Reality Check for Food Writers

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04 May Reality Check for Food Writers

Spend enough time doing something and it will change the way you think, mess with your assumptions, and skew your expectations. When I studied fiction writing everyone who walked into the cafe was a potential character. Their clothes, their order, their gait held clues to their inner thoughts and beliefs. Woah! Everyone noticed the dude in the just-out-of-the-box, neon green shoelaces and dirty, frayed red high tops. Right?

Okay, you were busy reading the menu. But the guy who ordered the double chai latte? Come on. Was he doing a bad Brando impersonation or did he just come from the dentist. Didn’t notice him either? Hmmm. Seems it’s just me.

Being immersed in the world of food, I thought I was safe from outing myself yet again as an oddball. After all, everybody eats and I’m savvy enough to know if you toss about chi-chi French terms like chiffonade or en chemise, you’ll end up with the culinary equivalent of a wedgie. Yet, food writers are so busy bolting from terms like “simmer”, “saute” and “braise”, we’ve slammed head first into obscure ingredients and stray gadgets without pausing to say so much as “I’m sorry. I should have been watching where I was going.”

For instance, in a cookbook aimed at “easy” recipes, one celebrity chef blithely recommends every kitchen have two dishwashers. That’s not a typo. Two. I barely have space for the apartment-sized version I crowbarred into the kitchen. And that near-miraculous feat required sacrificing a much needed stack of drawers. Had someone said, “Nice work. Now do it again,” they’d be too busy removing the crowbar from an uncomfortable place to offer more sage advice.

While I didn’t buy the double dishwasher suggestion for a second, its casual, off-hand delivery made me question my assumptions. I’m not a complete idiot. I realize most people can barely accommodate party groceries let alone spare appliances, and that Himalayan pink salt is a bit of a foodie thing. But what about stand mixers and fleur de sel? Does everyone have these on hand or does an entire industry exist so food writers can impress each other?

And microplanes? Surely you have a microplane — or two — in your utensil drawer. And you do have a utensil drawer, don’t you? As you can see. I’m not sure what to think anymore.

What items do we wrongfully assume everyone stocks  — and I don’t mean high-end items like caviar and foie gras. Do you keep balsamic vinegar in your cupboard? Where do you stand on shallots?(Figuratively, not literally.) Do you know what a ricer is? More importantly, do you care? On the flip side, are we insulting your intelligence by shielding you from scary words like “mince”, “dice”, and “braise”? Set me straight. And quickly. I have a super cool mini-bundt pan at hand and I’m feel the urge to write a recipe for  it.

No Comments
  • Teresa Pitman
    Posted at 09:57h, 04 May Reply

    Oh I DO have a microplane and I love it! But I don’t even have one dishwasher, sadly.

    I like it when cookbooks include more unusual ingredients or cooking tools, but ALSO give you alternate options. Michael Smith’s Chef at Home book talks about how great microplanes can be but adds that you can also just use a regular box grater – a little harder to use, a little coarser grate, but it will certainly work. And maybe they have a spot at the front or back where they explain how “mince” is defined.

    Just my thoughts…

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:29h, 05 May Reply

      Great points, Teresa. I notice a lot of books are incorporating mini-sidebars for gadget tips and cooking vocabulary.

      I love my microplane(s) but often still use a box grater for citrus zest since the microplane’s so sharp I often take the pith along with the rind.

  • Kathe
    Posted at 09:59h, 04 May Reply

    You have a good point here, Charmian. Recipe instructions, I read somewhere (perhaps in Canadian Living?), are being “dumbed down” for the new generation of cooks who have *not* learned all this at their mother’s side in the kitchen. Telling a neophyte cook to “cream the butter and the sugar” is apparently confusing – they expect to see cream in the list of ingredients.

    I have a microplane and I aspire to a stand mixer. I’m a pretty good cook, I think (so I’m told). I’m putting together a cookbook for my daughter to use in her first apartment next year (lucky thing, her first apartment will be in Paris, where she’ll be studying for a term). I’m making it pretty simple and trying not to make any assumptions, but it’s easy to tailor the recipes and choice of ingredients, since I know my audience so well.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:31h, 05 May Reply

      The debate about cooking terms rages on and likely will for a while. My argument is we are expected to learn computer technology, so what’s so tough about a few cooking terms?

      Love the idea of making a cookbook for your daughter. Have an audience of one will make targeting the recipes so much easier, but I’m betting you’ll be surprised how much work goes into that book! And it will be worth every second. That’s a gift she’ll treasure forever.

  • Jill Silverman Hough
    Posted at 11:39h, 04 May Reply

    I love how you write, Charmian! So much fun to read! And two dishwashers?!? What planet is this person living on? Planet Celebrity Chef, me thinks.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:34h, 05 May Reply

      Thanks for your kind words, Jill. Actually the celebrity in question is normally quite sane, so that advice really jarred me. I figure if I can afford a house large enough to house two dishwasher and the cash to double up on appliances, I should have one dishwasher and hired help. :-)

  • Lisa MacColl
    Posted at 13:36h, 04 May Reply

    I bought Fleur de sel specifically to make your salted caramel sauce…I still have to do that, but I do have some. Mandolin (cooking, not instrument)-check. Microplane. check. Standing mixer-check. Ricer-know what it is, don’t own one. Shallots? Only when they come in my organic veggie bag. Dishwasher? Sorry, they’re typing right now.

    While I like reading cookbooks, and own one or two(dozen) (okay maybe closer to hundred) I must admit that my go-tos are often Edna Staebler’s series of Mennonite cookbooks, my Five Roses Flour cookbook and my Canadian Living cookbook series. I know that the chances are good that I will have the ingredients on hand, and it’s food that my family (read 6 year old daughter who cannot have anything touching on her plate) will eat. I get too fancy, they get suspicious. My mom’s family were farm people, and my aunts and mom cook well, but simply. It was handed down. I aspire to gourmet…sometimes.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:39h, 05 May Reply

      Will you get on that caramel sauce? I mean, that salt isn’t just going to sit in the cupboard and wait for you. Oh, right. It’s a preservative.

      Thanks for the feedback on your appliances. I know you’re a baker so the stand mixer makes sense. I actually bought a ricer and have yet to use it. Let’s make a pact. I’ll use the ricer if you make the caramel sauce.

      And you’ve picked some pretty great cookbooks. Total classics. I have all the Canadian Living Cookbooks (I think). Between CL and my mom, I started independent life with a solid cooking background.

  • Kim Dunn
    Posted at 13:59h, 04 May Reply

    I’m with you. I wrote something this morning that said to “season to taste” and I immediately wondered if people would know that meant with salt and pepper. It’s hard to gauge what people know and don’t know about food.
    I write about cooking and gardening, and I read a blog comment the other day from someone who wondered if they could chop the tops off storebought asparagus and plant it in the ground. To which I say that your food writing problem is probably not unique to food, but to anything in the realm of “how to.”
    I think that showing or explaining the desired end state can be helpful i.e. if you say to cream the butter and the sugar, it might help to add “together in a bowl until light and fluffy.” Personally, I prefer short recipes, but I have never felt that my intelligence was insulted by a recipe, even the over-explained ones.
    In the end, people can always turn to Google, post a comment, or call their mother if they are really that confused.
    Thanks for this post. Good food for thought.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:44h, 05 May Reply

      Good point about “season to taste”. I know it means salt and pepper, but if I stop to think about it, I season all recipes to taste by adjusting herbs, spices, sugar, vinegar etc. And what I find is the perfect balance of flavours is too spicy for one of my sisters and not hot enough for my husband. Sigh…

      You’re also right about the realm of “how to”. I, too, write about gardening (love the name Hungry Tiller) and am surprised how much knowledge varies. Good to know you don’t feel insulted by over-explained recipes. We have yet to reach the stage where we say “pick up the spoon”.

      Thanks for the great feedback. It’s much appreciated.

      • Don Genova
        Posted at 19:14h, 17 May Reply

        I was thrown for a loop a while ago while going through a cookbook published in English, in Italy. Every so often I came across an item in the ingredient list that was followed by ‘q.b.’. As in, hot pepper flakes, q.b.

        I found out that q.b. is the short form for ‘quanto basta’ which roughly translates into, ‘when enough’, but is used here as ‘as much as you need’ or ‘as much as you like’. I kind of equate it to that fail-safe direction, ‘cook until done’!

        • Charmian Christie
          Posted at 09:40h, 24 May Reply

          I’ve never heard of “q.b.” but love it. Quanto basta! Everything in Italian sounds better. Thanks for this. I think I’ll adopt this phrase at home, even if I don’t put it in the written recipes.

  • Janet Foster
    Posted at 14:29h, 04 May Reply

    Maybe it’s the food writers/food bloggers that I follow, but there seems to be a trend toward more unusual recipes with obscure ingredients. I do think many writers get out of touch with the average everyday home cook. They forget that everyone doesn’t own a ricer, mandoline, or tart pan or have access to shallots and fleur de sel. My mother never owned any of those things and she was a great cook. The wonderful part is that regardless of your level of culinary expertise, there’s somone out there writing for you.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:48h, 05 May Reply

      People don’t own tart pans! I thought they came with the stove! :-) Actually, I didn’t own one until recently, myself and managed to get through the day relatively unharmed.

      Love your point that no matter what your skill level, there’s a book / website out there for you. Great reminder. Thanks for the great feedback.

  • Maggie
    Posted at 14:31h, 04 May Reply

    Don’t you think that we tend to acquire kitchen tools as our skills improve? A person who can barely make Kraft Dinner won’t need a fully equipped kitchen, much less two dishwashers. As for those of us who love to cook, we collect tools that we think that we need to prepare a better meal. Eventually quality is the goal.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:51h, 05 May Reply

      Another great point. As my skills improved I added to my kitchen repertoire. I used to get by with a couple of pots, a skillet and a couple of cake pans. I think I even used the counter as a cutting board. Yikes! Wouldn’t do that today.

      A delicious meal is the goal and you don’t need an arsenal of gadgets to do that. Thanks for taking the time to share your culinary wisdom!

  • Jazmin
    Posted at 15:33h, 04 May Reply

    I tend to prefer the recipes and sites that shoot for the moon and offer suggestions on how to fall back down to earth. Either links off to defining what cooking terms mean, or suggestions on how to make use of a more typical gadget instead of a funky single use one.

    Granted I come from an insatiably curious position, where if I dont know what someone is asking, I just go and look it up. And I did before the internet too. 😉

    Pitching EVERYTHING to the lowest possible denominator tends to mean that no one has anywhere to aim for, or stretch for.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:54h, 05 May Reply

      Love your point about the lowest denominator. So true.

      I’m pretty curious by nature too. Not everyone is. The internet allows for so much linking we should be ramping up our skills / terminology, not dumbing them down. I’m going to think doing more linking to help the reader. Thanks for the great comment.

  • Terry
    Posted at 16:00h, 04 May Reply

    I find that I have most of the tools for the recipes that I find and when I don’t, I seem to add it to my list of things I must get, lol. Like as soon as you said mini-bundt pan recipe, I now wanted one. I do find, however, that when I help in someone else’s kitchen at holidays, it can be hard to find even a good sharp knife so obviously there is a wide spectrum out there. I must go add mini-bundt pan to my wish list. :)

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:59h, 05 May Reply

      Oh, my list of “musts” is long but limited space keeps me in check. One year I came this close to buying a wreath-shaped bundt pan. I could just see my rum cake on the table at a Christmas party. But calmer heads prevailed — and the $40 price tag was sobering, too.

      Knives are essential. The problem is the good ones are not cheap. They are an investment and so, I highly recommend people spend time finding a line that suits their grip. And then look after the knife! A sharp blade makes ALL your dishes easier to prepare.

  • Amy P
    Posted at 16:25h, 04 May Reply

    I am waiting for a miniature bundt pan recipe. I have one sitting right here.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:59h, 05 May Reply

      Wait a little longer. I’m sourcing organic cocoa nibs for the occasion…

      • Amy Proulx
        Posted at 10:22h, 05 May Reply

        Sole sourced from some obscure island, hand picked by mythical ancient tribes, oh my!

  • Sally - My Custard Pie
    Posted at 01:45h, 05 May Reply

    I love how you make me think while laughing out loud at the same time. Confess to owning a ruinously expensive stand mixer and joined at the hip to my microplane (potato ricer is indispensible for mash too). Many valid points – it’s difficult to judge how much instruction your audience will welcome/think essential.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 09:03h, 05 May Reply

      Thanks, Sally. I got my stand mixer on sale (more than half price as a door crasher). I’m surprised how much I use it, but then again, I love to bake.

      Still have to pull out my ricer and give it a whirl. I bought it for gnocchi but should test drive it on mashed potatoes first. Thanks for the tip! I’ve always used a masher.

  • Lisa MacColl
    Posted at 09:31h, 05 May Reply

    Charmian, consider the pact made. I have one of those fancy bundt pans. It’s shaped like a castle and was a gift from my foodie best friend. I gave her a cake slicer shaped like a shoe with a glittery heel (that if memory serves me, I saw on your blog and HAD TO HAVE IT)
    I LOVE my stand mixer. I even make meatballs in it. I hate the feel of ground meat. I also love to bake bread, rolls etc and it’s big enough for my Auntie Beryl’s buns. (the ones that I immediately freeze half of, so that we don’t hoover the whole 24 by dinner time) I have yet to try her homemade doughnuts, more out of fear for my burgeoning waistline than complexity.
    I just invested in a pasta machine-the manual kind. Now I’m playing with it. hmm, I may have just solved what to make for dinner!

  • Kathe
    Posted at 10:41h, 05 May Reply

    Great comments in this thread! Just a couple of things to add… Last time I received a big cheque (I’m a freelancer), I went to the very good kitchen shop near me (on Monkland in NDG, Montreal) and bought a madeleine pan – far from necessary, but I’ve made madeleines a couple of times and loaned it to a friend once, thereby justifying the expense. (And my education was literary, so the Proust connection makes me smile.)

    I do have a dishwasher, but two seems quite ridiculous, even if there were room for them. I only run the dishwasher every two or three days, but I do believe it does a better (more hygienic) job than I would. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    Also wanted to share a link to an amazing purveyor of spices in Montreal. I’m leading a course called For the Love of Food, and we had a speaker last night who brought wondrous samples to a show-and-tell-and-sniff-and taste session. Oops, don’t have the link. Be right back…

  • Kathe
    Posted at 10:44h, 05 May Reply

    The link is http://www.epicesdecru.com/en/

    It’s a family business, and they run a shop at the Jean Talon Market in Montreal. I think they do a thriving mail-order business too.

  • NS Foster
    Posted at 13:49h, 05 May Reply

    I’m gonna go ahead and say I’m foodier than most people my age (late twenties)–I have fluer de sel, a large collection of vinegars and oils, sharp knives (!) and a stand mixer. I’ve vaulted myself into food in the last few years and what’s keeping me out of mental-foodie territory is precisely my age and my life. I’m still in an apartment. Counterspace is limited. The mixer was a wedding present. I taught myself to do this stuff, from bread-making to meringue-mixing, with a whisk and a spoon. I *do* have a utensil drawer, but c’mon, so did my mother and she’s enough of a lack luster cook that for my occasional food problem, I call my girlfriends’ mothers 😉

    I have a slightly whacked version of what’s acceptable in the ingredient area, however. I live in Toronto–I expect the Sobey’s by my house not to have it as they’re limited by space. If I can’t find it in Kensington Market by my office either, then we have a problem 😉

  • Kathryn
    Posted at 08:24h, 06 May Reply

    Wow. What a great thought-inducing post. Thank-you.

    I have a dishwasher and would hate to be without it. I try not to be caught by kitchen gadget lust and make thoughtful choices about items that will actually be used.

    I match your list: stand mixer, rasps, bundt & mini-bundt, always balsamic vinegar, ricer…

    I resisted the pull of the stand mixer for years. After I finally gave in, I was still not a convert, however, once the kitchen reno was completed and the stand mixer now sits on the counter, I use it all the time.

    I am alarmed by the general dumbing down of language and writing — not just in cooking circles. I believe that we ought to make the effort and continue learning throughout our lives.

    Thanks again.

  • Peggasus
    Posted at 10:41h, 06 May Reply

    Love this!

    I do have many of the things you mentioned. But a kitchen is like a closet: you fill up all the available space. But I live in a semi-rural area (where real estate is much less expensive than in other areas), so my kitchen is large and I have lots of storage space. The only thing I have purchased recently is a new toaster oven (Breville!!) because the other one died, otherwise I’m set. I’m not much of a baker, so I usually ignore baking gadgets, though I do have the basics. No bundt pan, mini or otherwise though!

    Another thing I haven’t purchased in ages is a cookbook. I have my favorite Mexican, Italian, Thai, bread, etc., and everything else I can find online.

    The downside of having a large kitchen in this area is that there is only one grocery store in this small town, the next larger town is 25 miles away. I do miss the variety I had up in Chicagoland. You should have seen the stuff my mother and brother brought me when they came for Easter! Trader Joe stuff! Baby bok choy! Poblanos! Italian cheeses! Fresh corn tortillas! I’m still excited about it.

    I’ll go now…I really enjoyed this post and the other comments.

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