Emica gets new digs

ProgDins contributor Emica and her partner have left London, and are coming home the long way. The REALLY long way – via Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgrade, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and finally back to their home in WA via NZ and the east coast.

Yeah, the list makes me cranky too, but in very happy news, she’s set up a blog to chronicle her culinary adventures as she travels. It’s called A Shared Table, and you should bookmark it.

She’s in Spain now, and has perfected gazpacho with help from a Sevillian friendship which began on the plane on the way there. Imma gonna make me some as soon as it gets over about ten degrees in Canberra!

Bon voyage Emica, to you and A Shared Table.


Dr Sister Outlaw asks, ‘do the basics matter’ and ‘what is the world coming to with these young people’?

I’m loving Australian Masterchef 2010, although it’s pretty different to the first season. Last year I didn’t watch seriously until the major personalities had emerged. Even so, it was clear that each contestant was seriously interested in a wide range of cooking styles and was a reliable all-rounder, as well as being able to demonstrate flair and insight.

But this year, night after night, I sit there tweeting (which, as Zoe and other tweeps have said, is more than half the fun of viewing) complaining about the incompetence of this lot and their constant moans (and tears): “I’ve never … [cooked Thai, filleted fish, seen a live chook, made a curry from scratch] before”. And although I initially forgave Kate for using a microwave because she made a great case for it, she was so ignorant that if she hadn’t been eliminated I would have microwaved her.

This week in the eliminations Jonathan “The Terminator” saw off “Soggy” Adele (thanks whoever tweeted that epithet). He’d also easily despatched Devon “No Nickname Necessary”. Why? Because of his technical competence. He was superb at handling eggs and had actually thought about the chemistry of tomato paste and that it does not enhance a bolognaise unless you cook it for hours. When I was discussing this with my bloke, who is learning to cook, he said “I always put tomato paste in bolognaise”, which kind of underscores my point – Adele failed because she cooks by the “always” method, rather than being analytical about what she is doing.

Home cooks like me usually have a good sense about how to dish up good tasting food, but I would argue that a chef thinks much more deeply about the ways in which the chemistry and physics of cooking affect taste. The highest expression of this is molecular gastronomy, which is iconoclastic in the way it challenges rules and understandings but does through via highly refined technique. You could say Masterchef teaches home cooks to think about chemistry and physics (certainly Gary and George try), but you can’t teach contestants how to break rules if they don’t know any rules to start with.

Then I read this Associated Press article about food snobbery. Apparently wee young things have not got a clue about cooking technique because they don’t read cookbooks any more but source their info from teh internetz:

“The twentysomethings right now are probably one of the most educated food generations ever. And by that I mean they can talk to you about foie gras or cooking sous vide or the flavor profile of a Bordeaux,” said Cheryl Brown, editorial director of the popular website Slashfood.

“But what they can’t do is truss a chicken or cook a pot roast. So there’s this funny balance of having an amazing breadth of food knowledge but not having the kitchen basics to back it up,” she said.

Hmmm. I’m not Gen Y but I don’t think we can blame teh internetz. For one thing, the web is full of people showing off their technique (I’ll often google when I am stumped about how to do something I’ve not done before). But if the current Masterchef contestants are any guide, this article may be bang on the mark.

But who or what can we blame for this problem? Maybe Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson (who I love, btw), for dumbing food down to reliable combinations? Maybe providore types, for telling us that only the most exclusive items from the most rarefied locations can be considered edible? Or is this just another Gen Y bashing exercise, and the truth is there is no problem at all?

An open thread, on whatever you feel like saying about food, technique, Masterchef, the contestants’ obvious hatred of Jonathan, Gen Y and food knowledge.

In search of lost recipes

So remember that I’m a cookbook nerd? Sick and home in bed with a laptop one day this week, I saw this tweet from @eleg_sufficiency – simply brilliant idea for anyone with too many cookbooks and too little time to search through them > Cook & Eat

That’s me suckered. I checked out the Cook & Eat project, which is called Gobbledybook, a search engine for cookbooks by Seattle photographer, stylist and food blogger Lara Ferroni .

It’s a clever idea to use web searching mechanisms to render the (beautiful, expensive) books you already own more useful – for years Harold McGee has been using a sidebar link to a Google Books search of his On Food and Cooking at his site News for Curious Cooks as a super-charged index. I also use food blog search a lot, and have recently started using forage, the Australian food blog search engine (and you’ll find both of those in the sidebar).

The difference with Gobbledybook is that it searches cookbooks, not blog posts. And I have a lot of cookbooks, although not as many as Pat does.

Cookbook shelf

Gobbledybook seems to have a reasonable selection of Australian content, with titles by Luke Nguyen, Curtis Stone, Bill Granger and *cough* Donna Hay. Ottolenghi is in there, and a few baking and vegetarian books, 60 in all to date for a total of nearly 5000 recipes. It has started as Ferroni’s own collection, and she will expand it with more of her titles and is encouraging others to start logging their own recipes.

It requires you to sign in with facebook, which I don’t like. It’s unclear about how the sites interact, and the sign-in box makes it clear they might publish to your wall. I’m worried that if I accidentally look up a Donna Hay recipe it could get posted to my Facebook profile and I will lose the respect of my loved ones. (Updated: more seriously, if you purchased a book via Gobbledybook while logged in through Facebook, Facebook might keep your financial data without asking first.)

As it so often happens, someone else has had the same great idea. Another recently launched service called Eat Your Books does pretty much the same thing. In both cases, ingredients lists but not method are entered, there being no copyright in an ingredients list. Eat Your Books is in beta, but is still considerably more developed with 16,521 Cookbooks and 240,795 recipes entered. It costs US$25 per year or (for a limited time only!) $50 for a lifetime membership. There’s a 30 day free trial, which I’m doing at the moment. I can see myself handing over the $50 at the end of it.

Gobbledybook is a charming name the first time you encounter it, but gets pretty tedious to type. And “EYB” makes it a lot easier to stick to twitter’s 140 characters. The problem is, I’ve found Gobbledybook to be pretty buggy and it’s certainly not intuitive to use. Perhaps that comes from it being an individual’s project expanded? EYB is much better designed and has a more developed search function. You can request that books be added and indexed.

Gobbledybook says their service is better than Eat Your Books because you can add your own books to Gobbledybook rather than waiting for the service to do it, and they will “match up” data behind the scenes so that a failure to use a sufficiently specific term won’t bugger up your search results, a problem Ferroni says she’s had at EYB with things like searching for “soup” not picking up a “bisque”.

I haven’t played sufficiently with Eat Your Books a great deal yet, but haven’t found any problems. Adding just 24 of my books has given me 4800+ searchable recipes. Searching my books for “witlof” gives me 22 recipes, including chicory and witlof so it looks like someone’s doing some “matching up” there too.

I emailed to ask some questions and was really impressed by the substance and tone of their answers. I asked if I could import the few hundred books I had in my Library Thing and was advised that a data import is on the way, and that they’re linking with British suppliers and eventually Australian and New Zealand ones to expand the library. And already, somewhere in Canberra, is an indexer adding info from the most prominent Australian books (nah, not me, although I offered …) Their focus is on the last 15 years, but I hope eventually they’ll index older titles like the Time Life Good Cook series which I have so painstakingly accumulated.

I’m not so interested in the “community” parts of the sites, as I already have a food blog and a twitter problem, but there’s potential for it to really take off. Much as I love flipping through cookbooks, sometimes I’d rather just be able to find or remember what I’m looking for – so when there’s something new at the farmers’ market or a glut in the veggie garden, dinner need never be boring. Even if it’s zucchini again.

disclosure! Eat Your Books has given me a free lifetime membership after reading this post. It didn’t cross my mind before writing, and I was going to pay up anyway, but as I don’t usually accept stuff I thought I should mention it.

What we talk about when we talk about food blogging

This is a write up of the notes of my talk at the Eat.Drink.Blog food blogger conference. Some of it didn’t get said on the day because I was the last of the three speakers (by choice!) and didn’t want to cover ground they’d covered so well.

Because attendance was limited to a small group on this occasion, the hope is that by sharing the substance of our talks we can extend and continue the conversation.

Gill began the “Why we blog” session, the first of the day, and has written up her talk here and here. Reem’s got some video and a list of links to all the attendee’s blogs at I am obsessed with food… and Pat from Cooking Down Under has also done a “Why we blog” post. Updated: Lisa Dempster has joined in with How and why I blog, and here’s an article of hers from last year, Well connected: the power of social food media.

Posts about other sessions and wrap-ups are being collected at the Eat.Drink.Blog site.

We blog for the love of cookery

I don’t think that someone who wasn’t genuinely passionate about these things could blog about food convincingly.

There are a million different nuances to the way we choose to eat, and to the subjects we want to consider on our food blogs. It’s not really important what particular form our passion takes – for me it’s domestic cookery contextualised, with an emphasis on food politics and feminist environmentalism, and with a fair dose of pointy-headed, book-obsessed food nerdery.

It really doesn’t matter what your bag is – if you write about what moves you, you will find an audience. If you look around the conference [or now, online] you’ll see home cooks, a chef/restaurant owner, former waitresses and other hospitality staff, a food stylist, [a food columnist,] some vegans, [some chicken-killin’ mamas,] some pescetarians and a whole bunch of other food lovers.

We blog because we have an interesting relationship with food

I live in Canberra, which just happens to be a fantastic place to live for a person who’s interested in eating food that is organic, local and seasonal, and who wants to have enough space at home to keep chickens and grow veggies and herbs.

The local nature of my writing is a really important part of my thinking about what to write, and not just so a local audience has useful information, but because – like I am – interested eaters are interested in what other people do in their kitchens.

I read a lot of food blogs, and lots of different styles of food blog. The only ones I tend to avoid focus primarily on lots of photographs of restaurant dinners with a bunch of other food bloggers – it becomes a bit same-same looking at six pictures of the same dish on six different blogs. That said, I do read reviews and other writers at Progressive Dinner Party post them. Part of the reason I don’t is that as our children are still little I make most of our meals, and don’t eat out much. The food blogs that I am most passionate about make central an intellectual or thoughtful consideration of those parts of our daily lives that are easily overlooked or dismissed as mundane, but have importance to us as individuals.

There’s another related reason to blog about food, the reason that dare not speak its name but should, and that’s to show off a little bit – about what we can appreciate or what we can make, or how we can present it. It’s good to be proud of what we can cook, build, make, understand or express.

We blog for the love of writing

I’ve been blogging for almost six years, and I love it. I really, really love it. There are two threads to this – first, the love of writing, and secondly the love of the ways that using the medium of blogging creates opportunities to play with form.

To give a very simple example, the ability to entwine text and image in blogging in a way that’s not possible on a static page makes a step-by-step “How-to” a different beast. When I first thought about starting a food blog, I thought I’d do more of that kind of stuff, but as it turned out it didn’t really suit me.

I do really love the craft of writing, and to me it echoes the craft of cooking. Both help keep me sane. The best description I’ve heard was that blogging is a kind of “lap swimming for writers”. The line belongs to Georg, an Information Architect, football nut and longtime blogger, who has posted on country Chinese restaurants at ProgDins.

Another really exciting part about publishing your own blog is developing mastery of your bloging platform and – over time – making yourself a beautiful site. I started on blogger, and changed to WordPress about four years ago. Like everyone else using WordPress at the Eat.Drink.Blog conference I encourage blogspot bloggers to take the plunge. It gives you vastly more freedom and control, it’s not that hard, and the community will help you, as they did me. From being a complete novice, I’m now in a position to sometimes offer help to others, which is a good feeling. I’m no expert, and I still need help from time to time, and I’ve found that a tone of desperation on twitter attracts a prompt and generous response. (And after the conference I was able to buy Matt the drink I owed him for working out what was borking my template a few months ago.)

An important thing to remember is that if you use blogging as a creative practice, you can expect ebbs and flows in both your desire to do it, and your success in creating what you want to achieve. That’s the nature of a creative practice, and not something worth beating yourself up over.

These things are important, but the most singular characteristic of blogging as opposed to other forms of writing is the ability to interact with your readers, which I discuss below.

We blog because the professional food media isn’t talking about what we’re interested in reading

This is a really big element in my particular impetus to get into food blogging. I cancelled my subscription to Gourmet Traveller years ago because I’d had enough of reading about PR launches and hot new things in darling jars.

From the beginning with PDP I approached other online writers to be guest posters, and scouted out good food-related writing by bloggers whose sites weren’t food-focused. There are now more than a dozen contributors from beyond Canberra. Operating as a group blog means that I feel less pressure to post, and there are a variety of engaged voices.

When I was asked by the local paper’s Food & Wine section to describe what the site was like, I said what we were aiming for was “writing about food and eating that is intelligent, socially engaged, grounded in a particular place and season, had interesting ideas about what to do for dinner and some jokes.”

I find much of the professional food media available in Australia has very little to offer me – I’m not interested in quick and easy recipes to feed the whole family, or the hottest new restaurant in town. I share a lot of prejudices with local Food & Wine section editor, so for me the professional media in Canberra doesn’t serve too badly, but there’s still a lot of bought-in content and writing by people who don’t share the level of engagement with food that we bloggers do.

We blog because we like to be part of a community of interest

I started my first blog, crazybrave, in mid 2004. I was at home with a toddler in a town where I didn’t know that many people. My old friend Steevie had started a blog and came around one night and told me that he’d read an article saying that the internet was going to the dogs because it was losing its initial character as a particpatory forum. He convinced me of the importance of being a participant, not just a surfer.

I was blown away by how interactive this blogging thing could make the otherwise pretty solitary process of writing.

Comments are the most obvious mechanism of interacting, and I’m always interested to find that I can’t pick which element of a post will be what attracts people to make a comment. At PDP, there is a convivial atmosphere which encourages others to join the conversation, and it’s the thing I most value about the blog. Some of the beautiful commenting culture there comes from already having a wide circle of online relationships when I started the food blog, but it’s really just a matter of inviting engagement and providing something people want to engage with.

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to have a squillion readers to create really interesting and genuine conversations. The comment threads on some of the hugely famous and popular food blogs – say 101 cookbooks – lose that cosiness because there’s 600 comments on every post, 400 of which say “yum, I want to make that!” and another 150 say “can I substitute parsley for the coriander? I really don’t care for coriander.” [It was interesting at the Eat.Drink.Blog conference to hear a number of people had received gentle suggestions that they might like to start their own blogs when their comments at someone else’s site became longer, and longer, and longer.]

Interactivity – this community we’re building – isn’t limited to comments. There’s also the ability to link to other posts, to recreate dishes or visit restaurants that other bloggers have talked about, to go out together and to cook together, either as part of a blog carnival or group, or in the flesh. The friendships I have made through blogging are indistinguishable from the other friendships in my life; you’re my blog friends, the way that I have “uni friends”, “work friends”, etc. etc.

These friendships cross age, social and cultural groups. If you’re visiting a new place, they’ll be recommendations of things not to miss, whether markets, restaurants, great coffee. When we do meet, it’s easy, not awkward, because we know each other through something we share a deep passion about.

There’s also the ability to offer and receive culinary help from people who have greater familiarity with an ingredient, who are very experienced in a particular cuisine or dish, or who just share a similar palate to you and can guess what you might like. Twitter works really well in this way too – What’s this thing I’ve brought home from the markets? What on earth am I going to do with another six zucchini? Who wants this cookbook I don’t use anymore?

A final element of that feeling of community is the obligation to do the decent and civil thing by our loved ones who don’t share our passion, and refrain from boring them to death. Starting a food blog is almost certainly not going to impress your partner. In fact I really wish my partner would start a homebrew blog so I never had to hear the phrase “starting gravity” again.

To me, trying to encapsulate what we do in food blogging comes down to love. We love to cook, and eat, and feed people. We love to talk about food, to think about food, and to read about food. We do it for love.

[If you want to start a food blog, there’s a brilliant guide by Phil Lees at The Last Appetite in three parts. How to start; Designing and building your food blog; Making money ]

Takeaway on Friday

I was struck by an idea from Michael of My Aching Head in his Eat.Drink.Blog follow-up post:

I have also long had the desire to create a bit more of a shorter form of blogging, in part stepping back to the Kottke style of linking and making small and valuable comment. It is something that isn’t really done here in the Australian food blogging community and I think it might be interesting to my readers.

I think so too – quite often things I think are worth mentioning slip me by entirely because I get so caught up in the lack of time to write a considered or detailed post. Cath from The Canberra Cook has an occasional series called Internet Salmagundi, which is a link post, but not exclusively food-related. (A salmagundi is a dish of minced meat with eggs, anchovies, vinegar and seasoning, or a medley or miscellany)

So I’m going to experiment with a Friday afternoon link post of food and cookery-related writing that’s intrigued, delighted or appalled me in the last little while. This week, a delight and an invitation:

The delight is a piece by one of the granddaddies of Australian blogging, Tim Dunlop. A blog round-up article by Tim in the Fairfax press in late 2003 or early 2004 was what got me first reading blogs; in those days you could give a round-up of the Australian blogsophere in a column;) He’s blogged for The Australian in the past, and now writes Johnny’s in the Basement, Crikey’s music blog. Tim has always talked about cooking and his enjoyment of it, and my recent twittergasm about the arrival of my new knife (from Japan, in a friend’s luggage) has finally fired him up to to write Music to Sharpen Knives by. You need to register to comment, but the registration counts for all Crikey blogs.

The invitation has been extended by Neil, of At My Table, who I was fortunate to meet at last weekend’s conference. Neil has written very movingly on his blog about his beloved daughter M, who has autism. April 2 is World Autism Day, and Neil is planning to make a contribution:

At My Table will be taking part in the day by cooking a dish of one single colour, to represent the diets of some of those, especially children, on the autistic spectrum whom only eat food that is of one particular colour, something of a nightmare for parents concerned with good nutrition.

If anyone else could manage the difficult task of a one coloured dish and would like to blog it, I would be happy to link to your post. It would be a tremendous show of support for parents, who, quite frankly, often run out of ideas. You can find my contact details in the right-side column.

I’m thinking orange; probably some kind of pumpkin, sweet potato, tomato, carrot tagine. Or maybe some gnocchi.

Eat.Drink.Blog – the washup

You know, I’ve never been to a conference where everyone stayed for all the sessions, all the presenters were uniformly interesting and no-one was bored for a minute. People I thought I would like I REALLY liked; and the people I wasn’t sure about I REALLY liked too. And I met some completely new people and – yes – REALLY liked them.

Part of the brief talk I gave was about blogging as a way of exploring and enjoying a community of interest, and it certainly seemed there was a real joy for all of us in being in a room full of people who “get” our passion because they share it.

I’m planning to write up my talk and post it soon, (you will be glad to hear that despite the fears of another attendee before the conference, it wasn’t too wanky 😉 Gill of confessions of a food nazi has a post on some of her excellent talk here, and a plan to blog the rest. She’s encouraged the rest of us who participated in panels to do the same, and I think it would be great to link them all from the Eat.Drink.Blog site.

There were three (I think) attendees who weren’t on twitter, and less by the end of the day. The stream of the #eatdrinkblog hashtag appeared on the super-cool projected TweetWall – Lisa of unwakeable, Nola and Suzanne of essjayeff being the funny-girl stars of the day. Although I wish they had been less funny in the panel segment, sitting facing the audience cracking up at a tweet I couldn’t read!

I really appreciated that there wasn’t a push towards homogeneity amongst the group, in fact quite the reverse. I think the best session to demonstrate the point was the photography one, where Ellie from Kitchen Wench, Nola from Once a Waitress and Matt from Abstract Gourmet talked about their individual ways of going about making photos that worked the way they wanted them to, with a few tips and tricks thrown in. (Ellie’s tip – read the manual; Nola’s – think about using photographs as a means of communication; Matt’s – find a way to do it that works for you).

Claire from Melbourne Gastronome pulled off a real feat with her talk, managing to be legally precise and not dull. I really wasn’t expecting the sessions on SEO (by Michael of My Aching Head), “How to be social” (by Pennie of Jeroxie:addictive and consuming), geotagging (Brian of fitzroyalty) and the monetising sessions (by Jules of Stonesoup and Phil of The Last Appetite) to be interesting, but I found them fascinating because the presenters really knew their stuff – as @tummyrumbles (mellie) put it on the Tweetwall, they showed a “good balance of nerdy theory and feel good philosophy”.

I found some things quite surprising throughout the day – that so many of us who’d been blogging for a few years had blogged on other subjects (like me, mostly politics) before coming to focus on food; the immediacy of our ease in each other’s company; how generous everyone was with their expertise and how true-to-life some people’s blogging identities are. For instance The Healthy Party Girl left in the afternoon to go to cheerleader practice and came back to bum a fag and piss on in the laneway!

Once the strictly social part of the day kicked in, we started to talk about the next Eat.Drink.Blog. What made it possible this year was the organisation work (by Ed of Tomatom, Reem of I am obsessed with food… (who have a beautiful talk on why she blogs, including starting because she needed somewhere to talk about her love life!) Mellie of Tummyrumbles, , April of My Food Trail, Jess of That Jess Ho, who hung the photo exhibit, and Tammi of Tammi Tasting Terroir who moderated – thank you all).

There was also significant sponsorship from the organisations listed at the end of this post. Certainly for interstate visitors it made it much more affordable to not have to pay to register and to be treated to lovely drinks and food, and not having to handle monetary exchanges meant we don’t need to formalise an organisational structure and the further administrative load that entails. I think it’s really important that more people have the opportunity to go, but I’m eager to find a way for that to happen without losing the lovely sense of intimacy that permeated the day. On the third hand, having organising multiple streams during the day means we can really go into detail and cover a lot more ground.

There is a full list of bloggers who attended (thanks to Mellie), and I’ve set up a twitter list here. I’m conscious that I haven’t mentioned everyone; I encourage you to check out the full list.

The conference was sponsored by Daylesford and Hepburn Water, Der Raum, Prentice Wine, Red Hill Brewery, SBS Food, StreetSmart – Helping the Homeless, St Ali and The Essential Ingredient.

NB – this post is brought to you by an absence of blurry iphone photos. Not that there aren’t any, but they’re not mine – my phone’s from Aldi.

Very Pleasant

Remember that little craze of peering into each other’s fridges a while back? Even the fancypants architectural mags are getting into it now:

Among other things, the couple’s refrigerator contains garlic scapes, Meyer lemon preserves, Araucana chicken eggs from Chelsea’s grandfather’s farm, juneberry jam, fresh El Popo tortillas, a ginger beer starter, pickled sour cherries (used in the salad), Tortuga hot sauce, Sriracha, homemade chili relish, and a kombucha mushroom.

(Photo: Matthew Williams; Dwell, March 2010)

Unlike much design and architectural photography, Dwell always features the people who live in the spaces. As my friend Nigel points out, the lighting necessary for the architecture pron angle doesn’t really suit the humans. Fortunately for us all, the brilliant site Unhappy Hipsters takes images from Dwell and other similar mags, and adds a little touch of humanity:

Their relationship was based on preparing absurdly complicated recipes using overpriced ingredients.

(Photo: Matthew Williams; Dwell, March 2010)

Don’t miss the full slideshow of this particular food-nerd Chicago apartment and the full article in Dwell. The owners, Chef Art and Writer/Editor Chelsea have a blog called The Pleasant House.

And here are a few more cookery and kitchen-related Unhappy Hipsters for your amusement:

Sunrise, and still no flame. He didn’t even have to look; he knew his guests had gone home.

(via Unhapy Hipsters, Photo: Darcy Hemley; Dwell, September 2004)

The sad truth was that the divide was rooted in the disappearance of a rare Marimekko maxi dress.

(via Unhappy Hipsters. Photo: Prue Ruscoe; Dwell, March 09)

With the shelves finally ordered by size, function, and smell, he got to work separating the pine needles from the sawdust on the terrace.

(via Unhappy Hipsters, photo: Misha Gravenor, Dwell, May 2007)