Of all the new jobs created thanks to the great American food frenzy, the most astonishing has to be how-to-start-a-food-blog instructor. Charging for something so free and easy is like paying a restaurant for tap water plus a lesson in how to get it from glass to mouth.
This is the golden age of do-it-yourself publishing, and the bar for entry has never been set lower. Anyone with a computer, a camera and a fascination with the world’s most fascinating subject can compete with top food blogs such as Smitten Kitchen and Chocolate & Zucchini. The result has been a proliferation of great-looking blogs showcasing real life and real cooking. No wonder professional food photographers are looking over their digital shoulders.
Even better, food blogs can exploit every form of communication. If you want to write, you can just write. If you want to embed videos, you can embed videos. If you just want to link to other blogs, the blogworld is your oyster.
Getting into the cyber-kitchen used to take money, for every step from registering a domain name to contracting with a server to host a website. It also required expertise worthy of molecular gastronomy -- five years ago, I had to pay a designer who could write HTML code. Now anyone looking to unleash his inner A.J. Liebling can sign up for a free blogging program and start typing.
To prove it, this techno-dunce decided to actually walk the walk into cyberspace rather than repeatedly talking the talk. After five years with a website built by professionals, I set out to create a blog, from choosing a name for it to posting an avatar for myself and compiling a blogroll, the list of other blogs that will pump up traffic to mine. The sense of accomplishment was almost like what comes from cooking a fabulous dinner. Unlike the perfect cassoulet, though, a blog is forever. Even if I commit the all-too-common sin of abandoning it after a few posts, foodfake.wordpress.com will be around long after I am ashes.
Strong points of view
Google only knows how many food blogs are out there, but the amazing thing about cyberspace is that there is always room for more. (Kiplog.com/food, maintained by a photographer outside Chicago, has an extraordinary list.) A few bloggers have made names with their musings on such niche foods as ramen, pizza or cheese or such trivia as food media and gossip; others have readers who check in daily to see what dinner was the night before. The best have a strong point of view, an easy way with words and something more profound to say than “here’s what I ate or cooked.”
Some role models include eatdrinkonewoman.com, by a singer in New York City who writes insightfully about her own life in food and interviews others about theirs, or thegurglingcod.typepad.com, by a professor in South Carolina with high-wire language skills and a cynical perspective on all things food-related, or eatingla.blogspot.com, which gives a transporting sense of the local food scene.
But if you just want to share recipes, there’s a place in the blogosphere for all creatures big and small. Proof lies in the blog- rolls. What used to be known as the World Wide Web is all about sharing what you catch in it: Blogs link to other blogs. One good virtual party leads to another.
Step One is deciding what you will be trying to say. Before you bare yourself, which is what the Internet is all about, you need to know yourself, and your strengths. If writing scares you more than tackling a souffle, just approach it like an e-letter: Type something someone you know would be entertained by, not dutifully read.
And as with food itself, presentation is crucial. Great chunks of type tend to go gray unless you break them up with garnishes: boldface, italics, color, bigger point size. (Adding all those effects is as easy as clicking on icons on most blogging services.) Recipes in particular can be virtual Ambien; they should be broken up into smaller bites either by using the “more” button or by tweaking the type.
Most important, the cliche about a picture and a thousand words never sounds fresher than when applied to blogs. Jazzy photos enliven the most labored prose. I am one of probably the last six people in America still using film but was able to convert CDs from the photo processor into digital files, so I know anyone with a 21st century camera can do it faster, easier and better. Even with a cellphone.
(Shooting food in restaurants has become a blog hallmark, to the point that the use of flash is inciting a backlash. My advisers say the solution is to choose a digital camera that has low-light, or even food settings. Turn off the flash, place your elbow on the table and use your arm as a tripod to keep the camera as steady as you can. Shoot away -- the best way to get something sharp is to snap a lot of shots.)
In tackling my own recipe for blogging, the easiest stage was deciding which free blogging service to sign on with. At the insistence of friends in the information architecture business, I chose Wordpress, which is free and proved to be super-simple. Typepad is another that is highly praised and widely used but charges $4.95 a month for its most basic provisions. And Google’s Blogspot may be free, easy and widely used but has spawned a verb among its users: bloggered, for technical difficulties.
With any of these, you just type a few words, push the “publish” button and your brilliance (or babbling) is out there for anyone anywhere to see. Change your mind about the phrasing, the punctuation, even the post itself, and you can tweak (or delete) with a mouse click or two.
All three services have a good array of templates for blogs that can be personalized with your own photo or design (or not -- one on Wordpress called Benevolence, which comes with an image that looks like wheat grass would have suited me fine if I had not been reporting this story). I was able to customize a template called Ambiru in two fast steps (find photo on desktop, insert into form on screen).
A little trickier was coming up with the right name for the blog for this little project. Mostly I wanted to avoid aping chocolateandzucchini.com, the wildly successful Paris-based blog that has spawned a thousand imitators attempting to marry unlikely ingredients and instead creating mental grounds for divorce. Given that the blog would be produced solely for a story, Cooked- up struck me as perfect, and of course it must have been -- it was already taken. And so I thought of Foodfake and added a subtitle -- “A recipe for a blog about cooking and eating” -- and was set. The biggest argument for a short blog name is that it will be tacked onto the verbiage of the blog site you choose in the URL: considertheoyster.wordpress.com adds up to a plethora of keystrokes to expect a prospective reader to tolerate, especially for return visits.
Browse with care
Because I work on a Mac, I already knew to start my cyber-journey using Firefox as my Internet browser; alternatives such as Safari and Netscape can be trouble for blogging (you won’t see what you intended; the graphics on the Wordpress home page are antiquated). You probably need to play around to find which browser works with your system and your chosen program (FAQs can be immensely useful, or you can just Google key words and see what others have resolved).
After that, I was ready to start posting, which I did on my first go-round at building a tutorial in recipe form. Really, it was as easy as clicking on “write post,” typing a little headline in one box and some thoughts in another, then hitting “publish.” When I clicked on “view site” on the same page, it took me straight to my entry.
Next day I graduated to photos, despite feeling as hip as Matthew Brady. If only I had known about universal card readers and memory cards, I could have saved myself several hours. I now know that if you want to get photos onto a blog and don’t want to download the camera’s software, you can buy a gadget that can be plugged into your computer and download images automatically.
Unfortunately, publishing is difficult without an editor, so you will need a program for managing those downloaded images. Macs come with iPhoto, but PC or Mac users can download a number of free programs -- Google’s Picasa is the top choice among many bloggers because it allows for both organizing and tweaking photos to make them more ready to face the universe (those who have been burned warn: Sharpen them first, then crop them or you will get strange effects).
With Wordpress, inserting a photo is as easy as hitting “upload,” then “browse,” placing the cursor where I wanted to position the photo in the post, clicking on an image in my Pictures folder, then clicking “send to editor.”
Given that blogs are all about links, I also needed to add a blog- roll (click on appropriate buttons, let it roll) and decide whether to allow comments or “pings” or “trackbacks,” as the various forms of reaction to blogs are known. Comments can be good for the soul, if you have time to moderate them before they appear for the whole world to see, but the other tricks are trouble. If spam is slacking off in your e-mail inbox, it could be because those lowlifes have found a new venue to exploit. They will bombard a blog with phony responses meant to trigger traffic to their own bogus enterprises.
Blogrolls, though, are what make the cyber-food world go round. Basically they are lists of virtual destinations that are tantalizing for one reason or another. You link to a blog and it may link to yours. If nothing else, you will each drive up your own traffic by constantly checking to see what the other has to say. Before you know it, you might have enough hits to persuade someone to pay you to teach a class in how to start a food blog . . . .