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Posts from the ‘musings’ Category

There Oughta Be…A Glamping Cookbook.

In this new semi-regular, not so serious feature, I put to paper the random ideas about food I have on a daily basis. As a chronic insomniac I find myself lying awake more often than not, listening to the fan and the snores of my husband and cat, going over my day. Inevitably thoughts wander to what I would create if I had: 1) the money 2) the energy 3) the gumption.

Yeah, I’ll brainstorm until doomsday about the next great food trend or product idea. Way more productive than actually bringing it to fruition, right? During one particularly epic period of insomnia lasting two years, I planned and laid out an entire restaurant, including the menu, architecture, seats, and glassware. It was Italian seafood. I called it Luna di Mare. I was teaching middle school at the time and had such fun, I ended up doing a multi-genre restaurant writing project with my 8th grade students. They loved it.

You could say I’m an overthinker. I’ve got ideas aplenty, and zero desire to ever implement them. Take camping for example. There oughta be a glamping cookbook. A book of lowbrow recipes presented in high style. Now sure, if you go to Amazon there’s a plethora of camping cookbooks to choose from. Except they’re all paperbacks, with little to no photographs, and full of recipes resembling dishes you’d create at home, with a few camping puns mixed in. S’moradillas anyone?

Plus, the ingredients list makes my head spin! Who packs their entire refrigerator into a cooler? Who opens their spice cabinet and sweeps the entire inventory into a bag with a giant wave of the arm? I’m not going camping so I can make crown roast of lamb. I want to throw a few basics in a cooler and MacGyver it so I’m still eating like a king over open flame.

I want my glamping cookbook to be off-the-cuff. Less recipe driven. Give me approximate amounts, general ideas. It should be a jumping-off point, not a hard and fast rule. What three or four ingredients can I throw together, stuff you might not expect, that will still taste amazing? Because no way am I going to be attempting to read measuring amounts with my granny glasses as I’m stirring the stewpot like a Macbeth witch. If I’m hauling a cookbook to a campsite, I’m using it to start a fire because we had five hours of rain and I forgot to cover up the kindling.

Give me a cookbook with a list of ten items. Okay 15 tops. Like the express lane at the market. Wine and beer don’t count. They’re a given. Give me 30 ways I can cook it over a fire with either 1) a pan, 2) a griddle, 3) a skewer, 4) wrapped in tinfoil, or in a Mountain Pie maker. In fact, give me an entire section of Mountain Pie recipes. Strange weird taste combinations hidden between two slices of bland white bread. Are Mountain Pies the greatest invention or what? Our last camping trip I created one with port wine cheese spread and half a curry mango sausage link. YUM! There’s nothing like that last morning in camp, when supplies are low, you still need breakfast, and all you’ve got left are two heels of bread, a scraping of cream cheese, and the last of the apricot jam. And yes, that’s a damn good Mountain Pie.

A section of S’more recipes? Goes without saying. Some of my fondest memories involve experiments with Reese’s cups and Rice Krispy treats as S’more ingredients. Not adverse to doing a little prep work pre-camp. But when I land I want to be ready to roll up my sleeves and make like Bear Grylls. Without the urine beverage.

Fried chicken, grits, hot dogs, all have been given the fancy food makeover, garnering their turn under the food stylist spotlight. Sean Brock’s Heritage took beans and made them sexy. Camping grub deserves the same treatment. Even though the recipes are lowbrow, present them glamorously. With gel lighting. Worthy of Diana Vreeland. Or Martha. Make my glamping cookbook full of drool-worthy, ooey gooey photographs. Stunning layouts of S’mores, Mountain Pies, and baked potatoes in foil dripping butter. Food porn for campers. It should resemble a Taschen retrospective in scope and color, approximating the weight of a healthy infant.

Maybe include a history of camping food, how different types of camping cuisine overlap or don’t depending on region. Does camping cuisine differ depending on the culture? Although this is secondary and only included to make the tome seem more important than it is. It’s really food porn. I want to flip through its pages all winter, dreaming of my camp site cooking laboratory and all the magical combinations I’ll dream up come spring. In full living color. Technicolor like in vintage cookbook classics. Sure, it’s ironic. Sure, it weighs 30 pounds. I’m not hauling that shit to camp. It’s purely for inspiration. A Pinterest board I can use as a doorstop. Or to take out a burglar.

It’s a simple request really. Not much to ask. There’s only two million cookbooks in circulation. What’s one more? Camping cookbooks are low rent. It’s time to raise them high. Make them stylish. Vogue worthy. Instead of middling quality paperback books full of fancy recipes, why not a fancy full-color tome full of low-rent ones? Glamping food. I’d totally buy that.

Want to be a Food Writer? Read This.

I write about food because it’s what I know. Momma brought me into the kitchen from a young age and showed me how to flour a pan, chop an onion. The meals at the tables of my grandmothers were what I looked forward to most all year long. Because they tasted good, but also because they took me away from the sadness and anxiety I felt at my own family table which more often than not was full of emotional abuse, yelling, and hastily consumed fare I’d inhale before retreating back to the sanctity of my room. When I read Michael Ruhlman’s, “Soul of a Chef”, I remembered the women in my life who showed me what food could be. I knew it was part of my mission in life to share that with other people through what I could do best.

Someone told me years ago it’s never good to assume because it makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. I howled with laughter then filed it away for later. In my former life as an English teacher I used the phrase often, sending my students into peals of laughter because I dared say the word “ass” in the classroom.

The phrase rings true, particularly in the realm of food writing. When I started this venture a decade ago, I made many assumptions. I’d make gobs of money writing about a topic I loved. I’d be able to make a living doing only writing. Everyone I met would be as enthusiastic, hopeful, and good-hearted and passionate as I was, and most importantly, this was it. This was the job I was meant to do and I’d never do anything else.

Of course, I made an ass of myself. None of these things turned out true, not even a one. So here I am. Setting the record straight. Not to complain, I love what I do. I’ve just noticed a few things. I’m here to educate. I can’t speak for every food writer out there, just myself. I’d never assume to believe my experiences speak for all. But they are mine. And as such, I felt the need to record them.

Assumptions About Food Writers:

I Only Do Food Writing, Nothing Else.
If you take only one thing away from this piece, know this. If you’ve met a food writer, you can assume, yes, by all means, assume they are dancing as fast as they can. They are probably holding down 15 jobs, all of them somehow related to food, in order to make one measly paycheck. Writing doesn’t pay. We’re not all Anthony Bourdain. Primarily, they might be developing a cookbook, or a memoir, or some other food-related book with all that entails, including developing an author platform with which to promote said cookbook, and probably updating a blog, a Facebook, an Instagram, and a Twitter account to promote it as well.

Other jobs they might be doing? Probably for little to no pay? Could include (but certainly not limited to): *

  • Working a full-time job as a ________________ (fill in the blank)**
  • Judging food contests**
  • Podcasting**
  • Teaching cooking classes
  • Conducting food workshops out of your house
  • Public speaking on food-related issues at events**
  • Writing short, 50-word blurbs about food trends for any publication that will have them, often for no money, just “exposure” (which often isn’t anything at all). **
  • Writing that isn’t related to their primary goal, whatever that may be. This includes not writing about food.
  • Developing menus for restaurants and corporations
  • Developing and tasting recipes for restaurants and corporations
  • Working as a chef, hostess, bartender, or line cook
  • Hosting food-related events
  • Reviewing restaurants**
  • Hosting food demonstrations at grocery stores
  • Volunteering to help chefs at a major food event by washing dishes**
  • Working as a food photographer for blogs, publications, etc.
  • Freelance editing
  • Public relations/social media for the food and beverage industry
  • Consulting work for non-profits in food and economic development
  • Consulting work for food trucks and other small food-related businesses
  • Teaching food history
  • Publishing culinary and beverage magazines
  • Participating in TV and radio segments about food and beverages**
  • Teaching wine classes
  • Acting as a Compliance Officer for the Sensible Seafood Program

If it’s related to food, a food writer has probably done it.

I Love Food. All the Time.
Never. Not even close. I must be one of the few food writers who can’t eat. Not like I used to. I look at a menu with dread and think, “Okay, what won’t make me sick?” Yep, this food writer has stomach issues. I blame middle age. When I began I could inhale half a bucket of fried chicken without blinking. Now? One breast and maybe a bite of leg and I’m stuffed. Any more than that and it won’t be pretty. You should’ve seen me at my first (and last) fried chicken judging. It was like The Green Mile with a dry sponge waiting for me at the end of the line.

How does someone who does this for a living cope? By tasting. Small bites of as much as I can handle. Limiting fats. Limiting meats. Taking a lot of Prilosec beforehand and packing the Pepcid and Mylanta in her purse. Is it a 10-course Chef’s Tasting? Fast the day before. Pray a lot. The consequences suck, but I’m like a gambler who can’t help putting her entire life savings on 22 Black at the roulette wheel. I just love it too much to give up.

I Think About Food And Nothing Else.
Nope. There’s a lot going on in my brain. I’m obsessed with fashion, art, movies, television, 1970’s Soul, 1950’s R&B (particularly the raunchy stuff), roadside attractions, vintage sideshows, tiki culture, diners, and vintage cookbooks. I wish folks sometimes asked me about that stuff too, instead of always wondering where and what they should eat. But I get it. They want the best recipe for Brussels sprouts. Trust me, I don’t know.

I Take Pictures of Every Meal.
I don’t. Sometimes I just want to be off the clock. To remember what it was like when this was a passion instead of a job. Call the Waaambulance.

I Eat Out 8 Days a Week.
I wish. Food writing doesn’t pay. So yeah, no.

I Never Pay.
I made a promise to myself I’d never be one of those people who accept free food in exchange for a favorable review. I promote experiences after the fact. Experiences that move me, shape me, cause me to think, “Wow! I love where I live.” I’ve had the good fortune to know dozens of chefs, food purveyors, growers, bakers, vinters, cider masters, you name it. From time to time I get invited to events, or a nice amuse-bouche will make its way to my table for which I’m forever grateful. These I accept. To do otherwise would be an insult to the folks kind enough to open their doors and hearts and kitchens. My Momma raised me better than that. And I always pay. This is their living.

I Love the Attention. And I’m A Workaholic.
Quite the opposite. As a rabid ambivert I hate and dread eating out. Yeah, wah, wah, wah, look at the poor food writer who hates when folks pay her some attention. I’m not saying that. I’d just rather be incognito because it’s easier on my social anxiety. This is the one huge thing I didn’t anticipate at all. I thought I’d spend my days in my artist garret, waxing poetic about cheese. Not have to actually *gasp* TALK to anyone. To continually face my fears every time I dine out. It’s never just “going out to eat” anymore because when you’re a food writer in a small town, it’s hard to eat out unrecognized, especially when you’ve become acquainted with more than half the chefs in town. Most of the time I wish I could just sink into a big wig, hat, and sunglasses so I can enjoy my dining experience without heart palpitations and worry I’ll say something so fucking stupid I won’t be welcome back. But food writers are never off the clock. Ever. You have to work hard to enjoy your meal without thinking of how you can write, Instagram, Facebook, and Hootsuite blast every person known to man about how good it is. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s a pretty sweet gig. But it’s that old argument. Should you turn your passion, your hobby, into a career? Will you still love it after you’ve done so? Some days I’m not sure.

I Must Have A Cookbook Coming Out Soon.
Nope. I can honestly say with absolute certainty this will never happen. The thought of coming up with a saleable concept, then testing out hundreds of recipes, spending thousands of hours perfecting said recipes, makes me want to hurl.

I Will Judge You. Because I’m A Snob.
This is definitely my most hated assumption. I cannot tell you the amount of times a family member or friend has gone into conniption fits because they want to take me out to eat, but they’re worried about the place they picked. That it’s not good enough for the food writer. Please. I’ll eat a dirty water hot dog if I know it’s good. If I were 10 years younger, I’d have two. I didn’t start this journey to write exclusively about places with Michelin stars. If you’re taking me there, you must think the food is pretty great. So I will probably think it’s pretty great too. I’m not picky. I’ve never seen a menu that didn’t have something on it that appealed.

I Cook A Gourmet Meal Every Night.
I’m so lazy it’s embarrassing. Often I’m so exhausted at the end of the day dinner ends up being cottage cheese on Triscuits. In fact, that’s probably what I’ll be eating tonight. Around here, we “pick” for dinner and eat in front of the television way too fucking often. The last big fancy meal I cooked? Thanksgiving. And it wasn’t even fancy.

I’m More Than Willing To Promote Whatever You’ve Got. For Free.
Have I mentioned food writing doesn’t pay? I’ll promote to a point to gather readers and listeners, but a girl’s got to eat. Even if what she eats makes her sick. Offer me something in exchange and I’ll consider the situation. Anything. I love barter and do it as much as I can because I live among artists, musicians, and start-up entrepreneurs. But don’t assume I’m dying to rave about your new Summer Kids’ Menu just because it’s there. Give me credit as a professional. And if your product/restaurant/festival is crap? Forget it. I’m not a whore. Yet.

I’m Uber Healthy.
You’re kidding, right? I just finished off a bag of Salsa Verde Doritos, which you can’t even find on the East Coast. I had to order them from Amazon. Keebler butter cookies are my newest obsession (2 with coffee every morning), and the last weight I lifted was my 16-pound cat. Hmm, I may have just figured out my stomach issues.

Just re-read all these and boy, it sounds complain-ey. Trust me, I don’t mean to be. I don’t write about these assumptions to whinge about my lot. I love my chosen career and wouldn’t trade it for anything. But folks who don’t do it themselves often assume we live glamorous, uncomplicated lives filled with foie gras, champagne and unlimited amounts of oysters and truffles. I simply want to teach any future food writers out there it isn’t all free bacon and beer. Just like any career, it’s a job that must be tended, suffered through, endured, celebrated, and griped about. Even so, it’s better than almost all of the 60+ other jobs I’ve done in my life. One of the best.

We work hard. And we love what we do. Remember that. It’s one thing you can definitely assume.

*An amazing amount of food writers were generous enough to share their varied and multitudinous job titles for this article. I’d like to thank Scott Alves Barton, Mollie Cox Bryan, Sheri Castle, Simon Davidson, Patrick Evans-Hylton, Kat Kinsman, Ronni Lundy, Robey Martin, Kendra Bailey Morris, John Park, Leni Sorensen, Nicole Taylor, and Michael Twitty for their guidance, expertise, and valuable input with this section. Long live food writing!
**I’ve done this.

Mad Men Women.

“We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”
—Don Draper

Photo Credit: Nobody’s Sweetheart by Dynamoe

Mad Men has ended. I find myself wishing for 2007, when I was still living in Pittsburgh and watching the show’s premiere. Wishing for new eyes, eyes that hadn’t seen Don’s grimace, Peggy’s eagerness, Roger’s ease and swagger, and Joan’s mask of confidence that says she always knows more than you. I want that first time high. Never again will I be able to watch without analysis, without looking for clues, symbolism, themes, and meaning. Of which there are many.

The quote is from Season 4’s The Summer Man, and is the heart and soul. Matthew Weiner has created a television monument replete with memory paintings which drive the point home over and over again. We’re always looking to the future, hoping for what will be. We’re always looking backward, wishing we had the things we misplaced. Time is ephemeral. We only have now, so we are lost. We must endure that gap.

It’s a show that requires multiple viewings. It can be discussed, argued over, and ruminated on like great literature. It moves slowly, ponderously, with unexpected moments of “BANG!” and “BOOM!” A lot like life. People complain about its tedium, but the show replicates our quiet lives of desperation. We plod on and then “BAM!” something happens like an unexpected accident, a firing, a death, a promotion. It shakes us to our core for just a moment before we catch our breath and settle back into the monotony of the day to day.

And all the while as we plod and plot we wish for what we had. Nostalgia is a powerful theme, one that lives alongside others like identity, time, honor, pride, work, family, feminism, race and why are we here? Do people really change or just change for a while before settling back into their inherent natures? How do you face radical upheaval within the decade you exist? So many layers.

Nostalgia drew me in initially because I was born in the 60’s, and the women of the show look and sound like the most important women in my life. I’m triggered by every scene whether its Trudy’s hair in 1970 which looks exactly like my Aunt’s, or Megan’s Zou Bisou dress which was something Momma wore. This isn’t just a period piece. It’s a time capsule. For just a moment every week I can have what I had. I can see Momma as she looked when she was young. Before she was a mother. Before children narrowed her world. That’s powerful stuff. I’ll miss it.

So many of the show’s women-centric moments snag something inside me and give it a good yank. Betty, perfectly coiffed and attired at 7am pries open a can of frozen orange juice concentrate then dumps the slime into a pitcher with a sick plopping sound. As a girl, that was my job. I almost blow a memory gasket. I’d forgotten. Nostalgia, what Milan Kundera defines as, “…the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” has always been my albatross. I remember everything. I yearn over everything. And Matthew Weiner yearns even more than me.

Peggy Olsen flings out her IBM Selectric cover like it’s a blanket, using it to secure her typewriter against that evening’s dust. A memory file drawer is thrust open and I’m a secretary again, working for a small group of lawyers, typing their letters, their invoices, their envelopes. I wear a pink angora sweater dress to my interview. Months later my boss confesses it got me the job. It curves in all the right places. Suddenly I’m Joan.

For a short while at 19 I am Joan, fending off advances, proposals that aren’t marriage, reveling in that kind of attention because I’ve never gotten any before. I should be aghast, but instead I blush. I’m flattered. I’ve never been viewed as a sexpot. To my utter astonishment, I love it. It feels powerful. Every woman should work her inner Joan sometimes.

For women of that generation, clothes are powerful. When you spend an hour securing your underthings you can’t help but walk a certain way. In one of my favorite scenes several neighborhood women are sitting around, looking 1960’s fabulous, smoking and drinking cocktails in the middle of the afternoon. Quietly projecting that kind of unadvertised, secretive power only kid gloves, kitten heels, red lips, leopard print hats, and ornate costume jewelry impart. These women sure as hell project power through their clothes.

Amidst all of this Sally and Bobby Draper come rushing in, wearing dry cleaning bags and screaming, “Look Mommy! I’m a spaceman!” Betty tersely replies, “If my clothes are lying in a big wrinkle in the bottom of my closet you’re going to be in BIG trouble.” Drag on the cigarette. Sip of the cocktail. After a withering look to the kids, another look to the ladies that says, “God! These kids today.” I howled with laughter because this snapshot could’ve been pulled directly from my family album. Minus the dry cleaner bags though. Momma was the original helicopter parent when it came to possibly suffocating.

Clothes are a major nostalgia trigger. My mother and grandmothers must’ve had HUNDREDS of housecoats. And all those frilly nylon nightgowns Trudy is bouncing around the house in? Looking for all the world like a Stepford wife? Spitting image of Momma. I used to dig through her dresser to examine those flouncy oh-so-flammable gowns, fingering the material, wondering if I’d ever be able to fill one out. They always seemed more like costumes than clothes. Like flimsy little Kleenex. Or Tinkerbell’s wings. Momma had hundreds. Because she loved them, but also because Nana worked in the lingerie department at Newberry’s. Momma could count on one every Christmas and birthday. I’ve so many memories of Momma lying in bed in one of those things, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, talking about how she didn’t feel well. Or she’s tired. She doesn’t have time to talk to me. That’s one good hard hurtful memory yank at the heart. It’s too accurate to be comfortable. It makes my stomach hurt, but in a really good way. Because I’m a nostalgia masochist.

Momma was Betty in that everything had to be “just so” for company, but once the curtains were closed it was wine, housecoats, and flouncy gowns. Her dinner parties were true practices in early 1960’s Camelot-meets-Jacqueline-Kennedy protocol. As befitting a woman who majored in Home Economics at a woman’s college. The buffet was her work of art – a special serving plate for every offering, real cloth napkins. We even had a multi-tiered “tree” for cookies. And Sinatra on vinyl. Ol’ Blue Eyes is back? He never left.

I’m obsessed with Mad Men Women because I know them. I lived with them. I was them. I am them. Momma looked like Megan, but acted like Betty. Nana looked like Peggy, but acted like Megan. I was Sally, wondering why all the adults were so mean and stupid and crazy. Constantly wondering if I’d ever be free to do what I want, when I want. Hating my mother. I’m still Sally at my core, watching the world and wondering what the fuck is going on.

In my 20’s I was Peggy, working three jobs just to make ends meet, wondering if any of my male superiors respected the effort or even noticed, hoping I’d make it to my next paycheck. Now I’m Betty. And I’m Joan. I find myself at a crossroads. Wondering where I fit in, worrying about my fading youth. Making sure my hair and makeup are just so before I leave the house. Trying to figure out my place in the world. Realizing it’s finally my time to be the most essential part of myself. To do something memorable. Hoping I don’t turn around and find a major traumatic life event staring me in the face the way Betty did. The way Momma did. So many women of that generation ended up this way, living and caring for others, smoking and drinking and eating away their troubles, frustrated by their limited options. Realizing the gilded cage isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. When they find the courage to live authentically, here comes cancer. Or something else. Mad Men reminds me to get off my ass and not wait around. Because you never know.

I’m Peggy too. Because I want it all. The work and the love. I want the myth and I’ll fight like hell to get it with a cigarette dangling from my lips and a naughty print under my arm. I’ll continue to aim for the unattainable ideal. Because I am all these women. Matthew Weiner has created such in-depth archetypes I can recognize myself in all of them. How ironic it took a man to remind me I’m not alone.

Yes, it’s just a TV show. But it’s provided me with a story to fall into when I need to fill the gap. A place to escape when I can’t stop thinking about the shit I have to do. It’s my version of Don and Peggy going to the movies to clear out the cobwebs. The show reminds me I’m not alone in my hopelessness, futility, desperation, and longing. We all experience this. It’s our lives.

Like a beloved photograph album Mad Men reminds me of forgotten moments. It’s a Kodak carousel slideshow I’ll watch again and again whenever I need to escape the ponderous NOW. Whenever I find that demon Nostalgia tapping me on the shoulder, crooking its finger, luring me away. Recollections are ephemeral and inaccurate, but Mad Men will stand as record of where we’ve been. And help us reflect on where we’re headed. I thank him for that.


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