Today I'm writing from Portland, Oregon, where I landed last night after concluding my first week on the road to promote POISONED. This has been the most emotional book tour of my career. Crying usually signals sadness. But most of the tears shed this past week were triggered by gratitude and inspiration. Come along and I'll give you a flavor.
Last Wednesday night roughly 200 people crowded into the law offices of Marler-Clark in Seattle for a kick-off event. The firm was started by Bill Marler, the central character in my book, which chronicles the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak from 1993. The book event at Marler's law offices marked the first time in 18 years that many of the people swept up in that outbreak had been brought together. That's what it made it so emotional.
Back in '93, Dave Theno was the big shot food safety expert from the meat industry that Jack in the Box hired to help them navigate their way through the fallout of the outbreak. At the time, Theno and Marler were adversaries who didn't particularly like each other. Today they are friends and allies in the fight to improve food safety. Theno and his wife Jill flew up from San Diego for the event.
Dave and Jill Theno
Roni Austin came up from San Diego, too. Roni's six-year-old daughter was the first casualty of the outbreak, a story that is told in the first chapter of POISONED. Roni's strength is a boon to everyone around her.
Roni Austin with her signed book
One of the most powerful moments of the evening was when Roni came face-to-face with Brianne Kiner. Like Roni's daughter, Brianne ended up in a coma, where she remained for forty days during the outbreak. But the ten-year-old girl miraculously survived. Today Brianne is 27. Her story is the centerpiece of POISONED.
I will never forget what it was like seeing Roni and Brianne embrace. Book tours normally don't produce moments like this.
Roni Austin and Brianne Kiner
At one point, Bill called everyone into the law firm lobby. It seemed like half of the people in the audience were his clients from other food poison outbreaks. He had flown them in from all over the country. Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old dancer who recently got E. coli from a tainted burger and is now wheelchair bound for the rest of her life, was seated right in the front. Other clients' injuries weren't so visible. But all of them were like a big family, brought together by inadequate food safety.
By the time Bill turned the floor over to me to say a few words, I was doing all I could to keep my own emotions in check. I decided to read the passage from the book that describes how close Bill came to dropping out of law school. Bill teared up as I read from this chapter of his life. His wife Julie and his daughter Morgan walked to his side in the middle of my reading, each saddling beside him to lend support.
Bill's clients were crying, too. These were tears of gratitude. You see, history would have been a lot different for these folks had he walked away.
As I looked up after concluding the reading, I spotted my wife Lydia. Then my emotions got the best of me. If it wasn't for her, I never would have written this wonderful story and met all these people that I now count as lifelong friends. One of the highlights of the tour has been having her and my five-year-old daughter Clara on hand.
After my speech, while Lydia helped me sign books ...
Roni Austin with Lydia and Jeff Benedict
...Clara took over Bill Marler's desk.
Clara Belle at Bill Marler's desk
On Thursday, Bill Marler and I did a lot of media, including an hour on WUOW, the NPR affiliate in Seattle.
That night I spoke and signed books at Elliott Bay Café. Following my remarks, I was on a panel with Bill, a Seattle chef, and the owner of Ninety Farms, which raises USDA certified grass fed beef and heritage breed Katahdin lamb. The event was sponsored by Readers to Eaters, a Seattle-based organization that encourages food literacy from the ground up.
Books for sale at Elliot's Bay Cafe
Friday morning I got up early and jogged through Pike's Place Market. The streets around the market are filled with restaurants, shops and stands that sell organic and locally sourced foods. The rest of the country needs to catch up.
Pike's Place Market
Later in the morning I joined Bill for an interview on KCTS 9, the local PBS affiliate in Seattle.
That evening we took the ferry to Bainbridge Island for the best meal I ate all week. That's because it was prepared by Bill's wife Julie and my wife Lydia, who have become fast friends. Can you imagine having dinner with the world's leading food safety advocate and the guy who wrote a book about him?
Julie Marler and Lydia Benedict in Marler's kitchen
While they were in the kitchen, Clara made fast friends with Bill's dog.
Clara Belle with Marler's dog
After eating freshly caught salmon, asparagus, potatoes, artichokes, and a green salad, we rushed off to a book signing at the Eagle Harbor Book Company. The place was packed with Bainbridge Island residents who had come to hear me deliver a reading. But instead I spoke from the heart and shared what it was like to write a book about island native Bill Marler and the other people who were part of the Jack in the Box story. More crying.
That night as Lydia and Clara and I made our way onto the ferry to return to Seattle, I thought about the fact that two years ago I visited Bainbridge Island for the first time to explore the possibility of writing a book about the Jack in the Box outbreak. I had no idea that it would lead to a profound change in the way I view food and new collection of dear friends.