In Defense of Food Blogs

city of gold

I recently watched City of Gold which is a documentary about the Pulitzer Prize winning food critic at the Los Angeles Times Jonathan Gold. I loved the movie. Tons of food porn and celebrity chef commentary. Gold is a food poet that highlights the diverse cultures that link the sprawling city of Los Angeles through the cuisine of his neighbors. He is just as interested in the best taco truck Guerrilla Tacos as he is Ludo Lefebvre restaurant Trois Mec. Here is the preview to the film. It is in limited run right now but I hope you have the chance to see it.

Of course the best movies also have elements that make you think and I have not been able to quit ruminating about a scene where the filmmaker basically equates food blogging with Yelpers. To be fair, most of the commentary (not from Gold) seems directed to Yelpers that overly use words like Amazing! But then there are a flood of images from Yelp mixed in with popular blogs like Gluten Free Girl, David Lebovitz and local Austin blog Fed Man Walking.

This is where I take an exception. I have my own issues with Yelp. It has a history of holding up restaurants for suppressing bad reviews and many users have found that they can score a free meal by threatening to or posting a negative review. But Yelp is trying to clean up their act with revised policies and it is as easy to spot a biased review as a clickbait ad. Yelp is still a useful tool for exploring a new town as long as you learn to read between the lines.

Not all “professional” food critics live up to Gold’s standards either. Remember the viral Olive Garden review from Grand Forks? I have family that live in a small town in Texas and know how big of a deal it was when McDonald’s came to town to compete with Dairy Queen. My parents who do not even have email now frequent a local barbecue food truck. Not every city is as diverse as Los Angeles or New York but do not look down on small town America for embracing diversity in whatever form it takes there.

There has been a struggle between mainstream critics and food bloggers since the platform began to change. Bloggers have been looked down upon as being unprofessional but it is really a more complex question of an evolving guideline for a new media. Bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to mark any blog or social media as “sponsored” posts including free media previews. But newspapers routinely accept ads for their restaurant sections that appear on the same page as reviews. I am not saying that a reputable paper would accept an ad for a positive review. But assigning a reviewer to cover a place that results in a positive review surely increases the chances the restaurant will advertise in the publication with no disclaimer required by the FTC.

Gold mentions that reviewing the best food in the city on somebody else’s dime is a dream job. Most bloggers have limited to no financial support for their reviews. Part of the reason I have been silent on my blog for so long is that Austin is booming with high-end restaurants that I would love to review but becoming freelance has severely limited my resources. Sometimes the only opportunity I have is a media preview that I am sometimes blessed to be invited to. I clearly indicate that my experience is not that of a typical diner and if I really love it I try to go back for a more thorough review.  I definitely understand and agree with transparency in blogging. It helps increase the reliability and trust that truly dedicated bloggers strive for. But do not criticize me for not making several “anonymous” visits when I do not have an expense account I can charge it off to.

Instead of insulting all new media I think the topic would be best served by recognizing new forms of expertise just like they honor the cuisine of diverse cultures. Although many have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, Gluten Free Girl is a leader in recognizing a genuine need for a specific diet for many and is also a James Beard award-winning cookbook author.

David Lebovitz has been a professional chef since the age of 16 including a stint at Chez Panisse, authored several award-winning cookbooks and is one of my pastry icons. His recipes and culinary insight for the dining scene in Paris are undoubtedly that of a consummate expert not to mention a pioneer in the blogging platform.

Fed Man Walking is authored by Mike Sutter who was actually a food critic for the Austin American Statesman for several years. One of my favorite lines from his lyrical reviews refers to a local restaurant that was more flash than substance as “I.M. Pei’s favorite Applebee’s.” Is he less of a critic now that he is not published in print?

Jonathan Gold’s insight to modern cuisine and melodic prose help the reader connect to the culture as well as the taste of the food in Los Angeles. I think his views are a guide to the future of professional critics. But don’t discount the rise of the new media. The views of the blogger should not be considered as competition to the singular voice that has ruled the restaurant scene but a complement to a wider view of the culinary world.

Cooking Planit Slide Show

I am testing a new slider for the Cooking Planit Blog. Check out some of our great recipes.

  • Mexican Beef CasseroleYour favorite flavors and textures of a Mexican meal are all built into one satisfying and delicious recipe.
  • Creamy Mac and CheeseThis recipe is rich and creamy, just what everyone loves about mac and cheese. I'd love some right now, in fact!
  • Fried ChickenCrispy and flavorful, this fried chicken recipe will not disappoint. It does take some effort to turn out unforgettable fried chicken, so enjoy the process and know the reward is worth it.
  • Chipotle Honey WingsSlightly sweet, slightly smoky, these wings are finger-licking good. Best of all, baking them makes for a more healthful version than frying.
  • ChilaquilesOh my goodness, I love this recipe. It has a lot of ingredients, but the resulting chili sauce is rich and robust, and it is so delicious served over crispy tortillas with creamy queso blanco and lime cream. Mmmmm.
Mexican Beef Casserole1 Creamy Mac and Cheese2 Fried Chicken3 Chipotle Honey Wings4 Chilaquiles5
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Lessons Learned in 2012 and The Zen of Zesting

Dota 2013 New Year2012 was a year full of highs and lows for me. It is really hard to put into words how difficult the changes have been. I have spent the last decade or so just maintaining. You know, the same old job, set routines, not happy but not miserable, so I thought I was doing ok. In 2006 I tried a new career as a pastry chef but when that became too difficult, I went back to the familiar old job that paid the bills. I felt like there were so many people struggling with less that I was blessed to have as much as I did and I should just be happy with that. But I wanted more. It took a while for me to realize I deserved more. And it took even longer to be able to reach out to my friends and family to ask for the help I needed to get there.

cookingplanitI lost that comfortable job at the beginning of 2012. A year or so ago, that would have been a devastating blow. But through the power of prayer, the support of friends, and a really good therapist, I have to say I actually was excited by this. I somehow just knew that something bigger and better was in the works for me. I remember someone actually telling me that I should write down my dream job and I kind of scoffed at this and said, “Nobody is going to hire me to make desserts from my house.” And yet, that is pretty much what I am doing. Thanks to Cooking Planit, I am curating a database of desserts, as well as doing savory recipes, helping with blogger outreach, writing blog posts and pretty much anything else that helps expand my skills and keep the dream job interesting. Lesson learned- Sometimes you need to lose what you have to gain what you desire.

IMAG0271About a month after I started my dream job, I lost one of my best friends to heart disease at the way too young age of 39. I loved Dax with all my heart despite years of on-again, off-again and other dramas. He truly knew me better than even my own family. I was blessed to have him in my life and it was evident that he left a huge hole not only in my life but in those of his friends and family that packed the church at his memorial. The picture I am sharing here was a fabulous memory I will cherish with him at Cowboy Stadium. I struggle with the grief everyday. It was just so unexpected. Our last conversation was not a good one but that was not unusual for us. I know he loved me and I wish I could spend just one more day with him. Lesson learned- Hug the ones you love and tell them how much they mean to you because you never know if it will be the last.

IMG_5663I grew up with a special needs brother, Charles. If you have never had the opportunity to spend time with someone with special needs, I encourage you to seek out the opportunity through volunteering. There is something about people who have physical and mental handicaps that allows them to share a grace and love that is so pure it makes the world a less jaded place. Charles lived well past the age he was expected to in a very large part thanks to the loving care my parents provided for him for 48 years. Charles became very ill in June and the prognosis was dim. We were fortunate enough to spend time with our Bubby in his final days but of course, the loss of someone so special and innocent is heart-wrenching. Lesson learned- with Charles, the lessons were numerous but what he taught me most of all was being different was ok. In fact, be proud of your differences, it is how you find your strengths.

A big thank you to all of my friends who have helped me through my roller coaster year. So many times a phone call, a text, or a drinky poo with one of you has gotten me over a hump. You have celebrated my highs and dragged me through the lows. The lesson you all have brought me has been one of humility and strength as well as the ever-so-difficult, it is ok to rely on others, you do not have to do it all yourself. I love you all to pieces.

Another thing I have been struggling with is now that I am writing recipes for a living, it makes it near impossible to come up with extra stuff for the blog. Plus I have to taste all the stuff I make, so I am eating out a lot less than I used to. I know, I am happy to have such problems but my poor little blog has been suffering from neglect. Every once in a while when I am working on a dish, there is a tool or technique that I want to talk about in greater detail than I can in a recipe. So I want to start 2013 with a lesson learned about zesting. I will still do the occasional restaurant review or event report but I want to document the tips and tricks that help with my baking.

IMG_5580It drives me crazy when I see a celebrity chef using a microplane. Ok, if you are just scraping a little zest into a salad or nutmeg directly into a pot, it is ok to pass the ingredient over the sharp side with the cupped side facing the bowl. But if you have ever had to zest more than one lemon at a time, you know how messy and dangerous to you nails and knuckles this technique can be. You don’t slice a tomato by moving it back and forth against a knife blade. Try turning the microplane “upside down” with the cupped side facing up and pass it over the fruit to shave off the zest. It gives you much more control of the tool because you are moving the microplane and not the ingredient. Plus the zest collects in the cupped side for easy transfer to where you need it. Be careful to dump out the zest every so often as it is a mess if it spills but I can get at least half a fruit done before I have to empty it out. Hope this helps you learn the zen of zesting, too!

 

Why You Should Not Become a Food Blogger

Four of my fave blogger buddies left to right: Notes from Maggie’s Farm, South Austin Foodie, Austin Gastronomist, and Girl Gone Grits.

1.  Free meals. This will be funny to those of us already blogging but somebody actually came up to me at an event a few nights ago and asked me to tell them about this blogging thing so they could get in on the free food. HAHAHA! For the occasional free meal, free course, free event fee I have gotten for being a blogger, I have spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars of my own money and time on restaurant checks and volunteer time supporting chefs and causes that I believe in. I actually struggled with this for awhile when I first started blogging because it seemed to me in Austin there was a certain set of bloggers that got invited to all the hot openings and fancy parties while my little blog was overlooked. My great friend and mentor Kathryn from Austin Gastronomist pointed out to me that the reason I was not on the “list” was because I was not friendly with all of the P.R. and Marketing firms in town but I did know many of the chefs. I’ll tell you now, it is good to know the chefs! If your goal is to be first on an opening list, pursue a relationship with a firm that caters to that but beware that some invitations come with certain expectations. As much as I want to get a hot scoop on a new restaurant,  I also value my reputation for fair and accurate report of a restaurant and opening night, let alone opening month. It is not a fair reflection of what a restaurant is capable of. Better to base a review on repeat visits on your own dime to a place.

2. To get a  book deal. God bless Pioneer Woman, Orangette, Julie and Julia, Chocolate and Zucchini, Chez Pim, Gluten Free Girl, Steamy Kitchen, and David Lebovitz plus my buddy Babbette at Bakespace that is helping others self publish. These ladies (and gent 🙂 are wonderfully self-effacing, highly encouraging, evangelists of the blogger life but they are by far the exception and not the rule. Every one is talented and deserving of the recognition for their hard work, especially since most started blogging when it was in its infancy. I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of them and while I appreciate their success, I recognize that it is as similar as me taking up basketball to become a member of the NBA.  Anything is possible but maybe we shouldn’t bet the farm on it.

3.  To make money. This is a constant consternation to bloggers. There are costs just to publishing a domain name every year. Now add on the costs of meals, photography equipment, your time (please don’t ever underestimate that), plates, textiles, event costs, and on and on. Marketing firms find that providing  bloggers with free products and tastings are easy ways to secure positive feedback for their clients. Traditional media makes money from advertising but criticizes small bloggers for accepting free meals. Click through adds pay pennies while junking up your page. It is all a fine balancing act. My best advice is to pay attention to that internal voice. If it seems hinky to you, it probably is. Better to pass on an opportunity with strings than risk your reputation. You do what you do because you love it, not because it makes you money. Don’t risk your self respect to become profitable.

4. Because it is easy. Blogging is one of the most difficult hobbies out there. You are expected to keep up on the latest restaurants, be an expert food photographer, including food styling, be a social media guru, be able to relate national trends to local activity, all while balancing family, friends, and a day job. Blogging is not easy. You have to grant yourself permission time to learn a task, or better yet, time to focus on yourself or your family despite the demands of a blog. You can always return to a restaurant for a meal but you may not always be able to cheer your neice’s soccer meet. Every decision involves a sacrifice. Just make sure yours are worth it.

5.  You want to become famous. As talented and dedicated as you may be, there are hundreds of thousands of others looking to be heard as well. Don’t forget that as well written and designed as your blog may be, getting out in your community and connecting in person goes a long way. Use your voice to support your fellow bloggers, food artisans, and restauranteurs who care as much as you do about local, fresh, organic, and delicious. Volunteer for a local charity that supports the causes you are passionate about. And always have a card with your blog name on it to hand out. It may not get you your own cooking show but people with like passions recognize honest enthusiasm and will remember you. As much as I want to hang out with Eric Ripert and Tony Bourdain, it is still pretty flattering to be remembered by a favorite local chef.

Food blogging is a rewarding, frustrating, expensive, and fun. It requires dedication and passion. The  biggest rewards for me have come from the community I have found offline here in Austin. I admit to an occasional jealousy over another bloggers recognition or reward but focusing on my own strengths and learning from the successful approaches of others have helped me expand my blog as well as my definition of success.

 

Edible Austin Cooks Wins an Eddy

Marla Camp is on of my favorite foodie people and the amazing editor of Edible Austin.  Here is the news of her latest accolades:

We’re proud to announce that Edible Austin won two Eddy Awards, and were finalists in two other categories this year, bestowed at the Edible Communities Publishers meeting in January. Judged by a panel of outside experts from the food and publishing worlds, the awards recognize outstanding writing, photography and marketing campaigns.

Best Website: edibleaustin.com (2nd year in a row)
Best Editorial—Special Issue for Edible Austin COOKS! (digital edition click here)
and finalists for….
Best Editorial Spread or Layout for Setting the Season, Edible Austin COOKS!
Best Electronic Feature for our e-newsletter

Congratulations to Marla and her talented team!  Check out the special Cooks edition for party throwing tips, essential kitchen tools, family recipes from local chefs and farmers, a Texas wine guide, and more!

Marx Foods’ Iron Foodie 2010

While this may not be news to those that know me, Dear Reader, I am a bit competitive.  The Foodie Blogroll, a great resource site for food bloggers looking to network and monetize their blogs, holds several contests every month in conjunction with various sponsors.  Their latest contest really sounds intriguing so I decided to give it a whirl.

Step 1.

Write a blog post answering these questions by November 5th, 2010:

  1. Why do you want to compete in this challenge?
  2. Limitations of time/space notwithstanding, whose kitchen would you like to spend the day in & why? Julia Child, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, James Beard, Marie-Antoine Careme, or The Swedish Chef?
  3. What morsel are you most likely to swipe from family & friends’ plates when they aren’t looking?
  4. Sum your childhood up in one meal.
  5. The one mainstream food you can’t stand?

A desire to compete as a personal challenge to my creativity is the initial reason I want to participate but also because the first prize is a $200 gift card to Marx Foods.  They have 11 categories listed for truffles alone!  So we are going with creativity as first choice for reason to compete but Kurobuta pork and uni by mail order are a close second.

Julia Childs would absolutely be my fantasy chef for the day.  I learned to love cooking as so many others did in front of their PBS station on Saturday afternoons while watching the indomitable Childs explain the difference between a hen and a pullet, demonstrate the perfect omelette, and manage to make tripe look appetizing.  She brought European cooking to middle America, not by dumbing it down but explaining and demonstrating in clear and precise steps.  She also helped develop the food television medium as a way to share what she loved, much as bloggers are doing with the internet now.  All with pearls and a smile.

My favortie morsels to swipe would be off the dessert plate.  A bit of icing here, a dab of whipped cream there, perhaps a stray berry or two.  Who am I kidding?  I call it “quality control” but I think I may have a real problem.  My name is Christy and I am a dessertaholic.

I was raised by a mom that had a full time job, a part time job, and three kids including one with special needs.  Although her mother was a fabulous cook, it never really was my mom’s thing.  We never went hungry but meals were more likely to be frozen foods than made from scratch.  A constant comfort food came in the red and white can made even more famous in 60’s pop art, Campbell’s Soup.  It was my mother’s secret sauce in a variety of casseroles that I still crave on occasion.  But the meal I recall most vividly was a steaming bowl of tomato soup-  made with water, not milk as some misinformed chefs vainly attempt to improve on a masterpiece.  Of course tomato soup must come with grilled cheese.  Oh, I’ve had the fancy, tarted up grilled sleazus like Gruyere and Stilton on walnut bread with the thinnest smear of fig compote.  The grilled cheese-us of my childhood was simple white bread toasted on the griddle with a molten hot lava flow of processed cheese food in the middle.  You could not eat it straight out of the pan or you would likely suffer a severe burn to the roof of your mouth or a napalm dribble down your chin.  Tomato soup and grilled cheese on a gray drizzly day when I was feeling sick.  Tomato soup and grilled cheese on summer afternoons when I was starving after morning swimming lessons.  Tomato soup and grilled cheese was the first meal I learned to cook for myself.  All that I cook now started there.

The only mainstream food that I can think of that I cannot stand are green peppers.  I really like the red, orange, or yellow varieties but I despise the green ones.

Well, there you go.  Answers to questions posted.  I figured out how to post the contest badge to my blogs footer.  Now I cross my fingers that I get the golden mystery box to create something yummy with.  Fingers crossed!

Pitchfork Fondue

Why have I never heard of this before?  I love meat.  I love fried things.  I love using yard tools for cooking utensils. 

I ran across this concept researching answers for an online contest.  I am thinking this would be a great use for that big pot of peanut oil used to fry a turkey  for Thanksgiving.  Redneck holiday, anyone?

Repost: Serious Eats Guide to Tropical Fruit

I love Serious Eats.  They have great articles, topical and well written.  My favorite is foodie geek Kenji, formerly from Cook’s Illustrated.  He has written great pieces about how to use your beer cooler to cook sous vide and scientific comparisons of knives and pans.  I usually don’t repost articles because it seems kind of like cheating but this useful guide will help me next time I am at Fiesta.  Thanks, Kenji!

To Cook Well

Here is the essay I recently entered at  http://bourdainmediumraw.com  If you like it, please take a minute to vote for me.  Thanks!

     UPDATE!  I am hoping this link works to take you straight to my essay.       http://bourdainmediumraw.com/essays/view/1031       

   To Cook Well

   To cook well is to know the “blub, blub, blub” sound coming from the pot means the polenta is almost done.  It is to know by a whiff of still raw bacon that you have four minutes to go versus the slightly acrid smell that comes from pork gone one minute too long. It is the slapping sound of the bread dough coming from the stand mixer that tells you the gluten is ready.  It is the sense of karmic timing that allows you to go deeper and darker into that caramel color and then stop all cooking with a cool liquid only a split second before brown turns to burned.  It is the shake of a fry pan that tells you there is a proper sear.  It is the ability to reach into your mental rolodex of flavors and pull tarragon out as the right one to finish a sauce.  Now try doing all of that while in a  complex ballet done with three tatted up foul mouthed alcoholics, two cousins from Guatemala that have more kitchen experience than the manager but speak little English, and the green kid from culinary school who is still learning the steps in a space roughly equivalent to a walk in closet.

To cook well is a mandate that some feel in their soul.  Anyone can flip a burger.  But to flip a burger with pride, to want to serve the best damn burger not just to one customer but to everyone that comes through your establishment turns the cook into a chef, the restaurant worker into an artist.  It gives you the fortitude to soldier on through your third double shift, to work through the holidays of normals, to survive a night of too much tequila after an especially busy Tuesday left you pumped up with adrenalin making sleep all but impossible.

Cooking well demands that you supreme the orange, not just cut it into pithy slices.  Drives you to carefully sort through a pallet of lettuce for only the freshest bits.  Compels you to spend your rare days off looking for inspiration in farmers’ markets and competitors menus.  It is the animated expression that comes across your face as you talk about your latest version of sweetbread stuffed tortellini.

To cook well is a madness that takes hold of your soul.  Madness that turns scarred flesh into badges of honor.  Madness that turns transitory nourishment into memories of relatives long gone.  A madness that inspires dreams of a delicious future.

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