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Valerie Phillips: Conference serves food for thought

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Do you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain?

If you can answer "yes" to both of these questions from the quirky '70s love song, you'll be right at home in Puerto Rico.

I recently spent a few days on this Caribbean island for the Association of Food Journalists' annual conference. I found out that it's easy to get caught in a tropical downpour. I also found out that the pina colada — which contains coconut cream, pineapple juice and rum — was invented here during the 1950s. (Lest my boss read this and think I was drinking on the job, let me assure you that Puerto Ricans do know how to make a mean non-alcoholic pina colada, even though rum is big business there.)

Every year, the AFJ conference agenda is an eclectic mix of workshops on writing, editing and culinary topics that yields lots of food for thought, as well as consumption. Every year it's held in a different city, so we learn more about regional cuisines, too. Since most of the information ends up somewhere in our Food section, here's a sneak preview of what you'll be seeing:

This year's major topic was genetically modified foods, with the National Press Foundation co-sponsoring these sessions. This is where a specific gene from one organism is spliced into another living thing — often a radically different living thing, such as a flounder gene spliced into a strawberry.

Today we have soybeans and corn that have been genetically altered to withstand weed-killers or produce their own insecticide. Some scientists say they're the answer to feeding the world's population; detractors call them "Frankenfoods."

In another panel, we found out how the various Caribbean islands widely differed in cuisine due to the different European nations who governed them — Holland, France, Spain and England — as well as the cultural influence of African slaves. We learned about the popular mashed plantain dish called mofongo, as well as some funky-looking tuber veggies. Sofrito, a flavoring made basically of onion, garlic and peppers, is the "linchpin of Caribbean cooking," according to Viviana Carballo, food columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Steinbach did a couple workshops on different writing approaches to our stories, and we also heard from Mimi Sheraton, former food critic for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and Time. She has a new book on her adventures called "Eating My Words." She joked about how her mother would scold her when she gave negative reviews, calling her a "Maven of Dreck."

When asked about today's growing ranks of "hot young celebrity chefs," she said they're overcelebrated too quickly, and there's too much emphasis on creativity in order to garner publicity, rather than to make wonderful food.

Two syndicated columnists told us how they got started doing their food columns that appear in newspapers all over the country. This was interesting to me, since our Food section has several syndicated columns — Supermarket Sampler, Desperation Dinners, Cook It Light and Cheap Thrills Cuisine. I've often wondered which appeal most to our readers. Feedback, anyone?

We also had a panel on what makes a good cookbook and how to review them. Nearly every day food editors get at least one new cookbook in the mail, and there's no way to write about all of them. Most of the panelists said they tend to ignore celebrity chef cookbooks, which are usually too complicated for the general home cook.

They also overlook fads — cookbooks can be pricey, and you don't want to spend $40 on something that will gather dust on the shelf. They tend to like cookbooks that use readily available ingredients and recipes that actually work.

So, readers, if you'd like to read more about any of these topics, e-mail me with your druthers.