Food for thought

And thought for food

I was enjoying my Saturday morning coffee and Sarah Paretsky novel, when my goblin child wandered over and blithely dropped this on my lap:

A very old business card.

This artefact (the card, not the book) is from when I used to run a food blog called The Carnivore Project. I used to leave them at restaurants after dining there. These cards are moo.com originals; seriously, you might be looking at one of the very first batches of their ‘mini-cards’ from 2006. I have genuinely not seen one myself in over 15 years. The ability of small children to also serve as space-time portals is truly unsettling.

In lovely piece of coincidence, my first ‘food writing’ since then published recently - a feature on ‘East London BBQ’ in The Bullsheet, the brilliantly-named magazine of the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Best byline ever, honestly.

Bookended by two decades of food-related rambling, I got to thinking about how much time I have spent, across my life, thinking about food. Without further ado, some food-thinking milestones in my life:

thinking about how i write about food

London is absolutely a culinary capital of the world… now. When I moved here in the early 2000s, it had improved from its legendarily dire past, but was still on a journey. As a Kansas Citian, what I missed most was good meat. There was no BBQ to speak of, and even the ‘basics’ like burgers and steaks were, in my eyes, sadly lackly. Thus was born ‘The Carnivore Project’, a platform for regular hectoring of London’s sadly un-sanguine culinary scene. TCP was one of the ‘OG’ food blogs. I moved it to Typepad in 2006, and still have the archive, but its prior existence on Blogger and other dubious free platforms is, sadly, lost in the sands of internet whimsy.

TCP was a terrific experience for me, personally and professionally. It taught me how to write for an audience and on a deadline. I learned how to engage with media; I learned the basics of promotion and networking. I learned ‘what worked’ in the early social media landscape. I was already working in advertising at the time, but there’s a difference between copy-checking layouts for banks (job) and writing my own press releases for ESPN (blog).

The Carnivore Project peaked around 2007. Articles like “Republicans hate cheese” and “Falafel is murder” jostled with a mix of reviews ranging from bone marrow at St John to hot dogs at the Brixton Academy. We ran an international ‘meat bracket’, where tens of thousands of people voted in a sequence of head-to-head battles between meats, with new (and increasingly vicious) content published in each round. Bacon won.

The Carnivore Project got a shout-out on ESPN’s Page 2 - speaking of great, defunct blogs, an interview on the BBC, and fairly-regular mentions in the Metro. Anne started writing for it regularly when she moved to the UK, and added a new, much-needed perspective to the mix. We never monetised it - and we never once leveraged it to weasel a free meal. We were lousy at being influencers. Abel & Cole did once send us a box of posh mustard though, and that was awesome. Buy Abel & Cole!

In 2008, we realised we wanted to write more about books, and pushed the Pornokitsch boat out into the water. It didn’t take long before that had the monopoly on our time. By 2010, The Carnivore Project limped to an close, but it had been dragging its feet (claws) for a while.

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thinking about how to get other people to eat food

Back in the day, I did a bit of work on specific food brands, including a major fast food chain. Later, my work was more on ‘categories’ - e.g. instead of selling Big Bob’s TaterTreats™, I was part of a team trying to get audiences to consume more potatoes. Prior to that, I did some work for one of those huge global mega-corps that owns half the products you see in a grocery story. Because they owned all the products, they wanted people to use them - any of them.

Category marketing is a planners’ dream. Conversely, my creative director hated category marketing and preferred brand marketing. With categories, you’re trying to create behaviour change. You want people to start eating mushrooms, it doesn’t matter which type. (That’s probably not the best example.) With brands, you’re using communications to create an imaginary distinction between two functionally identical products. Categories are a strategic challenge; brands are a creative one.

I still maintain some of the best strategic work I ever did was for a type of apple. Sadly, we didn’t have the budget to submit to Cannes. But category marketing taught me a lot about food consumption behaviour: how people plan (or don’t) their meals, how they shop, how they eat, even how they store or waste their food. It is more than a little sinister to think about, but there are entire teams of specialists out there with insights into every aspect of your eating behaviour.

thinking about how i eat (too much) food

You know how, growing up, adults are like ‘eat that pile of cheesburgers while you can, because eventually you won’t have the metabolism of a velociraptor’? THEY WERE RIGHT. I’ve gone on and off Weight Watchers several times to help offset my not-so-gluttonous lifestyle.

WW is a masterpiece of behaviour change. The gamified ‘system’, online/offline support network and ecosystem of habit-changing support is brilliant. It changed my eating habits, including how I planned and ate my meals. Even my exercise and water-drinking habits improved as a result.

Possibly too brilliant, as WW constantly changes its own product, to make sure that you don’t ever leave it. WW shifts the ‘rules’ of the game frequently, meaning that as soon as you develop and sustain a set of healthy habits (good), you have to toss those out the window and learn new ones (bad). It is immensely frustrating, but a fascinating question in its own right. What happens to a behaviour change brand when the consumer has actually changed their behaviour? In this case, keep changing the rules in a bid to keep that change from ever truly embedding.

(Worth reading Claire North’s excellent Sweet Harmony - a cyberpunk novella about subscription-based self-improvement, and what happens when the money stops.)

thinking about how my kid eats food

Being responsible for someone else’s eating is a surprisingly massive psychological burden, and one of the many joys of parenting that took me by surprise. All of a sudden, my food wasn’t just ‘my’ food. Someone else was relying on my meal planning: every calorie that kid eats is something that I coax into them. Vegetables are back on the menu, boys!

Then the little monster develops their own opinion, and you have to find ways to hide said vegetables inside of a chip wrap, or use my god-given powers of persuasion to wheedle something into their maw that isn’t just a banana (HOW MANY BANANAS CAN ONE CHILD EAT?!). There’s also the everything else around food. Instilling table manners means role-modelling them (shockingly exhausting!); trying to create a culture of family meals means… eating together as a family (also surprisingly difficult).

Recently, I have been kidsplained on how to make a ‘chip wrap’, and can now make one of double-thumbs-up quality. Achievement unlocked.

thinking about how i make food

Once of the strangest developments of my adult life is discovering that I not only like eating food (and I really like eating food - see above), but also cooking it. I’ve written about this before, but I still find it strangely befuddling, and therefore way overthink it. At some point in my life, cooking became a joy and not a chore. I’m always trying to puzzle out the when, why and how of it.

By the time the pandemic came around, I had well-established in my mind that cooking was A Thing That I Liked To Do, and I spent the year of lock-down/s slow-roasting my anxieties in a series of increasingly elaborate concoctions. Who knew chopping peppers really tiny could be such a boon for your mental health?

There’s a lot to unpick there, and - apologies in advance - some of that might happen in this space.

what i’m reading (offline)

The Spare Room by Laura Starkey: There’s a post-Bridget Jones school of entirely-British romance books. In US romances, the FMC (female main character for those that aren’t in the know) is competent and brilliant and sexy but occasionally drops things. In UK romances, the FMC is barely-functioning alcoholic with a loathsome family, a dead-end job, and some sort of pathological need to self-sabotage. Generally, I find the latter to be a little disappointing as romances, but much better as ‘voyages of self-discovery’ as the protagonist ultimately finds some way to function as a member of society. Mostly. Anyway, The Spare Room splits the difference. She’s a disaster, but not a self-sabotaging one: she’s just a nice person surrounded by really shitty people. The romance is, in a way, the least interesting part. He’s a random hot quiet guy who occasionally stands up for her, but, given how no one else ever has, that’s more than enough to qualify him as her one true love. The decision to buck the trope and not provide parallel views further reinforces that The Spare Room is really not, in any way, about him. He’s the - somewhat enigmatic - vehicle and/or reward for her long-overdue self-fulfilment. Gentler than most of its British ilk, less … well… romantic than its American cousins, I’m not sure this set my world on fire, but was an interesting read in a ‘fills out an empty spot on the genre’ spectrum.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik: After reading the first book in the series, A Deadly Education, I put a deliberate hold on reading the next two in Novik’s ‘Schoolomance’ series. I wanted to savour! This delayed gratification went slightly overboard, and they’ve just been gathering dust on my shelves. I finally cracked open The Last Graduate as part of an informal buddy read with a friend at work, which was a blast. The book itself is, of course, amazing: carried almost entirely by the protagonist’s emo/sassy/wry voice. The action and the romance are both filtered through El’s self-deprecating wit, and it makes the book immensely fun. Just waiting for my mate to start The Golden Enclaves… (ahem)

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain: I mean, thinking about thinking of food: Bourdain’s your guy. This collection of essays is loosely connected by the idea of searching for a perfect meal. He occasionally links back to this theme, but even he knows it is absolutely bollocks - perfection is entirely personal and contextual, about the moment of consumption and everything around it (see below). Mostly the book is just like listening to fascinating travel stories from your much-cooler-but-not-a-dick mate. I’ve now read a lot of Bourdain: the essays, the novels, the (not particularly good) comic book. Even an actual cookbook or two! Highly recommended: Appetites. Hell, I’ve read his Wikipedia entry a few times!

Oddly, I’ve never seen Bourdain on TV, and have no desire to - I know that’s ridiculous, and somewhat superstitious, but just knowing him through the remove of the books keeps him, well, out there somewhere. Preserved, eternally, noshing away in a Vietnamese market. The mark of a great memoir-ist (?): when the reader develops superstitions to keep you immortal.

The whole concept of 'the perfect meal' is ludicrous. I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one... Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life.

Anthony Bourdain

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