Portraits of a City by Its Bloggers
by Claire Willett
It was mid-November in Paris, and I was hungry. Every evening, after classes got out, I’d wander down the skinny cobbled Marche du Passy and gawk at the roasting pheasants, the mounds of polished pink turnips and golden carrots, the little ceramic pots of oozing Camembert. And then, completely overwhelmed, I’d go down into the Carrefour and buy another baguette, another tub of hummus, another kilo of Granny Smith apples. But now my mother was coming for Thanksgiving, and I was determined to show her how adroitly I’d adapted to my adopted home. With no idea of what to cook (there was very little chance of my procuring a turkey, and even less of my being able to cram one into my mini-oven), I went down to Shakespeare & Co. in search of an English translation of a French cookbook. Shakespeare & Co.’s cookbook section is sprawling and unpredictable, but among the requisite 85 copies of Mastering, several backless editions of Moosewood and one prominently displayed leather-bound version of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, Clothilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate and Zucchini caught my eye. Two pages in, I was hooked. Spirited, whimsical and heavily anecdotal, Chocolate and Zucchini was divided into desire-based categories like “Simplicity” and “Impromptu,” and read like a series of personal essays with appended recipes. Which made sense, I soon found out, because Chocolate and Zucchini the book originated from Chocolate and Zucchini the blog. The former’s mustard chicken stew saved my Thanksgiving; the latter served as my rabbit hole. To say I have never lacked for recipes or reading material since sounds like hyperbole, but it is closer to truth.
I found food blogs at the end of 2007, 13 years after a Swarthmore sophomore named Justin Hall had created the first online diary and 10 years after Jorn Barger smooshed “web logs” into “weblogs.” In 2007, Chocolate and Zucchini was four years old, as was Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks and Elise Bauer’s Simply Recipes. Molly Wizenberg’s Orangette was three. Julie Powell’s Julie/Julia Project was five, though it had long since lain fallow. Powell is often credited as being the first food blogger, which she was not.
In my research, the oldest food blog I came across was David Lebovitz’s. The respected American pastry chef began adding regular updates to his professional site in October 1999. The second oldest was Bruce Cole’s Sauté Wednesday, launched in 2001, which documented the editor’s musings on food, the food industry and Bay Area food news. Still on the cutting edge of food media, Cole is now publisher and editor of Edible San Francisco. After Cole, the competition got a bit hairier—especially around 2003, which birthed, among others, Chez Pim (Pim Techamuanvivit’s globe-trotting gastro-diary) and Gastropoda, Regina Schrambling’s scathing odes to New York’s restaurant industry and its so-called critics.
Food bloggers finally made it into the cultural mainstream around 2006, the year Ed Levine grouped together some of the country’s best food bloggers to form Serious Eats, and e New York Times grouped together some of the country’s best food writers to form their Diner’s Journal blog. Suddenly, everybody knew somebody who had a food blog, and the types of food blogs mushroomed. There were regional food blogs, molecular gastronomy blogs and sustainable food blogs. 101 Cookbooks precipitated a healthy-eating blog craze that, last June, saw tickets for the Third Annual Healthy Living Summit in Chicago sell out in a matter of hours. There are bloggers who only bake cupcakes, bloggers who only bake raw vegan cupcakes, bloggers who make diet versions of soul food, bloggers who make full-fat versions of junk food. Bloggers get book deals and the occasional movie deal. Going the other way, we see Ruth Reichl heading up Gilt Groupe’s food blog, Gilt Taste, and Amanda Hesser launching the community recipe-sharing site Food 52. Citizen journalism encompasses the culinary arena as well.
Food blogging came to Boston in the spring of 2003, when an already active political blogger named Rob Sama started Deus Ex Culinaria with his close friend Chris Kausel. Slowly, others joined them, including Helen Rennie with Beyond Salmon and Béatrice Peltre with La Tartine Gourmande. Reading the earliest entries of these blogs, you get a sense of bewilderment, of shouting into the ether. Writing about food was nothing new, but writing about food to nobody, or to nobody you knew and nobody who knew you—this was new. But then, a few months, a year, maybe even two years in, the blog’s voice and beat solidified, the photography improved, the audience engaged and the writing became discernibly more editorial.
Today, Boston’s local food blog scene is flourishing. Boston Food Blogs lists 363 local food blogs on its site, food bloggers are frequently spotlighted in the Globe and on WBUR and new restaurants like Aragosta and Ashmont Grill throw blogger-only dinner parties in a bid for buzz. “I’m continually impressed by the quality of talent we have within Boston’s food blogger community,”Boston Food Finds bloggess Audrey Gianna told me, and I couldn’t agree more. This is a community that really celebrates the history and culture, culinary and otherwise, of the city and region we all call home. It’s also a community that loves to give recommendations and organize events, and if you know where to look, you’ll never need a guidebook again.
The blogs featured below portray different slices of Boston and its food scenes. As mentioned, we are a city blessed with many food bloggers, but the seven I chose here stood out because of their fiery appetites, curious eyes and intelligently, holistically realized posts. Read one, and your knowledge of local CSAs will skyrocket. Read another, and you’ll know just where to go for frozen hot chocolate. One will tell you about cooking classes and food tours; one will teach you how to bake your own Cheez-Its. Two will make you really wish you’d paid more attention in that tenth-grade photography class. All of them will make you very hungry.
The Blog for Foodies: Confessions of a Chocoholic
- Author: Bianca Garcia
- Occupation: Media supervisor at Overdrive Interactive, graduate student at the Harvard Extension School, writer for the Harvard Square Examiner
- Started blogging: April 2008
- Favorite posts: “Kesong Puti” and “Nose to Tail Eating”
- Top local dishes: Burger at Craigie on Main, cannoli at Modern Pastry in the North End and the omakase at O Ya
Poor Proust only had madeleines; Bianca Garcia had lengua, avocados shaken down from the tree in her front yard and chilled Belgian chocolate eaten late at night in her parents’ bedroom. She had fresh mangoes, which she hated, and kesong puti, the soft, fresh white cheese Filipinos spread on bread and fruit, which she loved from birth. She shares these food memories, and the current-day restaurant dishes and recipes that trigger them, on her food blog Confessions of a Chocoholic.
“Having a blog magnified my belief that food is really meant to be enjoyed and savored, not feared nor taken for granted,” she says. Some bloggers cover everything, but Bianca focuses on what she likes, meaning we get a bounty of events, restaurants, food trucks, festivals and farmers markets around Cambridge and Boston. A warning: is bounty may not max out your credit card, but it will hurt your waistline. Less than 24 hours passed between my reading her post on the Bon Me truck’s fatty, crunchy, spicy banh mi and said sandwich entering my digestive system. As for her roundup of the city’s trendiest offal dishes ... I’ll just say I’m glad sweater season’s approaching.
The Blog for Food Producers: Grow, Cook, Eat
- Author: Julia Shanks
- Occupation: Founder and owner, Julia Shanks Food Consulting, cookbook author
- Started blogging: May 2008
- Favorite posts: Those on farming/gardening (tagged “Tales from the Farm”) and sustainability/food policy (tagged “Soapbox”)
- Top local dishes: Cubano at Chez Henri, Spicy Fideos at Oleana, Lengua at Toro and the pad thai at Brown Sugar Café
It’s safe to say Julia Shanks has one of the biggest footprints in Boston’s food scene. Currently at the helm of her eponymous and thriving food consultancy business, she’s worked as a chef at some of the city’s best restaurants, founded a home-cooking school, Interactive Cuisine, and just published a cookbook, e Farmer’s Kitchen: e Ultimate Guide to Enjoying Your CSA and Farmers Market Foods. In Grow, Cook, Eat she covers all the food production bases, from composting and vegetable gardening to butchering a pig to creating a visually savvy menu and sussing out the cream of the local sustainable crop for its components. A longtime advocate of sustainable eating, Shanks acknowledges that blogging has focused and deepened her connection to locavorism. “As I write more and more about the local food movement, it feels increasingly hypocritical to not support local farmers whenever possible, compost and recycle,” she writes. Her posts are thorough and thoroughly researched without being didactic or impersonal. Read one and you will feel inspired to plant that kale, bake that leek tart and hey, maybe put some flesh on that restaurant dream.
The Blog for Locavores: Food on the Food
- Author: Tammy Donroe
- Occupation: Freelance writer and mother of two
- Started blogging: November 2006
- Favorite posts: “Tortilla Soup for Optimum Marital Health” and “Strangers with Mushrooms”
- Top local dishes: Turkish breakfast at Sofra, apple cider from Box Mill Farm, lentil soup at Café Algiers, golden raspberries from Drumlin Farm, Sel de la Terre’s rosemary fries, the Number 2 cocktail at Hungry Mother and blue cheese from Great Hill Blue, West River Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm
When Tammy Donroe was very young, her parents would bring her along on their fancy restaurant dates because she “wouldn’t make a peep—I’d just stare at everything wide-eyed.” Today her popular blog maintains that wide-eyed perspective, but the silence has been replaced with stories of food, family and the immense pleasures in backyard eating. “I want these local growers, producers and artisans to be around for a while. at will only happen if we support them,” she says, and support them she does. In a quip-laden deadpan voice, she blogs about her experience participating in the Eat Local Challenge, the three CSAs she belongs to, the neighborhood farmers markets she frequents, the mushrooms she forages for in nearby woods with resident naturalist Russ Cohen.
Joining these topics are recipes (her great-aunt’s pecan tassies, her great-grandmother’s apple butter, her own baklava) and somewhat more serious posts on how food helped her successfully battle breast cancer. “I try to keep a balance between providing recipes and telling stories because it’s not just about the food—it’s about what’s going on around the food,” she writes. It’s a balance so addictive it’s secured a well-deserved cookbook deal. Donroe only knows one phrase in Italian: “mangia e traccarse”: eat and shut up. Luckily for us, she knows a great many more in English.
The Blog for Dining Out: Boston Food Finds
- Author: Audrey Gianna
- Occupation: Founder and owner of Boston Food Finds, which conducts food tours and and sells local cookbooks and specialty foods at its online store
- Started blogging: January 2011
- Favorite post: “What a Doozy (It Takes All Kinds)”
- Top local dishes: Burger at Craigie on Main, sticky buns from Flour, chickpea fritter sandwich from Clover
In April, Cleveland Circle’s beloved Roxy Grilled Cheese food truck disappeared, leaving behind only a series of mysterious tweets and a self-portrait astride an 18-wheeler on an unnamed highway. Audrey Gianna, who blogs at Boston Food Finds, was determined to get to the bottom of all this, and through a series of tweets and some outside sleuthing, she figured out that Roxy was one of the eight trucks competing on the Food Network’s “e Great Food Truck Race.”
A post about a disappearing food truck is just one of the many quirky gems you will find on Boston Food Finds. Founded in 2011, the blog arm of a food tour and specialty shop is already brimming with buzz on the city’s mainstream and quirky culinaria, from restaurants, cooking classes and afternoon teas to food trucks and farmers markets. During the Bruins’ finals, there were supportive cupcakes from Kickass Cupcakes, brownie “pucks” from the Dancing Deer Company and black & white (and gold) cookies from Fancy Pants Baking Co. In the days leading up to July 4th, readers learned where to go for pre-made picnic baskets and how to make their own patriotic desserts. Every week, there’s an interview with a local chef about what they cook on their day off (in case you were wondering, Jamie Bissonnette makes a mean ’Gansett chili). “I have the same sense of curiosity that a tourist does, and am always looking for something new and different in the local food scene to both enjoy myself, and to share with others,” Gianna writes.
The blog for David Foster Wallace fans: Mike Kostyo
- Author: Mike Kostyo
- Occupation: Graduate student in gastronomy at Boston University
- Started blogging: February 2009
- Favorite post: “What Do Robots Eat?”
- Favorite neighborhood: The North End
- Top local dishes: Eggs Benedict at Athan’s Bakery, Crazy Quesadilla at The Friendly Toast, The Great Experiment at the Marliave
In a nonfiction writing class I took my senior year of college, we read “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace’s seminal essay on the Maine Lobster Festival, the biology and history of lobsters and, above all, the ethicality of lobstercide. It was my introduction to deep map food writing—writing which at its crux is about food, but addresses a lot of other tangentially connected things.
Mike Kostyo takes the late Wallace’s deep map and runs wild with it. On his eponymous blog, the B.U. gastronomy student makes beautiful, fairly slow food and wraps nonculinary, pop-culture-laden anecdotes around each recipe. So an examination of the advertising of health food as junk food leads into a recipe for Chinese five-spice smoked almonds; a humorous essay on the oversaturated modern epicure ends with garlic scape pesto. A lament on the carnie sensibilities of AMC’s “The Killing” signs off in coffee cake cupcakes with brown sugar butter cream. “Anyway, the whole show takes place in Seattle … And Seattle has a lot of coffee. Here are some coffee cake cupcakes.” Inspiration for Kostyo’s recipes can come from a Cheez-It contest or an Indian buffet, and many of their ingredients come from local specialty shops like Polcari’s and Eastern Bakers Supply, a characteristic he attributes to blogging. “When you read other food blogs and see how other people are enjoying their local food scene, wherever that may be, it makes you more cognizant of your local food culture,” he writes.
The Blog for Serious Gourmands: La Tartine Gourmande
- Author: Béatrice Peltre
- Occupation: Food stylist, photographer and writer
- Started blogging: November 2005
- Favorite posts: “There were moutons, poules and potatoes, and we ate quail eggs en cocotte,” “Lulu et les madeleines”
- Favorite local food: Strawberry picking at Verrill Farm, apple picking in the fall at any organic farm, a picnic from Sofra
“There’s nothing better than turning what you like the most into a profession,” Béatrice Peltre, professional food photographer, regular columnist at the Boston Globe and newly minted cookbook author tells me. If you happen to have Peltre’s talent and passion for cooking, photographing and writing about food, then you too may be able to build a dream career out of your blog.
Peltre is our Molly Wizenberg, our Clothilde Dusoulier—only with better photos. Her bilingual blog, La Tartine Gourmande, features sunup to sun-down recipes guided by Peltre’s Lorraine Franconian background. Fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, organic eggs, meat and dairy from area farms (the sheep and chickens at Drumlin make frequent cameos) form the basis of pumpkin pots de creme, roasted spring garlic, whole red snapper en papillote, molten chocolate tahini millet cake... Even if you have no intention of using anything more than a microwave, Peltre’s accompanying photography makes her blog a must-see. Her sense of colors and composition is so keen that a simple bowl of eggs atop a calico tablecloth or a shot of the windswept dunes at Cranes Beach are print-out-and-frame-worthy. And her writing is soulful and pure. “I knew she was looking forward to having her hands and lips stained red once again,” she wrote of her daughter Lulu, after a day of strawberry-picking at Verrill Farm.
The blog for Fresh-Churned Butter Lovers: Fresh New England
- Author: El
- Occupation: Founder and owner of the recently launched food photography business Fresh New England, which mouthwateringly documents New England’s farms, specialty food producers and restaurants
- Started blogging: May 2009
- Favorite post: Love and Milk Chocolate Macarons.
- Top local eats: The tuna fish salad at Ipswich Shellfish Fish Market, Giovanna’s Gelato, the “sanity saving mid-winter apples” at Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts
“During my first trip to France, tears literally welled up in my eyes when I bit into a big, flaky Parisian croissant,” El, the blogger behind Fresh New England, tells me. Over the past two and a half years, El’s delicately composed ode to regional and continental sweets has amassed a large and loyal following: bakers and lovers of baked goods, mothers, gardeners, dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders. All are drawn by El’s deep passion and its skillful results—this is a woman who, as a very small child, stood nose-to-display-case watching the neighborhood baker pipe flowers onto her birthday cake, and a few years later, taught herself how to make French breakfast puffs in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. Today you can find this recipe on Fresh New England, along with those for exotica (vanilla bean macarons, Meyer lemon and chantilly cream verrine); gussied-up takes on childhood favorites (s’mores, Fudge Town cookies); and homegrown standbys (chocolate whoopie pies, Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins). Each forms the crux of quiet, meditative stories and lush, sepia-toned photographs guaranteed to have you craving picnics, wildflowers and a romp through the apple orchard. “I hope that my work inspires people to choose New England food and support our region of the country,” she writes. As a native, I may be biased, but personal, inviting food plus beautifully captured scenery sounds like a winning recipe.
Claire Willett is a social media strategist by day and a lifestyle reporter by night. She’s been covering the dining and nightlife scenes in New York City, the Hamptons and Boston since her sophomore year at New York University. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Worth Magazine and Cities2Night. This is her first piece for Edible Boston.