The world of food writing, whether blogging or cookbook publishing, has been trending unusually high of late and we have a few opinions on it.
First it was the convoluted ‘he-said-she-said’ story of a food blogger and small west London bakery in a digital battle, then it was Prue Leith condemning ‘food porn’ cookbooks for having little substance.
You can catch up on both sides of the #BloggerBlackmail story here and here. Naturally Twitter blew up with conversation and comment once this story had reached the masses. The general consensus seemed to be: there was a miscommunication between company and blogger, but the latter had more than a pointed sense of entitlement about their work and labour. As the story broke and opinions flowed in 140 characters, soon we saw critics, professional food writers and even chefs adding their insight to the conversation and jumping on the blogger bashing. Most suggested that bloggers should pay their way entirely, delivered with a palpable level of distain much like stepping in dog shit on a wet winter day. But… we actually somewhat agreed.
Then, Prue Leith – culinary goddess, Michelin star awarded chef, cookery school founder – in an unrelated interview offered her opinion that cookbooks have become more about visual ‘food porn’ than a step-by-step instruction manual. Resigned to live as prized coffee table props rather than gravy-splattered and softened round the edges, she commended Mary Berry and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for their life-long dedication to the cause and quietly dismissed those 2.5 cookbookers who jump on trends and will be forgotten in the long run no matter how pretty or stylish. You know what? Again, we agreed.
These types of conversations about food writing, blogging and who deserves what (at what cost) have been bubbling for a long time. Ketty Elisabeth of French Foodie In Dublin – one of our favourite blogs from back home – published an honest account of her blogging ethos a while back that hit so many nails on the head entitled There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Adam of Travels Of Adam also penned a few practical thoughts about what blogging and freelancing affords him and whether it’s a worthwhile lifestyle to undertake.
We decided that it’s a nice time to remind, or maybe educate, people in how we operate as bloggers. Despite what the internet may make you think and every filter available on Instagram, our lives are not as perfect as you think.
Portlandia is one of the most honest TV shows in the world. An irreverent comedy that makes fun of the bullshit in modern life and shines a light on the strange habits we have as humans, this particular scene has always stayed in our minds. Like many bloggers (namely those without trust funds) we struggle month-on-month and it has yet to get easier. We struggle with time, with energy, with money. We struggle with motivation, with technical skills, with networking and selling our brand as much as we should be. But you don’t see that, do you? We crop it out. The dull bits can sully the sexy content, so we crop and publish to look like we lead a life of leisure, but always remember you’re only witnessing the edit. It’s not a good habit, as it distances us from the everyday, but you also don’t want to be mundane or vanilla either. In the blogging world you need to stand out or you’re left behind.
With restaurants and the conversation of ‘freebies’, our Press & Info page clearly states our strict policy when it comes to reviews. Some bloggers will visit a venue once, take a few pictures (or even lazier still, have the PR email them the press-ready shots), get a meal free and enjoy staff fawning over them. Low and behold, a glowing review is published a day later. We’re not like that. We will not publish any restaurant/café review unless we’ve visited at least two, if not three times (click the link above to read more about why). There are some rare exceptions where a just-opened café, bar or restaurant without the PR power behind them in our locality gets a bit of our spotlight as a sign of support after our first visit. This happens extremely rarely.
We’ve never approached an eatery prior to visiting to ask for free tasters, to organise a complimentary three courses or expecting the red carpet treatment. But, then again, you’ve never seen a negative review on our site. This is a very conscious decision. Why give publicity to something that doesn’t meet our standards? We’d rather not bother giving bad press and so won’t give any press at all. Critics, employed by major newspapers, websites and magazines, have a different set up altogether as they expense meals and have often a national following that wait with bated breath for a seething review as it’s all a bit pantomime-y.
On occasions we’ve been in conversation online, for example, and they may throw us a free drink and have a chat when they realise we are in, but it is out of gratitude and friendliness more than bribery. They never expect us to do anything as a result of our visit because they don’t have that power. We’ve come in as members of the public and there’s zero PR influence. We love doing things this way, and will continue to, despite the fact it may not make for a constant stream of content on the website and in spite of the fact it bankrupts us.
You wouldn’t believe what we’ve paid for that might seem like it’s been given for free. Seriously. That’s the first crack in our window of perfection set.
But how do you afford it, you wonder? Well the answer to that is the minimal disposable income we have from our daily jobs. Patrick works as a PR copywriter in central London 9-5, Monday to Friday, while Russell works in breakfast television – beginning every morning at 4am – and also juggles a second media job, which he generally works every other weekend just to keep things ticking along. We do get tiny remittance from magazine contributions and rare freelance opportunities but after rent, food and travel, we have pennies to rub together.
So why do you do it? Surely it’s not worth it? We didn’t get into blogging to become famous or get things for free. We keep it up because we love it. It brings us together as we love each other and love food. It brings us into interaction with interesting, like-minded people who share our passion. We sacrifice a lot for this, most notably our free time, as 9-5 becomes 7-11, 365 days a year. We’re always ‘on’ and we love it as much as we hate it, but we wouldn’t be who we are without it.
Living The “Life”
Of late, we’ve gotten comments that we must ‘have the life’ with all the travelling we’ve been doing. We’d love to keep up the veneer that we go on sponsored press trips all the time but, wait for this next crack in the mirror, we pay for all our transport – planes, trains, automobiles. Yes, we’re flying economy with fit-to-burst hand luggage, we’re squeezed into train seats with budget tickets and we’re taking the bus before the thought of a taxi even crosses our minds. In 2015 – and it’s only August so far – we’ve estimated a spend of over £1,500 on travel alone (trains, planes, buses, cars). We can’t turn to someone with the receipts and get that money back.
Lately, however, hotels are becoming an exception. We have gotten one-night stays in various locations for free through a mixture of our blog stats, valuable networking and PR approaches. These have come recently off the bat of our early published hotel reviews, which we paid for ourselves and which we’re sure the hotels were all pretty pleased with themselves that they got free press from fully paying guests! (Remember any of these: Grassmarket Hotel, Victoria Warehouse, Pantone Hotel. All 100% paid) Any slight discount or press rate that we save a little chunk of change on is then subsequently spent on restaurants, cafes and bars that may or may not end up in reviews on our blog, so it all works in a cycle and is all pumped back into the brand. For those who think we profit from any of this, you are seriously mistaken.
Take A Picture… Will It Last Longer?
Getting back to Prue Leith’s comments, we agree! There are some incredibly talented cooks on the internet, bloggers or otherwise. In fact, some are so multi-talented as cooks, stylists, writers, editors and photographers that they’ve easily managed 100k+ followers on Instagram. Yes, they post GORGEOUS photographs, but hang them in a frame and that’s often all they are. Photographs.
We didn’t learn to cook through photographs and we shouldn’t expect this generation to have idealised, aspirational ideals for food. Cookbooks should empower, not deflate a prospective cook’s confidence. We learned to cook from picking up what our parents were doing, from flicking through our mothers’ Home Economic notebooks from the 1970s, and from watching life-like, accessible cooks like Nigella Lawson tearing apart a roast chicken with her bare hands, because she too can’t carve to save her life, and Nigel Slater who seems to magically transform almost anything or almost nothing into an effortless and delectable dish.
We are what we are. We have a very simple kitchen with the most basic of equipment. We don’t prepare our meals to look like we’re about to shoot them for a Donna Hay cover. If we get 100 likes, hey, that’s great in our book! People get too obsessed with the concept of ‘eating with your eyes’, when it really should be feeding and nourishing your soul. Some things just look like shit, but they taste amazing. Some things that look amazing aren’t the greatest tasting.
In the world of the Internet, it’s hard not to be bamboozled by modelesque blogger-Instagrammers who pose at colourful walls and glistening aquamarine pools doing a peace sign and licking an ice-pop (while the photograph is taken on a DSLR and edited on a nearby computer before being published after being emailed to a phone). Blink and it’s already got a thousands likes. Now it’s got four thousand. Steadily approaching 10k within a few hours.
All this while our dish, slow cooked for 5 hours, tasting delicious and looking like a decent, if a little sloppy, home-cooked meal doesn’t stand a chance. We’re getting to the point of not caring now. We’ve stopped obsessing over numbers, we’ve actually tried to put up more of our baking failures and kitchen disasters. We’re getting tired of trying to impress people. Stats are one thing, but we cherish engagement, as it’s gold to us, and we’re blessed we get it by the truckload, from real people like ourselves.
That’s who we’re making content for.