
So this year it made sense to go the culinary route because food lovers are enthused “by the ability to use their home kitchens as a site of production,” Snell remarked.
No shame for beginners
According to Snell, Patchwork: Edible Edition is not intended to intimidate or shame those who don’t like cooking. Guests can anticipate interactive stalls, kitchenware and beginners’ workshops on how to properly hold a knife.
“We want to offer programming and free education where people can learn how to make things that they buy and become even closer to the makers that they’re purchasing from,” Snell said. “I think that’s going to be the next big evolution.”
James Schwartz’s name is on the Patchwork: Edible Edition roster. The 36-year-old Costa Mesa resident, who considers himself everything from the “CEO to the janitor” of Wilson Coffee Roasting Co., will spend the weekend selling coffee beans, bottles of cold brew and chocolate-covered espresso beans, and eating, of course.
With only “a roaster tucked away in the back corner of a warehouse complex off Placentia, with no sign,” he relies heavily on regulars, many of whom have set off in his direction after buying his goods at previous Patchwork shows.
A believer in sustainable farming and 100% organic ingredients, Schwartz said, “It reflects upon us poorly as humans that we need the term ‘fair trade.’ He added that since ‘fair trade’ is not on every bag of green coffee he receives, he makes sure that the coffee comes from smaller co-ops.
He hearkens to Snell and Stevenson’s way of thinking because they offer a market for “quality products made with hands, heart and vision.”
The duo in question, who come from a “long line of entrepreneurs and workaholics,” admit that they have to intentionally stop talking shop.
“The tricky thing is that we are always working,” Stevenson said. “It’s just that we have such a deep passion for not only what we do, but the whole movement around it, that it’s enjoyable for us to keep talking about it. Sometimes it feels like work. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
If You Go
What: Patchwork: Edible Edition
Where: SoCo Collection, 3303 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa
When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday