The winner of Vegetables Every Day is Jag! Congrats!! I'll be sending you an email shortly to get your mailing address.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Alanna not only shares her passion for vegetables with her readers, but a bit of her warm personality. When you read her blog, you almost feel like she has opened her kitchen to you to teach you how to make everyday meals that you and your family can enjoy.
Alanna has kindly offered a copy of Vegetables Every Day to one lucky commenter! Leave a comment on this post by the end of the day on Friday, December 12 for a chance to win.
Note: Except where noted, all photos are compliments of Alanna.
How did you end up writing about food?
My mom had cancer and was living with me while my dad and I took care of her. Near the end, she was bedridden and her mind was still quite good but she needed something to do. So, I sort of thought, “What can we do?” Then, I remembered that a couple years before we had talked about organizing a family cookbook with all of her side of the family. I went online and I found software that would allow us to do it from all over.
It actually turned out to be this really, really good thing because people could call her and say, “How are you doing?” and she could say, “Well, not so good today, but let’s talk about the cookbook.” She got to look back through all of her old recipes that we happened to have there. There are so many memories associated with food.
The day of her funeral (we hadn’t finished the cookbook yet) I asked people if we could name the cookbook Kitchen Parade, which was the title of the column that she wrote for 11 years starting when I was a baby and that she was still very famous for. They said, “Yes!”
For the first time as an adult, I went back and read her columns and they were so good. She was so ahead of her time about nutrition and fresh foods and just eating healthfully. I said, “I’m going to pick this up and carry it on.”
How did your mom get the job writing Kitchen Parade?
My mom was a Home Ec grad and married a small town newspaper publisher. She was a city girl and she was trying to find her way in a small town with a baby. He thought the newspaper could use a column and she was a natural - so she did it. They have no memory of why they called it Kitchen Parade.
There’s this funny little logo, which shows a woman in a kerchief at the stove and the father’s in the corner in an armchair reading a newspaper with a dog on the floor and two baby boys. Those baby boys are my sister and me.
What did you learn growing up with your mom writing this column?
We were proud of her for doing it. It was definitely part of the reason why so many people loved her. Even now, all these years later, people still stop me and say, “Oh, I made your mom’s such and such yesterday.”
But, just like food bloggers will know, because you’re testing something for the blog, you do weird combinations. You might do the same thing two nights in a row to get it right. Or, you might just have a really weird meal because you needed to fill the space.
Did you complain about the bizarre food?
I didn’t. We’ve talked about it (my sister and me) and neither of us have a memory of that. We just remember that food was always interesting.
Did she teach you to cook while she was cooking?
No. We actually had very different styles, especially as adults. We learned that if she cooked, I cleaned up and if I cooked, my dad cleaned up. She was a real natural cook. She was one to sort of make it up as she went along. She knew a lot more about the science of food than I do.
I think I pick good starting recipes and I make them very much my own. Also, I’m willing to invest in ingredients in a way she wasn’t, and I’m willing to take time in a way she wasn’t.
We have a family recipe for pierogies that my grandmother made for family occasions and it was a really big deal and they were so delicious. I remember the year when my mom wanted to skip making her own dough and use wonton wrappers. It was a nice experiment, but they weren’t very good.
She would have been a blogger.
Why do you say that?
Because she loved sharing recipes.
I started the column in 2002. If I had known about blogs, I wouldn’t have started a food column. I would have been one of the very first food bloggers because you wouldn’t need a column, if you will, to share the recipes.
What is the difference between being a food blogger and being a food columnist?
They are actually quite different. To write a column, you’re very attuned to what your readers are looking for. You’re also limited by space and you are affected by what ingredients people have available to them in that very local readership. A food blog can be a little bit more playful. You can say, “I tried this and it didn’t work, but I learned this.” In a food column, I wouldn’t ever do that. In a column, recipes are a lot more formal. The recipes may be simple, but these are recipes that are worth ink and paper.
Do you have a lot of editorial control when you write the articles?
I’ve only been edited twice. The first time was the very first column and we were getting to know each other. Once they became accustomed to my very conversational writing style, then they loved it. The second time, we had a very big disagreement about the appropriateness of a particular piece of information I wanted to include. Since it was their paper, they won.
Now, your column has a blog presence too?
I publish my column online as if it’s a blog.
How does that conversion work?
The column is written expressly to be published in two columns side-by-side. Until it was actually visually presented that way online, but still in a blog format with comments and a side bar and all the navigation tools that come with blogs, it didn’t work. I had very few subscribers. Even though the recipes were good, the writing was good, I think, it just didn’t work because it wasn’t presented properly. It was so geared for presentation in print.
Once you changed that, did it made a big difference?
Once I changed that, the site completely took off.
Are the readers the same people who would be reading your column locally, or do they come from everywhere?
I don’t actually know. The reason is because there’s no geotagging for the local area where the column is published. So, all I know is how many St. Louis readers come, not how many people come from our little corner of St. Louis.
Do you have a high percentage of St. Louis readers?
No. I actually have a lot of Canadian readers. I’ve sort of come to understand that I probably have a Northern style and Canadian style and that’s perhaps only natural because my mom was Canadian.
When did you start A Veggie Venture?
Actually, I started the blog on a whim - on April Fool’s Day. I did have this idea that it could be a joke. Like if it didn’t come to be, I’d say, “Oh, that was a joke.” It was so unimportant to me that it didn’t even make my journal until about two weeks later. I made some note that said, “I updated my blog today.” The whole idea was I was going to do a 30 day blog. I’m sure it was inspired by Chocolate and Zucchini. The only other possibility was the Julie & Julia project.
I just started it and the idea was very much to just post a vegetable cooked in a new way every single day for a month. Some place back on one of the anniversary dates, I actually cataloged how many days passed before I had a comment – just four - and how many passed before I had a second comment – 89! But, at the end of the 30 days, I was really intrigued. I was learning, and it was fun.
I still had no idea that there were other blogs. There were a lot of new blogs being started in that period in 2005, which is like an eon ago. But, we were all sort of in our own little worlds just plugging away at our own little blogs and it was a long time (like several months) before I did anything to reach out to other blogs. I was just kind of in my own little world cooking vegetables and loving it because I was learning.
At some point in the third or fourth month at the end of summer, I said, “I’m going to do it for a year.” I knew it was this big, weird thing to do - impossible actually. I mean, who can post everyday? What reader wants to read everyday? Or can absorb everyday? But, I just set out to do it. By the end I was very tired. I really thought I would give it up. It was enough.
Did you actually stop for a little while?
I didn’t ever say I was quitting. I just said I’m going to take a break. And that’s what I did.
For how long?
It wasn’t actually that long, maybe two weeks.
Two whole weeks!
But it was such a difference. Because I literally, for the first nine months, decided what to make, cooked it, photographed it, wrote it, and posted it the very same day. If you ever look at the time stamps, a lot of them were like at 11 o’clock at night. In the last three months of the first year, I got the idea, “Oh my gosh, I could cook during the week and take the weekend off.” So, I started writing ahead of time. That actually made a huge difference.
You didn’t take any vacations during that first year?
I did actually take a vacation in the summer time, but by that point, I had started to put Kitchen Parade columns online too, and so I posted archive columns while I was on vacation. All I had to do was press publish. By the way, in that period, I wasn’t doing any photographs either. So, in that sense, it was a little bit easier.
I have no idea. I don’t remember having this grand scheme saying, “Oh that will be very popular.” I guess I’ve always eaten vegetables. I was a vegetarian for a number of years. It was just something I could learn about. I might have picked bread or cupcakes or soup or...
Later, I realized the only reason I could sustain doing it every day for a year was because it was vegetables and mostly simple supper vegetables.
What did you learn in that first year?
When you’re just doing it, not everything turns out. You might make a mistake or the recipe’s no good or the vegetables weren’t fresh enough. Especially in the first 90 days, as I looked back, I realized I didn’t have very many favorite recipes, ones that I would mark as keepers and I would recommend. That’s because I was used to almost always cooking with frozen vegetables. Now I love frozen vegetables. I think they have a great place in this world, and everyone’s freezer should have a stock. But for taste and pleasure, they really have to be fresh. I didn’t know that. I didn’t actually know that for quite some months.
What was a vegetable disaster recipe that happened?
Vegetable disaster recipe? I don’t remember the recipe, but it was so bad that the post actually reads, “I’m not sharing the recipe. Do you think I would want to perpetuate this?” I didn’t name the cookbook. I think it was a Brussels sprouts recipe actually and I love Brussels sprouts. But it was so bad. But, that was part of the learning process and being able to say, “Okay, I didn’t like that Brussels sprouts recipe, but I do like Brussels sprouts. Could I do something different with it?” So part of the learning, even for me, was to not give up on Brussels sprouts just because I had a bad experience with Brussels sprouts.
Is there any vegetable that you just hate?
I didn’t get artichokes until this year. I just thought they weren’t worth the trouble. But now, I get them. They are very good and they are worth the trouble - especially since I learned you can throw them in the microwave and it’s just as good as steaming them.
There isn’t anything I’ve hated. But I will say that each year, I fall in love with a different vegetable. The first year, I just fell completely in love with beets. I did more beet recipes than you could imagine - very simple things like beets cooked any way you want to cook them, then chilled, cut in layers and plated with a little feta cheese on top and just a little drizzle of lemon juice. It’s sublimely simple and people who don’t like beets say, “Oh my gosh, can I have some more of that?”
Last year it was beans. I really fell in love with green beans in a way I hadn’t before.
What about this year?
It might be radicchio because I’ve only used radicchio, which is quite expensive, as just a little add-in to a salad for a little bit of color. When I cooked them seared this week, they were so good that I want to go on. I want to grill them, and someone sent me a recipe for a radicchio soup today. Radicchio has this sort of bitterness that isn’t found that often and is unusual to the American palate in a way that rhubarb is.
Is there anything surprising to you that you learned about vegetables during this time on the blog?
So many things. But mostly, it’s the obvious things, but because I never paid attention, I hadn’t put them all together. The first thing is that nearly any vegetable can be roasted and turned into something very different than you’ve ever tasted before. Even roasting kohlrabi or celery or rhubarb brings out a softness, a texture, and a sweetness that’s just quite different.
I’ve learned that most vegetables don’t require much enhancement. If the vegetables are fresh (and by that I don’t even mean farmers-market fresh, because I think what we get at the grocery stores is actually very good) and cooked simply just with a little bit of olive oil and a little bit of salt and pepper, you end up with something that’s really tasty and healthful and that you can eat a lot of and feel good about.
I’ve learned that if you get bored with vegetables, you can sort of change their structure and end up with something new. If you’re used to roasting beets, instead grate them and eat them raw - something very different. If you’re used to having Brussels sprouts always cooked whole and either roasting them or steaming them, mix it up a little - slice them really thin and cook them like a hash.
Oh, big surprise (this should be number one) - vegetables need salt. We’ve become so afraid of salt, just like we’re afraid of carbs and fat and in the mean time, we’re chowing down on our box pizzas and we’re going out for lunch and we go through the drive-thru and the carry-out and in those situations, we don’t know how much salt we’re consuming. My idea is cut out all that food that you haven’t cooked yourself and then you can literally salt your vegetables and your other foods so that they taste good. You can eat more of what’s good for you and you’re actually consuming less sodium than in your old diet. It takes an overhaul, however.
Does salt really make that much of a difference?
Oh, salt makes a total difference. If you cook green beans in well-salted water, you wouldn’t believe the difference in how the green beans taste. It’s not salt you’re tasting - it just changes the chemical structure inside the beans in a way so that both the texture and the flavor really just work.
What do you think vegetable-haters should do to get started eating vegetables?
If they are grown-ups, they are probably not going to change their ways unless they have children and they know that they need to be good role models for their children. Then, they will eat something that they wouldn’t have just to show the kids that they’ll eat it too.
First of all, I would do a little bit of research; there are actually chemical reasons why some people don’t like some vegetables. I keep coming back to Brussels sprouts like they are the only vegetable, but there’s a chemical reaction that some people have in their bodies to Brussels sprouts that makes them particularly unpalatable to them. There’s a way to counteract that. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, that’s fine, do something else.
I think the greatest evidence of how kids can be turned on to vegetables is a project out of the UK, The Great Big Vegetable Project, that just published their book this month. Here’s this darling little nine-year old boy who turns up his nose at the site of a vegetable and negotiates whether or not he can eat just two peas, mom, please. Now, he’ll try anything. He doesn’t always like things, because he was given permission to not always like things. But, he was asked to try things.
Why did you become and then stop being a vegetarian?
I didn’t eat meat for eight years. It was sort of on a dare, but during those years, I wasn’t a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I wasn’t even doing it particularly for health reasons. I was just doing it. During that time, I always was hungry for ribs and hamburgers.
I was actually at a sushi place and learned that I was allergic to wasabi and ended up in the emergency room. I was driving home at seven in the morning with a friend who had taken me to the emergency room because my throat had closed, and I said, “I want a Big Mac.” I didn’t actually have a Big Mac, but a week later, on a mountain, I had a hamburger and a steak. I still eat meatless a lot.
Kitchen Parade actually has a lot of vegetarian recipes because I think that whether or not we go completely without meat is a personal choice, but all of us should be eating less meat than we do - much smaller portions and much less often.
Do you have a favorite recipe?
Do I favorite recipe? Do I have a favorite uncle? The recipes I like the most aren’t so much recipes as concepts because I’d like to provide families with tools so that just by an inspiration, just a bare, vague, construct of what to make, they say, “There’s our supper.” I work quite hard, actually, to develop concept recipes because they take a lot of testing to try and get the balance right - to get people the range of the options that you might give them.
What’s an example?
I have a stew recipe that will publish in January. I’ve tested it with five different kinds of meat and different vegetables, I’ve done it in a crock pot, I’ve done it in the oven, and I’ve done it on the stove top. It happens to have fruit in it as well. I’ve experimented with different kinds of fruit. It has so many variations that I asked for help testing it. Some family and friends jumped in and probably five of them cooked it in a couple of different ways. So it’s a well-tested, good, basic, very substantial, healthy stew recipe.
Are all of your recipes tested like that?
Not like that, but all of them are tested a lot.
So, you make a recipe more than once before posting it?
Oh, yeah. Let’s see, when I was working on pie crusts last fall, I did, I think, 19 pie crusts in two weeks - 19 pies in two weeks. That’s overkill. I did four flatbread recipes yesterday. I’m working on a sorbet recipe that, funny enough, has only two ingredients, but it’s so simple, you need to be certain of the balance of it in different situations. I’ve made it four or five times.
Wow! That’s a lot of time invested into your posts. How much time do you spend on your blog?
Oh, let’s see, it might be easier to answer it the other way around. How much time do I not? I don’t know. I’m obsessed by it and I know I am. I’m very obsessed by it. It would be nice to have it move into balance.
Do you have another job or is this your full time job?
I do have another job. I’m a consultant in the payments industry. But, this is where I have all my fun.
On your blog’s About page, it talks about how you lost 30 pounds with Weight Watchers. Has Weight Watchers had an impact on the recipes you make?
Completely. I provide nutrition information and Weight Watchers points for every single recipe, good or bad. This week, in fact, in Kitchen Parade, I took an old recipe that I love from 30 years ago and made it and loved it all over again. Then, I did the nutritional analysis and about died! I almost didn’t post it, but I thought, “You know what? I’m going to go ahead and post and I’m going to give the nutrition information.” I’m just going to say, “Listen, it’s so important that we know this information so that we can make our choices, good and bad.” Needless to say, I’ve put those 30 pounds back on since I started the blog.
Where do you turn to for recipes?
My recipes actually come from all over. I get a lot of reader recipes. People send me stuff and I love that - a lot of family recipes. Because of my mom having the column, you can imagine the stacks of recipes that I inherited. I do have too many cookbooks. I’m actually feeling very burdened by cookbooks right now. I’ve stopped accepting them from people that are offering to send complimentary copies, unless I’m really, really excited about a topic. I love Food and Wine and I really do love Gourmet and Bon Appetit as well. Their simple recipes are good and I’m good at picking the right recipes.
Where do you see the future of your two sites?
I think I would never, ever in this world run out of vegetable recipes because I haven’t even touched on the preparations of other cuisines. I’m looking at this beautiful Italian book right now and it has so many recipes where vegetables are the center of a dish. So, I think that can go on forever. Kitchen Parade, in another year, will turn into a real blog and only be published online.
It’s a real thrill to be published in print and, for me, in particular, it grounded me to Webster-Kirkwood and the area where the papers are published. It was really neat to run into people at the grocery store and have them say, “Oh, I made your such and such.” That was just really neat. But, papers have to be profitable and this is a really good local newspaper and they are getting pressured by the economy. If they don’t have room or they don’t have the page space for something like a recipe column, that’s okay. I still want them to do really well and will do everything I can to keep making them do well.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
I would love to see an interview from someone who is bridging the publishing world and the online world well. I think it needs to be from the serial publishing world - the magazines - because cookbooks are different. I would say the editor of Food and Wine would be excellent. I’d like to see the topic be: How do we all get along and (without pandering to blogs) how do you incorporate blogs? What do they do for you? What would you like blogs to do for you?
Another idea (on that business side too) would be from the PR side, people who are trying to push product to the blogs. I’d love to start a conversation about mutual trust and respect and everybody getting something out of it for the benefit of the readers.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
The following very lucky people will be getting their Patric Chocolate orders for free:
- Stephanie B.
- Aimea S.
- Lynette P.
Posted by Stef at 6:25 AM
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Before we start the tour, I want to remind you that Alan is offering Food Interviews readers a great coupon and a chance to win up to $100 worth of fine chocolate! Get the contest and coupon details here.
Smell that cacao - our tour starts now!
Me and Alan McClure at the beginning of the chocolate factory tour.
How much chocolate can you make from this pile of cacao?
Each bag is about 150 pounds and makes approximately 100 pounds of chocolate, maybe a little more. We have 16 bags here or 32 batches, 1600 pounds of chocolate.
This is cacao as it comes in. You’ll see that on some of these beans, the shells have started to come off or they’re broken or they’re double beans. Or sometimes, there is external mold on it.
There are problems with just using all of this material in chocolate. The double beans weren’t able to be dried properly because they were stuck together. The ones that are broken, there are potential mold issues internally because they’ve been broken apart. If I see mold, I know that inside it doesn’t taste quite right, so I don’t want to use that. Also, little shriveled beans are not going to taste right.
Other things that get thrown out are flat beans, germinated beans. The germ, or radical, is really hard and it pokes through the end in order to start growing a little sapling. Once cacao starts to germinate, the internal chemistry starts changing, just like with any seed. Again, it just doesn’t taste quite right after the fact. So, I remove germinated beans.
Really, what I want going into my chocolate are beans that are virtually perfect. I can’t cut open every single one and still roast them properly and it would take way too much time. If I could, I would, because you can tell things by looking inside too, to see if it was fermented and dried properly.
Do you manually sort through all these beans?
Exactly. By hand.
Here’s the cleaning station. A couple scoops go out on a screen . Everything that’s small falls right through - everything else is spread out and picked out manually. It gets rejected and the rejects are in those bags over there. So, all the cacao that gets cleaned goes into here.
Do other chocolate companies go through a similar process of hand sorting the cacao?
I don’t know what the other smaller companies are doing. I know some of what they do. Steve De Vries, he does stuff by hand, too. But the larger companies, do have machines that do it and what the machines do is they sift things automatically, so it gets rid of the small material, but then all of the large material stays on the top. They have vacuums that suck off leaves, feathers, or little pieces of rope. They have magnets to get rid of nails or anything like that and destoners to remove anything that’s much more dense than a cacao bean.. But, they still end up with germinated beans, cracked beans, double beans, anything like that that I get rid of.
It could theoretically be possible to have, like they do with cars, a very expensive mechanized system that has cameras and the cameras are trained somehow, programmed, to be able to figure out if each bean looks right and then have a little robotic hand come in here and pull it out. I doubt it’s going to happen because there are an awful lot of beans that go through one of those systems - millions and millions a day for those large companies. Whereas, I’m making one to two batches of chocolate a week.
These bags over here, these are rejected cacao.
Rejected beans just gets used as fertilizer. I actually haven’t gotten rid of my reject beans. I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do with them. I’ve actually tried contacting a local farmer to pick them up and compost them and he says he will.
This is cacao that I bought back in 2005-2006 when I was still trying to figure out all the different origins and what they tasted like. I was making little test batches. This is more recent sample that I’ve gotten--just the other day, it's from Vanuatu, right near Papua New Guinea.
This [points to another sample bag] is from Hawaii - basically the only place in the U.S. where you can grow cacao. There’s not much of a scent any more since it has been sitting open, but when I first opened it, it really reminded me of like a floral, honey aroma. It smelled really good. There’s other stuff, Cuyagua, which is in Venezuela, one of the places I’ve visited. This is from Chiapas, southern Mexico. Most of what I get is junk—in fact, almost all of it.
Why are some beans so much better than others?
There are all kinds of differences and reasons for them and it’s really difficult to wrap your mind around the complexity that is cacao quality. To give you an idea, there are not really such things as varieties of cacao. There are clones, which is the closest things we have to varieties, which have been indexed and planted by certain scientific organizations like CIRAD or a center in Trinidad for example.
We’re still in the middle-ages in cacao. You’ve had people seriously thinking about wine for a very long time and growing it right in their backyard. Whereas right here, it’s totally different. It’s a raw product, It’s from another country, most of the time. It’s a relatively recent event that people are thinking about excellent quality and chocolate in the same sentence. So, it’s moving in the right direction. But, we’re probably hundreds of years from where grapes are right now, which is kind of infuriating for chocolate-makers, because we wish we could just pick up the phone and ask for excellent cacao grown under such and such conditions and fermented and dried in a specific way. At this point, it’s not really happening, and we have to be very involved.
There are a few companies trying to do some interesting things and move quality forward. Domori in Italy, they have a relationship with a company called Cacao San Jose which has an estate in Venezuela. They are trying to grow certain clones and make chocolate only out of those clones. They’re doing it at a relatively small scale at this point, thought the company is fairly big compared to Patric Chocolate. Who knows, hopefully that type of thing will catch on. But, there are also drawbacks to doing something like that and those drawbacks are diseases because we still don’t understand cacao diseases. You have diseases that will go through certain countries and can wipe out their cacao populations. So, all of the farmers that were growing cacao, are not growing cacao anymore.
Then you have terroir, the land itself, the climate right there, the microorganisms in that particular place. Because once you’ve harvested the cacao, then you need to ferment it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Lambic. It’s a Belgian style of beer. Everything that ferments the wort is right there in that particular brewery - on the walls, in the vats, on the floor, in the air. Every brewery has slightly different microorganisms. If you move out of that area to another area, then the microorganisms are even more different, and so on and so forth. In Madagascar, part of what gives the cacao this quality is in large part the yeast and the bacteria that are right there. You take the same cacao genetically to another place, process it the same exact way, it will not taste the same. That’s one of the exciting things, also, about cacao - that there’s so much that is left to be understood regarding the interaction of cacao and microorganisms—the fermentation.
So on one hand, it seems like a depressing thing - we don’t understand anything, no one knows anything, we’re in the stone ages. On the other hand, there’s so much still left to learn that you can be hopeful that things are going to get better for sure because people are getting better at understanding the complexity of cacao.
You can photograph this because, ask my wife, I am an authoritarian when it comes to hand washing. I’m always on everyone’s case, “Did you wash your hands?” I try to be nice about it. Nothing is ever 100% perfect, but you want it to be clean.
This is room number two. This is where we roast the cacao. It’s just a commercial gas heated convection oven. Nothing especially chocolatey about it, but it roasts well, so it’s what I use.
You’ll see all the thermometers numbered. Each tray of cacao gets a thermometer during the roast and then every five minutes, I write down the temperature and then I plug that into Excel so I get a roasting curve. I know exactly what every roast is like in terms of numbers but also I can compare the roasting curve of two different batches. If there’s a slightly different flavor, I want to understand exactly where that slightly different flavor is coming from, then I compare the two. I can see, “Okay, this one got up to heat much more quickly than the other one did.” That allows me during the next roast to know, say, in the beginning I need to be a little more careful and keep things a little cooler or if I want it getting up to heat more quickly, etc., etc.
How long does it roast for?
Generally, 40-50 minutes, in that range. Typically between 230 and 270 degrees is a pretty good range, but different chocolate makers use different times and temperatures
When the cacao comes out of there, I crack it and sift it to separate different sizes of material. This is another very manual part of the process. I’m extremely excited to be getting a new machine for this soon because this is the biggest pain in the ass in the whole place and I don’t mind saying so. When I first designed my cracker/sifter setup, I knew it would work, I knew it would be time-consuming, but I didn’t know it would be as time-consuming as it ended up being. I just knew I wanted to get in here and make chocolate and I didn’t have $50,000 to spend on a refurbished, vintage winnower, let alone the hundreds of thousands to spend on a new, fairly small but still gigantic winnower, probably not the space either.
What I did was I used these little crackers which are used for whole-grain malt, for beer-making. In fact, the company’s called Crankandstein. Initially, it was made for cracking barley, but I had them do a custom one that was adjustable so I could make the gaps larger and smaller and crack the cacao and hand-sift it.
There are three different sizes of screens. Everything is screened through them. The large stuff is re-cracked. It takes hours to go through just one batch and that’s only separating the cacao into three different sizes.
Then, it has to be winnowed using a machine, which I also built. It’s functional, though extremely slow also. Again, I wanted to get in and make chocolate, but I didn’t have the money for an expensive machine so I built this thing.
When you have the cacao, you have the internal part and the external part. The external part is what you just saw, I call it the shell, though it is actually the seed coat. It’s kind of light. The internal part is heavier and denser, it's called the nib.
It’s like mixing rocks and feathers together and then trying to separate them again. The easiest way to separate rocks and feathers is air. That’s what the winnower does. Air blows up and the vacuum sucks that through, the shell moves up and the nibs fall straight through into a bucket below.
You’ll see different sizes of nibs. So you see the stuff on top is small and the stuff around is a little bit larger. The stuff at the very bottom is larger still. So those are the three different sizes that have been winnowed. You’ll see a little piece of shell here and there, but basically it has all been removed. It really starts smelling like chocolate at this point. During roasting, it kind of starts but a lot of the volatile acids are coming off the roast too, so you smell a heavy vinegar smell during the roast, actually.
It does take pretty much all day long to do both of these [cracking and winnowing] for one batch of chocolate. Whereas, with an automatic winnower for that amount of cacao, we’re talking an hour - max.
The next step is the refiner. It has two large granite rollers and a thick granite base. It’s a 600 pound machine, or something like that. I turn these infrared heaters on then, and I start adding nibs to it. Then, the heat and the friction through crushing just turn the nib into a liquid.
Once all the nibs are added, it's nice and liquidy and not very viscous and I start adding the sugar. So for my 70% chocolate, 30% of the weight of the chocolate is going to be the sugar and 70% is the nib. This grinding/refining/conching process takes about fours days. The particles sizes of the cacao and sugar are gradually reduced and the flavor and texture improve and refine as well. Without this part of the process, the texture of the chocolate would be granular and almost gritty.
After four days, when the chocolate’s done, it gets molded into ten to twelve pound blocks. I take those blocks out to another room where they’re aged.
You’ll notice that the blocks look odd. When you take molten chocolate and you put it in a container and you let it solidify of its own volition, let’s say, this is what happens. It looks like this. What that is, is that in each of these circles, there’s a crystal that forms in the center and it builds outward. So every one of those is actually a huge crystalline piece of chocolate and what happens is, you’ll get some really interesting patterns and colors. But, as soon as you melt that back down again, it’s just normal liquid chocolate.
What you see here is simply cocoa butter, the way natural cocoa butter crystallizes when left to its own devices. Its not mold, it’s not a disease. I had someone in here once where I explained all of this to her and then she said, “But is it okay to eat?” I said, “It’s just like water turning into ice.” It’s still okay to drink the water after the ice is melted. It’s just like that. So, this chocolate after it's done being aged, I melt it back down and then it's molded into bars, the crystallization is controlled and so what you get is a nice shiny looking bar instead of this. This would be crumbly, like you can kind of crumble it apart and it looks like little marbles.
Do these blocks taste the same as the bars?
It doesn’t melt the same in your mouth. Because the way chocolate melts impacts the flavor of the chocolate, it doesn’t taste quite the same, but it has the same chemical compounds in it that tempered chocolate has. It actually takes a little longer for this to melt in your mouth and it melts less evenly, but once you melt it back down and temper it, then it melts the right way.
This is the tempering machine. It's the most expensive piece of machinery in here. . This is how it came, just like this; I didn’t have to make any modifications. After the chocolate’s aged, then it comes back in here and gets melted down in this machine.
I just put in some aged blocks to melt down, as you can see. That’s about 120 pounds of chocolate in there. You would need considerably more than 120 pounds to submerge yourself!
Do you ever just dip your finger in there?
I try not to.
The next step is that the melted chocolate gets deposited into these molds here.
When you have molds, you can’t deposit warm chocolate in cold molds or you have shock which causes a bad appearance. What happens is that the surface of the bar looks all squirrelly and there are lines you can kind of see where the chocolate first touched the mold and started crystallizing right away. So, what you have to do is heat it up.
I have a heat gun hooked up to a temperature controller. I dial up the temperature and it turns the heat gun on and off for whatever temperature. You also can’t heat them too much or else it will take the chocolate completely out of temper and melt all the crystals and you end up with a whole other set of problems. There’s a very fine line that’s perfect.
After I deposit the chocolate into a mold, I throw it on this, which is a great machine. It’s a vibrating table. Chocolate is a weird thing. It has different properties of viscosity to it. There’s actually something called a yield value where even very warm chocolate will sometimes tend not to spread out unless you sort of tap what it’s in. If you just gently tap it, it’ll just sort of spread out.
This kind of takes that same principle. You can deposit chocolate right down the middle of the mold and put the mold on a tray , and it’s not really spreading out that easily, but as soon as you put it on the vibrating table , it just spreads it right out and any of the bubbles that get caught in the corner, they kind of get worked out. That’s the way that works.
The next step is cooling. I built my own cooling cabinets. Box fans blow air through filters from either side to cool the bars. Have you ever turned off the lights and shined a flashlight through a dark room and seen all the stuff that’s floating through it? Even with this filtration system and great cleanliness, that stuff’s all over the place. I don’t want that getting on my bars. So what this does is create positive pressure in here and as the air blows across the bars, the only place for it to go is out, so as I bring bars in, I put them in. It’s a great system and inexpensive.
What large companies use are cooling tunnels that are like 60 feet long and maybe $200,000 or more t. There is one company making cooling cabinets that hold two-thirds what this one holds and they are $2,500. You can imagine this did not cost me $2,500 to build. But again, it works.
These are our wrapped bars that I just wrapped yesterday. So you can see, they are pretty uniform, they’re pretty even. It’s very hard with foil to get things to look like that. It’s easy to make them look all crinkly. That’s sort of the problem with having someone wrap the bars because they can look pretty bad and you don’t want someone paying six dollars for a bar, seeing this box, “Oh that looks nice,” and they open it up and it’s like this golden turd coming out.
Do you print the boxes yourself too? Or do you have that done somewhere else?
They’re stamped. The backs and fronts are stamped by hand here.
As I grow, I’m going to have the stamped part printed onto the box, for sure. I have the designs all ready. I knew when I was starting out, “Okay, I’m going to have different products but I don’t know exactly what those will be. I know what one will be so I can get those boxes printed and get others printed as we go along and spend a lot more money. Or get one sort of more generic box and hand stamp it as we go along, and save a lot of money." For a start-up, I went with saving the money.
So you’re just stamping this right here?
Right. Exactly. Then the little sticker there that says 70%, and then the stamps on the back. The 67% also needs a sticker on the back. It’s a little more involved because the ingredients have cocoa butter, too, whereas the 70% doesn’t. But again, the cocoa butter I press right here. This isn’t unique because Shawn Askinosie does that, too. But it is quite rare. Most people just buy their cocoa butter. It’s just another part of the issue of the consistency. If you’re pressing your own cocoa butter, you understand it.
From the start of your process from that bag of beans to the end, how long does it take you?
Cleaning’s done in one day, roasting the next, and winnowing on the third day. I could, theoretically, do all three of those in one day but it would be a very long day and I wouldn’t be able to do it by myself. I’ve got so many other things I have to take care of. I have people placing orders, I have orders I have to ship out, I’m dealing with vendors, I’m ordering new things, and I have to deal with that. And there’s accounting that I have to do also, so I really don’t have the time to do all that in one day so it’s split up over three days. Then, the refining is started on another day and goes for four days.
In a normal week, refining is started on Monday. Monday and Tuesday I would mold bars (if need be, Wednesday also). Wednesday, the cacao’s cleaned (not by me, though, if I’m molding bars). Thursday, I roast. I always do the roasting and so far, I always do the molding, Friday is winnowing and I’m also emptying the refiner to blocks. Those blocks get aged. That’s kind of how the week breaks down. And then the dishes - every day, there’s dishes or something.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
That’s a tough one. I respect a lot of people. I love Jeffrey Steingarten's writing. Have you read anything by him? I think he’s a brilliant food writer. He has a strong personality so I’m not sure I’d get very far in an interview with him.
There’s a guy that just died, where’s the book? Bartley, he just died. The amount of knowledge that went to the grave with this guy - it’s actually pretty sad. What he was working on was so detailed and terse, this book right here. People weren’t really taking his research and adding on to it. It was sort of like, “This guy’s doing that and we’ll let him do his thing.” But, it’s just genius stuff. But I guess I can’t interview that person either. So, I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I don’t know if that’s a very good answer. There are so many people I’d love to talk to.
That’s the thing, so many of the people who were groundbreaking in terms of writing about chocolate, they’re dead.Would you want to write about chocolate some day?
I’m always writing on the blog. I haven’t been publishing a lot lately because I’ve been working on a really long piece that, taking your advice, I’ll just split up into like 20 different segments; about the beginning of fermentation. Where does fermentation even come from? Because people assume that the Maya invented fermentation and, often, even academics will say that the Maya fermented. But even in academic papers, I’ve never seen anything that proves that point. And on top of that, the one thing that we know for sure about the Maya is that they used cacao as money.
If you are not an academic and you’re a chocolate maker and you have your hands in cacao, you’ll know that unfermented cacao is very hard, is not brittle at all. You could easily carry that around everywhere. But fermented and dried cacao is very brittle and if you really wanted to carry around cacao as currency, would it make more sense to carry around something that broke easily whenever you just move or something very solid and not easily broken? So, that’s one of the things that I’m writing about now.
Hopefully, I’ll look back over my blog at some point and say, “Wow, if I could pull all this together, that would equal a book.” Then I’ll say, “Why don’t I do that?” So that’s kind of my goal at this point. I’m not focusing on writing the book, I’m focusing writing strong pieces for the blog that I can later pull together into something interesting for chocolate makers or chocolate lovers or whatever. Hopefully the market will continue to expand for fine chocolate and you’ll get people that are the same types of people that are crazy about home brewing, they’ll be crazy about home chocolate making.
Posted by Stef at 5:00 PM
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
You can't really know how special Patric Chocolate is until you taste it. However, after you read about owner Alan McClure's passion for chocolate and the care he personally takes with every step of the chocolate making process, I think you'll have a pretty good idea.
I've devoted two posts to Patric Chocolate. In this post, you'll learn all about Alan and the history of Patric Chocolate. In the second post, you will get to join me for a tour of the chocolate factory! You'll see where and how Patric Chocolate is made!
To make the experience a little sweeter, Alan is offering Food Interviews readers a chance to win up to $100 worth of fine chocolate! Every 10th person who places an order on the Patric Chocolate online store using coupon code 3FLMDE will get their entire order for free! That’s 1 in 10 odds of getting free chocolate!
In addition to the chance to win, your code also gets you 10% off of any purchase (including any already reduced items) and two additional complimentary chocolate bars on any purchases over $50.
The fine print: The contest and coupon code is good only through midnight (CST) on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. The “1 in 10” free chocolate prize applies only up to the first $100 of any order. You’ll be asked to pay at the time of purchase. However, on Thursday, Nov. 13, I’ll announce who the winners are and if you win, up to $100 will be refunded to you.
How did you start Patric Chocolate?
One thing that has always been a constant in my life is that I’ve always liked food. I wouldn’t say that all the time that it was gourmet food or fine food or even decent food necessarily, but I enjoyed the process of eating. As I got older and started learning more and having food from different countries, I started to appreciate diversity in food and then I’d start cooking more and more. I kind of thought about being a chef, but that falls into one of those things that I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do that.”
I lived in France for a year and I tracked down some really good chocolate while I was there. I actively tracked it down because I knew I wouldn’t be there forever. I got back here and I couldn’t find it and so I said, “Maybe I can make it. I can cook. I can bake bread or whatever. How hard can it be to make chocolate?” Little did I know. But when I first started, I didn’t know that. I just bought some small table-top machinery , which seemed expensive at the time, but in reality, it was nothing compared to the cost of my current machinery, and I just started experimenting. As I did that, I first got my taste of the bottomless void of potential chocolate knowledge.
I’m sure people in other fields say the same thing about what it is that they enjoy doing. But I don’t know. I’ve just never come across anything like this before where just no matter what aspect of the process you look at, it just seems infinitely complicated.
How much time went by between when you got interested in chocolate and when you sold your first bar?
I got interested in chocolate in 2004. In 2005, I first experimented with Mexican chocolate. I got some cacao beans online and I roasted them in a skillet and then winnowed them by hand one by one - I got blisters on my thumbs and fingers. Then I transferred that to a food processor. That was my first experience making chocolate. I used it in mole.
That was my goal, traditional mole. Toast the seeds and the spices and the chilies and grind them as I did. It was great.
Then after that, that’s when I really started entertaining the idea of fine chocolate, bar chocolate, and that was still in 2005. In early 2006 was really when I first was able to make something that was on its way to being fine chocolate. 2006 was also when I started the company on paper. So there were four months after I had first made something that I considered to be on its way to being fine chocolate where I was like, “Should I do this? Should I not do this? Do I know anything? Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.”
This is when I got a hold of Steve De Vries (from De Vries Chocolate), who was already doing things and I told him , “I want to try your chocolate.” He wasn’t really selling it yet, and he told me, “Well, yeah, I only sell it here.” I said, “Oh, tell me where, I’ll have my dad pick it up. He lives in Denver.” Then he just said, “Oh, I’ll just send you some.” Additionally, Steve asked me what I had read so far I was like, “I don’t know. Chocolate Alchemy, and a couple of industry manuals.” So, he said “Okay, write these down.” So, I wrote down five books that he recommended. They are all old books from the early 1900’s, late 1800’s. But, I tracked them down on a used book website.
Anyway, so I bought those books a couple of days after that--got them and read them a couple of times and then I called him back. It was in a space of three weeks or so. I told him, “So, I got the books and I read the books.”
He could hardly believe it. He said, “I’ve recommended those books to a lot of people and no one’s ever read them.” So I asked him, “What else you got? I found this too, and this too.” “Those are good,” he said.
So, I just kept reading and then the summer of that year, 2006, I went to Mexico. I just felt, “I need to go somewhere and see cacao being grown and talk to farmers and see it fermented and see it dried.” If you’re going to be a chocolate maker or you think you might want to be, I feel you’ve just got to do that. It’s got to be an experience that you have. There’s so much that’s hard to understand without having that experience.
That was in the summer. About a year later, in 2007, I finally sold my first bar.
What’s your goal for the future of the company?
I don’t know. I’m just playing it by ear. I’m just trying to stay connected to every part of the company and try to really feel, “Am I going in the right direction? Do I need to slow down?” Because above all is the issue of quality, and if you feel like there’s risk of it deteriorating, then there’s a problem. So then it’s like, “Okay, can I keep this quality and change a few things and then do what I was thinking about doing? Is that possible or not?” I haven’t even come to that point. I feel like that question is way down the line for me.
Do you believe that it’s better to be smaller?
I made one metric ton of chocolate last year. Even the bigger guys, like Amano (and when I say bigger, I mean bigger than me, but still small), I don’t know what they made, but we’re talking two metric tons, maybe five metric tons, maybe more, but not 4,000 metric tons like some companies that are considered moderately sized
I just feel like there’s room for different companies to be doing different things and we should just be clear about what it is we’re doing so that people can know and see what’s going on. So, that kind of bugs me. I don’t expect every company to be so transparent that they tell you everything. It’s not going to happen, and I certainly won’t tell you everything either. It just feels like we need to be more open and honest with people as companies and with each other as companies as well.
I believe that there’s a limited amount of excellent quality cacao in the world. It’s limited and you can not make 4,000 metric tons of chocolate and have it all be of excellent quality - even if you have the expertise. When a certain Bay-area-based chocolate company first started up, their chocolate, from many reports, was excellent. Over time, though, some people thought that it decreased in quality . The reason is, their capacity increased over time. It wasn’t that they forgot how to make good chocolate or they didn’t care anymore, it’s simply that there’s a limited supply of what I would say is fine cacao. They needed to start bringing in other stuff that kind of bulked up the chocolate that they were making and it wasn’t necessarily as flavorful. That’s what happens.
As people have more interest in quality cacao, do you think there will be more grown?
I hope so. It’s possible. That’s tied into something else that I’m always telling people, which is everyone is very concerned about fair trade, and I understand why. The reasons why people are concerned about fair trade are good reasons to be concerned, but when you start talking about fine chocolate, to give you an idea, I paid more than twice fair trade price for my cacao - more than twice! That is often the case. Why? Because when we’re selling products for six, seven, eight, ten dollars a bar, we can pay more for excellent quality cacao, it drives the price up because there’s only a limited amount. It’s just supply and demand right there.
The fact that this is twice fair trade price tells you something about where the demand is going. But, what’s not happening is that people aren’t growing more excellent quality cacao quickly enough to keep the price stable. They could be, but they’re not.
One of the things that I think is negative about fair trade is the fact that it gives people a feeling like that’s the best thing that could be done for farmers, when in reality if we wanted farmers to make even more money, we would say, “Grow better cacao.” Think about it in terms of some other crop. Are you going to tell a farmer growing bad apples that the best way to make more money is to become fair trade farmers, or are you going to say, "Grow better apples and you’ll make more money?" So again, I don’t want to attack fair trade. I think that they have a role to play; I think that in some cases, especially like the Ivory Coast where there’s been child slavery, it’s especially important. But I think in most cases, consumers who care about chocolate need to start buying better chocolate.
Buy chocolate that tastes better. If you buy chocolate that tastes better, it’s from better cacao. That cacao is bought for a higher price; the farmers are making more money. There are very few cases where that does not work out exactly like that. But there are cases where fair trade prices are paid and farmers don’t make anything more than commodity cacao prices.
What about organic?
This cacao right there is organic, by the way. That’s the thing, it doesn’t say that on my box and that’s a whole other issue. I have some retailers in other countries now who are wanting to carry my chocolate. Well as soon as I put organic on the box, I get into a whole other tangled mess because organic rules and regulations in the EU, for example, are not the same as they are in the States.
I’ve looked into it - I’ve spent a lot of time, and it’s not worth it right now because most people buying this chocolate are going to be fine with it not saying organic on the front, even though the cacao is organic. I feel like people should know that it just doesn’t make sense. It would be expensive for me with little return.
That’s one of the frustrating things (not to go on a rant here) about being a small company. Large companies can blow through that stuff. They have a team of lawyers and they have all the money possible to make that happen. Small companies don’t. It actually is kind of a burden, these new rules and regulations, though again I understand why they exist. But, they are kind of a burden on small companies just for doing what they would like to do. I don’t have sleepless nights about it.
Are you able to learn from other chocolate companies, or it a very competitive industry?
It’s a little bit of a mix. At the end of June in New York, there’s a Fancy Food Show. I wasn’t going to go because I had something scheduled in St. Louis at the Kitchen Conservatory and they called me the day before and said they only had five people signed up and they were canceling it. For a moment I was like, “Oh man,” then I thought, “Wait a minute. Fancy Food Show!” So I got a ticket with my frequent flyer miles, went up there, stayed with a friend, and I was glad that I did that because Steve De Vries was up there, Art was there, Shawn Askinosie, the guys from Taza, even the TCHO people. Everyone was there. I was like, “Okay. Perfect opportunity for us to finally meet face to face and be nice to each other and we don’t have to be dicks to each other. We can be cool and helpful.” That’s what happened, thankfully.
It was the start of a small artisan, chocolate organization in the United States. It’s something we’ve talked about and we’ve been emailing each other back and forth. I think there’s still a feeling of competitiveness. Though from the beginning I’ve said, "There are seven of us. Seriously, we’re not competitors with each other, there’s seven. There are 50 states, 270 million Americans or something like that, we aren’t competitors."
Let's get back to Patric Chocolate. Am I correct that the only people working with you are your wife and a part-time employee?
Yeah. I just hired a part-time employee and my wife is only here for the summer because she’s not teaching over the summer. She’ll go back to teaching. She has a PhD.
Does your wife like being here making chocolate?
Yes, but I can’t afford to pay her at this point. She’s making money out there, whereas if she’s in here, she’s not making that money, plus I have to pay more for our bills at home. So it’s still not quite working out. She would like to be here all the time and I would like her to be.
What parts of the business do you feel comfortable having other people do? You seem like you want to have your hand in all of it.
The things that I have other people do right now are sweeping, mopping, dishes, cacao cleaning, the winnowing process. That’s what other people are doing right now. I would feel comfortable with other people doing accounting or sending out literature and samples and getting orders together and stuff like that. In fact, my wife does some of that, but I just don’t have an employee to do it yet.
But, I’ll need to hire another part time person before the summer is over, though I’m not quite sure what they are going to be doing yet. Usually the people who want to do manual labor, they don’t want to do accounting also, and vice versa.
I would love to find someone who knew how to and was willing to do accounting and also pack up orders and also do dishes, but I don’t know if it will happen.
Roasting would be one of those things that I wouldn't feel comfortable having someone else do. You can’t have someone just go roast the cacao, it just doesn’t work. The same applies to understanding the tempering process. You can’t train someone to do that easily. You have to understand it yourself. I might be able to get the proper machine set up and going and tell someone, “Stick these molds under there and then put them on the tray,” that might be possible. But, I would still have to have a pretty large role to play in this process. Even wrapping the bars, I still do 95% of that myself.
It would be great to have someone who is as excited about chocolate making as I was and wanted to learn what I’ve learned and the things I’m still trying to learn. That would almost be like an apprentice type situation. I’ve never even had anyone come to me about that, so I’ve never even thought about it.
What is your favorite part of chocolate making?
I’m still learning every day. Every day I read something - I go back to some book or some paper or I sit there and I think of something and often I go home from work and I can’t focus on anything else because there’s some problem I encountered and I just can’t get off of it until I think I’ve figured it out.
I guess you could say I’m obsessive. It’s probably true. I think there’s so much about chocolate that no one knows right now. Aside from the fact that I love chocolate, that’s what really drew me in to wanting to make chocolate, because every time I sat down to deal with it or think about it, I learned ten more things and it’s still like that today. There’s so much to be learned still. How can you go wrong with something like that? I can imagine a job where you learn everything there is to learn about that job - you get so bored you want to hang yourself. This job is never like that and I can’t imagine it ever will be.
Were you obsessed with something before chocolate?
No, in fact, that was my problem. Before chocolate, I had no obsession. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had a religious studies degree and I didn’t really want to do anything with that. Prior to that, I was never quite sure I even wanted a religious studies degree. That is really the story of my life, that I was just always unsure. There are those kids that want to be a doctor and they go to school to become a doctor and then they’re a doctor. That was not me. I wasn’t a six year old saying I wanted to be a chocolate maker when I grew up. Absolutely not. But now that I’m here, I really love it.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Right-click to download this podcast.
In this interview, Wade Groetsch shares the "juicy" details of running Noble Juice. OK, it's not all that juicy, but he answered a few questions that I have always wondered about - like what makes one 100% orange juice different from another, and what happens to the pulp that isn't used in pulp-free juice.
The best part about Noble Juice (aside from how tasty their juices are) is that their bottles and label are 100% compostable. They are the first juice company to be able to say that. In the interview, you'll hear all about how Wade is a huge recycling advocate.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Marisa McClellan writes Apartment 2024, does a food podcast called Fork You, and is the lead blogger at Slashfood. As if that wasn't enough, she also holds a full-time job. In this interview, she shares her path to becoming a prominent food blogger. I'd be curious to hear how other Food Bloggers out there relate to her story. As I talked with her, in some ways, I felt like I could have been talking with myself.
How did you get into blogging?
I got into blogging about a little over three years ago, in late Winter 2005. I had been reading blogs for about a year before I started one, and I was desperately unhappy in my job. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and almost the kind of person I wanted to be.
I decided that I would create a blog and write my way to figuring out what it was I wanted to do. In the process of writing the blog, I realized that what I wanted to do was write. It’s been a pretty big life-changing experience for me.
What kind of work were you doing before then?
I was working as an Administrative Assistant. My titles were things like Staff Assistant or Program Coordinator. One job was at a non-profit and then I had two different jobs at universities here in Philadelphia where I was doing support work and hated it.
It sounds like your blog was almost like a journal at first.
Basically, yeah. I moved to Philadelphia six months after graduating from college because I had this feeling like I should move. Both of my parents are originally from Philadelphia and so I have a ton of family and family history here. There I was in my early twenties when my mom had been in Philadelphia in her early twenties and my grandmother had been in Philadelphia in her early twenties and my great grandmother and even my great-great-grandmother, so this feeling of being connected to these generations of women was also something that I wrote about a lot.
Did you have a lot of the same experiences that they had?
I don’t know if "same" is the right word, but I feel like there are certain foundational coming-of-age experiences that everyone begins to have as they move along, so I feel like I had similar experiences to my mom in that we were both similar on a very sentimental sense. We were walking the same streets and experiencing the city.
Did you initially have a focus on food on your blog?
Not at all. I liked food, I was interested in food at the beginning, but my personal blog never started out as a food blog. What would happen is that as I moved along, more and more of what I wrote about was food. I became known to friends, people who read my blog, as someone who could be depended on to write interesting things about food or tell fun stories about different food items. I started carving out a niche for myself.
How did you move to writing more than one blog?
Well, the way it grew at first was I became the city captain for the Philadelphia Metblog. I was in charge of Metblogging Philadelphia. Metblogs are a world wide chain of blogs - a blogging network that focuses on different cities. I helped get the Philadelphia one started. It’s sort of fallen apart a little bit since then though.
I found myself writing a lot more about restaurants and food out in the world. Then, my friend Scott and I decided to start making a cooking podcast. That was really how things started to take off in terms of doing things on the Internet related to food.
Scott was the movie blogger for The Unofficial Apple Weblog and so he was already all hooked into WebBlogs, Inc. Last summer, I was towards the end of my grad school experience, and I was desperately needing to be making some money. I was getting a Master’s in writing and what I really wanted to be doing was food writing. He connected me up with the folks at Slashfood and they hired me and I started blogging. That’s how I got into Slashfood.
The thing that I found remarkable about that experience is that it took about two weeks before the rest of the food blogging and food writing world looked at me as a legitimate food writer. It was amazing how little it took for the world to be like, "Oh yeah. Marisa’s a food writer." Whereas, I had been struggling and striving and scheming, trying to figure out how I could convince the world that I was a food writer. It happened in about five minutes all of a sudden, which was a relief and also sort of, "Wait, that’s all it took?" It was an interesting experience.
Photo from Flickr user dragonballyee.
Let’s talk some more about the podcasts.
The initial process to create a pod cast started in February, 2006. It took us about three months to figure out what to call it. You never think about naming as this vital and time-consuming thing, but just figuring out what to call this thing we were creating took us forever. Finally, by sometime in May, 2006, we were like, "Okay, we’re going to call it Fork You."
We initially had thought we were going to call Peaing Soup. It’s the punch line to a joke. You can roast beef, but can you pea soup? Scott thought it was the funniest thing ever to name a podcast after the punch line to a joke. But, I determined that I couldn’t live with Peaing Soup as our name. So, we finally went with Fork You. It was about food in Philadelphia and Philadelphia can have a little bit of an attitude, so that was it.
We filmed the first half of the first episode in that summer - July, 2006. Then, it sat around and we finally finished it and got the first episode up in November, 2006. Then, oddly enough, we kept doing it. We were as surprised as anybody that we kept it going. We kept making episodes and a couple of our friends got involved to run the camera and do sound and sort of be support for it.
We had a thing in Philadelphia last summer called Blog Philadelphia, and that was the first time I ever went to anything where I was meeting people who actually watched it and who enjoyed it and it was sort of shocking. Here was this random little thing we would make in my kitchen or a friend’s kitchen and suddenly I was exposed to a whole world of people who watched it and liked what we were doing. That was really fun; it was sort of validating. This isn’t just some crazy crackpot thing that we were doing. It was actually something that people were finding value in.
We’ve just continued and we’ve tried a bunch of different formats and settled on these two different formats that we do. The two minute Quick Fork and then the standard episodes, that are never longer than ten minutes. They really look at just one or two dishes because you can’t really fit more than that in and get all the information across and keep it interesting. On the Internet, people don’t want to watch more than ten minutes. That’s really pushing it. They like it better if it’s eight.
We’ve learned a lot and we’ve actually made several cooking show podcasts for Slashfood which they paid us for (which was pretty crazy because I can now say that I’ve been paid to make food online video content). It’s turned into something that people really watch. We get about 10,000 views an episode now, which isn’t huge but it’s certainly respectable in that little wacky online world.
In the process of making Fork You and being friends and all that, Scott and I actually got together. We are living together now - that was an unexpected bonus. It’s been a really fun experience. I keep talking about wanting to do a Fork You cookbook because we’re coming up on 50 episodes now. I’ve made a lot of food for this show in the course of the last almost two years now and I think it would be really fun to pull all that together and add Scott’s humor and my recipes. But, that’s just a dream right now.
Photo from Flickr user Blankbaby.
How long does it take you to produce a ten minute episode?
Well, it takes me brainstorming to come up with what we’re going to cook and then having to do all the shopping and the prep. That can take anywhere from two hours to five depending on what I’ve signed us up for that day. Then, we film the episode, which again varies depending what we cook. One time we made corned beef and cabbage, where there’s not a lot of active preparation, but we had to hang around for four hours as the damn thing cooked. Then, it takes Scott between two and four hours to edit. So, a ten minute episode of Fork You can take eight to ten hours, which might sound like a crazy amount of time - but we do enjoy it, so it’s not that terrible.
We also do a monthly live episode at Foster’s Homeware,a local cooking supply store. Those episodes typically take me three hours to get ready for and we film for an hour. We do the cooking show for an hour and there’s a lot of footage there, so Scott ends up spending about five hours editing it down. It’s a time commitment, but it’s also fun and interesting and has given me a really good opportunity to feel comfortable in front of cameras, in front of groups, and develop this very random skill which is cooking in front of people.
How has the live experience been for you?
It was hard at first, but it’s also been really fun. It’s exhausting. You never realize how exhausting it is to be on constantly for an hour until you do it regularly because you’re like, "Oh you know, it’s just talking. I’m just cooking." But, I actually did my very first solo cooking demonstration recently and I realized how much easier it is to do it with Scott and have someone else who I can hand the conversation to at times so that I can focus on something else. It’s really fun, though. I’ve always been someone who’s been comfortable talking in front of groups, so it hasn’t been one of those things where I’m facing fears or dealing with my demons. It’s given me newfound respect for people who do live television and who do stand-up comedy.
Have you always cooked?
I have always been interested in food. My mom hated cooking with kids. So, when I was growing up, I would beg to be around to help in the kitchen and it just wasn’t her thing. She was busy. She just wanted to be able to get dinner done and move on. So, I didn’t, as a kid, get much opportunity to cook, except when I was staying home sick from school or something. I would always grab those opportunities to experiment making things like hash browns or whatever I could find. I didn’t really start developing any skills as a cook until I moved to Philadelphia and was living on my own and really was forced to make food for myself.
I spent a lot of years looking for a creative outlet. When I found food and I found that I was good at it and it satisfied that need to be creative, I grabbed onto it and really have, ever since then.
When you were hired on at Slashfood, were you initially the lead blogger or did you get a promotion at some point?
When I was first hired at Slashfood, I was just a plain old blogger. I got promoted to be the lead blogger last November. Sarah Gim was the lead blogger and she just didn’t have the time to do it anymore so they asked me to move into the role.
What is your job as lead blogger?
My job is to coordinate the work of the team - make sure that different columns are being maintained, that everybody gets paid the right amount, that we develop new and interesting content, that the team list gets seeded with new ideas. I do a monthly, end-of-month report so the other lead bloggers and the higher-ups know what’s been happening on Slashfood. I recruit the new writers. Basically, in a lot of senses I’m responsible for the feel and direction that the site takes.
How many people are on your team now?
There’s something like 19 or 20 people on the list on the site at the moment. But a couple people have left recently and there are some people on the team list who don’t really blog regularly, so I would say we have about ten active people. I’m waiting for three more people to join the team. We’re going through the contract process right now, which as you know can take forever.
When I first started the site, we had maybe three or four active people and it was really tough because it meant that I wrote a lot of the site. Right now, I’m writing more of the site because a lot of people have vacation or they just have other commitments and that happens. But, what I really try to do is make it so that mine isn’t the dominant voice on the blog, because that gets boring for our readers. The whole point of having a group to write is to get different perspectives, different feels, and different voices talking about food on the site.
We’re actually bringing on someone to write about beer and another who is going to be a hot sauce blogger, so he’s going to write primarily about hot sauce - which is going to be the coolest thing ever. Someone else will be writing about southern cuisines and I’ve been talking to someone to come on who will write about wine. We’re kind of going in a direction that will have more people who write less but are specialists in their fields and that way, we become even more of an authority site than we are.
How do you see Slashfood fitting into the giant world of food blogs? What role does it play?
I struggle with that sometimes because I feel like Slashfood is more of a blog in the traditional sense where places like The Kitchn or Serious Eats have become food channels. I look at what other people are doing and I start to beat myself up about it. "Oh my gosh. All these other people are doing these amazing things to their sites and we’re just still chugging along at the blog." I never know what our traffic is like in comparison with other sites, so I really don’t have any idea of how we’re doing in comparison to everybody else.
I really try to frame Slashfood in my head as a site that is trying to cover the food world, cooking and eating, and food shopping in sort of a generalist manner (even though we’re bringing in all these specialists). I see Slashfood as hitting the high points - being a site that gathers the best food from all over the Internet, all over the world, and bringing it together. I don’t know if we’re actually achieving that.
I wish we had more recipes and sort of home cooking and real cooking contests because that’s actually my first love. But, sadly, the amount we pay makes it really hard to produce that kind of content because it takes time to test a recipe or create a recipe and it’s hard to get that on a daily basis. I guess I just look at it as we’re all just doing the best we can. We were one of the original food blogs out there, so we have that to hold on to and we just keep doing our best.
How much say do you get in the direction of the blog?
I used to get more say, but we integrated with AOL Food about five months ago and it’s not that they have more say over the blogs, but there are more people to take into consideration when making decisions having to do with the blog. I can’t necessarily implement some of my wild ideas, but I’m okay with that. Mostly, because, this will sound terrible, I don’t really have time to do a lot of the really crazy and creepy stuff I’d love to be doing, mostly because in addition to being the lead on Slashfood, I have a full-time job. I don’t mind the fact that we can’t get wild and crazy, because if I said I wanted to get wild and crazy then I’d actually have to do it. With Fork You and my job and my boyfriend and friends and still trying to cook on my own and all that stuff, I’m sort of maxed out.
How much time do you spend on Slashfood in a week?
I spend as much time on Slashfood than I do on my regular job. I would say that I probably spend, between writing posts, doing reports, talking to bloggers, recruiting bloggers, communicating with the folks at AOL Food and the rest of the WebBlogs, Inc. folks, 35 hours a week if not more on Slashfood. It really could be a full-time job.
I have another job because they don’t pay enough at Slashfood for it to be a full-time job.
That’s a shame.
It’s very sad, but it is the way it is and I’m still happy to be involved in it. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish that this is what I do full-time.
What do you do full-time?
I work as a web producer for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing. I work on the site called Gophila.com, which is the official tourism website for the city. I write itineraries and I produce web content. Basically, I do the same stuff at my regular job that I do for Slashfood - only I’m more passionate about Slashfood.
I love Philadelphia, but I’m not in charge of anything there. With Slashfood, even though there are lots of people that work on it, in one sense, it really feels like mine. I have a great deal of ownership and so I have more passion for Slashfood than I do about my regular job, which my bosses probably shouldn’t know.
Do you not want me to print this stuff?
They’re not going to read it. It’ll be fine.
What kind of changes have you seen on Slashfood since AOL took it over? What do you think about the direction they’re giving it?
I think it’s really positive, actually. I know I said that I have to take more people into consideration, but I actually think, in the long run, taking more people into consideration makes a better website. There are more people looking out for the site trying to make it better. The team over at AOL Food couldn’t be more welcoming and warm and passionate about food, too. So, they’re fantastic.
Also, it gets us more content because they share their content with us and they get more traffic for us which is always good because more traffic means more revenue and means that Slashfood has that much more importance to the whole Weblogs network. Traffic is king when you’re working for a site that is owned by a large corporation that makes money from advertising.
Kat Kinsman is the editor over there and she’s terrific. I met her when I went up to New York for the Fancy Food Show and it was so nice to finally meet someone who I had talked on the phone with, emailed with and had worked with. She really gets it. She really cares about the site and she really cares about food. Smoking meats is one of her passions in life. When someone is so passionate about a little particular area of food, it’s impossible not to like them and understand that they’re only going to do what’s in the best interest of the site.
What’s your dream job? Where do you see all of this going?
If I could create a job for myself, here’s what it would be: I would have my own food site or I would have a site that I helped run where I had a little bit more freedom and I could do it full-time. I really would like to stay in this food blog, food writing world. I would be making some money off of Fork You and doing that full-time and writing some cookbooks and spending most of my time amidst the food content world, basically.
Basically what you’re doing now except making money?
Exactly, and not having to work the other job to have health insurance.
Does Scott also have a full-time job and work for Weblogs, Inc.?
He does. Scott left The Unofficial Apple Weblog in July and is now freelancing for Macuser and Macworld).
Do you guys ever leave your house?
When we have downtime, we don’t do much else but just sit and veg out. Most evenings, you’ll find us sitting on the couch together, both glued to our laptops. He’s working on his projects and I’m working on Slashfood. We’re watching TV as well, so we’re inundated with media. That’s how we spend our downtime, which is kind of sad.
The one thing I want to add about my ideal job is that it wouldn’t absorb my entire life. I feel like right now, with everything I do, I don’t have much in the way of downtime or true relaxation time. I do miss that. But, I feel like I’m in sort of a time where I’m building what I want and so it takes a little bit more time, a little bit more energy, and a little bit more work to get there. But, eventually, I’ll be there.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
It’s going to sound really silly. I would love to talk with Deb of Smitten Kitchen someday. I have a bit of a blog crush on her site. I’ve never communicated with her. I’ve posted about her stuff. I even know people that know her but I’ve always been afraid it’d be too weird if I got in touch with her and been like, "I really like your blog."
Then I actually just started reading Real Food by Nina Planck. It’s an amazing book and so she’s another one that I would like to sit down with.