Blogging is as old as the personal home page, and it’s now Britishly official (from the O.E.D.: “To write or maintain a weblog”). Since that dubious day in 1998 when Matt Drudge and Monica Lewinsky became household words, not only have bloggers become part of the culture, they are now driving some of the biggest stories in print and broadcast. Witness “Rathergate,” in which “nerds in pajamas” (apparently so dubbed by former CBS news executive Jonathan Klein) were the first to float doubts about the authenticity of documents regarding President Bush’s National Guard service just hours after they were aired on “60 Minutes.”
The food world too has its nerds in pajamas. Formerly unknown writers such as Julie Powell, who famously cooked her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and wrote about it on her blog, are proving their chops online and acquiring reputations even before six-figure book contracts from Little Brown and writing assignments from Bon Appetit.
Unless they are print stars who start blogs (such as James Wolcott or Andrew Sullivan), most bloggers don’t break through to the mainstream, but their ideas and impulses travel like the smell of steak from a neighbor’s grill. Bloggers, like poets, often tend to write as much for themselves as for one another, and they refer and link to each other frequently. In fact, sometimes the food blog network resembles nothing so much as a giant writing workshop with no one grading papers. But the wealth and variety of stuff out there in the blogosphere is a testament to the liveliness of food writing and thinking that is simply not found in magazines and newspapers.
Blogs are websites maintained by individuals who supply regular, diary-like entries, along with links to other sites. (Popular food sites like chowhound.com and egullet.com are not blogs but community message boards.) Because the links can be so interesting, combing the blogosphere is akin to shopping in a fabulous and unorganized used bookstore: You never know what you will come across. While browsing food blogs, I found some fantastic stand-alone messages, including: a colorful “table of condiments that periodically go bad” (web.mit.edu/dryfoo/www/Info/condiments.html), where I learned: “Hollandaise, 1 day; Miracle Whip, 3 months; Sugar, 2 years; Cheese Wiz, N/A.” I found a site that lets you read some excellent Thai recipes while listening to Thai elevator music (www.chetbacon.com/thai-html/thai.html). I also found the story of a man who tried for an hour and a half to cook a goose egg with a hair dryer and two cellphones (www.funjunkie.co.uk/comments.cfm/article=b52e8c8f-28c1-48b d-a4b9-25ffacdeb81a).
On the other hand, there are blogs whose greatest appeal is that they sort through the cacophony of food writing on the Web for you. Though its focus on New York City limits the appeal of its diary section, thefoodsection.com provides links to the most interesting current food stories from around the world. Last week, links appeared to a Reuters article about Dutch farmers using Tabasco sauce as a pesticide; an illustrated guide to 16 apple varieties from epicurious.com; and a story about Kentucky’s Bourbon trail from the Houston Chronicle.
The wildest, funniest stuff is found, not surprisingly, in the blogosphere’s outer reaches, by people who come and go erratically (“Web page not found” or “link expired” are common messages when hunting for fun food stuff on the Internet). Here, bloggers bring the simmering antipathy between print journalists and themselves to full boil. A anonymous non-food blogger who takes the moniker “eurotrash” and the persona of a wild and foul-mouthed girl on the town is a Tama Janowitz for the new millennium. Her (his?) rantings on New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser are as unfair as they are hilarious (upsaid.com/eurotrash/index.php?action=viewcom&id=243). This is the blog wilderness, defined by its distaste for mainstream journalism: The niceties do not apply here.
Closer to the center are more responsible -- though often disgruntled -- writers who maintain regular, dependable sites chock-full of useful information, albeit info that does not go through the same fact-checking as what you read in print (if any).
If Julie Powell is the Laurie Colwin of the blog set, then mmw, the author of bad things (badthings.blogspot.com), is the A.J. Liebling -- an obsessive reader and critic of food-related literature, from this newspaper to the Western Farm Press to the National Academy of Sciences report on how federal agencies should assess the safety of genetically altered food (hence his links are unusually wide-ranging). He is tireless, opinionated and hectoring. Here’s a characteristic rant: “Listen, yuppies: a tomato is not a good tomato simply because it is an ‘heirloom.’ [“Heirloom” links to a San Francisco Chronicle story on the glories of this kind of tomato.] A tomato is good because it is grown carefully in optimal conditions, with as little water as possible, picked ripe, and never refrigerated. Ninety percent of ‘heirloom’ tomatoes are just as revolting as the crap you get at the supermarket.”
Mmw, who has a job he described in a phone interview as involving “staring at the computer all day,” prefers to remain anonymous, at least partly because “people have gotten fired for ridiculous things.” Apparently spending an obsessive amount of time on the Internet looking at pages unrelated to work could just be one of them. He says he started blogging as a way to “keep track of things. It was the summer of Enron, and every day I was reading crazy facts that just seemed to disappear. I wanted to keep track of what I was reading and what I was thinking.” He admits he does very little outside fact-checking; he describes blogging as “fake journalism.”
Not all food bloggers are ranters. Some are earnest types who just have something positive to share. Take Clotilde Dusoulier, author of Chocolate & Zucchini (chocolateandzucchini.com), a current darling of the blog set. The adorable 25-year-old Frenchwoman lives in the Parisian quarter of Montmartre with her boyfriend, Maxence. You can just see Audrey Tautou playing her in the movie as she traipses all over Paris, finding the bakery supply store that her grandmother shopped at, eating out, cooking and writing down recipes and shopping tips (with pronunciations included), along with insights into French life (“On Sunday, Marie-Laure came over ‘pour le gouter.’ Le gouter is the afternoon snack kids are given when they come out of school around 4. In my family, it is also called simply le the, and is practically an institution.”) Her recipes are simple, charming and fun.
Dusoulier writes her blog in English, she says, “because all the food blogs I knew and loved were in English, and I wanted to be a part of the very friendly little community they formed. I quickly discovered that I enjoyed writing in English and it opened me to a much wider, international audience.” Her motivation is simple: “A blog is a truly unique way for a writer to share what he has to say and get almost instantaneous feedback from and connection to his visitors,” she says. “I really enjoy writing for my readers -- many of them check in daily. I enjoy their reactions and contributions.” As a result of her blog, she now has an agent and is working on a book proposal.
Saute Wednesday (www.sautewednesday.com), written by Bruce Cole, is one of the most respected and dependable blogs. Cole was working at a food and housewares dot-com in 1998 when he found his transition into blogging. “All we’d do is surf the Web all day and see what other dot-coms were doing,” he says. “I got into cataloging all the food resources online. Now it’s like I publish my own food magazine that everybody else writes.” And Cole nails the reason so many journalists are now turning to blogs: “I write a food column for a local swanky food magazine, and it’s so annoying to get edited.”
Saute Wednesday is a good site, but it sometimes inadvertently proves, as most blogs do, why in fact most writers need editors. A recent dull musing would surely have been improved by going through the sensibility of another human being. “Nothing disappoints me like an under-seasoned dish,” Cole wrote, “or more to the point, the lack of salt. Especially, if it’s a dish I’m paying for it. Potatoes, without salt? Come on, that’s ridiculous. Steak minus the salt, is nothing but a waste of good meat. Broccoli sans the salt? Sorry, that’s for salad bars.”
A diarist hits the big time
The dullness of everyday life is an inescapable fact of the blogosphere. What set Powell apart from many food bloggers is that her story had an arc: a beginning, a middle and a satisfying, Cinderella-like ending. After she chronicled her cooking of 536 recipes in 365 days, she got a book contract and gave up her weblog. The majority of food bloggers, whether they are professional writers or talented amateurs or semi-insane ranters, offer no narrative apart from what they cooked and what they ate.
When a good writer chronicles his life, it is art. When an amateur feels the need to chronicle his life by listing what he made or ate for dinner each night, often the best that can be said is that it’s touching. In the world of food blogs, you may be touched and find some great recipes in the bargain.