What we talk about when we talk about food blogging

This is a write up of the notes of my talk at the Eat.Drink.Blog food blogger conference. Some of it didn’t get said on the day because I was the last of the three speakers (by choice!) and didn’t want to cover ground they’d covered so well.

Because attendance was limited to a small group on this occasion, the hope is that by sharing the substance of our talks we can extend and continue the conversation.

Gill began the “Why we blog” session, the first of the day, and has written up her talk here and here. Reem’s got some video and a list of links to all the attendee’s blogs at I am obsessed with food… and Pat from Cooking Down Under has also done a “Why we blog” post. Updated: Lisa Dempster has joined in with How and why I blog, and here’s an article of hers from last year, Well connected: the power of social food media.

Posts about other sessions and wrap-ups are being collected at the Eat.Drink.Blog site.

We blog for the love of cookery

I don’t think that someone who wasn’t genuinely passionate about these things could blog about food convincingly.

There are a million different nuances to the way we choose to eat, and to the subjects we want to consider on our food blogs. It’s not really important what particular form our passion takes – for me it’s domestic cookery contextualised, with an emphasis on food politics and feminist environmentalism, and with a fair dose of pointy-headed, book-obsessed food nerdery.

It really doesn’t matter what your bag is – if you write about what moves you, you will find an audience. If you look around the conference [or now, online] you’ll see home cooks, a chef/restaurant owner, former waitresses and other hospitality staff, a food stylist, [a food columnist,] some vegans, [some chicken-killin' mamas,] some pescetarians and a whole bunch of other food lovers.

We blog because we have an interesting relationship with food

I live in Canberra, which just happens to be a fantastic place to live for a person who’s interested in eating food that is organic, local and seasonal, and who wants to have enough space at home to keep chickens and grow veggies and herbs.

The local nature of my writing is a really important part of my thinking about what to write, and not just so a local audience has useful information, but because – like I am – interested eaters are interested in what other people do in their kitchens.

I read a lot of food blogs, and lots of different styles of food blog. The only ones I tend to avoid focus primarily on lots of photographs of restaurant dinners with a bunch of other food bloggers – it becomes a bit same-same looking at six pictures of the same dish on six different blogs. That said, I do read reviews and other writers at Progressive Dinner Party post them. Part of the reason I don’t is that as our children are still little I make most of our meals, and don’t eat out much. The food blogs that I am most passionate about make central an intellectual or thoughtful consideration of those parts of our daily lives that are easily overlooked or dismissed as mundane, but have importance to us as individuals.

There’s another related reason to blog about food, the reason that dare not speak its name but should, and that’s to show off a little bit – about what we can appreciate or what we can make, or how we can present it. It’s good to be proud of what we can cook, build, make, understand or express.

We blog for the love of writing

I’ve been blogging for almost six years, and I love it. I really, really love it. There are two threads to this – first, the love of writing, and secondly the love of the ways that using the medium of blogging creates opportunities to play with form.

To give a very simple example, the ability to entwine text and image in blogging in a way that’s not possible on a static page makes a step-by-step “How-to” a different beast. When I first thought about starting a food blog, I thought I’d do more of that kind of stuff, but as it turned out it didn’t really suit me.

I do really love the craft of writing, and to me it echoes the craft of cooking. Both help keep me sane. The best description I’ve heard was that blogging is a kind of “lap swimming for writers”. The line belongs to Georg, an Information Architect, football nut and longtime blogger, who has posted on country Chinese restaurants at ProgDins.

Another really exciting part about publishing your own blog is developing mastery of your bloging platform and – over time – making yourself a beautiful site. I started on blogger, and changed to WordPress about four years ago. Like everyone else using WordPress at the Eat.Drink.Blog conference I encourage blogspot bloggers to take the plunge. It gives you vastly more freedom and control, it’s not that hard, and the community will help you, as they did me. From being a complete novice, I’m now in a position to sometimes offer help to others, which is a good feeling. I’m no expert, and I still need help from time to time, and I’ve found that a tone of desperation on twitter attracts a prompt and generous response. (And after the conference I was able to buy Matt the drink I owed him for working out what was borking my template a few months ago.)

An important thing to remember is that if you use blogging as a creative practice, you can expect ebbs and flows in both your desire to do it, and your success in creating what you want to achieve. That’s the nature of a creative practice, and not something worth beating yourself up over.

These things are important, but the most singular characteristic of blogging as opposed to other forms of writing is the ability to interact with your readers, which I discuss below.

We blog because the professional food media isn’t talking about what we’re interested in reading

This is a really big element in my particular impetus to get into food blogging. I cancelled my subscription to Gourmet Traveller years ago because I’d had enough of reading about PR launches and hot new things in darling jars.

From the beginning with PDP I approached other online writers to be guest posters, and scouted out good food-related writing by bloggers whose sites weren’t food-focused. There are now more than a dozen contributors from beyond Canberra. Operating as a group blog means that I feel less pressure to post, and there are a variety of engaged voices.

When I was asked by the local paper’s Food & Wine section to describe what the site was like, I said what we were aiming for was “writing about food and eating that is intelligent, socially engaged, grounded in a particular place and season, had interesting ideas about what to do for dinner and some jokes.”

I find much of the professional food media available in Australia has very little to offer me – I’m not interested in quick and easy recipes to feed the whole family, or the hottest new restaurant in town. I share a lot of prejudices with local Food & Wine section editor, so for me the professional media in Canberra doesn’t serve too badly, but there’s still a lot of bought-in content and writing by people who don’t share the level of engagement with food that we bloggers do.

We blog because we like to be part of a community of interest

I started my first blog, crazybrave, in mid 2004. I was at home with a toddler in a town where I didn’t know that many people. My old friend Steevie had started a blog and came around one night and told me that he’d read an article saying that the internet was going to the dogs because it was losing its initial character as a particpatory forum. He convinced me of the importance of being a participant, not just a surfer.

I was blown away by how interactive this blogging thing could make the otherwise pretty solitary process of writing.

Comments are the most obvious mechanism of interacting, and I’m always interested to find that I can’t pick which element of a post will be what attracts people to make a comment. At PDP, there is a convivial atmosphere which encourages others to join the conversation, and it’s the thing I most value about the blog. Some of the beautiful commenting culture there comes from already having a wide circle of online relationships when I started the food blog, but it’s really just a matter of inviting engagement and providing something people want to engage with.

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to have a squillion readers to create really interesting and genuine conversations. The comment threads on some of the hugely famous and popular food blogs – say 101 cookbooks – lose that cosiness because there’s 600 comments on every post, 400 of which say “yum, I want to make that!” and another 150 say “can I substitute parsley for the coriander? I really don’t care for coriander.” [It was interesting at the Eat.Drink.Blog conference to hear a number of people had received gentle suggestions that they might like to start their own blogs when their comments at someone else's site became longer, and longer, and longer.]

Interactivity – this community we’re building – isn’t limited to comments. There’s also the ability to link to other posts, to recreate dishes or visit restaurants that other bloggers have talked about, to go out together and to cook together, either as part of a blog carnival or group, or in the flesh. The friendships I have made through blogging are indistinguishable from the other friendships in my life; you’re my blog friends, the way that I have “uni friends”, “work friends”, etc. etc.

These friendships cross age, social and cultural groups. If you’re visiting a new place, they’ll be recommendations of things not to miss, whether markets, restaurants, great coffee. When we do meet, it’s easy, not awkward, because we know each other through something we share a deep passion about.

There’s also the ability to offer and receive culinary help from people who have greater familiarity with an ingredient, who are very experienced in a particular cuisine or dish, or who just share a similar palate to you and can guess what you might like. Twitter works really well in this way too – What’s this thing I’ve brought home from the markets? What on earth am I going to do with another six zucchini? Who wants this cookbook I don’t use anymore?

A final element of that feeling of community is the obligation to do the decent and civil thing by our loved ones who don’t share our passion, and refrain from boring them to death. Starting a food blog is almost certainly not going to impress your partner. In fact I really wish my partner would start a homebrew blog so I never had to hear the phrase “starting gravity” again.

To me, trying to encapsulate what we do in food blogging comes down to love. We love to cook, and eat, and feed people. We love to talk about food, to think about food, and to read about food. We do it for love.

[If you want to start a food blog, there's a brilliant guide by Phil Lees at The Last Appetite in three parts. How to start; Designing and building your food blog; Making money ]

23 comments ↓

#1 another outspoken female on 27.03.10 at 1:42 pm

Loved this post as much as I loved your talk!

We blog because the professional food media isn’t talking about what we’re interested in reading
Great point. The same-y over-styled food pron shots, the same gratuitous reviews of the same restaurants – so little in the mainstream food media about the love of food from a practical, home cooking perspective. And as for the politics of food, it only gets a look if it’s a hot topic rather than an enduring way of life.

#2 Tweets that mention What we talk about when we talk about food blogging | Progressive Dinner Party -- Topsy.com on 27.03.10 at 1:59 pm

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Zoe , Gill Stannard. Gill Stannard said: Wonderful Zoe RT @crazybrave: What we talk about when we talk about food blogging – notes of my talk at #eatdrinkblog http://bit.ly/92YLHx [...]

#3 Emma @CakeMistress on 27.03.10 at 2:30 pm

Thank you so much for writing this up. You’ve hit on so many great points about the various reasons why we blog. For me definitely, it’s the media and magazine not covering what I’m looking for, and wanting to connect with a community of like-minded foodies :)

This was definitely my favourite discussion of the day.

#4 Pat @patinoz on 27.03.10 at 5:31 pm

“What we do in food blogging comes down to love” – yes, Zoe, you’ve got it there in a nutshell. It’s the pleasurable daily challenge of preparing something for others to enjoy.

#5 We came. We saw. We listened. We ate. We Blogged. « Eat. Drink. Blog. ( The Australian food and drink bloggers' conference) on 27.03.10 at 5:56 pm

[...] Progressive Dinner Party – What we talk about when we talk about food blogging [...]

#6 Dr Sister Outlaw on 27.03.10 at 6:20 pm

can’t wait to read Owy’s home brew blog, no, really ….

#7 FDB on 27.03.10 at 7:32 pm

I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of food bloggers feel towards their readers as they would to a room full of hungry folks – and it’s because the writing and the cooking come from the same place that it works.

#8 FDB on 27.03.10 at 8:03 pm

Er.. wait, that’s what Pat meant, and pithier too.

#9 Zoe on 28.03.10 at 12:28 am

You know what else I love about blogging? You can edit your posts. Changed the order around a little bit, and fixed some typos, but it’s all still about the love.

#10 Nancy @ Roving Lemon's Big Adventure on 28.03.10 at 3:02 am

“There’s another related reason to blog about food, the reason that dare not speak its name but should, and that’s to show off a little bit – about what we can appreciate or what we can make, or how we can present it. It’s good to be proud of what we can cook, build, make, understand or express.”

My favorite part of this great post–so true, and not said often enough. Thanks for putting it up for those of us who couldn’t be there. *sniff*

#11 Phil Lees on 28.03.10 at 8:17 am

Thanks for the linking. And I’d definitely encourage another home brewing blog, even if it is just a log of ingredients, starting and finishing gravity. I wish that I’d had the foresight to do this back when I was brewing more seriously so that I’d have a searchable record of some of the godawful shite that I put down.

#12 Johanna GGG on 28.03.10 at 3:20 pm

so glad you posted this great presentation – I would have loved more discussion in this section and I think it would be an ideal topic for small groups as an ice breaker – there were too many people I didn’t get to talk to at the conference and wish I had.

I love your point about mainstream media not providing what we want – as a vegetarian I could almost predict the dishes that any food magazine will publish but in the blogosphere I have come across some novel and creative inspiration for cooking – there is no comparison

#13 penny aka jeroxie on 28.03.10 at 4:22 pm

it is all about love. no matter what the reason is to blog about food. great to finally meet you in person and you are AWESOME!

#14 Mark @ Cafe Campana on 28.03.10 at 7:59 pm

Very thought provoking post. We all blog for our own different reasons however a vibrant web community has been created that has such passion. I think the best thing about blogging is the fact people are posting about things because they like (or dislike) things and they are not creating content for the sole reason of selling advertising space. You encapsulated it quite well it is all about passion.

#15 Zoe on 28.03.10 at 8:11 pm

Phil, I see no chance of that – he has a program called ProMash that does the recording bit, and his brewing club’s site satisfies his other needs for online beer nerdery.

The distincition Mark raises about not producing content to sell advertising is a good one – wish the PRs trying to give you the same content they’re giving 30 other blogs would realise that.

Johanna, all the ideas of yours about future conferences have been excellent. If you didn’t have a little baby, I’d say you should be organising. And Nancy and Penny, you are too kind. No really ;)

#16 Anthony on 28.03.10 at 8:14 pm

Excellent post Zoe. Your second point about “We blog because the professional food media isn’t talking about what we’re interested in reading” is so true, because the foodie press is mainly just a trade press: product placement etc.

Also, as someone who has written food-related columns for various dead-tree magazines, the flexibility of blogging as opposed to column writing is also apparent. There is no word limit. A brief thought one day can be dealt with in 700 words; a longer exposition can be explored in 1500 words, plus digital photos. But in a group blog like PDP, there is still someone acting as gatekeeper.

#17 Zoe on 29.03.10 at 11:40 am

It’s funny, Anthony, that restaurant reviewing ettiquette was a big issue on the day – I wonder when the increasing influence and activity of PR types will be as pressing a concern (in my particular circumstances, that’s much more important to me than snapping away in restaurants).

Your point about flexibility extends to even writing at all; nobody makes us, and if we’ve nothing to say we don’t have to pretend we do.

As for gatekeeping, I see it more like curating than editing, on only a couple of occasions (and much earlier on) did I have a more editorial kind of role.

#18 Yuki on 29.03.10 at 1:11 pm

Hi hi~~
Good to see another Canberra food blogger :D
Yey~~

#19 Zoe on 29.03.10 at 3:19 pm

Hi Yuki – Lisa from bakebikeblog and I were talking about a Canberra food blogger meetup; so we’ll be in touch.

#20 Anthony on 29.03.10 at 7:37 pm

“Curating” is a nice way of putting it. The impact of food blogs on the old art of restaurant reviewing is interesting. I plan (ie, hope) to post something soon under the title “everyone’s a critic”

#21 Zoe on 29.03.10 at 9:01 pm

Riffing off that US piece in the WSJ a little while ago? Sounds great. [updated 'cos I found it: In praise of the endangered restaurant critic - just googled "bloggers restaurant food critic"]

#22 dogpossum on 02.04.10 at 8:08 pm

What a lovely post, Zoe!

#23 barbara on 19.04.10 at 7:20 am

I wasn’t at the conference. I have enjoyed reading this post. Very thought provoking. Thank you.

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