Jun 6, 2014

Sunset Magazine’s Celebration Weekend 2014

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This past Spring marked my 11th year as a California resident. 11 years, people! Unreal. The Illinois blood runs deep–real deep–but no doubt, after that stretch of time lived in one part of the country, things are bound to change within a person, at least a little bit. There are a few things with which the Midwestern gal inside of me will never fall out of love (read: white Christmases, the unbeatable kindness of strangers, Pabst Blue Ribbon, an inexplicable fondness for Cool Whip). But over the years I’ve become very fond of my life in California, whether that be the years spent as a childless newlywed galavanting at the beach in Santa Monica, or the decidedly more grown-up years in San Francisco, where we’ve started our family and become hopelessly snobby about wine and the best artisan breads.

Regardless of what part of California we’ve called home over the past 11 years, one thing has not changed: I still catch myself, every couple of days at least, looking around, taking a deep breath and thinking to myself, I GET TO LIVE HERE. Dang, it feels good to be a Californian.

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This past weekend I received the fabulous opportunity to attend an event that basically celebrates that sentiment in every possible way. Sunset magazine has been throwing their annual Sunset Celebration Weekend for 17 years, and if you’re the type of person who wishes you could live in the pages of a magazine, this is the party for you.

The Sunset campus itself is divine–sprawling, sunlit, filled with enormous Spanish-style buildings that house everything from editorial offices to the test kitchens, with magical little courtyards tucked between the structures that feature drool-worthy scenes like the world’s most stunning outdoor kitchen with an insane pizza oven, dreamy tiled fountains, and beautifully appointed outdoor living spaces that honestly are snapshots of the magazine’s pages, brought to life. Everything that Sunset covers–food, travel, gardening, and enviable home design–is always in living color on its campus, and amped up even more during the Celebration Weekend.

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One of the most-talked-about spaces on the Sunset campus is their phenomenal Test Garden, which I discovered can actually be toured by the public during the week. Now to be clear, I have a black thumb, and I probably shouldn’t have been allowed near the gardens, lest I kill everything just with my presence. But the main garden, and all the surrounding plantings are so beautiful, it kind of made me desperate to reverse my gardening shortcomings. Or at least hire a really good landscaper.

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Even with scads of people roaming the grounds, the gardens had a groovy sort of way about them that kept everyone quiet as they tiptoed along the different pathways. Big time beauty has a way of doing that, I think. Succulents, you say? There were so many of them on the Sunset campus, it was hard to not shove a whole bunch in my purse right from the greenhouse and take off running. I think I might have a bit of a succulent addiction after this weekend. Seeing the gorgeously-styled outdoor living spaces dotted throughout the event kind of made me want to throw a grenade at my own backyard, but this kind of inspiration is just another thing that made the event so awesome.

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Of course the main draw for a lady like me was the food focus of event. There were plenty of vendors from whom you could get everything from sausages to Indian food to kettle corn (yessss), and wine glasses that could be purchased along with a couple of drink tickets for tasting (and the drinks were actually real, generous pours from the best winemakers and brewers in the area–not just a sad splash here and there for tasting. If you have the opportunity to go to an event where you can mosey through lovely gardens with fancy ladies in sunhats while holding an open container of booze, I highly recommend it).

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Bay Area artisan food producers were out in full effect, and struck a nice balance with all of the bigger, splashier brands that were represented. I was so happy to see Dandelion Chocolate tucked right next to Blue Chair Jam outside the test kitchens–these people are making some of the best sweet treats in Northern California, and they do it up right.

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Since I opted to bring along my two little munchkins for the ride, it was a relief to find that there were plenty of kid-friendly options in terms of food and activities (and free treats to boot–anytime my kid can eat like 6 free popsicles and make her own Italian soda in a wonderland of Torani syrups? Can these people babysit, please?). The nice thing was that the whole event still felt decidedly adult. There was enough to wow the little ones and keep them entertained, but the overall vibe was upscale, low-key fun. The Sunset team deserves a medal for that achievement alone. (Bonus points go to the kicky cowgirl who walked around on stilts–someone get that lady a some drink tickets!!)

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The live gardening, design, travel, and cooking demos and presentations happening throughout the event are an especially fun part of the whole thing, and having gone to a number of recipe demos at festivals over the years, including ones that I’ve taught myself, I can tell you it’s no easy feat to strike that perfect balance of having an enthusiastic and attentive crowd and a demo instructor that brings the food to life and makes the presentation fun to watch. At each cooking demo, every seat was taken, and filled with people who genuinely love good food and drink and are down to be entertained while learning something new–really an awesome energy to behold. Food nerds, unite! It’s especially fabulous when the teachers are chefs like stone cold fox Fabio Viviani, San Francisco’s own culinary boy wonder Ryan Scott, and Margo True, the warm, kind, and almost illegally beautiful food editor of Sunset. They all put on quite a show, and turned out some impressive, California-inspired eats in the process.

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If you’ve been a reader for a while, you know that I don’t cover a ton of events. In fact, I’m not typically the world’s most event-y person. But this one, it spoke to me, and I wanted to pass the goodness onto you. I’m already looking forward to elbowing my way in next year. It’s enough to make a girl never want to leave California.

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Special thanks to Sunset magazine for providing the inspiration for this post. I received free passes to this event in exchange for writing about it. However, all of the thoughts and opinions written above are my own. You can always trust that I’ll only tell you about products, resources, and events that I personally enjoy.

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