It’s a funny business, isn’t it? This food blogging thing.
I mean, as I type this, I’m sitting in a red fake-leather office chair that we bought from our neighbors down the street at a garage sale for $10. It’s too short for the dining room table where I’m sitting, because we don’t have another room for an office in this house, and this is better than the tiny spot beside the bathroom where I sat the first year we lived here. (I don’t really want to create the image of how strewn with papers and half-empty coffee cups this table really is right now.) Still, unless I remember to sit up perfectly straight — not one of my strong points — my arms are sort of reaching toward the keyboard, upward, while I type. And then I wonder why my neck is sore.
I’m sitting here, staring at a blank white screen. Well, blank except for the photographs you see, photos I took because the light caught my eye or a bite of food looked so good I had to capture it somehow or certain faces caught me with their hushed expressions or I don’t know why.
(And now I’ll be singing “I don’t know why she swallowed that fly. I guess she’ll die.” All night long.)
Mostly, here, it’s I don’t know why.
Why do we have this odd compulsion to tell people about our meals? To make up something on the stove, standing side by side, then take one bite, look up at each other, and say, “Oh, that one’s going on the blog.” I don’t just mean me and Danny. I mean millions of us.
When I started writing this site, I had no idea I was writing a food blog. For months before I had been writing daily essays, long explorations of my life as a teacher and someone struggling to feel well. I had been writing all my life, as soon as I could grab a pen. (I see our daughter doing it now too.) When my friend Dorothy named me The Sick Girl, after months of terrible lousy pain, it felt like that was me. I wrote weary words on a computer keyboard and sent them out into the ether. No one was reading, except for a few friends.
When I learned I could no longer eat gluten, and I started to feel better, Dorothy said, “Oh, now you’re The Gluten-Free Girl!” That’s how it all started. I kept typing, just on a new screen this time. I wrote my daily essays, long explorations of my life after finally feeling better. I started writing about food because that’s what was healing me. I took photographs because everything gleamed to me, washed in light after months of being inside on the couch, in pain, in a brain fog, in fear that I was dying. I wrote because that’s what I do. Words poured out of me. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I kept going.
Sometimes people write to me to say I’m too damned happy. “No one could be that happy all the time.” Well, if you’ve been reading here for awhile, you’ll see that it’s not all joy and slow mornings. (There are no slow mornings anymore.) But more than that, gratitude pours out of me like the words because it used to be so damned hard, my life.
Other people ask me for advice about how to do what I have done. I just want to laugh and say the truth: it has all been a haphazard, hilarious guessing game, finding what feels right, following it, and then seeing what happens next.
When I started writing here, there were maybe about 150 food blogs in the world, at least that I learned within a few months. Now, according to one estimate I heard recently, there are 5 million food blogs in the world.
Wow. Anyone starting now? You are a lot more savvy about this than I will ever be.
I’ve had more than my fair share of people asking me how I have so many followers on Twitter. Honestly? I have no idea. I just keep writing.
The fact that some of you out there want to read this, or the little slivers of our day and what we are having for breakfast I write up on Twitter or Facebook? I am constantly amazed.
Promise. This is not me being coy or false humble. I’m really just walking around goofy amazed, all the time.
I’ve been thinking about all this a lot, since the International Food Bloggers Conference, held here in Seattle a couple of weeks ago.
If you read food blogs or write one or follow people on Twitter, you heard all about the IFBC. You’ve probably heard too much by now. In fact, if you google “IFBC blog posts,” you’ll find 70,200 results. No one needs a wrap-up from me anymore.
(If you haven’t read the write-up by my friend Jen at Use Real Butter, do. Merry-Jennifer’s piece on The Merry Gourmet struck all the same notes I would have written, about the joy of meeting so many good people. And for the loopiest and perhaps most accurate insight into the conference, you have to read Chef John of Food Wishes.)
Instead, all I want to do is give you some little glimpses of what was an extraordinary weekend.
This year, at least 20 gluten-free food bloggers from around the country flew in for the conference. What a gathering that would be! The folks at Foodista wrote to me, in a small panic, because they wanted to make sure that these folks would be fed well and safely.
I was really honored to consult on the menus that some of the best chefs in Seattle were preparing. It doesn’t take much to make good food gluten-free, since many of the great meals out there are naturally gluten-free. Use wheat-free tamari instead of soy sauce. Think about cross-contamination. How about making that tuille out of parmesan instead of flour?
We all noticed that most of the chefs at the conference, when explaining their dishes, said, “And it’s gluten-free!” That made me pretty happy.
As well, I suggested that the organizers of the conference call in Kaili McIntyre, who runs a place here called Wheatless in Seattle. Kaili has been well-known in the gluten-free community for years and she has been reinventing herself and her business this past year. She made some great food for us gluten-free folks at lunch and dinner on Saturday night.
In fact, some of the gluten-free bloggers had to push their way past the other people, many of whom were clamoring for Kaili’s pastries. I hear that an alarming number of them sneaked cupcakes off the tray. That’s okay. At least now many of you know that gluten-free baked goods can be good.
It wasn’t just curiosity that drove the swiping of gluten-free food. It was hunger.
The silly irony of both food-blogging conferences I have attended is that there just wasn’t enough food. Coop 250 people in a darkened room (by the way, terrible lighting for photography), at long tables, in rows, with computers and smart phones, and we became high school students again. There was plenty of note passing via Twitter, snickering behind hands, and jiggling legs. By lunch, we wanted out.
The salmon carpaccio you see above? Beautiful. And gluten-free. Is that plate (plus 4 more the same size) going to cut it for you for lunch?
At least the wonderful grocery store PCC (the first certified gluten-free grocery store in the US) was only four blocks away. I got to walk with Merry-Jennifer and talk about her life as a doctor. That little glimmer of a conversation, the water to our right, the hint of coffee before us, was the best part of that day of the conference.
We find the light where we can.
The best part of all of this? The days of sitting in a darkened room, not enough food, having to listen to presentations about Search Engine Optimization?
The people. For me, it’s always the people.
That’s Carol from Simply Gluten-Free and Shirley from Gluten-Free Easily. They were part of the gluten-free contingent that attended this conference. These women (and the other women there who are not pictured) were funny, alive, kind, curious, and happy to be there.
(Ladies — all of you — thank you for the time at Flying Apron Bakery, the day the conference started. You know why. Thank you.)
There were gaggles of people giggling in the rows, people I recognized from their blogs or their Twitter pictures. (So funny how many people walked up to each other and said, “What’s your name on Twitter?” before asking each other’s names.) You could feel new friendships forming in the room.
I’m telling you, when I first started writing this site? I never imagined being in a room of 250 people who want to write about meals, meander with words, and take photographs of their groceries.
How weird are we? How wonderful.
One of the most electrifying moments of the conference for me was hearing James Oseland speak to us. And I did mean that sentence construction — he spoke to us. What a lift to hear James Oseland, editor of Saveur (and the most flamboyant judge on Top Chef Masters), say what an unabashed fan he is of food blogs.
There were huge cheers in the room when he said, “Please don’t let food blogs be a popularity contest.”
Now let me say that comment in the context of some of the presentations we had heard was such a relief. Some people — perhaps the folks newer to blogging, the ones trying to make their voice heard in the din of 5 million food blogs — think a lot about numbers and statistics, keyword searches, and…well, I don’t know what else. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bad student — I didn’t pay careful attention during those sessions. I’m a writer first. And most of the time I deliberately don’t look at my site meter. As soon as I am aware of how many people are reading, I freeze up a little. I still want to be in that space where I’m writing letters to my friends. Honestly.
(And even though life is super-stupid-crazy busy right now, with us planning a book tour, I realize I have not posted this for days because it was an assignment. Something I should write about. See what I mean? I’m a bad student.)
I know that Oseland’s remark made a whole bunch of us breathe more deeply. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the way we reach each other. How we connect. How we make each other laugh and think. It’s about making each other hungry.
I love that Oseland, the editor of one of the top food magazines in the world, treated food bloggers as equals. Those of us out here, talking about our meals? We really are changing the way food is talked about in this country. We’re making a qualitative difference.
Danny and I were both a little taken aback by some people treating us like celebrities at this conference. Really, I’m not a celebrity. I’ve worn this shirt too many days in a row to be considered anything worthy of attention.
But Danny and I were both honored to make a meal at the conference, a three-course lunch for the gluten-free bloggers in attendance, all dishes from our cookbook.
That’s a fig-arugula salad with a warm bacon vinaigrette.
There was also fresh-baked bread (from the recipe in our cookbook) and blackberry-peach crumble. (We picked the blackberries with our friend John when he came to visit us the evening before the conference, and our friend Jon Rowley gave us the Frog Hollow Farm peaches..)There was also a pasta with anchovies, olives, lemons, and pine nuts.
It was a bit of a madhouse, cooking a three-course luncheon for 25 people, in the kitchen of the Theo chocolate factory, with Lu running around. (Have you ever tried to keep a hairnet on a two-year-old? Yikes.) I was flustered, to say the least. Danny, however, just stayed calm, put his head down, and chopped. He’s the one you want in a cooking crisis.
When we brought the food out on big sheet trays, and watched our felllow gluten-free folks smile and take out the cameras, then sneak a few extra pieces of the bread into their pockets for the plane ride home? It was all worth it.
That’s what I have been thinking about most in these weeks since the big food blogging conference. You can talk about SEO and page views and the “right” DSLR for food photography. (There is no right camera. It’s the photographer. It’s the quality of light and attention that matters.) You can ponder food blogging and why we do it and what it’s all about and why anyone even cares.
I don’t care about any of that stuff.
I’m just happy as hell that I have this space to write, to gather photographs, to talk about quinoa and poached eggs for breakfast, and a toddler who walks through the house with a plastic jump rope so she can sing into one end, and the flurry of flours on the kitchen counters when my friend Dana and I come up with a new pie crust together. After all those years of teaching and searching and feeling that I was living my life halfway there, I’m still in constant amazement that I can write about this cluttered, wonderful life of ours and anyone out there cares.
And in the end, it’s always about feeding people, for us. It’s about seeing the joy in someone’s eyes when she takes a bite of a blackberry-peach crumble and realize she can eat it without worrying it will make her sick. It’s about conversations on the way to the grocery store, a feeling of connection in a handful of sentences. It’s about a feeling of communion with a lot of people in a room who do the same thingyou do and don’t think you’re crazy.
It’s about joy in the belly. That’s why I keep coming back here.
Thanks for reading, whoever you might be. Thank you.
As I wrote, it’s always about the people for me. And at the IFBC, I was lucky to spend time with three wonderful women who recently published books.
Dianne Jacob is one of the most thoughtful people I know. For years now she has dispensed wise advice to writers who want to be heard. This woman knows writing, publishing, and how to tell a good story. I love anyone who grows excited about the use of action verbs.
Five years ago, when I was just starting to realize I wanted to do this writing about food for the rest of my life, David Lebovitz recommended Dianne’s book to me. (Okay, he recommended it to all his readers, but I always think David is talking just to me.) I bought it, immediately. I read every page, quickly, then again. Not only was the book full of great advice for how to write recipes and pitch magazines, but within those pages shone the possibility that I could do this too. I met Dianne at the IACP conference that year, and I was a little too tongue-tied to talk to her properly.
At this conference, Danny and I picked up Dianne from the airport. We talked and laughed and ate great Greek food at Vios. There, I had the chance to thank her for including quotes from me in this second edition of Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More. That’s not why I’m recommending it to you. The book stands on its own. But I am struck by how much my life has changed in the last five years and come full circle to a place I love. Yours could too if you read this book.
Georgia Pellegrini looks like a movie star. She’s your celebrity, folks, not me. She’s poised and lovely, soft-spoken and thoughtful. You’d never guess, at first, that she’s one hell of a writer.
Lu and I ate dinner at Danny’s restaurant two days before the conference started, with our friend Jon Rowley and Georgia. I’d been following her on Twitter for a year, listening to her stories of foraging and learning great cooking by the side of her grandmother. However, I was happily surprised when we spent the entire evening chatting, talking about the rigors of writing and how anxiety-provoking those weeks before the book comes out can be, to find that this woman is the real deal.
Her book sings of plain-spoken people, passionate and driven to preserve great food. After leaving her job in finance in Manhattan, Georgia went to cooking school. (It took her awhile to return to the great passion of her family — food — as is true for most of us.) She cooked at Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill Farms before leaving for France. There, she worked with peasants who found mushrooms and was humbled in great kitchens by doing the grunt labor work. Her book was born of this time.
However, there’s very little of her in this book. (Some of you might find this utterly refreshing. You probably won’t like our cookbook, then.) Instead, she profiles 16 people who try to preserve food traditions. Like the man in Sligo, Ireland who grows as many heirloom potatoes as possible to keep the world populated with the tuber. Or Rhoda Adams in Arkansas, who makes some of the finest pies and tamales in the country. People come from all around, just to eat her homemade goods. There are recipes, too, interspersed. Of course, Georgia is in this book, all throughout. By interviewing these folks and finding their passion, she’s trying to find hers.
Now that I know her, I’d say she’s there.
Amy Pennington is just plain cool. She’s a canner, preserver, master gardener, yoga afficionado, former radio producer, and interested in helping as many people as she can, in whatever fashion feels right in the moment.
She and I had been playing tag on Twitter for almost two years and finally met each other just outside of the conference room. The conversation was too short. She was headed to Ballard for more canning jars for a class she was about to teach. I was headed into the kitchen to cook again. But at least we finally met.
Meeting her confirmed what I sensed in her book, Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen. Amy’s book offers practical advice on how to cook and eat great food without getting all gee-gaw about it or spending too much money. It’s lovely. (And Gwenyth Paltrow thought so too. She recommended the book to the readers of her newsletter, Goop, and sales went through the roof.)
In these times, Amy’s book might be just what many of us need.
I’m lucky. I get books like this in the mail. Plus more copies for you. So I’m giving away a copy of each of these books (actually, the publishers are). I’ll pick winners at random this time next week, using Random.org.
Just tell us a story about why you write a food blog. Or like reading food blogs.