Category Archives: books

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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Goodbye, Libby’s (At Least For Now)

This year, I carved my first pumpkin in a long, long time. The last pumpkin I carved was based on advice from Martha Stewart (or the like) when I was working at a credit union in Fairbanks. My office held a carving contest and my pumpkin was truly something to behold – I made a leaf pattern and cut out leaves around the pumpkin, carved veins in them, and then pushed the leaves partially back through the holes in the pumpkin so that when I lit it up, the leaves looked like they were floating around said pumpkin and glowed. But — story of my life — the pumpkin rotted and liquefied the night before judging and I lost.

I can’t say this year’s pumpkin was a triumphant return, but it was nice to feel festive again.

I *also* decided that for the first time ever, I would roast the seeds instead of tossing them out…and, boy, am I glad I did! It was sort of hard to find a recipe I liked…so I ended up just rinsing them, tossing them in olive oil, adding salt and roasting on a sheet pan at about 300 degrees for 45 minutes. They were perfect! My mother said it was really hard to get all the orange pumpkin gunk off of them, but I didn’t think it was actually that bad. And it turned out that T’s favorites were the ones that were a little darker because they were roasted with gunk on.

I also heard that you should consider boiling the seeds first…but I thought the roasted seeds were fine sans boiling.

Now my goal is to make a pie from an actual pumpkin. I’ve never done that before either. And even though my baking enthusiasm has dimmed considerably and may never be what it once was, I’d still like to try out real pie this year. Another friend had a taste test last year in which she made a pie from scratch and a pie from a can and asked guests to guess which was which. It seemed obvious to me — the pie made from real pumpkin was a darker color and sort of less pleasant to look at…although I don’t actually remember how they tasted (…which may actually be because I thought the canned pumpkin pie tasted better, but I am too ashamed to admit it).

But, as a general rule, I’ve been perfectly happy with Libby’s all my life. There – I said it. If that makes me Whiskey Tango, so be it.

So I’m not sure I’ll turn pie-from-an-actual-pumpkin into a holiday tradition for years to come. But, like seeing Mount Rushmore or going waterskiing, it seems like something I should do once in life.

And yet…the Web seems to be barren of useful pie-from-a-pumpkin resources. Could it be that the difference is negligible and so no one bothers?

Granted, my research was not as exhaustive as it perhaps could have been, but every pie recipe I saw on Epicurious.com (my favorite!) called for canned pumpkin. Ditto FoodNetwork.com.

And I’m surprised that given the annual food mag task of making old Thanksgiving news new again that they haven’t jumped all over this. I would think that Alton Brown of all people would have made a pumpkin pie from an actual pumpkin at least once — after all, I saw him harvest coconut using a power drill — but, alas, I cannot find a recipe from him either.

Thankfully, my go-to cookbook when the Internet fails — The Joy of Cooking — has perfect instructions. I will give it a shot soon (and maybe make a Libby’s pie, too, just for old times’ sake) and report back.

And…just a reminder: There are rumors of another canned pumpkin shortage this year…so if you don’t want to experiment with real pumpkins, make sure to pick up a can of Libby’s before the Thanksgiving rush!

Image via cardamom/Flickr

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Damy Ephron: My Aspirational Future Self

In coming up with a tweet about my excitement over new books from Amy Sedaris, David Sedaris and Nora Ephron, I realized something about myself: I want to be them. As in, all three in one writer. A Damy Ephron, if you will. (Is that the stupidest thing I’ve ever said?)

Amy is so quirky and fun. I would love to have her confidence and to wear elaborate stage costumes on late-night TV shows and to fabricate a longshoreman boyfriend while seriously discussing my pet rabbits. (Except I don’t think I actually want a pet rabbit. I have more cat than I know what to do with thanks to the Evil Genius and his Dopey Sidekick.) And she’s crafty! (Obvs.) I should craft more. In fact, I’m going to make a bold statement: Crafting may become the new baking in my life.

David, on the other hand, is such a successful storyteller! I saw, “successful,” rather than, “good,” even though I think many of his stories *are* good in part because a one-time mentor said he thought the male Sedaris makes things up because his stories come together so nicely. And, no matter how wacky your life and/or your family’s, eventually you could totes pump the well dry and realize you have nothing left to write. Not so with David – he continues to come out with material. And they’re usually such entertaining reads! And he’s made such a nice career for himself after floundering around and failing horribly at life! I would like to do the same thing.

I had a J-school professor who once said I reminded him of a young Nora Ephron. HUGE ego boost. Nora tells David-Sedaris-esque tales, but she’s more lady-centric (natch) and that’s basically what I want to do. (No offense, fellas. I just don’t think we relate as well…) But Nora skews a little old – i.e., I don’t feel bad about my neck…yet…so I’d like to keep David’s youthful exuberance. And, you know, I certainly wouldn’t mind writing a screenplay with sharp lines that perhaps becomes emblematic of an entire decade and resonates with countless generations to come. But I’d settle for a short story collection.

It’s not easy though. I responded to an MSNBC query on HARO this afternoon (before the Olbermann brouhaha) entitled “Jobless and Hopeless.” Things could be worse, sure…but it’s kind of true. However, I *am* enjoying not having to come up with fodder for the super-effusive lady-blog (that will later be edited to sound like I’m a student at Sweet Valley High) and therefore having time to populate this little site.

PS: I wish I had Photoshop or something and could combine their three faces together to show you what I’m going to look like.

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Who Cares What Nation’s Restaurant News Thinks? Here’s My Top 10.

On the same day the New York Times wrote about Pop-Tarts World, the Huffington Post added this blurb from a Nation’s Restaurant News report on America’s favorite restaurant chains.

Cheesecake Factory topped the list. And while some of my favorite restaurant chains were on the list, they missed some good’uns. So…if I ruled the world (or at least Nation’s Restaurant News), the list would have looked like this:

10. Quiznos/Subway — I like toasted sandwiches and LOVE QUIZNOS’ CATS. I could also go for a sandwich from Subway with everything in it — even the peppers — just about any day of the week. But only if it has everything.

9. In-N-Out — While I think In-N-Out is somewhat overrated — YES, I JUST SAID THAT — it’s a classic burger joint and it does things right, which earns it a spot at #9.

8. Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s — They clearly won me over with the ads featuring scantily clad Paris, Padma and Audrina + that French-talking mouth app. (Why, yes, I *did* write about it for ClickZ…)

7. Swensen’s — I have found memories of getting ice cream here as a child. Unfortunately, all I can remember is that it was good.

6. Coco’s — I used to go with my grandmother (who hid in a booth in a corner). I have fond memories of Coco’s southwestern melt (see? Told you I like toasted sandwiches….) and boysenberry pie.

5. Panera — This joint has one hell of a muffin…and was also the focal point of my first (…and admittedly only…) story in the Wall Street Journal.

4. Sizzler — A popular joint with my maternal grandmother. I loved the cheese toast and was once a bit of a smartass when the manager asked if everything was okay and ended up with an entire platter of it.

3. Baja Fresh — I perhaps love nothing more than Mexican food. And I think this place does a fine job. I don’t care if Wendy’s owns it.

2. Chevy’s — Annnd…I don’t care what Jonathan R. Duke says either. I love this place. Always have, always will. And I have the birthday sombreros in my closet to prove it. The cookbook proved to be a little overly complicated, but that’s just fine — gives me a more powerful excuse to go there in person.

1. Waffle House — I also have fond memories of the Waffle House, which I will forever associate with my brief stint in Mississippi and Georgia. Plus, their menu development team was genius — who doesn’t like saying, “Scattered, smothered, covered…”?

Image via Stevie Rocco/Flickr

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Filed under books, cheesecake, entrees, grilled cheese, ice cream, Mississippi, pie, UCLA

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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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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Roman Holiday

My latest Big Thought? Rome. I want to go to Rome.

It sounds like maybe Japan isn’t in the cards anymore…and I was happy as a little clam going all over creation last year. I’ve been in New York now for FOUR STRAIGHT MONTHS. It’s time to plan an escape.

And then yesterday, as I was finishing Frank Bruni’s Born Round (which isn’t about Rome outright…but there *is* a brief section on his tenure as the Rome Bureau Chief and he *does* hail from a large Italian family…), it hit me: I should go to Rome.

I really liked Bruni’s latest book — and not just because I once went to a party at the apartment he talks about in the final chapters. I totally get his relationship with food — from the late-night binges as a means of self-healing and escape to the cherished articles of clothing that allow you to hide your imperfections (my beloved cardigan was at the dry cleaner for four days and I almost died. And it didn’t help that I had a claim ticket that said it would be ready on Wednesday…and when I arrived on Wednesday to pick up aforementioned-blogged-about-beloved cardigan, the woman was on the phone forever and then gave me serious attitude — “This says Wednesday!” — which made me panic for a moment and think, “OhmygodisitTuesday?” but then I remembered that I had fake-gambled that morning for the first time that week, so it was definitely Wednesday and said as much and she said, “This means Wednesday NIGHT.” And so I waited another day…). And, I mean, Dude was the restaurant critic at Times, so I suppose he has a way with food words…but, man — his descriptions of meals in and around Rome seriously made me want to go (in some parallel universe in which I have unlimited cash and speak flawless Italian…[which reminds me of an old roommate’s friend from Rome who once taught me to say, “Stai fuori come una Jacuzzi in giardino!” which, if memory serves, translates to, “You’re out like a Jacuzzi in the garden!” and basically means, “You’re crazy!”]).

Missing Italy (and, frankly, Greece…and Ireland…and Norway…) is one of my big regrets from my two years in England. (But, at the same time, I was a poor student…so it’s not like I never got around to it…[again, it’s unfortunate we don’t live in that world in which I have lots of money and speak lots of languages]). And it’s crazy to think that’s been eight years since I’ve been back (which is all beginning to sound a lot like “New York, We Have to Talk,” isn’t it?)…

I’ve also heard a lot of talk lately about Eat, Pray, Love (once from a fake-gambler who vowed to punch the next middle-aged lady he sees on the train reading it…but also from a J-school colleague). And…gotta say: I was totally with Elizabeth Gilbert when she was in Italy. Gorging yourself on pasta and practicing Italian with a charming young man are two things that make absolute sense to me. (But, alas, I found I identified with her less and less as her journey went on…and, honestly, I thought she was kind of a jerk to the guru in Bali. I know he *expected* her to abandon him and move on…but, still…seemed a little mean to me to drop him like a bad habit as soon as she met the Old Guy…)

And…so, minus the Praying and the Loving, I wanna do it, too — I want to go to Italy and eat pasta and bread and cheese and gelato until I weigh twice as much as I did before. And I want to sit on the Spanish Steps. And I want to throw a coin in Trevi Fountain. And I want smarmy men with slick hair to tell me I’m beautiful even if they don’t mean it and I want to say, “Ciao!” and “Grazie!” and to ride on the back of a Vespa with Gregory Peck. And I want to marvel at old things.

So…perhaps the Big Birthday is a reasonable goal. What better way/place to usher in the next decade of my life than in the Eternal City?

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