March Magic Memories: Robyn Metcalfe
Robyn Metcalfe is a food historian, with a concentration in the history of urban food markets, particularly in Western Europe during the 19th century. She was the creator of The Food Lab at The University of Texas; this group recently morphed into a nonprofit called Food + City that explores the complicated path eatable products take from the field to tables in densely-populated areas around the world. An avid long-distance runner, Metcalfe has also researched, wrote, photographed for four consumer interest books and is the author of two non-fiction books. Find her on Twitter at @FoodMiracle.
In 20 words or less, what is the main focus of your current job?
To explore our global food system to reveal opportunities for entrepreneurs to improve how we feed cities.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was extremely curious and wanted to start a business, any business, including selling our home grown avocados door to door on our street from my red wagon, invent bug killer made from diluted toothpaste, and start a cut-de-sac-wide newspaper.
How do those career aspirations from your younger self connect to what you are doing now?
I constantly want to learn about how things work, how people think, what’s in store for the future. Traveling has always been at the top of the list, and began to travel on my own in high school. I travel a lot in my current work, in order to learn how cities around the world get their food.
What are you most passionate about at present?
How we can distribute the food we make and grow in the future. The current system will blow up just like ride sharing, finance, politics, and health care. The way we make and get our food will look very different from the way it looks now. We’re just basically digging up the sidewalks now, before a new landscape appears.
Actors, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, whoever — you can any three living people from anywhere in the world to dinner. Which three people do you invite?
As a historian, I’d really like to dine with some dead people. Mostly explorers, like Ernest Shackleton and Mildred Cable. Most of us know about Shackleton and the Antarctic but not about Mildred Cable. Being able to learn about Shackleton’s role as a leader of his intrepid team would be very cool and having Mildred there, who explored the Gobi Desert in the 1920s would be fascinating. She was a missionary, the only acceptable role for women at the time to travel without men, and she travelled in areas that were extremely challenging physically and mentally. How did she do it? What was she thinking? Would Ernest, who was in the Antarctic in 1914, know of Mildred? Did they share similar interests or motivations? And then, I’d have George Elliot there, who is one of the best writers ever, in my opinion. Middlemarch should be required reading for anyone that loves language. The three guests, all exploring the outer edges of their times. But if it needs to be living people then how about David McCullough, since he’s a great storyteller; George Schultz, because he was there when the Wall came down; and Condolezza Rice, cause she’s bright and has been present during some very challenging moments in contemporary history.
In your mind, what is the most overrated tech trend at present?
In your mind, what is the most overlooked tech trend at present?
What was the last great book you read?
I read about five a month, many at the same time. So many good books. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman are two that I am currently reading and like them both. I read mostly non-fiction.
What was the last great movie you saw?
Icarus, about doping in sports. Love documentaries.
You lived for many years in Boston before relocating to Austin. How do you find the two cities similar? In what ways are they very different?
They sound similar. People often think I’ve just moved from Boston to Austin or Austin to Boston or Boston to Boston or Austin to Austin. Not so similar. One has serious mountains nearby and ocean waterfront. The other is pretty much flat and you can’t see the ocean, even on a clear day. But they both have people doing interesting things, a good tech sector, thriving educational institutions. And Texas has a better winter. Boston has a better summer.
Has living in Austin (with our mild winters and not-so-mild summers) helped or hurt your running routine?
It’s a challenge to run here. When I first arrived I couldn’t figure out why runners insisted on running in the dark until I realized that you need to be done with your run by sunrise because of the heat. And if you have hill work to do, running the Hill of Life is a meditation and an opportunity to catch up with your podcast list. On the other hand, there are many fun runners groups and gung-ho adventurers to feed anyone’s thirst for something new and different. I have found several fellow desert runners in Austin who join our runs all over the world. The last one was this fall in Patagonia.
You are now very involved with food startups and food innovation. In your mind, what are the most exciting developments inn this space?
The whole food delivery space is crazy right now. Who will win out? Certainly you can’t accommodate all those delivery services who want to arrive at your door? And how will they handle convenience and the cold chain? Lots of cool problems to solve.
In your mind, what person (either in the US or abroad) is doing the most interesting work in this very broad food space?
The big food companies are beginning to develop their own innovation centers and I think they will begin to be big but act small. At academic institutions, MIT, Cornell, and UC Davis are all doing some pretty interesting things to rethink our food system.
How do you see our understanding of food evolving in the next few years?
Probably not going back to the kitchen, with apologies to Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Dan Barber.
Given the current focus on food in your career, what’s your favorite thing to eat?
Peanut butter and Nutella on toast with an espresso chaser.
What is your best tip for newbie SXSW attendees?
Attend sessions out of your industry or current area of interest.
What is the best networking connection you’ve made at SXSW?
Hard to say. Have met many, many interesting people who I’ve come across unexpectedly, in informal conversations.
Along with your husband Bob, you will be emceeing the SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event awards show on the evening of Sunday, March 11. Have you guys ever done anything like this before? What should we expect when we see you two on stage?
Nope, not done before. Probably make a lot of snide comments.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.
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