Two links on the cult of authenticity

The quest for authenticity is an ugly thing. Will there never be an end to the spectacle of (usually white, middle-class) people draping themselves in exotic tribal fabrics, bribing sherpas to haul them up mountains, spending $15 for turkey-burgers in urban hunting lodges, throwing out perfectly good kitchen tables for expensive new tables made out of old barn doors, and fetishizing people darker and/or poorer than themselves? All of the above, and more, can be summed up under one phrase: fake authenticity.

From Joshua Glenn at HiLoBrow

My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.

There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.

From Sarah Emily Duff at Tangerine and Cinnamon via Tammi Jonas

Goodbye, Rosemary

Goodbye, Rosemary

I pulled out a rosemary hedge that’s been growing down the side of my house for a few decades, in about two hours. Not even the keenest lamb cook can eat that much rosemary and I still have a massive plant in the backyard to attract bees to pollinate more desirable food. It’s somehow emblematic of the life that I’m interested in. Where in the past I was probably more interested in whatever food flowed past the front of my house, over the past months, I have become more absorbed in looking inwards. Staring towards my backyard is more fulfilling than writing about eating outside.

Pulling out the rosemary had nothing to do with food, it was to enable a team of hazmat-suited asbestos removalists to back a truck down the driveway and give the impression that my house was cooking the largest batch of meth in the Western suburbs. If you live in a house built between 1920 and 1960 in Melbourne’s west, there’s asbestos in it, which isn’t a problem until you need to knock out a wall or drill some holes. Asbestos sheets sit dormant under the eaves, surrounds sagging sheds and provide structure for the mid-50s lean-tos that creep across Melbourne’s backyards.

It’s distributed across Melbourne in a map that reflects mid-century poverty. Being a cheap building material, the poorer a suburb was in the postwar era, the more asbestos is in it. Rich people only built their beach house with that cheap grey sheetrock. As the wave of gentrification sweeps across Melbourne’s inner suburbs, so too does asbestos removal. The garage and bungalow in my backyard were reduced to grey rectangles of cracked clay spotted with a veritable trove of zinc roofing nails, construction aggregate and broken shards of glass that my daughter calls “treasures”. A backyard in readiness for architecture.

I think this is why people quit food blogs, not so much because they’re less interested in food, but because their inward lives become more enthralling and less explicable. Work, kids, health, sex, politics: they’re more consuming than what you eat or at least, what you publish about what you eat. There’s bolognaise sauce bubbling on the stove while I’m writing this. As much as I know you want to pin it on Pinterest, nobody pins beige food. I’m not going to take a decent photo of it because people who style their own food aren’t worth knowing. I’d add nothing worthwhile to the world by publishing my vision for the perfect meat sauce but also I’m not at all interested in presenting some perfectly curated version of my new domesticity.

So how do you food blog an imperfectly curated life?

Part of the nostalgia for the blogging days of yore, before food blogs died, is to do with its low fidelity, the technical imperfections that made it seem more authentic. Apart from the dopamine bursts from endless information, this is what draws me more to Twitter and less to blogging. When you follow any group of people, it’s riddled with idiosyncrasy and when you know virtually nobody is paying attention to you most of the time, it gives you freedom to write a sentence about anything. It the past I would have written a few sentences of blog post about an interesting link; now it would be 120 characters of a tweet. Something was lost when this happened.

Like Steve Cumper has decided to embrace lo-fi in his food, I’m going to do the same with my blogging. More paring back to the things that I’d otherwise tweet about, like pulling out hedges and short-form, short-lived criticism, less 600 word missives like this one.

How to make money with your food blog in 2013

Selling eggs near Psar Toul Tom Poung, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Selling eggs near Russian Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’ve been trying to update this post for about a year. My first attempt ended in me saying that you shouldn’t bother trying to make money from your food blog, or at least, you should not feel entitled to recompense for your creative endeavours.

It’s pretty hard to find a food blogger who makes a living from it who started food blogging after 2007. Google tends to favour those with a deep history. It’s also hard to find one who’s not in a partnership with somebody who makes or has made a decent income elsewhere. Any food blogger (or journalist for that matter) can look wealthy with the backing of a generous benefactor or understanding partner.

When I talk about making money, I mean making a living wage, not just a few dollars to pay for your web hosting or the occasional pint of bitter. You could do that by signing up for Google Adsense or Amazon Affiliates.

Most food blogs never plan to make any money, but if your goal is to make money online, the best thing for you to do would be to quit food blogging and start writing about something which is more lucrative and has less competition. When you blog about food for money, you compete with some of the world’s largest and best resourced media organisations for visitors. I’ve worked for a handful of these: a TV station, newspapers, magazines and a state tourism bureau. Most of them know what they’re doing online and while they have no monopoly on audiences for food, they do tend to have the lion’s share.

Bloggers can certainly pick over the carcase of the food media and occasionally hit some rich marrow but it is a very occasional and unpredictable feast.

While not the only source of income, the biggest problem for selling advertising with a blog now is scale. As the web keeps expanding so to does the potential advertising inventory, which makes advertising ever cheaper. From the blogger’s point of view, this means that there is incrementally more work that needs to be done to make the same amount of money over time from advertising. Bigger websites tend to win. They have the sales staff to work directly with media buyers; bigger audiences to segment; deeper inventories.

While in 2007, I might have recommended a handful of different ad networks or affiliate sites for your food blog, online food media has matured. If you want to work alone, it’s almost impossible to compete for a huge audience. At this point, I think that there are only two broad strategies to make a living by writing a food blog. They’re not mutually exclusive.

1. Going alone.

Get a job that you love in a related field.

No writer starts out as just a writer. Everyone has worked in the employ of others, attempting to do the work that enables a writing habit. The difference with blogging is that there is a variety of fields that contribute to being a better blogger. The direct path to this is somewhere in the web industry: writing editorial content for websites, and if you’re lucky enough, one that keeps you in touch with food.

There is no shortage of the types of roles that fit into the broader spectrum of jobs that train you to be a more rounded blogger: community management, analytics, search marketing, the digital side of public relations. There’s plenty which are almost impossible to break into, but where your blog is a calling card: food journalism, photography, styling.

This is how I make most of my living: variously, managing websites, social media, copywriting, SEO, analytics. At least over the last ten years, all of my work has contributed directly to the way that I write and much that I’ve learnt from writing a blog can be fed back into much larger websites. Often my blogs have become testing grounds for ideas that I’ve had for far larger projects. It’s a lot less costly to fail quickly on a blog than it is on a huge corporate budget.

Start a food business, not a blog.

I shouldn’t need to say this but the easiest way to make money is selling something. Blogging doesn’t do that directly but can act as a proof that you can build sorts of communities to whom you can sell. I’m in no position to tell you how to start your own food business and having worked in a few from farm gate to factory floor didn’t convince me that it was an altogether good idea.

Yet.

There are no shortage of bloggers tracing a path in this direction. Tammi Jonas (and family) started a free range rare breed pig farm, which is a complete extension of the food philosophy that she espouses on her blog. Jackie Middleton from Eating With Jack started EARL Canteen, serving some of the best luxury sandwiches in Melbourne. Aun Koh from Singapore’s Chubby Hubby started his own PR firm with a focus on food and lifestyle.

2. Going together.

You need a lot of people visiting a website that doesn’t sell anything to make an amount that approaches a living wage from affiliate sales and advertising. Not only do you need many people, but increasingly, those people need to be homogenous: same country, same demographic, same purchasing power. To some extent, this dictates the sort of blog that you’ll need to write. One that is mostly inoffensive and advertiser-friendly, low to middle brow, easy on the eye. A blog wherein you will know the exact demographic of the reader just by glancing at the design.

To get to an appropriate size, you need to publish more than your average food blogger. Plan for at least three posts a day, every day, forever. Unless you’re prepared to burn yourself out within a scant few years (or publish vast seas of utter shit), you can’t do this alone.

If you’re looking to make money from it, this starts to look much more like a business than a hobby. You’ll either need to convince other food writers and photographers to ditch what they’re doing and join you in partnership; work out some way of compensating others for their work; or take the Huffington Post model, where authors mostly work for “exposure“.

If you were to head down the path of starting a group blog:

  1. Write some objectives for the blog
    1. Why are you doing this?
  2. Work out how you’re going to compensate people. Or not.
  3. Write some editorial guidelines.
  4. These don’t need to be huge, especially if you’ve already got a good relationship with a small number of other contributors. One of my favourites is this gaming blog’s guide – they’re short and easy to understand. At a minimum, I’d include:

    1. Objectives for individual posts on the blog
      1. What is each post supposed to do? Is it to keep people reading and subscribing, or is it to make people click ads?
    2. Describe your audience: who do you want to read the blog? And are there enough of those people to be valuable to advertisers?
    3. Style guide: Is it a free for all, or are there minimum standards to adhere to? Images? Video?
    4. Write a linking policy: can authors link anywhere? Can they link back to their own writing elsewhere?
    5. Copyright terms: Can writers republish/resell what they’ve written? Who owns the work?
    6. Position on gifts/freebies. Can writers whore for swag?

Footscray Market – Opening Hours, Christmas 2012

In what is fast becoming a tradition, my local market, , has failed to post opening hours anywhere online. Opening hours for the market over the Christmas/New Year’s period 2012 are:

Monday 24 December (Christmas Eve): 7:00am-4:00pm
25-26 December: Closed
Thursday 27 December: 7:00am – 6:00pm
Friday 28 December: 7:00am – 7:00pm
Saturday 29 December: 7:00am – 5:00pm
30 December – 1 January 2013: Closed
Wednesday 2 January: 7:00am – 4:00pm

The regular opening hours for Footscray Market continue to be:

Tuesday and Wednesday – 7:00am-4:00pm
Thursday – 7:00am-6:00pm
Friday – 7:00am-8:00pm
Saturday – 7:00am-4:00pm

Christmas opening hours in 2013

Deactivating almonds: foodie backlash and the commitment to food

Overcommitted.

If you’ve been on Twitter over the past week in Australia, the slightly bewildering hashtag #activatedalmonds has been in ascendency. Pete Evans, chef, reality television judge and corporate spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Sumo Salad was eviscerated 140 characters at a time over a weekend newspaper fluff piece that documented his day of eating:

7am: Two glasses of alkalised water with apple cider vinegar, then a smoothie of alkalised water, organic spirulina, activated almonds, maca, blueberries, stevia, coconut keffir and two organic, free-range eggs.

8.30am: Sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread with liver pate, avocado, cultured vegetables plus ginger and liquorice root tea.

12.30pm: Fresh fish, sauteed kale and broccoli, spinach and avocado salad, cultured vegies.

3pm: Activated almonds, coconut chips, cacao nibs, plus green tea.

6.30pm: Emu meatballs, sauteed vegetables, cultured vegetables plus a cup of ginger and liquorice root tea.

It’s the sort of empty listicle that a PR rep answers on behalf of the talent by email; a gaily-colored box of text to further brighten the weekend’s non-news. Something a bot might write on your behalf. They’re hardly the most hard-hitting or meme-worthy pieces of newsprint. Collective schadenfreude is Twitter’s raison d’etre and on this occasion, it could taste the slight alkalinity of blood. Why did this article in particular spawn a virulent response?

Search any newspaper website for the word “superfood” and you’ll get a similar bucket of nutritionism snakeoil. Pete alone is not spearheading an unforeseen interest in spirulina or the weird hubris of passing off food as nothing more than a nutrient delivery system.

Evan’s sample menu is aimed at any number of masters: his corporate sponsors, his reality television employers or the subscribers of the Sunday Age. It plays to the obsessions of desperate, rich dieters and smacks of a strange corporate fealty. It’s not the daily diet of a man who eats for the unambiguous pleasure of doing so which is what the public is lead to believe about chefs.

Celebrity chefs are strange advocates for good eating. When commercial imperative clashes with chef’s previous personal tastes and ethics, commerce wins every time. Here’s an ad for a cheap pilsener starring Ferran Adria. Here’s organic chicken aficionado Jamie Oliver making industrial chicken sandwiches for fun and profit. Pete’s transgressions aren’t noteworthy alongside his international counterparts.

There is something about the deep commitment to his routine that is unnerving. He didn’t crack at 3:00pm and eat a pastry from the catering table. No midnight drive-thru at KFC, eating powdered mash and gravy one-handed on the drive home, crying into the empty “Family” sized bucket on the couch. This was the first image that came into my head when I thought of Pete Evans’ diet. I barely know who the man is and expected the worst.

When we see the growing “backlash” against foodies, it seems to be against this deep commitment. I hate the term “foodie” because it has no real definition and seems to encapsulate any particular interest in food from haute cuisine to ethical eating. You can as easily be labelled a foodie if you can comfortably follow a cupcake recipe or you’ve taken a decade to write the world’s definitive history of cupcakes. There’s no shortage of nuanced nouns to pigeonhole people who eat. But foodie backlash it is, not gourmet backlash or glutton backlash; an all-encompassing counterattack on the commitment to food.

Instagramming your meal to death.

Steve Cumper, Australia’s best food blogging chef, recently noted the new zealotry for “real food”, the modern hipness for home-growing everything and being the person who shoots, skins (and photographs) the rabbit pre-terrine.

This real food is apparently unencumbered by status, it is home grown, it is foraged, its is hunted, it is gleaned, it is not, as Lance Armstrong put it, about the bike, or in this case, not about the Kodak moment.

This is honest, unprocessed, un-wanky, un-restauranty, un-gather your photographer mates around you to capture the ad hoc picnic in the dis-used cannery on the wharf kinda food. This is the kinda food that doesn’t need embellishments, is SO un-gourmet, shrugs off pretensions and artifice and reveals itself to a few hip but grounded uber-cools who operate high in the coolosphere where the air, I’m told, is crisper.

The trouble is: Why are people like me hearing about it all the time?

I feel smug when I publish what I grow in my garden, mostly because growing up outside the city, planting a vegetable garden was unremarkable and the least noteworthy of domestic pursuits. Hopping the back fence with a .22 to shoot dinner was just something that I thought most kids did even if it wasn’t the case. It didn’t seem to mark any deep commitment to food because it was common amongst neighbours.

And the Internet didn’t exist.

The backlash isn’t so much about the commitment but the conspicuousness of people’s commitment to food whether it is Pete Evan’s voluntary deprivation or hearing about real food all the time from Facebook updates and blow-by-blow degustations captured on Instagram. When I hear that people want out of Facebook, I wonder how boring their collected acquaintances are and I’m certain what they had for dinner is a large part of it. Where previous backlashes against foodies was more about the excesses of gourmets, it is now all-encompassing because our friends don’t know when to stop; to leave the unremarkable experiences unremarked and save the best for conversation.

Australian food blogging list updated; no longer tracking freebies

I’ve updated my Australian Food Blog list: it will forever be incomplete but the best that I can do. I’ve decided to stop tracking bloggers who receive free meals, cash or other incentives in exchange for writing posts because I can’t keep up with them and for the most part don’t ever read them.

It’s safer to assume that all do or will unless they categorically state otherwise.

Bloggers that aren’t open to free things are incredibly rare; probably numbering less than a dozen amongst the entirety of Australia’s hundreds of food blogs. Australia doesn’t have an independent food writing community, we have one that is increasingly bonded to the restaurant industry, corporate PR and advertisers. Some of this is positive: more insider views from the food industry; fascinating feedback loops between diners and chefs; blogger-led events; deeper criticism of marketing tactics.

[pullquote position=”right”]Just as an aside on the probiotic juice: I can’t imagine the scale of the legal risk when a company is not correcting false health claims made by bloggers that it has sponsored to post about it. Probiotics probably don’t do anything. [/pullquote]

Most just adds to the Internet’s neverending pile of detritus like another few hundred gushing reviews of probiotic juice and dim paragraphs for Urbanspoon.

Recompiling the list made me realise is that how little diversity there is amongst the Australian food blogs. Almost all either contain unfocused restaurant reviews or random recipes but it makes the ones that don’t stand out gloriously: local blogs like Fitzroyalty or Footscray Food Blog, the callous wit of cooksuck, or the short-lived noodle illustration blog.

When most people are inspired to write a food blog, they’re more inspired to clone a food blog that already exists. Part of this is natural. It is much easier to sate the urge to start a personal online food diary rather than it is to plan for the future of a blog or pick a particular, sustainable niche that won’t bore you to death. Part of it is slavishly following convention. I own the same f1.4 lens that everyone else does and that influences the terrible short depth of field cliché shots that I take.

A good deal of the blogs on the list are no longer updated, but I don’t want to remove them. I’m trying to work on a solution to auto-update the list by frequency of posts.