The Balance of Food Writing

Another one of the challenges that I have run into in writing about food is that there are two major philosophies:

  • Reality-based: These are food topics that address things such as hunger, nutrition, economic impact, environmental impact, cultural impact, etc., etc.
  • Lifestyle-based: Lifestyle based, one where the consumers of this media are instilled with the desire for products or unique experiences. This is the Food Networks entire schtick.

These philosophical approaches represent two points on a spectrum when it comes to food media. My challenge is that I see value in both of the points. This, at times, makes me feel wishy-washy, and you can see this awkwardness play out in the candy book, where on one page, I talk about the slave trade and the following pages where I had written light-hearted reviews of candy bars. This is the textbook definition of mood whiplash.

Ignoring this spectrum is treacherous if one wishes to straddle it. And dismissing one out-of-hand ignores the larger system in which it resides - culture. That's where this conversation about food gets interesting to me. That's one aspect that I need to bring into the conversation, but the trick is knowing when it is appropriate.

Infrastructure

At the moment, I am still laying a bit low. I have ideas, but they require a bit of money as well as infrastructure. The two are most certainly related. I decided that if I am going to do this, I'm going to do it as much on my own terms as is reasonable. That means ensuring I have the right environment, tools, and training/knowledge that is feasible.

This blog is included in that. It has been on the tool/stream of content that has been the most motivating to me, in ways that I have yet to understand. I like the immediacy of the blog and the informality that comes with it.  But I also think now that some of that immediacy and informality doesn't translate well to other mediums. 

But really, the point here is that you won't see a lot of immediate change, other than blog posts. Everything else will be, hopefully, much more measured and intentional than in the past. I will bring y'all into the loop on these topics when it makes sense to do so.

 

Security

To get to know anyone, ask about their childhood because all of a person's neuroses and ticks will invariably come from some aspect of their youth. Obvious, I know, but still important to state.

I mentioned in a previous post that I wasn't prepared for the step after being published. I should clarify that. 

After the reality of the publishing world becomes known, a writer faces a choice - should I make a go of it? Or is there something about the risk associated with becoming a writer which is too steep to overcome?

(Some of you may have already caught the error in the above questions - namely that there's not a binary option available to writers at that point. The options are up to the writer to determine. But that's not the main point of this post. )

I didn't have a very secure childhood. Divorce and depression had affected my parents substantially but to different degrees. They provided food and shelter to their kids, but at some points, only just. Living for a few weeks without power in the backwoods of Western Pennsylvania wasn't optimal, but transitory. Going to school in clothes chock full of holes and shoes that were falling part, less so.

Did that affect me in adulthood? Absolutely. When given the option to:

A. Pursue a writing career that would require a fair amount of effort to both get better at my craft, and learn and leverage the business surrounding it, but for low wages.

B. Keep my well-paying engineering gig, but put up with varying degrees of politics, business competencies, and fulfilling other people's vision. The odds of remaining there was great (and still is, if I'm honest. I'm still at the job).

When push came to shove, I chose B. I didn't just choose it, I committed to it. And that's when my interest in writing as a career waned, and my productivity nearly zeroed out.

That.Was.A.Mistake.

I'm not just writing it that way for effect, but to specifically call it out. It was a mistake. And I made it for the name of security. There are other variables at play here, but all trace back to the desire to ensure food and shelter. Yes, I was aware of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I ignored it. The need to ensure stability was so prevalent that I stopped doing something I enjoyed doing.

Not surprisingly, I'm not happy. If pressed, I'll cop to being content, at least on my better days. But for the most part, yeah, I haven't been happy with the results. The depression that I thought I had left behind me showed up on my doorstep, and me, like an idiot, welcomed it right in.

So the challenge is now to get back to the point of "happy". But for that to happen, I needed to do some honest assessments. Those assessments resulted in some interesting insights. I will be sharing these with you in the next few weeks and months as I implement some solutions that I have discovered.

The first? Professional writing isn't a binary choice. As with nearly everything else, there are degrees of one's engagement to both the craft and business. We, of free will and drive, have the ability to determine which degree works best for us.

So...stay tuned!

 

Getting a Book Contract: #1

This will be a first of what I hope to be a series of posts, with me detailing what I think one needs to do to be a successful book writer.  This post belongs to a subset of that topic - How to get a Book Contract.

Rule #1: Convince a publisher that you have an idea worth selling. 

That's it. Everything else is really an offshoot of that premise. What's "worth selling" is ambiguous enough to account for the goals of any reputable publishing house. Sadly, I have to qualify whether a publishing house is reputable or not, because there are some that have a questionable relationship to ethics. I was lucky enough to avoid that.

That's not to say that I didn't have challenges. I did, and they were almost all of my own making. More on that in the future.

A Little Tidbit About My Past

No. Not that tidbit. That one, well...perhaps another time. This tidbit is far less salacious but may be interesting of note to a few.

Motivation for writing has to come from somewhere.  My motivation for obtaining a book contract was driven by a desire to find the most effective way to visit Europe on somebody else's dime. In fact, there may have been a bet between my friends and myself that could confirm this, if fifteen years hadn't dulled our collective memories. My friend remembers the discussion, but not the bet. Ah well.

Some context is absolutely necessary here, lest you think me boorish and overly privileged. This was roughly 2002, and I had just reached the other side of a physically traumatic health incident.  The costs associated with this had evaporated my savings, and I had just started a temporary job that I thought might lead to more long term employment (It didn’t). An lower-middle class, and yet uncertain future was directly in front of me.

My friends and I sat at a diner around DuPont Circle and pointed this out. “So. What next?” they asked.

 I thought for a moment and said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Europe.”

 It was pointed out to me that money and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

I likely shrugged and thought about it for a second or two. “I’ll write a book and use the advance to pay for it. Or the royalties. At a minimum, I could write off the expenses on my taxes.” The idea came out so sudden. I hadn’t shared that idea with anyone up until that point and time.

What my friends should have done was laugh me out of the diner. Either they found the premise reasonable, or if they thought if anyone could do this, I could. It was likely both. Regardless, I took their lack of concern as approval. After that point, I pursued this goal with a fair amount of thought and energy. I spent most of 2003 thinking of a plan, and then implementing it.

This blog was the first step of that plan. The book contract offered in 2007 wasn’t the ends that justified my means. It was the airplane landing in Dublin, Ireland in 2008 that did that. The books published in 2009 and 2012 were almost incidental.

I now hear a few of you groaning to yourself. I get it, I do. I make it sound like this was some sort of lark on my part. I pursued a book deal, not by the need to get words out on the page nor the desire to see my name in print. I pursued a book deal in order to see Paris. It’s perhaps shallow, but it is true.

This is the part where I think I learn my lesson.

First, I learned how much I enjoyed the process of writing. Not the promotion, not the reader interaction, not even the business itself; the process of researching, finding something interesting to say, and then have an 80,000 word product of that effort is immensely satisfying, more so than anything else I have done in my life. I’ve never had a high so much as the one seeing my book in finished format. And note that I have a variety of points of reference that illustrate just how blissful that event can be.

Second, ultimately I think it doesn’t matter what reason one uses to pursue a book deal. Saints and sinners all receive book deals, and ultimately it is up to the publishers to decide what they believe will make them money. Paris Hilton? Book deal. Donald Trump? Book deal. Guy Fieiri? Book deal.

With that being said, my final point is that the quality of my work was very likely affected by being distracted by the entire process, and benefits they afforded. I didn’t quite figure this out until the second book was published. But once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m immensely proud of the books. But I also know they could be improved upon to some degree or another.

This is what I wish to bring to the table on this go around. Call it “intent”, call it “self-awareness”, call it whatever.  But if the challenge here is for me to be happy, then this is most certainly a variable that should be accounted for.

Where I Am At Today

Some of you may have noticed that my creative output over the past few years could be optimistically called "sporadical." If I am to return to writing for people other than myself, I believe it prudent to explain where I've been, and what it mean beyond that point.

I love posts like these because they afford me the chance to navel-gaze a bit. This is a crucial point to the whole thesis of this post (and any future topic-related posts, and I promise you all nothing) - writing what *I love*. But more on that in a bit.

In the months leading up to the release of the candy book, (buy a copy today!) something happened to my mindset regarding writing, something that I wasn't able to put my finger upon until recently. 

If getting a book contract with a major publisher requires goal setting, a certain level of adaptability, and the ever required level of hard work, then so does shaping one's career after obtaining said book contract.  But here's the tricky bit: what worked during the stage in acquiring the contract would have to evolve in the stages afterward. 

I knew this, to a point. I knew that my writing would have to get better. But how I promoted myself would also have to change, as well as how I sold myself.  And when I compared the level of effort needed when compared to my time available - a variable heavily influenced by my possession of a full-time aerospace engineering job -  I decided to take the easiest path and focus on my already established career. 

My pocketbook welcomed that news. As anyone who has stepped into the professional food writing arena can tell you, as a career is not the most lucrative of endeavors.  There are rare exceptions, of course, but they are rare for a reason.

After this choice - which as formal as it sounds in this post - I pulled back from writing. The world, as it is want to do, moved on without me.

The problem that surfaced from this decision was predictable. My depression reared its head.

My work at the engineering firm was...fine. I wasn't truly overworked, unlike many in the aerospace industries are, and I was (and am) well compensated.

But I wasn't creating anything that could be defined as mine. I never really counted on that aspect of it. Hell, I never considered how much I depended upon that. There's  much to be said for setting challenges for oneself and then developing the processes needed to accomplish those challenges.  What isn't talked about quite as often is the joy and bliss one can find in successfully addressing the problems that pop up in the course of developing a writing career. Let me give you some examples:

Challenge: How does one go about getting a book published? Answer:  Sell them on an idea that the publisher believes they can leverage for a profit.

Challenge: What should a writer do in order to ensure a fair amount of income? Answer: Promote oneself as much as they promote the book. Seek out various forms of media, both pre and post the-dawn-of-the-Internet, and seek out new customers/readers.

Challenge: How do you make yourself happy as a writer? Answer:...

A couple of points on this last question:

  1. While I don't know the solution to this challenge, I do know how you go about accomplishing the first two challenges directly impacts that solution to the third.
  2. All three solutions should be in harmony with one another.
  3. My current theory is that the act of solving the third challenge is the actual solution to the third challenge.
  4. I may be wrong on point 3, but it might be fun to find out.

And this is where I am currently at. I want to see what it would take for me to be happy when pursuing a writing career. I want to challenge every assumption associated with it.

 

 

Building the Best Sandwich

NOTE: No pics yet, as I'm trying to reacquaint myself with blogging, and my digital camera literally has dust on it.  I could use my smart phone to take a picture. But I still work (incorrectly) under the assumption that pictures from a smart phone are for suckers.

We at Casa de Hopkins have taken up a challenge that involves creating the best sandwich using ingredients culled from local supermarkets. The reason? Well, two reasons, really:

  1. We like sandwiches, as they make for an easy dinner project.
  2. There is a novelty to finding out what works for us. In essence, we're using a loose version of the scientific method to creating the best sandwich. We critique each meal we create, and try to find each one's weakness and strength. This amuses both of us to no end.

What we've learned thus far?

  • The bread used is critical. That may sound obvious at first, but even when you start playing around with using baguettes, ciabattas, or other similar "artisinal"-type breads, there are still winners and losers. But mostly we've learned that sliced bread is not the place to start. Our favorite thus far? Pretzel rolls.
  • Meat by itself is not enough for a great sandwich. Not even if you add bacon or some version of salami.
  • Mouth-feel is critical, equal to that of taste.

So far, our top sandwich is a turkey breast with genoa salami and havarti cheese, heated at 500 degrees for 7 minutes, and then served on a non-toasted pretzel roll with lettuce, tomatoes and some sort of dressing. It's good, but not great. I will try to document future sandwiches (along with pics) in the future.  

 

 

 

 

Baloney and Salami

I want to let you know right off of the bat that I am weird. Unlike some, I do not wear this as a badge of honor. Rather, I make the claim to forewarn you, as some of the stuff I will write will be difficult to understand without understanding its context. To explain that context would require reams of expository text as well as a fair bit oftime. These are indulgences that I'd rather not give in to at the moment. So, as a shortcut, anything that you read that you do not understand from this point forward, just chalk it up to , "Well Kate? Kate is weird."

With that in mind, let me open the door to my past just a wee bit. When I was in third grade, so many, many years ago, I believed that a baloney sandwich was the height of adulthood. In my mind, children ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Adults? Adults ate baloney sandwiches.

It was soon afterwards that I amended this theory. Adults ate salami sandwiches. Children ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Baloney? Baloney was dull and uninspired. Especially on white bread.

I state all of this because I am about to begin on a new quest. I am going to explore the world of charcuterie and cold cuts. And this little bit of insight into my my youthful mindset is going to be the foundation of all of this.

See? What did I tell you? I might as well have written toyou that I collect butterflies, or have an extensive beer can collection. Instead, you get a first hand exploration of the deli counter.

Weird.

The Place of Food

If you want to push my buttons, it's to put the topic of food under the 'Lifestyle" category. Food is no more of a lifestyle choice than our biological excretions.

At the very beginning, food is simply a means of gaining nutrition andenergy, and is therefore biological. From that point, it becomes a commodity, bringing it under the 'Economic' umbrella. As we are biologically omnivores, it means that we are not dealing with one commodity, but thousands.  The selection of food from those thousands of options rely upon its accessibility, putting it under, at first, the geographical umbrella, and then back to the economic, as we seek different types of food not readily available in our immediate region.

At the macro-level, because one metric of economics is currency, this lends itself to the political. Once you establish the political, it establishes the need for the historical, in order to better understand the context of the current era.

At the micro-level, the economics of food can confer status (i.e. those with more money can afford types of food that those lacking money cannot). It is this that helps drive the cultural. Only at that point does the word 'lifestyle' become applicable. 

It gets more complicated at this point, as the word 'lifestyle' can connote intent. But in reality, everyone has their own food 'lifestyle', even if one does not consciously choose one.  The act of deliberately choosing a food 'lifestyle' is a privilege conferred by the state of one's finances or associated class status.

Let me be clear, 'privilege' is not something one needs to address, but neither is it undeniable. Today, as of this writing, I have the ability to purchase a ticket to Alinea and a round trip ticket to Chicago, without undue financial burden. That matters to some degree. Or rather, my ability to do that, and the inability for others to do that, matters. That difference shapes our relationship to food.


Is food a 'lifestyle'? But it is so much more than that. By focusing solely on the lifestyle aspect, it does a great disservice to the topic and how food relates to us as individuals, how it relates to our immediate environment,  how it relates to the country in which we live, and how it does so to the world at large.

 

Struggles

Whenever someone pursues an 'artistic' path, it's easy at first.  This is due to being clueless.  "Ignorance is bliss", as the old cliche goes, and that lack of knowledge allows most people to approach any artistic pursuit with abandon. 

After pursuing said endeavor for a while, some patterns become clear. You learn things - what works, what doesn't - and then you rely upon what works for a period of time.

And then? And then things stop working.

This is where I am at in regards to writing.

It was easy at first.  I wrote about myself for a while, on a long-retired blog, and connected with some folks. I moved onto writing about food, on this blog, and connected with even more people.  I was able to parlay that into a small book deal with a major publishing house, and that's where things went awry.

The books reached a far smaller audience than this blog did in its heyday.  But the standards to which they are judged are rigorous, in ways that blogs are not.

Books are judged by the bottom line. In other words - Did you make the publisher money? This I had little problem with.  Books will find an audience, and the major publishing houses ensure that the proper amount of exposure is given. My publisher did fine work in that regard.

Books are also judged in more nebulous ways, and the one that trapped me was that of authenticity. 

The punch line here? It's me doing the judging. I am the one who is unhappy with my writing. I am the one who thinks that there has to be a better way to make food history palatable than tying that history to a glorified road trip. 

At any rate, here I am, still alive, still trying to figure things out. I know I should up my game. I just don't know what that looks like.

 

 

The 20 highest summits of the United States

Rank    Peak            State        Elevation
1    Mount McKinley        Alaska        20,236 ft./ 6168 m
2    Mount Saint Elias    Alaska        18,009 ft./ 5489 m
3    Mount Foraker        Alaska        17,400 ft./ 5304 m
4    Mount Bona        Alaska        16,550 ft./ 5044 m
5    Mount Blackburn        Alaska        16,390 ft./ 4996 m
6    Mount Sanford        Alaska        16,237 ft./ 4949 m
7    Mount Fairweather    Alaska        15,299 ft./ 4663 m
8    Mount Hubbard        Alaska        15,016 ft./ 4577 m
9    Mount Bear        Alaska        14,831 ft./ 4520 m
10    Mount Hunter        Alaska        14,573 ft./ 4442 m
11    Mount Alverstone    Alaska        14,564 ft./ 4439 m
12    Mount Whitney        California    14,505 ft./ 4421 m
13    University Peak        Alaska        14,470 ft./ 4410 m
14    Mount Elbert        Colorado    14,440 ft./ 4401 m
15    Mount Massive        Colorado    14,428 ft./ 4398 m
16    Mount Harvard        Colorado    14,421 ft./ 4396 m
17    Mount Rainier        Washington    14,417 ft./ 4393 m
18    Mount Williamson    California    14,379 ft./ 4383 m
19    La Plata Peak        Colorado    14,343 ft./ 4372 m
20    Blanca Peak        Colorado    14,357 ft./ 4376 m

Lake Washington

Lake Washington, from a bench in Kirkland, WA

Lake Washington, from a bench in Kirkland, WA

Lake Washington is the largest lake in King County and the second largest natural lake in the state of Washington. Seattle is found on the Western shore of the lake, Bellevue on the eastern, Kenmore on the Northern, and Renton on the south. Mercer Island sits just off of the western shore, in the southern half of the lake, which you'll barely get to see if you take Interstate 90 from Seattle to Bellevue.

The lake is fed by the Sammamish River at its north end and the Cedar River at its south. However, when we talk about "rivers", don't expect the grandeur of the Mississippi or Alleghany. These are smaller rivers, akin to creeks to those of us imagining the Thames or the Danube when we hear the word 'river'.

Lake Washington is a deep, narrow, glacial trough, created by the Vashon glacier as it receded from the area, roughly 12,000 years or so ago. The lake is 20.6 feet above mean lower low tide in Puget Sound, to which it is connected via Lake Union, the Lake Washington ship canal, and the Chittenden Locks. The canal is the only discharge from Lake Washington via the locks and dam at the western end. The development of the canals, dam, and locks resulted in the lowering of the lake 9 feet to its present level

Lake Washington was named by Thomas Mercer in 1854, when he suggested it be named after George Washington, as the new Washington Territory had been named the year before.

Other names for Lake Washington have included the Duwamish/Lushootseed name HAH-choo or Xachu  ,(translating into "great-amount-of-water"), as well as Lake Geneva, Lake Duwamish, and in Chinook (Chinook being the intertribal trading language),  it was called "Hyas Chuck," which means  "Big Lake."