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Essay Index

Snips and snails and puppy dog tails

[one_half][O]h, but it was an unpleasant feeling. My wife had long since gone to sleep when I reached the sobering conclusion, having read just three posts from Molly Wizenberg’s nearly 6-year-old blog, that I had been hopelessly, thoroughly scooped. Honey, wake up. No, seriously—wake up! There’s another blog here that has good writing and photos …

Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that this didn’t happen in March 2010, that Molly’s memoir (which discusses, at length, her wildly successful blog) hadn’t already been on bookshelves for a year, and that I was not the last person on earth to read Orangette. Given those mental circumstances, I had to weep a little bit. Because before that fateful Waterloo moment, I was the proud, new owner of a free WordPress.com blog, and had begun writing about (wait for it … ) food. With a couple posts under my belt and some snarky comments in tow, I was confident that, of the 100,000 or so food blogs out there, mine would stand out as being the best written.

I’ll acknowledge that I was a little naïve about that one. But in my defense, I thought I was onto something different from what I knew to exist. As a spanking new blogger, I had begun my journey by pondering what makes a good blog. I read some of the pros (as well as some Jos) and accumulated bits of advice that I came to identify collectively as Best Practices for food blogging. I’m sure you’ve heard them, in some form or another. They boil down to something like:

  1. Keep your posts short.
  2. Cut to the chase.
  3. Post often.
  4. Take good pictures.
  5. Occupy a niche.

And so forth. Not horrible advice, really. But with myself as editor, I knew that I could not write this way. I certainly could not satisfy all these constraints while maintaining a writing voice that rang true to what I am: Completely neurotic and self-conscious. Was I really going to crank out pithy mood-prefaces to “quick and easy” recipes that were flavorful, healthy, and cruelty-free? Not when so many other writers were doing that much, much better than I possibly could. I wanted to distinguish myself, and for me that meant disregarding the Best Practices format altogether.

The concept I had in mind was to tell stories in the form of vignettes that illustrate the importance of food in my life. Stories long enough to tell you a little bit about me. I might write about the surreal experience of growing up in a moxanim’s household in Hawthorne. Or I might write about trying to do something wacky, like make fake skate wings out of diver scallops. But I would always leave room for myself to develop a distinct voice, which, in my mind, ought to be the most important part of any blog. If I do my job correctly, you’d want to read my posts, even if there is no recipe. And when there is a recipe? Well. You’re going to want to bang out that bad boy today.

So I started writing that way, and feeling good about myself. Then I found Molly’s blog. And Luisa’s. My response was a resounding: Crap. I am forced to adore these two blogs because the authors clearly do not care one iota about Best Practices. They take their time. They tell great stories. And their voices kill. Despite my initial chagrin over being beaten to the punch (by you know, six years or so), I eventually calmed myself down with a key realization: They have their voices, and I have mine.

Whether you love, hate, or remain steadfastly indifferent to my blog, I may compel you to admit that there aren’t many others that read like mine. I am not famous, professionally trained, poetic, or ethereal. My posts are not short. I don’t post every day. And I don’t write in my speaking voice (I’m not nearly this clever in person).

But enough about what I’m not. I am a husband and a dad. The arrival of my daughter forced me to rethink my grad school diet of frozen pizzas and meals that come in pocket form. I am now compelled to prepare delicious, homemade meals for my family. Though I am fascinated by all cuisines, I tend to gravitate toward simple, rustic food with bold flavors. After many years in which eating out was my primary form of entertainment, I started to teach myself to cook some of my favorite dishes. In doing so, I went from being somewhat of a food nerd to being consumed, beyond any reasonable degree, by thoughts of food and cooking. I am a pretty serious geek. Despite repeated attempts at maturity, I continue to excel at being a smart aleck. And I am now learning to write about all of it.

It is perhaps for all these reasons that I currently toil in relative obscurity. But if you’ve read this far, if you’ve read me more than once, or spent any time wondering when my next post would come, I’m willing to bet that you like this blog. If I were to encounter you in an elevator, I would, in all likelihood, be too chicken to say anything. But if forced, at gunpoint, to pitch you, I would say something like this: At Babychili, we try our best to serve delicious posts that are fun to read, useful, and crack you up. Best practices be damned.

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Categories
Essay Index Rant

Perspective

[one_half]You may find yourself wondering what exactly goes on at Babychili headquarters that allows an entire month to go by with no posts. Fear not. There will be no shortage of the type of gratuitous verbiage you’ve come to expect from this blog. Should I offer some lame apology and then bitch about how busy I am? No; fuck that. We make our own beds, and choose how we spend our time. Instead, I’ll offer a confession to all you non-food bloggers out there. It has to do with how a food blogger views the universe. It’s not the most attractive thing about us, and it’s not what many of us would like to admit out loud, but it is true:

We are obsessed with stats.

CPM, Unique Impressions, Pageviews, Bounce Rate, Returning Visitors … You name it. They are like crack to a food blogger. There’s nothing like the frequent, fleeting approval that comes in the form of daily, unique visits to your site. It’s not the numbers themselves. It’s the subtext: Hey. You’re cool. We like you just well enough to have briefly paused at your site for, at minimum, x seconds. Keep up the swell work, and there is a minuscule chance that someday, we will perhaps rescue you from the slow, suffocating death that is your day job.

To the self-righteous among you who attempt to deny this, I have this to say: bullshit. Why else would you get so worked up about getting rejected from food porn sites like TasteSpotting (TS) and foodgawker (FG)? Why do you want your photo there in the first place? Immortality? Narcissism? Might it have something to do with the fact that the traffic on your post increases at least tenfold when it’s featured on one of those sites? Yeah, Sarah and Chuck (of TS and FG, respectively) have got it going on, and they know it. God bless ‘em. No one, beyond my 20 friends on Facebook, would have ever heard of my site if it weren’t for them. Do I get a little upset when a photo gets rejected? Of course. What red-blooded obsessive-compulsive wouldn’t? But ultimately, I realize that it’s impossible to argue with “we just liked other pictures more.” (Usually expressed by the referees as “Dull/unsharp.”) Right? I mean, you can’t argue someone into liking something, in the same way that you can’t debate someone into being attracted to you. (“Contention I: I am hot …”)

The dangerous thing about getting photos posted on these food porn sites is that the ensuing bolus of traffic is, in fact, like crack. Once you get a taste, perhaps several in a row, you get quite accustomed to certain outcomes. “Normal” (i.e., non- “enhanced”) traffic on a new post becomes sorely disappointing, or deflating, by comparison. It might as well never have existed. As a result, you could find yourself, for example, shooting pictures in a style that caters to these sites. Making meals multiple times for the purpose of a reshoot. Buying specific equipment to improve your chances of getting featured on the site. Wondering whether you should schedule a dinner party for 4PM to get better light. All fine things, as long as you know and are comfortable with what your objectives are.

At some point, I completely lost perspective.

This is how a crazy person views things: I have a very small blog, so my daily traffic on a non-post day is something like 50 unique visitors. The traffic when I get a post featured on both TS and FG on the same day? Hundreds to thousands. In sum, not high enough to crack the nut, but a hell of a lot better than 50. And that’s not including the residual traffic I get from TS and FG on days 2 – 5. Since it’s not realistic to count on getting featured at both sites, let’s be conservative and say there’s a 10-fold improvement in traffic. If I post at 1/5 the rate I normally would, BUT make sure that each post has a killer photo that will likely make it in, I’m still getting twice the number the impressions I would otherwise.

So. If I’ve cooked a nice dish, have a good story, have perhaps written a post, but have no photos taken in decent light, what should I do? TS and FG likely won’t accept any of the photos. A sane person would go ahead and post. In my distorted, stat-fiending perspective, I found myself thinking, No one is going to read this if it’s not on TasteSpotting. (Which is not true, incidentally.) But having that as the standard became paralyzing. Do I reshoot the whole thing? Do I try to get a hero shot with just one of the ingredients? Maybe I’ll just hold off and work on something else …

Then fellow blogger Jean from Lemons and Anchovies (which is a fantastic site, if you haven’t already visited) said the thing I needed to hear:

@lemonsanchovies: @brhau I’m sure your pictures are fine. Post already!

And that’s when I finally articulated mentally what was (in retrospect) obvious, but what I had, up to that point, failed to convince myself of: The point of my writing this blog is not simply to maximize the number of impressions. Duh. If it were, would I be throwing up a fucking marathon post about sous vide short ribs? Further, if I want to develop as a writer, what I need to do is write regularly, even if no one reads it. Cook, and write. I need to get over all this hand-wringing about whether the food porn gods will look kindly upon my pictures.

So that’s it. I’ve decided to give slightly less of a shit about getting stuff onto TasteSpotting. Not that I won’t continue to try like hell. But as a start, I will soon “release” a post that doesn’t contain a single gawkworthy photo.

Coming Soon—A dinner party, featuring David Chang’s Bo ssäm[/one_half]

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