How To Be A Culinary Historian and Food and Farming Photographer: Meet Liz Birnbaum

Current City: Santa Cruz, CA

Hometown: Chicago (well, technically Skokie), IL

Hi Elizabeth! I am so glad that you are here to share your story! I love everything that you’re doing. Tell me about your business and what you do.

Thank you dear, the feeling is mutual! You’re rocking the internet in so many ways and first I want to say it is such an honor to be asked into your Diary! 

And gosh, starting is always the biggest step, right? It’s hard to know where to begin because I do so many things—who doesn’t these days!? 

I am a photographer, writer, curator, event maven, and a food historian. My camera is an extension of my ear, mind, gut, and heart, just as much as my eye. When I first began growing food in 2010, I wanted to understand my own farm in the broader context of agriculture in the U.S., so I launched a photo-ethnography of farmers across the country. I learned to capture the farm like only a farmer knows it—with soil on my hands. Since then, I have built my career organic and ecological agriculture—leading the annual EcoFarm Conference and working at the Organic Farming Research Foundation—so my photography is infused with greater understanding of farm culture and food systems.

Last year, I documented the lifecycle of eight crops for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC and am currently working on a forthcoming book with Ten Speed Press, photographing fruit trees through the four seasons. While shooting in the field, my heart beats its fastest as I see the sun hit the cover crop just right; it beats slowest while I stalk a honey bee as she pollinates the bell beans.

I am also just a tinkerer—I love to try new things and see what I learn. For example, I also love to experiment with textiles (making hand-dyed silk dyed pillows is my favorite), pottery (I am taking a wheel class and getting totally humbled about what it takes to make a bowl), and climbing (I have been indoor climbing and it’s been really fun)!

And with The Curated Feast, I am in this really exciting moment. I just took a full leap away from my job at the Organic Farming Research Foundation, where I worked in Development (my title was “Senior Partnerships and Engagement Officer”… fancy for “make friends and get sponsors!”). 

The Curated Feast is an outgrowth of my passion for storytelling, history, and mythology. I launched the business in 2015 when all of these influences and interests finally clicked into clear view. It has been an amazing project and I have loved all the learning—both about business and about to many food history tales! Through the Feast I tell the deeper stories behind foods we encounter every day through my independent venture, The Curated Feast (—exploring history, mythology, geography, symbolism, and the human experience through culinary events.

Tell me how you came up with The Curated Feast.

Part of how The Curated Feast came about was actually related to our alma mater, Lake Forest College! In particular, after graduating in Art History and Psychology, I got recruited to manage the Environmental Studies Program, and that is where my true journey to working in food began! I started a small farm on campus, because we were looking at how to get the campus community together to have a conversation about critical sustainability issues. I proposed a farm and suddenly became a farmer!! It was such an amazing learning experience. Growing food will humble you, for sure, and also remind you that magic is totally real. Learning to nurture the plants to feed the community taught me so much—I definitely still carry those lessons with me today. 

At the same time as I was farming, I also started co-teaching classes with Dr. Glenn Adelson, the head of the Environmental Studies program. One particular class was called Botanical Imperialism. Co-teaching that class changed my life—not even exaggerating! I started to see the deeper stories behind foods I was encountering every day—tea, black pepper, corn, wheat…even chicken. The stories behind all of these foods could fill a lifetime’s worth of exploration. So that is the journey I am on!

Your passion for food and entertaining is so inspiring and fun to watch! Talk to me a bit more about ‘The Curated Feast’ and what happens during your food events.

Wow, thank you!! (Blushing over here.) At the Feasts, about 12-28 people typically attend, and in between each course, I tell a story that goes with that dish. The Feasts are truly that—they are multi-course meals and storytelling events. I typically also work with a musician, chef, florist, and photographer to pull off each one. Some people think I might also be cooking the food, but I am not a chef, and I love to find chefs to work with. I am always looking for new collaborators and venues! 

All of the Feast themes have been so fun, too. I have done feasts focused on exploring places and times, like Ancient Greece and the Silk Road. I have also explored inner landscapes with themes like A Feast of Archetypes, Fables, and my definitely also latest one on the Wizard of Oz, called Lost and Found. The last feast was all about Dorothy as the Heroine on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” It is so amazing to get to weave the stories into each course, and I love having an outlet for both my interest in history and mythology, through these events.

Also, some guests have explained their experiences so beautifully—much more poetically than I can even take in. It is feedback like this that keeps me going. You can see my guest reviews page, here:

Today’s age is all about ‘The Digital Age’ Your Instagram feed is full of beautiful photography and visual images. How do you use Instagram to help build your brand?

Thank you! I think Insta is a great brand building and engagement tool, but in a way, I also think of it as my portfolio. I have collected my favorite images and stories there, and they are on display for anyone who wants to dig back through and learn about the photo and the story that is related to it. 

I am actually thinking about my own use of Instagram through a different lens, right now. I have been writing pretty long captions, but I don’t know that I will keep that practice up. I started the long captions at first because 1. I have a lot to say, and 2., I wanted to bring depth to a format that was so focused on the surface. I felt that people were just double tapping at the surface of the photo and that there was an opportunity for deeper learning. A third tap, if you will. And personally speaking, since I already see the stories behind food as a lens in my own life, seeing the food photos, or “food porn”, that was on my feed made me want to share those stories in that deeper context on that platform. 

Besides Instagram, what other social media platforms do you use? Which platform do you find the most appealing for your brand?

It’s really just my Insta and my website/blog! I also am very interested in print media. 

Tell me about the most recent collaboration you’ve done. And are there any creatives in Santa Cruz that you’d like to work with?

Cool question! Well the last deeper collaboration was actually the local Whole Foods, in Santa Cruz! We worked to tell the stories of eight different foods,for the holidays,  from Dungeness Crab, to Latkes, to Spumoni Cake! It was so fun to work with them. That was the first time I really got to dig into a series of stories like that for social media, and it was a really cool experience.

Other than that, I worked with a local prop stylist here in Santa Cruz to create some aphrodisiac posts on valentine’s day, and I have tons of collaborations simmering with chefs, artists, and farmers! 

Who are your favorite Influencers/Creatives that inspire your work?

Oh my goodness, so many! Here is a short list:

My list has to start with Elizabeth Gilbert, and Michael Pollan. The two of them inform these whole landscapes in my mind. Their influence has been steeped so deeply into my heart and mind. 

Also, I quickly would think of Michael Meade, Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss, Marie Forleo, Kyle Thiermann, and this one may be out of left field, but also Aggie of Travel in Her Shoes.

Tell me one thing that most people may not know about you

Hmm! Well most people don’t know that I am Jewish. And actually my Jewish heritage is at the core of the foundation of Curated Feast, for me. I was raised on food stamps (haha now there are two things people don’t often know!) and the Passover Seder was this annual place of talking about food and symbolism. The foods on the table told such a powerful and epic story about bondage and slavery, what can hold us back, and how to be free. That dinner was the most memorable one through all of my childhood. Gathering with my family and re-telling those stories gave me such a deep sense of home and an attunement to the rhythms of life. (Also I come from a family of artists and musicians, so the rhythm was definitely there! We would have family jams all the time.)

Also just want to note that while I am very proud of my Jewish heritage, I am also very proud to come from a line of fiery speech-making Baptists. 🙂 Religion can create a complicated landscape, but I just want to acknowledge that there are other parts of my family heritage, too, and I want to honor all of them.

Are there any projects you are working on, and/or upcoming events that we should know about? 

Yes! As I mentioned above, I actually have gone from working full time, to part time, and now I stepped away from that to be doing Curated Feast full time. This transition has happened in the last 3 months! In this time, I have definitely learned so much already, and I am excited to implement those lessons going forward. I have spent the last few months creating some proposals for future projects! I think it is a little early to share details, but what the heck. 😉 I believe that speaking your dreams can help make them become reality. 

So here it goes:

I am about to launch a new project where I will examine the history, mythology, and contemporary issues around grains. This project will start by examining wheat, barley, quinoa, rice, and corn. The stories embedded in these small grains are critical and powerful. Grains are the basis of settled agricultural societies, and thus they are also the basis of our contemporary civilization. If that’s where we start from with this project, you know it’s going to go far! I will also cover tales from myth and religious traditions, like those of Osiris, Demeter, Centeōtl (the Aztec maize diety), and more. I am so excited to get going on the real work of it!

What is your most proud moment you have achieved as a Culinary Mastermind?

Haha oh my goodness. Ya know, every Feast makes me feel thrilled beyond description. I am so grateful to be able to host those events and bring people together for the stories. Also, the press and awards I have gotten have been incredible. Last year alone, I was named a “Culinary Mastermind” as you noted, and also one of Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 40 under 40! Also last year I was named local Foodie of the Year… and this year I am a part of a group who won Writers of the Year. What a wild and wonderful ride it has been! The validation is amazing, but I am also just following my path. I really spent time thinking about both what pulls my heart strings and what I want to contribute to the world, and honestly the Curated Feast is the answer to both, for me. I hope everyone takes the time to think about this, for their own lives, too!

Do you have any short or long term goals for the New Year?

Love this question. My current goals are:

  1. To achieve financial stability while freelancing and working for myself. 
  2. Learning to keep a better schedule, while juggling all the things.
  3. Launching the grain project, as I mentioned above, and to secure partners and funding for that endeavor.
  4. More travel for work! International and in the US.

Now let’s get a little more personal! Tell me your favorite:

  • Instagram account you follow: @thefeedfeed
  • Dish you cook: I am super basic in my own home cooking… but I love to cook eggs! 
  • Band or music artist: Right now, I am loving this Brazilian artist, Anitta. She pumps me up!
  • Clothing boutique: Synergy Organic Clothing, which is based in Santa Cruz!
  • Lipstick: BITE! The classic, deep poppy colored red is the best!
  • Netflix show or movie: Believe it or not, I don’t even subscribe to—or share on—a Netflix. I am such a nerd, so I subscribe instead to The Great Courses Plus. 🙂

And let’s get a little more personal, shall we:

  • If you had the chance to meet and have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be? Oh gosh! Right now I am loving book The Four Agreements, so I would love to lunch Don Miguel Ruiz. Or Beyonce. 😉
  • How would you describe your best friend in 3 words? Fierce, Compassionate, and Fun.
  • What is the last good book that you’ve read? I just read the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the first time. It was wild to learn how different that text was from the movie. So many points of the plot are completely different and way more elaborate! Worth checking out, if you are curious.
  • What’s your favorite song on your current dance playlist? I’ve been rocking out to Sorry Not Sorry by Demi Lovato. (I just looked at my Spotify and pressed play… now i’m dancing at my desk!) 🙂
  • New York or LA?  I do love to visit NYC, but right now it’s LaLa Land that I get to experience, more. So, LA wins!
  • Who is your male celebrity crush? Right now, I have a serious Chris Hemsworth / THOR thing. 
  • 3 things on your bucket list? Ya know, am going to think about this more, now that you asked. I have never been one for a bucket list. I love to challenge myself to achieve things pretty often, and then I look back and say wow, that was awesome and bucket list-able! I just booked a trip to Iceland on a whim, and that was probably bucket list material. But I have also just followed my heart to owning an art gallery, starting a farm, and being a US Delegate to Terra Madre, the international Slow Food Conference. Looking back, those all would belong on my list, too! I just find that if I keep following my thread each day, it will keep taking me to where I need to be. (Is this the worst cop-out EVER? Or the best?) 😉