Category Archives: blogs

Four Ingredients — Pun Intended — Cookstr Needs To Be a Truly Viable Recipe Site

I recently interviewed for a position at the recipe site Cookstr.

And…I made this joke on Facebook at the time, so, friends, bear with me: Like the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s and the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 NLCS, I have a history of choking when it counts…so I spent a fair amount of time reviewing the site beforehand so I’d be as prepared as possible at the moment of truth.

And…I gotta say: I like what I found. I think it’s a really good concept — and I’m not just saying that.

Here’s why:

In this NY Tech Meetup video from CenterNetworks, Founder and CEO Will Schwalbe shares his love of cookbooks and explains that the major online recipe databases, Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com, are focused on Conde Nast and Food Network content, respectively, but chefs and cookbook authors don’t really have a place on the Web where they can share their recipes and drum up interest in their books.

And thus, as Schwalbe tells it in the video, Cookstr was born.

It sort of reminds me of Birchbox, actually. I talked to one of the start-up’s founders for a ClickZ story in January. Basically, for $10 a month, Birchbox members receive high-end samples of hair, makeup and/or skincare products from partners like Benefit, Nars, Cargo and Laura Mercier. Birchbox, in turn, talks up all of the samples it includes in each monthly box…and gives members the opportunity to go back to its Web site to order full-size products. So…the partners give away samples, but, in turn, reach a wider audience and gain yet another online space where they can hawk their wares.

That’s essentially what’s happening with Cookstr, except there’s no monthly fee. Cookstr has partnered with a slew of chefs and cookbook authors, who are featured on the site. These recipe-producers allow a sample of their content to appear on the site…and each recipe is displayed alongside an image of the cookbook it originated from…and, if you click on it, you are given multiple options for purchasing the book from retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

It’s pretty smart for all parties involved, as I’m sure Cookstr has revenue-sharing agreements with each vendor. And the cookbook authors and publishers don’t have much to lose — just a few recipes.

I think Cookstr has really great search options — I especially love the cost feature — and, frankly, I like a lot of the chefs.

But Cookstr is not perfect.

According to Compete.com, Cookstr had slightly more than 57,000 unique visitors in January. That’s versus 1.8 million for Epicurious and 11.3 million for FoodNetwork.com

Granted, Cookstr is still quite young and can’t be expected to compete on a level playing field with two major media companies. (According to Wikipedia [after a very cursory Google search], Food Network had revenue of $1.5 billion in 2008…which is when Cookstr was just a baby.) But I honestly think Cookstr *could* give Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com a run for their money…if it only implemented a few small changes.

I always spend hours prepping for interviews and thinking up answers to potential questions and most of this stuff never sees the light of day…so here is my response to, “How could Cookstr improve and/or better compete with Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com?” if for no other reason than proving how passionate I am about food/words/online content and what a great fit I’d be for this site:

1. More feedback.

One of the things I love about Epicurious (my go-to recipe site) is that I can search for a basic recipe like, “apple pie,” and even though I end up with multiple results, I can quickly scan the ratings — 1 to 4 forks, from worst to best — to see how users grade each recipe, as well as what percentage of users would make the recipe again and what — if any — comments they have. The comments often include valuable information about tinkering with the recipe and/or tips for next time and help me narrow down my options.

If, for example, I was deciding between Rum Raisin Apple Pie and Lattice Apple Pie with Mexican Brown Sugar, I’d see that 95% of users would make the Rum Raisin pie again and that they’ve given it an average rating of 4 forks and that user mandica from Windham, Conn. decided to soak the raisins longer to make them plumper.

I know that the content on Cookstr is supposed to be trusted already…but I also think it’s fair to say that every recipe site — Epicurious included — is bound to have a stinker somewhere. Plus, Rick Bayless may assure me that his Smoky Chipotle Salsa with Pan-Roasted Tomatillos is as simple to make as it is delicious, but what about those of us who haven’t spent decades studying Mexican cuisine? How easy is it for us to produce? That’s where I think user feedback is so valuable. If I’m going to the trouble of actually cooking or baking something, I’d like a reasonable expectation that it will turn out okay. And seeing multiple users say, “Yummy!” Or, “Perfect! Just cut down the salt…” puts my mind at ease.

But, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much commenting on Cookstr recipes. Of the 25 recipes I added to My Cookstr, only four had comments. And just one apiece. I suppose the number of “favorites” each recipe has helps…but not as much as forks or percentages.

I think Cookstr needs to implement some sort of promotion or go on some sort of social media spree — or both — to encourage users to comment on recipes. Maybe they can reward comments with points and a certain number of points yields a discount on a cookbook…or, since the site already has partnerships with publishers (I think), why not give away some cookbooks to the most prolific commenters? Or, at the very least, tempt those commenters with a feature on the Facebook page?

Simply put: If Cookstr wants to be a trusted recipe site, it needs more user-generated feedback.

2. A dinner newsletter.

The Cookstr 10, a list of ten recipes that is sent out each week, seems pretty focused on holidays or major events. And while that is helpful, to a degree, I feel like eventually you’re going to come to a time of year when there aren’t any holidays or events nearby and you’ve already done warm weather or cold weather recipes…so…what then? I guess focusing on one particular cooking technique isn’t a bad alternative…and I’m not arguing that the Cookstr 10 should be done away with completely. I just think Cookstr users could be better served by a newsletter that helps solve the problem of what to make for dinner. (This is actually what the Cookstr 10 focused on last week…I don’t see why they can’t do it every week.)

It’s not an original concept. Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping do it. And there’s good reason. When I look at magazines or cooking websites, I’m often looking for inspiration. I need to go to the grocery store, but I have no idea what to buy. And I don’t think I’m alone.

That dinner void is exactly where Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping step in, and I see no reason why Cookstr can’t do the same. All they need is seven dinner recipes once a week — it could even be a compilation of all the Recipes of the Day that week.

If the majority of people do their grocery shopping on weekends, Cookstr could send out this new newsletter, on, say, Friday. It could still focus on the time of year and what’s in season and what holidays are coming up…but it would be a much more practical way of saying, “Hey — here are our suggestions for this week. Now you don’t have to think about it,” which, I think, in turn, conjures up a sense of trust — but only if the recipes are good — and the consumer begins to rely on it more and more (if the recipes are good). Another win-win.

3. Play to the crowd.

There are certain dishes that only come up once a year…but they are reliable bets annually.

Last week, for example, a friend on Facebook posted a request for king cake recipes.

However, if I search for “king cake” on Cookstr — which I did — I get Kathleen’s Wheat-Free Fudge Brownies, Flaky Scones and Rosemary Foccacia Sheet. None of these recipes are even remotely close to king cake.

Epicurious, on the other hand, has three viable king cake recipes; FoodNetwork.com has nearly ten.

With Easter coming up, I imagine folks will also be looking for hot cross buns. But, sadly, when I look for “hot cross buns” on Cookstr, I get Jamie Oliver‘s Bun and Butter Pudding.

I realize these are two heavily Christian examples and that the world is made up of lots of different faiths and that Cookstr can’t possibly accommodate every single holiday. But…I think they need to do some research to make sure they have their bases covered for the most popular ones.

Sure, king cake and hot cross buns may not come up super-often…but the absence of recipes in cases like this will alienate those who *are* looking for them and send them right into Epicurious and/or FoodNetwork.com’s arms. I, for one, get quickly discouraged if a site offers no options for what I’m looking for…and I move on.

In short, I think that if Cookstr wants to gain and/or retain the trust of consumers who are searching for recipes, it needs to better anticipate what they are searching for — and accommodate them.

4. More tweets.

As of Sunday afternoon, Cookstr‘s last tweet was on March 4. That’s nine days ago. They simply can’t go that long without any updates.

For one, the site features a Chef or Author of the Day every single day. At the very least, that’s prime tweeting material.

The site also features a Recipe of the Day. Why are these recipes not tweeted daily, too?

What’s more, tons of folks are talking about Cookstr recipes on Twitter. Check out these search results. There’s no reason for @Cookstr not to reply to — and follow — these users.

Simply put, the site needs better engagement with this audience. @Epicurious and @FoodNetwork don’t miss a day — neither should @Cookstr.

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Filed under blogs, books, cake, dishes, entrees, Food Network, Uncategorized

Pop-Tarts World Beckons…But Guess Who Still Hasn’t Gotten Frosted.

As thankful as I am to have new freelance gigs, blogging for CafeMom’s The Stir has not left me with a whole lotta energy to write about even *more* food topics here.

Plus, I may or may not be gainfully employed for a bit…making it even less likely that I will have the oomph to write about food (or food-ish topics) when I get home.

Thus, my blog has been neglected. (And after conning my friends into supporting me on Facebook no less. Sheesh.) Now it’s practically September…which means Labor Day and Back to School and Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and I AM ALMOST 30.

So. A lot on my mind…but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking of you, my dear blog/readers…

I read this story about Pop-Tarts World when it was published on August 8 (!) and I thought it would make a great blog post. In a perfect world, I would have visited the Times Square location by now and would have the inside scoop on Pop-Tarts sushi, vending machines that enable you to create your own variety packs and how you can get “frosted.” But, sadly, the best I can do is tell you that it exists. And that I think the idea is pretty great (…and I applaud the Pop-Tarts marketing team…)…even though I’d probably pick Pillsbury Toaster Strudel over Pop-Tarts any day of the week.

Image via oskay/Flickr

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My Top 15 Wacky Cookbooks (With Bonus Optimistic Prologue!)

I love wacky cookbooks. And, strangely, despite the carnage of last week — that left me sans part-time fake-gambling gig *and* full-time job prospects *and* hope — I’m feeling rather optimistic now.

I’ve been kicking around an idea for a children’s book series (literally for years) — and was finally compelled to sketch out one of the stories early this morning when I couldn’t sleep. There’s still much research to be done about pitching kids’ books, etc., etc…and I’ve certainly learned that hard work ain’t always enough to guarantee the results you want and that future endeavors must therefore be taken with a grain o’ salt…but when talking to my mother about how on earth I was going to dust myself off after the latest round of out-and-out failure, she basically said that there *has* to be something else out there for me…I just haven’t found it yet. So…maybe it’s this kids’ book series. And — don’t get me wrong — I’m not giving up on the book-book. I’m just maxed out and need to recharge the ol’ batteries before tackling it again. (The kids’ book is also a chance to test out my drawing skills…which I find pretty exciting…although it may be short-lived when I realize precisely why I didn’t pursue a career as a visual artist in the first place…)

I also recently met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile and we got to talking…and all of a sudden, a brilliant blog idea hit me. No offense to this bad boy, but, for the longest time, I’ve tried to think of one of those clever, niche-y, schtick-y blog ideas that get book deals — like, say, Hungry Girl or Save the Assistants or This is Why You’re Fat — and I think I finally came up with something good last night. I think it’s an untapped, underserved sector of the blogosphere…and I think it targets a potentially sizable market. And if I can make it clever and funny, there’s no reason why I can’t attract a decent following — even one good enough to interest publishers. And once I have a single book under my belt (and am legitimately Author Lisa Lacy), the rest should come easy. I may have to take a Web design class before launching this new blog as I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to look like and I certainly can’t afford to pay someone to design it for me…but, at the same time, mad Web skillz may make me a more competitive candidate for multimedia journalism jobs anyway, so this could really end up as a win-win-win, right?

So…after my grumpy outburst last week, I have a much more optimistic post for you. And back to those wacky cookbooks…

The Huffington Post recently put up a slideshow called “Cookbooks You Didn’t Know Existed.” This totally feeds into my passion for wacky cookbooks and I was thrilled to see it. But, while there are some good ones (and, kudos to you, HuffPo, for imploring readers to upload their favorites, thereby doing your work for you)…I think they missed quite a few “surprising cookbooks.”

There are lots of *good* cookbooks out there — I’m not sure I would have made it this far without the Joy of Cooking, for example. I consult it all the time. And how can you not love Rick Bayless? I’m sure Fiesta at Rick’s is a pure delight. But wacky cookbooks are a different breed — they’re unique and they’re cheap and they’re funny…sometimes purposely so…but not always. I’m not sure which one is better.

So…My List:

1. My all-time favorite wacky cookbook isn’t 100% cookbook. It’s more a weight-loss guide. But I love it. And I imagine I have one of the few remaining copies on earth. It is Joan Cavanaugh’s “More of Jesus, Less of Me.”

I love that the title is literal — it’s quite literally about how to make yourself smaller by channeling your faith and it is dedicated to “all of God’s children who have been called Fatso, Tubby or Two-by-Four.” I found it at my junior class rummage sale in Mississippi…and I also love it because it is a book you’d be hard-pressed to find outside the Bible Belt.

2. The Hooters Cookbook. I found this at a Barnes & Noble once in a discount bin and I did not snap it up and I am still kicking myself. Sure, I probably wouldn’t make any of the chicken wings…but it’s such a conversation piece. And it epitomizes “wacky cookbook.” Stupid, Lisa. Stupid.

3. Naughty Cakes. I *did* buy this book from the discount bin at Barnes & Noble and, boy, am I glad I did. Where else would I learn how to make fondant into gold lamé hot pants on a giant ass? Or into firefighters with hoses in suggestive poses? It’s maybe the best baking book I own. There — I said it.

4. and 5. Saucepans & the Single Girl and The Little Black Apron. Man, there’s a whole industry out there targeting Sad Sallies, isn’t there? And…if I ever want to get married someday, where would I be without “bachelor-bait recipes and dazzling ideas for entertaining” and “a single girl’s guide to cooking with style and grace”?

6. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. The single girl’s two best friends — get it? Because she’s ALONE! She has to eat lots of ICE CREAM! It’s a rom-com staple!

But, in all seriousness, you can’t not like Ben and Jerry. And, while I don’t own this particular cookbook, I bet it’s good for dessert inspiration.

7. Not Afraid of Flavor. This is a legit cookbook — my roommate had it — but the name makes me laugh. So formidable!

8. A Man, A Can, A Plan. Perhaps this helps balance out all the Sad Sally books out there — something for the hopeless man! The boy in Alaska I was in love with — who petitioned Fruit of the Loom to make Underoos for adults — had this book.

9. 101 Things to do with a Dutch Oven. I don’t own this book either, but I love spins on the 101-things-thing and Top Ten lists (as noted) and things of that nature. And if the sample recipe for the “Mountain Man Breakfast” is any indication of what the other 100 names are like, this book definitely gets my seal of approval.

10. Skinny Italian. I have never seen the Real Housewives of Anywhere — but stumbling upon this book changed all that. Netflix has already sent me Disc One of the New Jersey series. And even though it sounds like Teresa is going to lose her magnificent home and has lived beyond her means to an extent even I find astonishing (…because I’m bad with money — get it?), the Amazon reviews were pretty positive about this book. Perhaps I will fall in love with the show and decide I can’t live without this book…and that will be my little contribution to helping the Giudices achieve financial solvency.

11. Dip into Something Different. Who doesn’t like fondue — *especially* when the Melting Pot says that it is “from our pot to yours”?

12. I Like You. I like Amy Sedaris. I like that she shows up on the Late Show in poofy dresses she finds at flea markets and that she has a made-up longshoreman boyfriend named Ricky and that she’s obsessed with rabbits. I admittedly have not given this book the attention it’s due — although remember a friend saying how funny she thought it was that Ms. Sedaris suggested you put marbles in your medicine cabinet before you throw a party so you know without a shadow of a doubt if anyone goes snooping in your bathroom — but I’m happy it’s part of my collection.

13. Forking Fantastic! I can’t decide if I like-like this book for real or if I like it because it’s ridiculous. It’s a bold claim to “put the PARTY back in DINNER PARTY,” but I admit I’m intrigued to see how these ladies do it. Reviews sound good, too.

14. The Book of Spam. At $3.99, there’s no reason each and every last one of us should not have this book. After all, it is “a most glorious and definitive compendium of the world’s favorite canned meat.”

15. Being Dead is No Excuse. We’ve sort of come full circle here — as this, too, is not *exactly* a cookbook, but rather a “guide to hosting the perfect funeral.” It seems like these ladies have a good sense of humor…and if I myself was financially solvent (it’s not just you, Teresa!) and could afford to buy all the wacky food-related books my heart desires, this one would be on the list, too.

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Filed under Alaska, blogs, books, Brooklyn, entrees, ice cream, Mississippi, parties

My Journalism Career, Which Never Properly Got Off the Ground and Could Not Provide Health Insurance, Dies at 8

I am feeling particularly dramatic. So it’s time for an obit:

I’ve never been in a situation like this before — I’ve never encountered a problem I could not tackle with enough elbow grease. No matter what challenge I’ve faced — be it AP Calculus or playing high school basketball or moving to another country by myself — I’ve always been able to grit my teeth and emerge successful from sheer determination to not fall on my face. (Granted, “success” is a relative term. Take basketball, for example. But, even then, I think I humiliated myself substantially less my sophomore year — even actually scoring once and knocking down nine rebounds in a single game…even if it was against the Mississippi School for the Deaf…)

But getting a job after J-school (…and internships at Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living and sort of the Huffington Post…) has been nothing like that. I have failed. Repeatedly. And it continues to this day with no end in sight.

And, sure, I’ve been the recipient of plenty of concerned, “Don’t give up!”-emails from friends and family who have listened to my belly-aching for 26 months…but, at a certain point, the issue of putting one out of one’s misery must be raised, no?

I mean, sure, it’s an inspirational story to hear of the one-armed girl who dreams of knitting sweaters…and, heck, if that’s what she wants to do, she should go for it. But, at a certain point, if she can’t knit sweaters, is it really civil/kosher/advisable to let her go on struggling indefinitely? And at some point maybe we need to accept that it’s best she put down her knitting needles because it simply isn’t her lot in life to knit.

As callous as this analogy may seem, I made a list of my own one-armed endeavors. And I determined that at least 90 publications have said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to me since May 2008.

To put that into perspective, that’s rejection an average of 3.5 times per month — or basically once a week — for over two years. And my poor little ego can’t take it anymore.

But…what now? Is writing/reporting in fact my sweater-knitting? (And because I’m feeling particularly sorry for myself after another stupid rejection, I can envision editors from Christmas Past unanimously exclaiming, “Yes!”)

So…where does that leave me?

Teach for America? I like kids, but…doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of room at the inn these days.

Mail order bride? I’ve been reading Stieg Larsson novels lately, but perhaps it’s worth the risk?

The military?

Fast food?

Retail management, like Frank on the Bachelorette who is about to announce he cheated and make Ali sad in paradise and drive her even further into Roberto or Chris L.’s arms?

Moving in to my parents’ casita and waiting for my maker to call me home? (Which maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing, right, Gothamist?)

I don’t have an answer. But I’ll say this: Unlike Herb on the Next Food Network Star who battled his demons and was able to tell the judges two episodes ago that he thinks he is successful, I feel like a huge failure. And I’m going to be 30. And what do I have to show for it? Two degrees and a whole lotta debt? And a list of 90 publications that don’t want to hire me?

The list is by no means comprehensive — my computer crashed last year and I could have very well lost a number of Word documents. I’ve also applied for positions at some publications numerous times. But…I think it illustrates fairly well the effort I have put into acquiring gainful employment…and the inevitable letdown that has resulted after being rejected so many times. (I gave a pass to those companies that have declined to hire me but have graciously allowed me to freelance for a living wage…)

Here she blows:

AMNewYork

AOL

Aspen Magazine

Associated Press

Baltimore Sun

Beauty Blitz

BoardIQ

Bloomberg

Bloomingdales

Blush Media

BonAppetit.com

Buddy Media

CBS Interactive

Chicago Tribune

Conde Nast Traveler

D Magazine

Daily Candy

Deal News

Delish.com

Dow Jones

Economist.com

Episcopal Life

Equinox

Family Circle

Fast Company

FundFire

Field and Stream

Flavorpill

Food and Wine

FoodandWine.com

Food Network

FreshDirect

FundFire

Gael Greene

Gary Rivlin

Gawker

Good Housekeeping

Gourmet

Grub Street

Hachette Filpacchi Media

Huffington Post

Ignites

iVillage

Kiboo

Ladies’ Home Journal

Light the Night

Macy’s

MainStreet.com

Marie Claire

Martha Stewart Living

Mashable

Mediabistro

Metro New York

Mets

Miami Herald

Minyanville Media

More

MTV

NBC

New York Daily News

New York Post

New York Times

Nibble

Outdoor Life

Oyster Hotel Reviews

OZOLife

Parents

PastryScoop.com

Popular Science

Rachael Ray

Ralph Lauren

RD.com

ReadyMade

RealSimple.com

Refinery29

Reuters

Saveur

Seattle Times

SeedMagazine.com

Seeking Alpha

SF Weekly

Shape

Shecky’s

Southern Breeze

Star Chefs

Tan Sheet

Tango Mag

Teen Vogue

The Knot

Time

TimeOut New York

Times Picayune

TMG

TravelandLeisure.com

Tyra Show

UrbanDaddy

USA Today

Village Voice

Waterfront Media

Weight Watchers

Woman’s World

WomansDay.com

wowOwow

Yelp

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Julie & “Damian” & “D” & Julia

In the past several weeks, I have encouraged not one but TWO friends to start blogs…and these friends eventually created Making Miami Mine and The Tombudsman. Both have clear objectives and I’m really excited for them.

I, meanwhile, feel like I’ve totally run out of things to say. I hardly bake any more…and even when I *did* make cupcakes for a recent fake-gambling birthday, I used a MIX and the most intriguing topic I thought of was the dearth of appropriate sprinkles in my home. (I have red hearts and pink dots for Valentine’s Day and green dots for St. Patrick’s Day…but, after March 17, I’m can’t sprinkle anything again until the following February. And this is the most interesting thing I’ve had to say since April 19.)

So…I think it’s safe to say I’ve been in a bit of a writing rut. (Sounds like some sort of verbal exercise, doesn’t it? Like, say it five times fast? “WritingRutWritingRutWritingRutWritingRutWritingRut.”?)

So…I had this professor at Columbia I’ll call D. And D is a busy guy…but I am stubborn and I have hounded him for weeks (if not months?).

(Little sidenote: I have this wonderful high school buddy who has listened to me during many a panic attack and who has talked me down from many a ledge…and who even offered to be my date to my cousin’s wedding when there wasn’t a straight boy in sight…and I called him the other day because I love him and wanted to talk to him because there had been a little dramz, but he was super-busy and said, “Can I call you back?” and I said, “Sure…” and he said, “You’re not having a Lisa Moment, are you?” See how well he knows me?? [He also introduced me to this.])

So I guess we could say I had a Lisa Moment the other day. But, I mean, c’mon — my life was not supposed to turn out like this. I was not supposed to be staring 30 in the face and fake-gambling to support myself. And, sure, I wrote a book…but no one wants to publish it (spun another way: I haven’t found the right publisher yet…!) and my entire life plan at this point is that I’m going to get a book deal and it’s going to be huge and then I’ll pay off J-school and buy an apartment and winter in Turks and Caicos or whatever. But is this really a sound plan? I think the smart money is on no…but, I mean, I can totally make my peace with the Lean Times if I get to go on Oprah someday and laugh about the odd jobs I’ve sustained to support myself (…or Ellen, I suppose, if this doesn’t happen before 2011…)…but what if that never happens?? And that’s where I get myself into trouble…

So…once I snapped out of it and remembered Mama Slocum’s “one day at a time”-advice, I sent several emails…and one of them was to D…and, as luck would have it, the 2010 Columbians were graduating last Tuesday and he did not have plans afterward. So…after six hours of baccarat, I schlepped waaay up north…and he made me actually go *into* the J-school building (I had joked that I might be so embarrassed by my failed career that I’d have to hide in the bushes…)…and I don’t know if it was actually strange per se — just felt like a million years ago. And it was (only?) two.

So…D and I went to a local pub and ordered some grub (got that, bub?) and he settled in to make me feel better about my faltering career and to regale me with stories of what it’s like at the top. And I guess that’s really what I needed — someone to boost my ego a little bit and remind me what a really horrible publishing environment it is right now and that maybe it’s not me — it’s them! — and that many, many writers are plagued by self-doubt…so I’m hardly unique…and that it’s important to “take it to the mat” (read: never give up!).

And D gave me some really good things to think about in terms of what to do next with my 110,000 words. (I got a little burned out and had to set it aside for awhile…) And in doing so, he asked for the elevator pitch…and, among other things, I told him to think of it as David Sedaris meets Julie & Julia meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Bridget Jones meets I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. And then we started talking about Julie & Julia…(I tried to get The Tombudsman to watch Julie & Julia — which I actually think is maybe not as girlie as everyone assumes…especially considering the scene in which Julia pulls a cannelloni shell or something out of boiling water and exclaims, “This is hotter than a stiff cock!” — but he adamantly refused, saying it was a gateway drug to Lifetime. Oy.)

And…I’ve totally already written about this before, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that in hindsight I’m not totally surprised everyone seems annoyed by the Julie half of Julie & Julia…but I still find her story heartening — it gives me hope that I can be a nobody in Brooklyn…but as long as I find a project that I am passionate about and embrace it completely, amazing things can happen. But…I *will* admit that I thought she was a little whiny in Cleaving. I do sort of admire her for not writing the same book again — I think it would have been really tempting to write Julie & Julia II with the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking — but…after awhile, it got hard to listen to her go on and on about how she couldn’t imagine life without her husband because they had known each other for so long that they were the same person but that she really, really, really was hankering for this guy she called, “D,” for most of the book (what a magical coincidence, huh?) and who she later IDed as Damian and who she happened to be schtupping and who she really, really wanted to schtup again and again…and her husband who was basically herself *knew* this and he was having his *own* affair and, oh, things were awful and messy…but no one was willing to *actually* do anything. So, in reading it, it’s hard not to think, “Change is hard! But, come on! It’s been 200 pages! Make a decision one way or the other and go with it!”

So…I was sort of telling Professor D all of this, he said, “You know, I know that guy she was having the affair with. He was in a really bad spot in his life then — he was sleeping with everyone.”

And that’s when it hit me that D is kind of a big deal. And I forget because, you know, he’s this brilliant hippie I can have veggie burgers with at a bar on the Upper West Side…but he’s *also* writing his eighth book and making a movie out of one of the predecessors…and he won a Pulitzer. So I shouldn’t be surprised — of *course* he knows the guy with whom Julie Powell was having an affair. (And my awe of D grew…)

And as if *that* wasn’t enough, I mentioned that no one really seems to like the Julie Powell half of the movie and D — who was also a Neiman Fellow, once upon a time — told me that he used to see Julia Child at the grocery store in Cambridge all the time. She was just there, doing her shopping…at the same time *he* was shopping.

And then, like, my proverbial eyes got huge and I couldn’t have thought of him more as a superstar. That’s right, folks — it wasn’t the Pulitzer, it wasn’t the upcoming film adaptation with the $6 million budget…it was running into Julia Child at a grocery store in Cambridge, Mass.

But THEN he added, “But I didn’t sleep with her.”

And that’s when he took it a little too far…

D was a Neiman Fellow in 1988. Paul Child died in 1994.

And the fact that Julia did not marry Paul until she was 34 is one of the things I cling to (I also used to cling to Sandra Bullock and Jesse James…but obvs do not do *that* anymore) as proof that maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world to be my age and still playing the proverbial field. And that perhaps if I am patient, the Love of my Life will fall from the sky and we will be deliriously happy for 48 years.

And so…if D had had some torrid affair with Julia Child in the late 80s, *that* would all fly out the window…and I would be left with my single-girl life…and nothing but fake-gambling (and an unpublished manuscript…and a cat that flushes the toilet when he is mad at me…) to comfort me. And that just can’t happen. So…I guess it’s too early to joke about stuff like that? Maybe after Mr. Wonderfulpants falls from the sky? Then I’ll be ready? Although…I *am* excited that D is my six degrees of separation from both Julia Child and Julie Powell…and I am relieved he did not sleep with either of them. But…if I had to choose (and Julia Child wasn’t already dead and/or 40 years his senior), I would *definitely* pair him up with Julie Powell.

(Remember that If They Mated feature on Late Night with Conan O’Brien? This may be an example of *me* taking it too far, but I actually wanted to maybe illustrate this post with an image of D’s face combined with Meryl Streep as Julia Child…but, alas, I cannot find an If They Mated generator…)

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My Fancy-Shuffling, Fake-OTBing, Hair-Scam-Avoiding, 33-Cent-Cheese-Meltdown-Witnessing, Old-Lady-Cursing Wednesday

Remember those commercials during the Olympics with the snowboarder that snowboarded right off into space while Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” played? Well…I wouldn’t call today a perfect day per se…but it was sort of strangely nice and/or memorable for a lot of little reasons:

1. I fake-gamble part-time to support myself now (…I had lunch with a friend from Martha last weekend and she said I should start a blog to debunk the myths of the New York freelance writer’s lifestyle — which sounds so glamorous! — but actually involves a lot of slapstick antics to make ends meet…) and I’ve felt that I can’t emerge from this experience without the ability to shuffle cards in a fancy way. I’ve always wanted to learn some card tricks…and I spend 18 hours a week with 416 cards now, so mastering the Fancy Shuffle (…which I Googled! And learned is called the Bridge Shuffle! And, I gotta hand it to SuperCardKid — he explains it really well…) seemed like a totally reasonable goal. And…it’s a very high-tech table that we play on and sometimes it dies and we have downtime…which is what happened today. So…I decided today was the day I was going to crack the Fancy Shuffle…and I did! I mean, I’m a long way from impressing anyone…but I at least figured out how to shift my hands to make the cards fall back in on one another after I’ve shuffled them. (Before long, people will totally be coming to my apartment for Poker Night…)

2. Some of my comrades at the fake-gambling place like to really gamble…and, like I said, we were twiddling our thumbs this PM…and one of them had one of those OTB horse guides? And we were looking at the horse names and I saw one called “Im a Mosaic Rockstar” and said, “That’s it. That’s the horse I would bet on…” and — guess what — the horse I picked totally WON. So…the real gambler then asked what horses I liked in the next race…and three names popped out at me, but I only remember two: Downtown Hottie and Lady Gracenote. And I believe my fellow fake-gambler actually *put* $6 on these choices. And part of me would really be thrilled if it turned out that I have a hidden talent for picking good horse names…but he didn’t say anything like, “Oh, man, Lisa! You hit the trifecta!” (or whatever…) so I’m assuming Im a Mosaic Rockstar was my one-time hit. (Still a little thrilling though…)

3. People stop me for directions a lot. And…today, while I was on my lunchtime constitutional, a woman stopped me and said, “Excuse me?” and I stopped because I assumed she needed help figuring out where to go…but then she said, “Where do you get your hair done?” and *that* is totally a scam, isn’t it? I’ve had people stop me before and ask that very same question and it turns out that they want money or personal information or something…(although maybe I’m wrong? I Googled various street-salon-scam term combinations and came up empty-handed…which maybe means she was legitimately wondering where I get my hair done…but…I doubt it. I had my luxurious brown locks pulled back in a ponytail today…and it may have been a nice ponytail…but it wasn’t anything that was going to stop traffic). And…as soon as I discovered that she was not a poor lost soul but rather thought she could sucker me into some hair scam, I was sorry I stopped…but instead of having a normal reaction, like, “I’m sorry — I have to go…” I pulled a Lisa and ended up blurting out, “I have to go!” with wild eyes and, long story short, if she *did* just want the name of a hairdresser, I’ll bet she thought I was a real weirdo.

4. I’ll just come right out and admit I ended up at a McDonald’s — and I know you’re all judging me now, but I had a good reason…and yet if I was to pull *another* Lisa and explain *how* I ended up at this McDonald’s, it would be very much like my old coworker Paulie said the other night — that my stories are like a John Bonham riff in a Led Zeppelin song — and/or imply that there is something WRONG with going to McDonald’s…and there isn’t. So…we’ll leave it at that. I was there. The End. (Almost…)

I ended up next to this dude who ordered two Filet-o-Fish sandwiches…and then appended his order with, “But I want them to be FRESH. And they need to be HOT.” And the guy behind the counter sort of said, “Sure…okay…” and I thought, “Wow. Yes. Right. I’m sure they’re going to go out of their way to give your Filet-o-Fishes some tender loving care…” And, I mean, I guess I shouldn’t judge either, but…it was a little high-maintenance, no? (And this is coming from ME…which really says something…) There’s a time and place, right? My mom used to (and perhaps still does…I just haven’t seen her order seafood in awhile…) ask if the salmon on the menu was farmed or not (or something)…and I understand that if you’re, you know, coughing up some change at an actual sit-down place, you can make requests like that. But…this was McDonald’s. You sorta get what you get, right? (I confess I actually really think the latest commercial is catchy…) But THEN the guy says, “And I don’t want half a slice of cheese. I want a whole slice of cheese on both of them.” And the guy said, “I’ll have to charge you extra…” and he completely lost his mind — “What are you talking about?? The cheeseburgers have whole slices of cheese! Why can’t I get a whole slice of cheese on my Filet-o-Fishes??” and he asked how much he would be charged and the guy said, “33 cents,” and he had another meltdown — “33 cents?? I have to pay SIXTY-SIX CENTS for WHOLE SLICES OF CHEESE on my Filet-o-Fishes? This is ridiculous! Ridiculous!” and on and on and on and ON. They had to get the manager. I left before I learned the outcome…but, man, oh, man…I did not envy the two guys behind the counter who had to deal with him. Yowza.

5. I had to wait for the A and the F trains this afternoon for a super-long time…and noticed a nice old lady get on the train with me at my A train stop…and, since we had to wait so long, the train was totally crowded…and as we were all sort of finding a spot, this nice little old lady says, “Give me some fucking room!” and THEN we got to Jay Street and a B train showed up on the F track…and she shouts, “This is fucking ridiculous!” and THEN she got on the train, but stood in the doorway as we all tried to hear what was going on with this mystery B train and they tried to close the doors with her still in the doorway and she says, “I can’t fucking believe it!” So. In three fell swoops, Grouchypants sort of debunked some commonly held old lady myths.

And then I came home and everything basically went back to normal. The End. (For real.)

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Filed under birthdays, blogs, Brooklyn, cheese, fish, Martha

Going — Pardon Me — Bananas

Well, folks, I’m coming to realize that writing about food doesn’t bring me nearly as much joy as it used to…or maybe it’s that I’ve come to embrace self-involvement and can finally admit that writing about myself is much more enjoyable.

Either way, it’s been a long time since I’ve written about food — and only food. So…any of you old school Tasty Lacy’s fans who are still with me — and have disapproved of recent off-topic jaunts — will hopefully find solace in the following paragraphs.

Last Saturday — January 23 — was National Pie Day. So, yes, this post is very much belated. But…it’s still coming in with plenty of time for Pi Day on March 14 — you still have about six weeks to prepare. And…because I still feel guilty nearly a year later for stiffing the woman who bet on my pie lesson at the Social Media for Social Change auction last April, I wanted to humbly offer up some Pie Tips — or what I envision I would have passed on to her during that lesson she never received.

So, without further ado: All My Secrets That Are Too Late For Pie Day, But Are Just in Time for Pi Day…

1. Make sure the water you use for your crust is ice-cold. Some books/experts will tell you to refrigerate your crust before you roll it out. I say don’t bother. Instead, I just make measuring out the water my first step and throw in a couple of ice cubes while I’m at it and let it get nice and cold while I’m measuring flour and Crisco. That’s it.

2. Invest in a pastry blender if you don’t already have one. This may gross out some of you, but I really like to use my hands when mixing a crust…and I’ve found it’s a lot easier if you mix the flour/Crisco with a pastry blender first to get it started…and *then* use your hands to finish it and get those nice flaky bits. Besides, your hands are going to get gross and Crisc0-y when you roll it out anyway…so I figure you might as well dig in early on. But only after using a pastry blender or it’ll take you forever.

3. A pie crust shield will change your life. Sure, you can use strips of foil over and over again. But…it’s not very green *and*, quite frankly, it’s a pain in the ass to fold those stupid strips over each other and to get them to stay put. And then you have to be uber-careful when putting the pie in the oven because you don’t want one of those delicate strips to fall off. So…I say, “Screw the strips!” and you should cough up the — ahem — dough for a pie crust shield that you can just throw on top of pies time and time again.

That’s basically it. I wish I had more tricks up my sleeve…but, to be honest, I really think the secret to making good pies is a lot of practice. My aunt makes the most beautiful pies…and she’s been making them for years. I hope that if I keep this up that I’ll, for example, eventually be able to roll out a top crust and place it over the bottom crust and pinch the edges and not have any excess on the sides. I think in pie terms, that’s the sign that you’ve truly made it.

But, sadly (or not so much…), I didn’t actually make a regular crust for NPD 2010. (And, despite my earlier assertion that it’s really all about me and, “To heck with food blogging!”, I *would* like to do an experiment and compare a Crisco crust to a lard crust. I think it would be fascinating! Honestly. And maybe it’ll be a good project for 3/14. We’ll see.)

In the meantime…I knew there was no way I could possibly recreate the magic of NPD 2009 — thanks, in part, to Franimate, Social Medium and Half-Man/Half-Press-Release — so, as I noted in my “Come Celebrate NPD 2010 with Me”-email (and maybe even in my last blog post?), I was on the fence about celebrating this year…but I ultimately decided I’d regret it if I didn’t. And, plus, I’m on this big traditions kick, and it would make me very much a hypocrite if I let the opportunity to firmly establish a yearly pie tradition pass me by. So. I decided to make Emeril’s banana cream pie (while my folks were driving back from Tennessee, they stopped at a restaurant — I guess one of Emeril’s in Florida, Mississippi or Louisiana [thanks to Popeye’s, I heard, “Louisiana…Fast!” in my head as I typed that] — and couldn’t get his banana cream pie and it was supposed to be the best banana cream pie ever and my mom was really disappointed). And…it turns out that Emeril’s banana cream pie has a graham cracker crust.

A quick review: This is one damn good pie. And I find that I say that every time I have to make my own pudding…which begs the question why I don’t make my own pudding more often. It called for an awful lot of actual bananas cut up and placed ON the pudding…and I decided that it would be prettier if I made some whipped cream and whacked it on top and then gently flung caramel sauce across it…which was a good idea in theory…but my caramel sauce was a little too warm when I flung it and so it melted the whipped cream a bit…and, as per usual, the pie could have been prettier. But…it was good! So…no harm, no foul.

The problem *now* is that I have all these bananas left over…and so I was trying to dream up banana recipes to get rid of them. Normally I’d make banana bread, but my friend contributed a loaf to Pie Day…and so I was actually thinking about banana fritters for a bit. My mom used to make them when I was little. I have fond memories. There’s a banana fritters recipe in our family cookbook…and so, just out of curiosity, I asked my mother where she got it and she said it was actually my paternal grandmother’s…and I was still interested in learning more about fritters in general, so I Googled and they appear to be a Southern thing…or kind of Soul Food-y or Caribbean-y…or even something that hails from West Africa, according to Epicurious…which sort of surprised me. I have no idea where my Norwegian grandmother — who lived virtually her entire life in San Francisco — originally got the recipe.

But, after all that, I don’t think I’m going to make fritters…I have this hunch that it’s one of those things that was really great as a kid but that might be a little heavy for the Lisa of today to eat over and over again. Instead, I think those bananas are going to become filling for my favorite empanadas. So…in addition to a freelance piece and officially finishing my proposal (…knock on wood…), that’s what I’ll be making this afternoon…and consuming this week.

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Filed under bananas, blogs, books, Brooklyn, holidays, pie, pudding