February 2010

Charlotte Freeman


After Julie/Julia: The New Generation of Food Blog-to-Books

Cookbookslut has been inundated with books derived from food blogs in the last few months. It makes sense. If you’re an agent or editor out there -- you find a blog with a unique voice; the author has already demonstrated an ability to produce content; it has a built-in audience. Should be a no-brainer, right? Print out all that content, massage it a little, and presto-change-o, a book. Of course, it’s not that simple, and these books vary widely in content. Many of the qualities that make for a strong blog post don’t necessarily carry over to the longer arc of a book-length work. And voice can be a problem. What is charming in a short piece, or even a number of short pieces read on the go over a period of time, can quickly become grating in a longer format. It’s a new genre though, which is sort of exciting, and it’s fun to watch it evolve. I chose three blog-to-book efforts that have arrived at Chez Cookbookslut in the last few months, each of which exhibits different characteristics of this evolving genre.

Let’s start with the most disappointing, and get it out of the way. The Foodie Handbook by Pim Techamuanvivit is a mess. Disorganized, pretentious, and so disappointing. Pim’s blog, Chez Pim, is usually delightful -- and full disclosure, we both worked in the same business unit at Cisco Systems back in the day. What works on the blog is Pim’s voice, her lovely photos, and her semi-insider status as the girlfriend of one of the most interesting chefs in America right now, David Kinch of Manresa. She’s at the epicenter of the Santa Cruz locavore haute cuisine world, and her enthusiasms shine on the blog. She’s also Thai, which brings an interesting angle to her approach to food, and her Pad Thai recipe is justly famous -- it’s delicious and bombproof, and deserving of a chapter in her book.

However, something very unfortunate happened when she transitioned from the blog to the book format. Pim seems to have become a terrible snob. For one thing, the premise itself is weird -- how to be a “foodie.” First off, that moniker is just odious. Who wants to be a “foodie”? The book's cover tries to clarify the project. The cover asks if  “you want to be in the know about food? You want to be the one everyone asks for the best restaurant recommendations? Someone who knows how to handle the wine list at a chichi restaurant?” Ugh. Really? The point is to impress other people? The introduction doesn’t clarify things much either, with its strange assumption that “learning to love food” is something we must “learn again” -- that we can “return” to some time of simple joy taken in food. Um. Okay, but the book flip-flops between extolling the simple virtues and instructing one how to get the most out of a three-star restaurant experience. Is this the simple life, or the life of someone who can afford three-star restaurants? And the instructional component is problematic as well. Her instructions on how to behave in a fine restaurant are strange and insulting -- most of us learned some manners at home. It’s not that hard to behave well, unless, as Pim seems to be implying, you’re in her target audience of uneducated boors with a penchant for nouveau riche showing off. The book’s disorganization doesn’t help matters either, it’s a mish-mash of repurposed blog posts and longer “essays” on various topics including the entirely unfortunate chapter, the “Fifty Things Every Foodie Should Do (or At Least Try)” -- a list that includes, on the same page, “pick your own berries” and “score a table at el Bulli” – really? I need to go all the way to Spain to be a “foodie”? The level of pretension and elitism that runs through the very idea that anyone would want to identify as a “foodie” in the first place, and that the point of becoming this creature is to impress others is enough to ruin the entire book. Ugh. It’s like a distillation of pretension, a handbook not to being a “foodie” but to being insufferable.

On the other end of the spectrum is Tod Davies: the charming, but also disorganized author of Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking with What You’ve Got. I loved the voice in this book; Davies sounds just like someone you’d want to hang out in the kitchen with, rustling through the fridge to make some dinner while gossiping over a glass of wine. Her basic point is terrific, that food is political, that “how much attention you pay to the care and feeding of the people you love -- and to yourself -- is a direct political action.” Davies wants us to cook on a regular basis, to demystify cooking and to encourage people to noodle around with food. She cooks meat when she’s alone and vegetarian when her “Beloved Vegetarian Husband,” Alex Cox, writer and director of cult hits like Repo Man is at home. She cooks for neighbors including one artistic gardener, and her “depressed friend” who feeds her kids processed crap and doesn’t understand why Davies believes in cooking. She even cooks for her dogs.Her recipes are good -- the homemade mac and cheese has gone into regular rotation around our house, although this is really a book of ideas rather than recipes.

Davies’s creative joy in food and the world around her is infectious. She and Cox are both oddball artists who have wound up in Oregon, where Davies runs Exterminating Angel Press, an endeavor whose website declares it’s dedicated to exploring the following values:  “the everyday over the transcendent, mutuality over hierarchy, equity over power, and the search for truth together over the scramble for victory apart.” And yet, this little cookbook/manifesto about everyday living could have used a tiny bit more hierarchical organization. It suffers from some repetition (scrambled eggs again? I thought at one point), and is, at times, less than precise about just what it means to “cook with what you have.” Does that mean scrounging in the pantry, eating local, or what exactly? There are a lot of recipes with avocado in them, and I’m pretty sure that avocados don’t grow in Oregon any more than they do in Montana. She makes several cogent appeals to eat less meat, and not to eat what she calls “torture animals” -- industrially sourced meat -- and she makes a good case for supporting your local food co-op, but all of these topics come up in passing. But I sort of forgave her the mess because it’s such a charming mess.

The Art of Eating In by Cathy Erway is the newest entry in the blog-to-book category (it’ll be released in early February), and is the most polished of the bunch. Erway’s blog, Not Eating Out In New York, began as a chronicle of the two years during which she gave up eating out altogether, and focused on cooking for herself. Erway quit eating out for a number of reasons: expense was primary, but she also came to be equally concerned with the sheer waste that takeout generates, as well as the unwholesome quality of the sort of low-end restaurant dining that her fellow twenty-somethings were relying on for sustenance. Like Davies, she’s interested in how we feed ourselves, and how we feed the ones we love. In the course of her restaurant fast, she discovered the joys of the dinner party as well as the pleasures of the solitary meal. She finds herself drawn into both the cookoff community in New York, as well as the underground dinner club circuit. The book follows the same timeframe, and covers much of the material she wrote about on her blog, but Erway has used the larger format of a book to her advantage, expanding topics she’d written about in passing on the blog and doing considerable research along the way. For instance, on the blog, her interest in "freeganism" was mentioned in one of her monthly letters; here it becomes a filled-out chapter in which she explores the freegan community in New York, the reactions of her peers to the idea of dumpster diving for food, and the sheer amount of food waste that we generate as a culture. Erway is true to her mission, but part of the book’s charm is that it’s not a stunt book, and she's not preachy. She demonstrates that by her frugal ways she buys herself considerable freedom, eventually finding a way to freelance three days a week, leaving her the time for cooking projects, writing, and a lot of bike riding around Brooklyn. In many ways this book’s the inverse of Pim’s insufferable Foodie Handbook, for Erway’s journey is one of moderation. Even her re-entry into restaurant life, in a Korean restaurant in midtown with her Taiwanese mother and uncle, is a celebration of what joy can come from exploring interesting tastes and experiences with people you love. Erway’s journey is one of a young artist finding herself, as a cook, as a member of several interesting communities, as a family member, and as a writer. Here’s hoping we hear more from her in the future.

If there’s anything I picked up from reading these three, and the several other blog-to-book projects that came out in the last year or so, it’s that the trick is not to lose the energy and voice of the blog, but that one also needs to keep in mind that the traits that will draw a reader in for a short entry don’t always translate to a longer form. A collection of blog entries begins, after a while, to read like a collection of blog entries -- the collective rhythm of each piece can start to feel overdetermined after a while. And while I appreciated the careful crafting that goes into something like the Erway book, I’d hate to see the genre lose the looseness and air of anarchy that informs collections like the Davies book. There’s a sweet spot in there, and the fun will be watching talented writers like these continue to try to find it.