“However good the illusion, would anyone really mistake Moto’s BURGER with cheese for the fast-food familiar? No more than one would confuse an Andy Warhol silk screen of Campbell’s soup cans with Campbell’s soup.”
But it is not 1962, a petit four is not a silk screen, and McDonald’s burgers are not merely a symbol of commercialism. In 2013, fast food and junk food are heavily burdened with class connotations: They have become practically synonymous with poverty and its attendant aesthetic problem, the so-called obesity epidemic. To target them for artistic critique is to take a potshot at the proletariat. To put that “art” on plates and serve it to upper-class foodies is to flatter their sense of deserved social superiority. At best, modernist chefs’ fake fast food is a lazy, meaningless rehashing of pop art tropes; at worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.
Originally sent: 12 May 2005.
I spotted my first rat on the way to work this morning which was the size of a small pony. It was headed in the direction of my house. Things bode ill.
I’ve just finished my first few weeks of work and it has been incredibly hard and exhausting. I’m the only native English speaker and despite the excellent language skills of my compatriots, I’m still not sure if people understand me or are just agreeing with me to save face. In the process, I swear that my ability to speak Khmer and English is rapidly declining. My position description is ill-defined and so I’ve spent most of the time meeting with people in the vain hope that they can tell me what I was hired for.
I seem to have been hired in lieu of getting cash from AusAid to pay for the projects that I should be working on (marketing income generating activities and the organisation generally). So at this stage I’ve got no funding to immediately implement anything at all. I’ve still got to meet with the chief accountant to see what I can squeeze out of the existing budget until the next round of funding in July. On the up side, everybody seems overwhelmingly pleased to have a Westerner to display at meetings and I do get the standard Cambodian two hour lunch break.
SCC, the organisation that I’m advising, is doing some fascinating work using Buddhist monks to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep (near Angkor Wat) and Battambang – so there will be monk stories aplenty in the coming months. I saw a monk smoking a cigar while talking on a mobile phone but didn’t think that it was prudent to take a photo because it was during a staff meeting with him.
To keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve bought myself a mountain bike for the regal sum of $35 so that I can immerse myself in the sheer lunacy of peak hour in Phnom Penh at speed. Rumour has it that you drive on the right hand side of the road but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Right of way is granted to whomever has the heaviest vehicle travelling at the greatest speed, regardless of signage, red lights or any other man-made barricades. Despite driving like the possessed, everyone acts courteously when you cut them off or run them down.
Speaking of barricades, if you have a wedding, you can erect the marquee for your hundred guests across the entire street in front of your house to further mar the flow of traffic. One was built on my way to work complete with separate catering tent, golden stupa, styrofoam Angkorian ruins and traditional Cambodian gamelan band; all scenically located within vomiting distance of the miasmal open sewer. Short of building the marquee directly over the top of the roiling sewer, there wouldn’t be a worse place in Phnom Penh to spend a few days in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the 40 degree heat.
Apart from the catering tent.
M and I moved into our house about two weeks ago. Our landlord lives next door and he is the nicest man in Phnom Penh, possibly because we pay him ten times the monthly Cambodian minimum wage for our house. When we arrived, he had already done about four of the tasks that we thought would be a real hassle with our substandard Khmer, like refilling the gas bottle and getting some spare keys cut. Another expat lives upstairs. The bathroom is a vision in lurid maroon. The whole house is tiled, so we can just hose the place out when the dust gets unbearable.
My two favourite beers at the moment are Love Beer (because let’s face it, who doesn’t? It even tastes like love) and Black Panther Stout (because The Man can’t keep the black beer down!). I’m also a bit partial to ABC Stout because their advertisements feature a Cambodian guy who looks like James Bond pimped out like Snoop Dogg. Confusingly the two top-selling beers here are Anchor and Angkor. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of Khmer pronunciation, “Anchor” rhymes with “ranch or”; and “Angkor” rhymes with “Anchor”. Angkor also means about five different things depending on how you pronounce “or” and thankfully none of them are mortally offensive when you slur drunkenly. You really can’t go too wrong either way, when it costs $9 for a whole slab.
In corruption news, the Cambodian Government just signed a 30 year agreement leasing Choung Ek – the Killing Fields Memorial and grimly popular genocide tourist attraction – to a Japanese company for $15,000 a year. The site is currently clearing a $20,000 per annum profit, not to mention that for better or worse, it is a vital piece of the Khmer peoples’ public heritage. My only guess here is that the Government knows that some sort of tourism apocalypse is headed for Cambodia (like a bird flu outbreak or a Commonwealth Games) because the tourism market has been growing at 100% per annum for the last 4 years. I smell a rat larger than a small pony.
Sent: 10 April 2005
It’s day seven of CNN becoming Pope Channel, and M and I are rapidly settling in the expat Cambodian lifestyle. Fairly unsurprisingly, Phnom Penh is absolutely different to what I thought – I was expecting everything that we need to do to be much harder. Quite embarrassingly, practically everyone that you need to deal with in a meaningful way speaks English, and being able to pay for whatever you need smooths things over a great deal. I also didn’t expect the supermarkets to be so well provisioned with things like ice cream, cheese and fresh milk – I’d steeled myself for going two years without.
The only thing that proved my expectations true is that whole place is filthy with monks. There is a pagoda within spitting distance of wherever you are in Phnom Penh. You can’t go around a corner without seeing one doing something incredibly photogenic. They could be playing soccer with a dead puppy and they’d still look like they could make the cover of National Geographic.
M and I have started learning Khmer (the national language) to little ill effect. There’s about 20 consonants and 40 vowel sounds, most of which are either nasal or sound like “auoue”. I haven’t managed to embarrass myself completely yet, but most khmer people tend to tolerate me speaking to them because most of my interactions involve me paying money for something.
After about four trips to a real estate agent, we’ve secured ourselves a house. This involved a few afternoons cruising Phnom Penh in the agent’s Camry and a 3-phase bargaining period to achieve our aim of the landlord buying us a washing machine and connecting 64-channel cable tv. Phnom Penh is about the size of central Melbourne with Richmond tacked on to it, and we’ll living the bit where Richmond would be (just south of Mao Tse Toung Blvd, if you’ve been to Cambodia). We move into the house after Khmer New Year (which is practically all of next week) on the 20th – I’ll send photos and further description of its manifold foibles then.
We’ve rapidly inveigled ourselves into the expat scene, insofar as we’ve ditched our plush hotel to house-sit for a pair of Australians who are so generously funded by the UN that they have a guarded compound built of solid rainforest teak and a cat that has a higher protein intake than 80% of the Cambodian population. Their cat (“Gimlet”) was desexed last week by a vet that charged 3 months of an average Cambodian’s income for the procedure, so the impetus is now on us to not let it die. They’ve gone home for the Khmer New Year period – apparently everything is going to be closed next week, so I’ll be pretty happy staying in their airconditioned comfort abusing their gigantic pirate DVD collection. In a very odd coincidence, the house that we’re renting is about four doors down from theirs.
Must not let the cat die.
I get this, often.
Writing was more of a priority when I was virtually unemployed in Cambodia with no responsibility whatsoever rather than holding down a full time job that I enjoy and being a somewhat responsible parent. Circumstances have changed a little.
Like anyone who writes, I’ve got a whole lot more unpublished old stuff.
Group emails are what convinced me to publish. It took me almost a year in Cambodia before I was convinced that anyone would care about anything that I wrote on the back of about half my friends saying “you should publish this”. So I’m going to publish the original pre-Phnomenon group emails in weekly increments. The first one, out this afternoon, is from almost exactly eight years ago. It’s where I got the title for my blog from. Most of the early ones make me feel like I was much younger then and worse at stringing words together in a coherent fashion.
If you like my old stuff better than my new stuff, it will be like communing with the dead. Reading back through it makes me realise I’m a completely different person now. Some of that is better, some is much worse. You get to decide which.
The relative Google search volumes for various popular Australian cake recipes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Write some objectives for the blog
- Why are you doing this?
- Work out how you’re going to compensate people. Or not.
- Write some editorial guidelines.
- Objectives for individual posts on the blog
- What is each post supposed to do? Is it to keep people reading and subscribing, or is it to make people click ads?
- Describe your audience: who do you want to read the blog? And are there enough of those people to be valuable to advertisers?
- Style guide: Is it a free for all, or are there minimum standards to adhere to? Images? Video?
- Write a linking policy: can authors link anywhere? Can they link back to their own writing elsewhere?
- Copyright terms: Can writers republish/resell what they’ve written? Who owns the work?
- Position on gifts/freebies. Can writers whore for swag?
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: