Tag Archives: Julie Powell

New Food Media vs. Old Food Media (or Julie vs. Julia)

The upcoming movie Julie & Julia is bringing up some interesting discussions in the food world about old-school food journal vs. new-school food journalism. Or in other words, professional food writers who work at newspapers and have had cookbooks published by mainstream publishing houses are discussing the validity of those food writers who are cutting their teeth in the blog world, and then moving on to bigger and better things.

It makes sense that this movie would initiate such a discussion, for it details the life of two women who best represent each school. In one corner, you have Julia Child, whose legacy is nearly larger than life, an icon of the food movement. In the other you have Julie Powell, an ex-food blogger whose web site hit the big time when she parleyed her exploration of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking into a book deal and then subsequently a movie deal. Both women are quite representative of their eras, as well as the technologies of their eras, Julia Child’s popularity wouldn’t have been so great without television. Ms. Powell’s popularity would be non-existent without blog technology, even if she strongly feels the need to disassociate herself with the blogging generation.

The old-school/new-school debate was put forth once again by Virginia Willis, a food writer and photographer who was brought in old school traditions, even as she embraces new school technologies. She had an in-depth exploration of her feelings a week or so back. The entire thing is worth a read, but this is the part that took me in:

I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse?

(snip)

People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!

Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.

I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.

There’s so much I want to talk about with her perspective, I don’t know where to necessarily start.

For the most part, i don’t think that many individual food bloggers count themselves as food journalists. Granted my sampling is based off of those sites I happen to consume on a regular basis, but those I read come more from a personal memoir/diary perspective, with a tad bit of research thrown in to provide context. Not all food writers are food journalists, and to equate the two is doing a disservice to those who explicitly do not do food journalism.

But let’s talk about expertise for a moment. Can people who simply consume food without knowing its context be considered experts? If not, does this lack of expertise diminish their experience, or make that experience less important?

First and foremost, food is a reflection of any given culture, regardless of the era in which they live. Each culture has its own ignorance of items relating to their culture. Is Pliny the Elder’s position on beer to be dismissed because he didn’t know of yeast, nor of beer’s importance to the tribes of his enemies? Are the cooks of the Renaissance less important to food culture because they didn’t know the etymology and evolution of the recipes they were using? Of course not. The same can be said of those who simply mimic recipes and discuss their value on food blogs or other similar mediums. Their input has inherent value. Just because one knows the importance of Poulet au Bresse does not mean that their insight has more cultural value from one who does not.

So if cultural currency isn’t the issue, then what is? My guess is something I call “Institutional Relevancy”, or how important one person is to the institution they serve, in this case: food media.

Here’s an observation I have that most American food writers don’t want to hear – the majority of Americans don’t care about food, or at least not in the way the experts would like them to. There are many anecdotal statistics I could throw out there to support my position – the popularity of fast food restaurants, the ratio of sales of prepared food versus fresh produce, the number of people who call Kraft Singles “cheese”.

“But Kate!”, one might exclaim. “What about the popularity of The Food Network?”

Granted, The Food Networks growth over the past ten years or so have been impressive, but let’s take a look at the shows they have on. Some of them a pure entertainment, (Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef, The Search for the Next Food Network Star), others are recipe shows that have approach cooking from a very simplistic point of view (Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and others), and still others are simply border line food porn (Paula Deen). My point here is that the largest food media institution has succeeded because it either treats food as entertainment, or as a dumbed-down commodity. There are exceptions on the network, to be sure, but these tend to be the exceptions, and not the rule. On the Food Network, Poulet au Bresse is afforded the same respect as any other chicken.

The proliferation of food blogs that take this simplistic approach reflect the current standard of American food knowledge. That is to say, we are how we eat – kind of mindlessly.

But this is changing. I doubt the local food movement would be as successful today without blogs, the same could be said for the organic movement five years ago. And each of these movements have entered our culinary vernacular, and have made us smarter when it comes to food.

I will admit to one trend that I find disturbing – the proliferation of food blogs who do little more than regurgitate press releases and video links. I am not a fan of Slashfood or Eat Me Daily, who seem to believe that recapping Top Chef or providing obituaries about the Taco Bell Chihuahua are relevant to cooking or restaurant going. But this is a personal bias. I’m of the belief that the more we take these sites seriously, the more likely we’ll regress in our collective food knowledge.

Let me end on this – I’m a fan of Julia Child, and I believe her place in American food history is deserved. Her French Cooking cookbooks are near required for anyone’s cookbook library. But how effective was the method of her message when a mere generation later, someone following her cookbook didn’t understand the relevance of poulet au Bresse?


Setting the Record Straight

Here’s a little peek into some backstage shenanigans:

In doing some press for the Blog Awards, a reporter asked me the following question:

“How much influence has Julie Powell had on Food Blogging?”

My answer:

“Very Little. Clotilde over at Chocolate and Zucchini has had far more influence on Food Blogging than Julie”.

I calls them likes I sees them.

It may be petty and unprofessional for me to post this tidbit here, but as much as I respect the choices Ms. Powell has made in her life (whether I agree with them or not is inconsequential), at no point will I state on the record that her “influence” upon Food Blogging is anything more than marginal. There’s simply way too much that has happened in the community since Julie/Julia closed up shop in 2003.


Metablogging: Julie and the Insular Food Blogs

If you’re looking for some mainstream press on Food Blogs, there’s a recent article in Salon with Julie Powell.

Who’s Julie Powell you ask? Some of you may remember her from her Julie/Julia blog, where she tasked herself with creating every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was a marginally successful blog, being one of the more popular blogs at the dawn of the explosion of the medium.

Some of you may remember her from her recent editorial in the New York Times, where she inferred that Whole Food Consumers were organic snobs who’d forgotten the lower class.

Still others of you may know her from her recently released book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.

In reading the article, two things become very apparent: First, Julie is certainly enjoying her new-found celebrity status. Second, she doesn’t seem to like the genre of blogs which she helped create. From the article:

I’m going to get in a lot of trouble, but the truth is, I actually find most food blogs really boring. I try to look at other people’s blogs and they have pretty pictures and they’re so proud — but really, I just don’t care. I don’t know anything about that person, and I don’t know why it’s important to them. Food in itself becomes just a mass of prejudices and snobbery and everyone looks like a prat when they write about food.

That sound you heard was Ms. Powell’s credibility with the current crop of Food Bloggers fizzling away. Not that she cares. After all, as her press packet clearly states, she had a six figure advance on the book and possibly a movie deal with Steve Zahn playing her love interest (tho’ she’d prefer Don Cheadle).

I’m truly not as bitter as I sound, as I feel that Julie can like or dislike whatever she wishes. It’s simply very clear that she doesn’t wish to speak for any other food blogger save herself. That’s certainly her perogative.

I’d rather focus on the question the interviewer stated to illicit the above response.

The food blogging community seems very insular. Are there any other blogs that you follow closely or admire?

I’ve read a few comments across the internet that are insulted by the term “insular”. The thinking is that Food Blogs are undeniably popular, so how can we be closed off and isolated at the same time? As a reality check, there are hundreds of food blogs out there, and it’s simply impossible for one food blogger to follow all of them on a regular basis. It’s difficult to be insular when fellow food bloggers can’t read 95% of the blogs that are out there.

This more than anything tells of the popularity of food blogs – the sheer number of them. How can foodblogs be insular when we have a community of 1000 blogs?

Which is why I take the term “insular” as a compliment. Even with the size of our community, we’ve created various memes and communal interactions that give the impression that we’re a closely knit community. We exchange e-mails with each other. Various food bloggers have dinner with each other. Considering how much we’ve grown since 2003, this is nothing short of amazing.

This is why I’m not so bothered by the term. We’ve created a community with a fair amount of interaction with one another. But at the same time, numbers show that our audience is more than “other food bloggers “. An actual audience is reading our sites. We have the best of both worlds.


Why Whole Foods Matters (or Why Safeway Hurts Innovation )

I’m sorry, did I miss the memo saying that we need to dog pile on Whole Foods? First we had Julie Powell’s article equating shopping at Whole Foods with classism, then we had a post at Chicagoist equating Whole Foods with Wal Mart (full disclosure, I write for Chicagoist’s sister blog Seattlest).

Let me explain, in clear language, why Whole Foods is revolutionary (and i DON’T use that word lightly).

In short, your old-school, massive grocery store chains are addicts. What they are addicted to is something called “Slotting fees”. “slotting fees” are money, specifically money paid to grocery store chains from the largest food producers in the nation. The results of this addiction include a lack of innovation in a majority of food products being sold in our country, and a near monopoly on our food supply by companies such as Conagra, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Pepsi, and other mega-corporations.

Here’s how slotting fees work: There is only a finite amount of shelf space available in any given supermarket. Each supermarket only allots a specific amount of space for any given food item. For example, with soda, any given supermarket will have 5-10% of it’s shelf space dedicated to soda.

Coke and Pepsi both understand how valuable that shelf space is. To their way of thinking, it’s essentially real estate. So Coke will go to the Supermarket chain and say “I will pay you x amount of dollars for 35% of your available soda space.” Pepsi will then say “I too, will pay you x amount of dollars for 35% of your shelf space”. Dr. Pepper/7up will then say “Since I don’t have the resources of Coke or Pepsi, I will pay you a little less than x for a smaller percentage of soda shelf space”.

What this means is that for a new soda company, there is somewhere between 0 and 15% of shelf space for which they can put up a new product. Since these are often new companies, they can afford little or no money for these slotting fees. This puts them at a tremendous disadvatage within the supposedly free market.

And if a new brand gets a little too popular? Well Coke, Pepsi and/or Dr. Pepper can increase their slotting fees in return for more space, leaving less space for the newly competing brand.

This activity doesn’t just happen with soda. It happens with chips, candy, cereal, frozen foods, pickles, you name it.

So where does Whole Foods come into this picture? They’ve essentially told the major food corporations “We don’t want your money. We’d rather give you space only if you adhere to our food standards.” To which the food corporations said “Screw you”. This is why you rarely see the major food corporations represented at Whole Foods.

What Whole Foods has done is changed they way food is supplied to their customers. Instead of the major food corporations dictating which products get put on the shelves, Whole Foods does. The choices that Whole Foods makes are based not only which product gives the best profit, but what the demand for each product is, and if the food product is adhering to their food philosophies.

That’s not to say that Whole Foods is perfect…they’ve got issues with unions than make me uncomfortable. They also may be putting foods on their shelves that may not deserve to be there. But at least there’s a Supermarket company that is not putting profits as it’s sole purpose for existance. Few (if any) other supermarket chains can make the same claim.

This is why I don’t get the recent slams against Whole Foods. Are they being targeted simply for doing something different? Or is it because there’s a level of paranoia against companies that get fairly successful in a fairly short period of time? I can’t answer these questions. What I do know that it’s best to fully understand a company before you start criticizing them.

Oh, and just so we’re clear. Slotting fees are BAD! Learn it and repeat it to all who care to hear it.


Organics, Ethics, and Snobbery

I’ve been thinking about Julie Powell‘s op-ed in the New York Times all weekend. (If you want to read it, but don’t want to sign up for the New York Time, use my sign-in…login: accidental / password: hedonist). In her article, Julie posits many ideas, some of which I agree with, many of which I don’t.

The basic premise, as far as I can discern, is that there’s a percieved air of privledge that comes from shoping for organic foods at places, and that some people have been wrongly equating that privledge with eating well. Julie’s idea is that one can eat well regardless of where the food is purchased. Good eating and good food are the provence of all, not just for those who can afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. To this idea, I completely agree.

The issue, she leads us to believe, is that she’s trying to equate purchasing motivations with ethics and misses the entire point of organic foods and the larger isssues with supermarkets and the food distribution industry.

There are several issues here, and I don’t wish to muddy any of them, but all are important to note when it comes to this.

It is my belief that most individual food purchasing choices are based off of the following factors:

  • - accessibility
  • - cost
  • - knowledge of product

The first two items here are mostly out of the control of the individual consumer. I cannot go in to a Kroger’s and demand they sell dry aged beef, or that they sell milk at a lower price. Well, I could, but they would shrug off my requests unless they were done en masse. If enough people asked for dry aged beef, or if enough people stopped buying milk at higher prices, then the market (both literal and economic) would make the necessary adjustments.

The only item that an individual consumer does have control over is the third item, knowledge of product. The issue with this is that the majority of consumers, both rich and poor have put their faith in the quality of their food in the hands of the purchasers for the major supermarket chains. We, as a consumer culture, have given the responsibility of finding quality food to complete strangers whose number one priority is to make money for their stockholders.

The Organic movement came about in response to this. Folks who initiated the organic movement realized that many of the foods that had become industrialized (in order to feed the millions of consumers at grocery stores) had been made cheaper at the cost of quality, environment and sustainability. When the organic food industry finally was able to sell foods on a regular basis, the economic model in place that delivered the product to a person’s plate added more to the cost of the food.

Have some organic companies gone overboard? Absolutely. In some instances, some foods marked as organic clearly don’t need to be labeled as such (do we really need organic sodas?). In other instances, industrial farms simply make a better product.

But the larger issue here is that the Organic movement (and to a lesser extent Whole Foods)is a direct response to many of the unethical behaviors of the supermarket industry. In short, those who believe in the organic movement have decided to take back the responsibility for knowing the foods that they eat.

The issue here is not those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods versus those who can “only” afford to shop at Key Food or Western Beef (or Safeway or Piggly Wiggly). The issue here is knowledge of food, regardless of where one shops. Whole Foods does allow, rightfully or wrongly, one to feel better about where they shop, because Whole Foods sells themselves as a corporation willing to do the extra leg work needed to assure good food and good practices. This costs money, but allows a person to put faith back in their food retailer (On a bit of a tangent, I think that such faith in Whole Foods is a bit lazy, but this is simply my own opinion).

I think Julie is a bit wrong here, finding classism in an issue where no classism truly exists. Good food can be had anywhere. Give a person an egg, some flour, some milk and some butter and they can own the world. I know of no one (and admittedly, my sampling population is lacking) who looks down at folks who buy non-organic foods or shop at places other than Whole Food’s and Farmers’ Markets. When Julie writes “What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics.” Whole Foods and other purveyor of organic goods are simply a market response to a food industry clouded in darkness, rather than a concerted division between the haves and have nots.

What I do find is people putting less and less faith in the food distribution network. People are growing tired of the choices we’re being given, as well as the various farming and selling practices done in our name. The issue, as I can see it, is ensuring a level of transparency in the food distribution network that allow consumers to make informed purchases, regardless of purchasing ability. Transparency, I should note, that doesn’t currently exist, nor does the industry seem too keen on allowing.

UPDATED: Needed to alleviate some glaring double and triple negatives, and to clarify some thoughts.


Meta-blogging the Boston Globe Article and Food Blogs

Let’s do some meta-blogging eh?

Last week, I exchaged a few e-mails with Ethan Gilsdorf in regard to the Food Blog Awards. Today? His article on Food Blogs has been published in the Boston Globe.

My take? I enjoyed it, as it gave those new to blogging a quick overview and some first hand accounts (including my own). My only qualm with it the same one I have with most articles on blogs…that it shows as a collection of nominally-obsessed hobbyists (You see this same perspective when they talk about Political Blogs). The reality is that blogging is a new medium that has yet to find its full potential. Focused correctly, it can have an affect upon a collective conscious.

I could go into my own perspective on what Content Management Systems(such as typepad, Blogger, B2Evolution, etc) can add to journalism, writing and other related industries. That’s best left to when I have had a drink or two and a good meal in front of me.

The reality of Food Blogs is that there is some remarkable writing going on in the food blog community. Posts that I would state as good as or better than some of the articles in Saveur or Gourmet. I could say that sometime in the near future, someone will recognize this fact and act upon it.

I could say that, but I’d be wrong. It’s already happened. Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini is becoming her own small cottage industry, and let’s not forget Julie Powell at the long-departed Julie/Julia project who was able to secure a book contract that she describes as “a really obscene book deal”.

Now let’s be honest, not all Food Bloggers are going to have that kind of success. But the precedent has been set. I’ll repeat it again so we’re clear on this. Blogging is a new medium who’s full potential has not yet been realized. Food Blogs are at least as effective in distributing information about the various food industries as anything published by Conde Nast, if not more so.

It’s time we recognized that.