Tag Archives: Good Housekeeping

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

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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Filed under blogs, Food Network, Martha, Mississippi

Deconstructing the Zillion-Dollar Investment That Still Hasn’t Yielded Any Damn Returns…

Recently, while I was en route to meet up with some old coworkers circa 34th and 8th, I ran into a classmate from junior high who I haven’t seen since — oh, I don’t know — 1994? And as soon as we established we were who we thought we were, she said, “Lisa! This is so weird! I was just thinking about writing you because I’m thinking about applying to journalism school…”

Sooo…long story short, I sent her the longest email ever. Which — slightly doctored — seemed like an okay blog post, too.

Et, voila.

Here it goes: The jury is still out on whether I think Columbia was worthwhile. It was certainly a good experience at the time and I met really wonderful people and made really wonderful contacts…and it’s super-quick and definitely gives you some street cred and/or a name to drop at cocktail parties…and — keep in mind that I graduated at quite possibly the single worst time ever…and *that* has definitely played into my experiences post-Columbia. But, then again, after Martha let me slip through her fingers, I was networking like a fiend, trying to drum up freelance contacts and/or a full-time job…and I met a guy who had graduated from Columbia a few years before me…and he said you have to look at it like an investment and, understandably, you can’t expect an ROI immediately. Which makes sense. But it’s not always comforting.

If I could do it again, I’d definitely do the new media program — or whatever they’re calling it now. Prior to grad school, I was a financial journalist…but only because I majored in English and wanted a writing job…and there are TONS of financial writing jobs here. (In fact, a LOT of my classmates ended up at Reuters and Bloomberg and Dow Jones…even though they’re not necessarily interested in writing about finance at all — but they need paychecks and health insurance…and this week I got not one but TWO panicked emails from friends in that situation…and had to send them peppy responses about how it’s all going to work out for us someday and that these are just the lean times…and, I mean, I hope I’m right…but I know how they feel — I, too, have my panicky moments and sort of depend on them for the same advice when *I* freak out…)

So, anyway, I went to Columbia because four years went by really fast and all of a sudden, I had backed myself into this niche and even though I told myself I wasn’t going to make a career out of venture capital or mutual funds — and I really feel that I am woefully inadequate to cover these topics as I am HORRIBLE with money — by ’06, it was all anyone trusted me to cover (…if they actually trusted me at all. Which is a whole other can o’ worms…). I really had no clips about anything else. And…a lot of people I worked with at Dow Jones had gone to Columbia, so I finally decided it was worth my while to go, too, so I could prove that I had basic reporting skills and that I *could* write about other things and I wanted to make the leap from financial reporting to Martha. (I really like baking…) And more than one person I worked with at Dow Jones didn’t actually want to be there…which didn’t seem that bad for poor Master’s-Degree-less Lisa…but I sort of looked at the Columbia grads who ended up there with pity, thinking that things would be different for me if *I* went through the program…

So…I hustled. I really did. And — I don’t know about you, but…when I graduated from college, I just sort of expected someone to give me a good job because I worked really hard in college. And, you know, if I had studied business or engineering or something, maybe that would have been the case. But, other than maybe teaching, there just isn’t a really clearly defined career path for English majors. And so I really struggled to find my way. And eventually I did…but I was determined not to let the same post-graduation slump hit after Columbia.

And, like I said — it worked…for awhile. I interned at Good Housekeeping while I was a student and I got a gig with Martha after graduation. But…then she let me go…which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the worst thing ever as I wasn’t enormously happy there…and, between the two gigs, I learned magazine journalism isn’t really what I want to do anyway. Which sort of ushered in another existential crisis — like, “I thought I knew what I wanted to do! And now here I am practically 30 and I was totally wrong!” And, I mean, I’m working on a book now and freelancing and whatnot…so it’s not exactly tragic…but…like I said, if I could go back in time, I’d do the new media program. I tried to sort of couch things while I was there and take the new media elective…but I got the fill-in teacher on Saturday…and the class was AWFUL and we learned NOTHING. The guy knew his stuff…he was just really bad at explaining it…and, to make up for it, he just had us create WordPress blogs…and said we could do as much or as little with them as we wanted. So…none of us really learned any valuable Web skills. So. That’s point #1.

#2: I haven’t been astonishingly impressed with Career Services — either as a student or a grad. In my first meeting, the lady looked at my resume and said, “Oh, great! You have financial reporting experience! It will be easy for you to get a job after graduation…” and I said, “Well, that’s the thing — I don’t want to write about finance anymore. That’s the whole reason I’m here…” and she said, “Oh…” and I think she knew someone at Food & Wine…but that went nowhere. And, I mean, it could very well be because I had these weird, stringent demands at the time — Food! I want to write about food! — and, really, a lot of my classmates have gone on to successful careers at the Miami Herald and CBS and the Huffington Post…but…I found the gig at Good Housekeeping on my own. I found the gig at Martha on my own. Take from that what you will…

The Career Services department sends out emails about jobs from time to time…but I haven’t found those to be enormously helpful either. We got one once about an entry-level position at the New York Times Syndicate. And it said it was very clerical but that it was a great position for someone who eventually wanted to go on to editing and that two grads from ’07 had taken similar positions and were quickly promoted to editors. I sent in my letter and got called in for an interview…and the first words out of the editor’s mouth were, “Did anyone tell you how crappy this job is?” and I tried to be upbeat and mentioned what Career Services had said about the two grads from ’07 getting promoted and she said, “That was a fluke. I had to fire one guy and another joined the Army…your ascent would be profoundly slower.” And then she told me that the job entailed an hour and a half a day of sorting mail…and cleaning the managing editor’s office. So. I didn’t get the job…but wasn’t really upset about it…and then about a month later, Career Services sent out another email about this SAME position saying the SAME things about how it was great for a future editor and that two grads from ’07 quickly scaled the editorial ladder…so I sent a reply to some of my classmates and said, “Don’t be fooled! This is the mail-sorting, office-cleaning gig!” and one of them jokingly responded, “How do we know you’re not just saying that to keep this job for yourself?”

So. I don’t have to tell you that it’s tough out there…but…I really feel like I’ve been on my own as far as finding jobs are concerned. But, then again, a friend got a gig at a Spanish language newspaper thanks to Career Services and she just loves the guy who works there. And…in Career Services’ defense, they *do* tell you how much easier it is to find jobs if you leave New York. So that may be part of my problem, too.

And…I’m a Libra — the scales. So I’m notoriously bad with decision-making and can often see both sides of an issue. Case in point: Sometimes I feel like maybe I would have been better off just quitting my job and hustling to become a freelancer. Because…in the end, that’s what happened…and I wouldn’t be up to my eyeballs in debt for the rest of my life. But…on the other hand, I really, REALLY hated writing about venture capital and mutual funds…and…I fill in for this marketing publication every now and again…which really just means I write about brands that have promotions on Facebook or Twitter…and I just wrote about beer…and, as I was writing it, I had an epiphany that I really was much happier writing about beer than I ever was writing about, say, XBRL or 22c-2. And I realized that I would probably be profoundly unhappy if I had stayed in financial reporting and I would totally regret not taking a chance and seeing what happened. And…I suppose there’s still hope for my career. Who knows what the future will bring…but, at the same time, I haven’t dreamed of writing about Facebook campaigns ever since I was a little girl…so…it’s not like what I’m doing now is truly fulfilling. It definitely sucks less than what I was doing before…but, then again, I didn’t go to Columbia to get a job that sucks less.

But…then again (again), I wouldn’t have worked at Good Housekeeping or Martha (or written for HuffPo) without Columbia.

And I think your experience there is really strongly influenced by your RW1 instructor/class. I got really lucky — I had Dale Maharidge and he was/is wonderful and has been a great resource post-graduation. (I also took a literary journalism class with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt…and he is totally amazing and I love him…and he’s been really helpful with this book I’m trying to get published…) And…I was really lucky because my RW1 class got along really well…and we’re all still (pretty) good friends now. But…I heard horror stories about some RW1 classes…and so I can imagine if you don’t like your instructor, it would really profoundly influence your experience…and you’re only there for ten months! But…there’s not much you can do about that — it’s just sort of the luck of the draw.

And, I mean, really — the experience is what you make of it. There were people who really worked hard to get a lot out of it and endear themselves to the community and who were super-involved…and there were others that, well, didn’t. But…even some of the ones who did everything “right” while they were there still ended up scrambling after graduation…

I assume you’re looking at starting in the fall of 2011? So…you’d be graduating into a totally different environment than the one I found…and I really don’t know much at all about CUNY’s program. I sort of put all my eggs in one basket…as I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in New York and I figured that if I didn’t get in to Columbia, it would be a sign that I was supposed to move on to a different city.

So, in short — if you go, I’d highly recommend the new media program (even though the first thing Sree Sreenivasan said to me was, “You have a weather girl name.”) and remember that it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to be in journalism now…and you may end up having to take a job that you don’t want after graduation in order to make ends meet…which may be totally obvious…but…I thought I had such a leg up on all those kiddos who came to Columbia right after graduating from college — I felt like I had a much better idea of what it was I wanted from the program and, noble as their aspirations might have been, I couldn’t help thinking whenever they spoke of becoming the next Susan Orlean or John McPhee that they were perhaps being a bit idealistic…and that’s not to say that it won’t ever happen…it’s just highly unlikely right after graduation. And yet I still ended up getting a HUGE reality check after graduation, too.

And it’s a TON of money. And, nearly two years out, I’m still not quite sure if it was money well spent. Although, then again, if I get a book deal and become the next Julie Powell, I will totally be singing a different tune. That’s the other thing — you have to remember what it is that you really want and even if you *do* get stuck writing about the price of corn (as one of my classmates does), I think you have to have the chutzpah to keep working on projects on the side — which is also not easy to do when you have a job you hate and come home and just want to watch Mad Men and eat Cadbury mini eggs — or you’ll get really super-depressed.

But, then again, even though I have to write about social media campaigns and dispense financial advice to savvy urban 20-something ladies and I fake-gamble three mornings a week to make ends meet, I’m not writing about mutual funds anymore…and I *did* break out of the financial niche…which may have been impossible otherwise.

I know this is WAY MORE than you wanted to hear…but…the “Was going to Columbia a good idea?”-question has been in the back of my mind for about 18 months now…and I feel like most of my classmates are on the fence about it, too. For whatever that’s worth.

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An Old Bar, A Misinterpreted Sign & Food That Makes Me Verklempt

I met The Bartender at the beginning of the year. And he was funny. And sweet. And he worked around the corner from my apartment — at the oldest bar in Brooklyn! — and so I started spending a lot of time there. And soon I found that he was also incredibly smart…and completely genuine. And before long, I adored him.

Thus began months of what was sometimes great and sometimes terrible…and always uncertain. No one believed it would work out — we had nothing in common…except maybe our childhoods. But I continued to believe that maybe he was the Steve to my Miranda (and I sort of cringe at applying a S&tC analogy, but it’s really the most apt comparison…)…because we were so good together…(when, you know, we actually were together). (And, hey — Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat sang about basically the same thing.)

But then he’d disappear on me…and I’d be sad…and I’d call virtually everyone I know and sniffle about how I’d never love again or I’d send marathon emails that generated standard girl responses like, “He doesn’t deserve you!” and I’d try to start to figure out how I was going to get all of this out of my system. And then he’d pop up again and I’d be so, so happy…because, despite all the loosey-goosiness, I was happier with him than I’ve been in a long time…and I honestly thought we had something — *especially* when it turned out that one my best friends was the reporter for the Spanish language newspaper who interviewed him for a story about a crime in his neighborhood on her first day on the beat. The odds were infinitesimal! It *had* to be a sign! (Not unlike my very first date with the Englishman I almost married…when he was trying to come up with conversation and mentioned that he’d seen a movie  on TV over the weekend that was set in America. As he described it, I said, “Oh my gosh! A Time to Kill? They filmed that when I lived in Mississippi!” Of all the movies in the world, it was *that* one. I felt like it couldn’t *not* be the universe telling me to pay attention. And pay attention I did…and, two years later, I almost married the guy.)

But, in the end, I guess it wasn’t a sign with The Bartender. He made one final, brief return…only to disappear for good.  And now it’s hard to walk by the oldest bar in Brooklyn and know he’s right there…and it doesn’t matter.

I can’t not think about him every time I hear something about the Jets. (Lord, give me strength as football season starts…) And, whoa-ho, I will associate him with the Rangers for the rest of my life — there’s just no way around that. And I don’t really care about hockey all that much (which maybe is a sign that we *weren’t* meant to be…), so part of me was tempted to become a huge Giants fan (a giant Giants fan?) out of football spite, but…1) I don’t feel all that spiteful about The Bartender; and 2) Mark Sanchez is such a cutie! (Even though he went to USC…)

There are a lot of things I miss about The Bartender. (I actually had a dream last night that he came back…so I woke up this morning more wistful than usual…) And, yes, this is supposed to be a food-ish blog…so, dear reader, I give you some of the more culinary things I miss about him:

I can’t start with anything other than the lemon sorbet…which still sits in my freezer…and makes me think about him every time I open the door. The man actually loves his sherbet…but I couldn’t remember which one was his favorite when I popped into the bodega after a long day of playing baccarat…and the only sherbet available there had some sort of ripple in it…which seemed weird…so I opted for zesty lemon sorbet instead. And he was such a good sport about eating the sorbet even though it was the wrong one. (And…a bright side, I guess: I was actually able to eat some of it the other night without becoming a huge, sloppy mess…so maybe I’ll finally be rid of it before too long.)

That same night, I also got carded when I tried to buy him Coors Light — his beer of choice when he was poor. (When he had a little extra money to throw around, he liked Harpoon IPA or Brooklyn Lager. And…the only beer I really liked at *his* bar was Blue Moon. I can’t even tell you how many Blue Moons I had on his dime.)

I think of him whenever I order food from SeamlessWeb. We ordered food from there so many times — especially when he was hurt and wasn’t super-mobile. Plus, he was SO excited when he realized he could order food from there when he was at home, too, and his takeout options expanded exponentially.

There’s also the Thai place on Smith Street where we had our first official date…after hanging out at the oldest bar in Brooklyn for SO LONG. And he really surprised me — he was a pretty adventurous eater…which I wasn’t expecting as he was SO, SO conservative in real life that I assumed, like my father, he’d be all about meat and potatoes. Yet the man loved Thai food. And sushi. And was willing to try almost anything.

But…don’t get me wrong — he still liked meat. He was preparing to leave my apartment one Sunday afternoon to get home in time to hit up the grocery store when he said, “Boy am I tired of rice and beans. That’s all I can really afford now…so that’s all I’ve been eating for weeks.” So…I said, “You know I can cook, right?” and he said, “You’d cook for me?” to which I enthusiastically replied, “Of course I’d cook for you!”

What did he want? Meat. So…since he had just recently told me how much he liked lamb chops, I said, “Do you want me to make you lamb chops?” but he wouldn’t let me do that because he said they were too expensive…and then he remembered the Conan O’Brien Irish Beef Stew Recipe Scandal and said, “Maybe stew?”

I agreed…but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed weird to make stew in the spring — it’s a fall/winter comfort food! I wanted something more appropriate for a season of sunshine and rebirth…so I asked around. Flank steak seemed to be a big favorite…and then a friend told me that she had been at a dinner party recently with an Asian-style flank steak…and I recalled that my mother used to make an Asian-style flank steak that I liked a lot. My mom served it with rice though…and I couldn’t serve the poor man rice again, so I had to find a different side dish…and I was throwing around ideas like cucumbers with wasabi and rice vinegar

All week, I was sending him messages that went unresponded…but it wasn’t unusual for him not to write me back right away. “How do you feel about Asian-style flank steak? Will you eat that? Or is it too weird?” “If I marinate it, will you BBQ it? I am scared of BBQing.” Etc. And…as I was filling in for my old job that week, I had tentatively planned my grocery runs in between filing stories. I knew wasabi powder was going to be a long-shot at my everyday grocery store…but I figured I’d give Trader Joe’s a shot. And, bar that, I was pretty sure there was a spot on Atlantic Avenue with spices that would do the trick. And…as I planned out all of these intricate details and got more and more excited about Saturday night, I got a single message from him: “I think I’m going down to the Shore this weekend. Sorry.”

And then he disappeared for awhile. Not such a happy memory of him.

I *do* have a happy memory of his 30th birthday…which is one of the times he reappeared again. We’d gotten into a big fight about a week before…and then he hurt his foot at work…and I got a message saying he was in the emergency room…and that was it. All of my Mother Hen instincts kicked in, but there was nothing I could do. And I love birthdays! And this was such a big one! I wanted to do all sorts of crazy big things to celebrate and show him how much I cared about him. But, since he was gone, I figured I had to make plans to get far away from my apartment, or I’d spend the whole day holed up and sad about it. One of my classmates was having an annual bonanza at a farm upstate, so I decided to rent a car and make a key lime cheesecake to escape the city for a bit (with the very same Spanish language newspaper reporter who would later interview the Birthday Boy). But, alas, there was a snafu at the rental car place and the alternate route was too complicated…so I ended up staying home with the cheesecake. And then — lo and behold — he showed up on my doorstep. And I got to celebrate his 30th birthday with him after all…and I was so happy to see him again…although it was kind of morbidly ironic because he had been freaked out about turning 30 and getting old…and he needed a cane to walk with his busted foot. And then I offered to turn the Farm Cheesecake into Birthday Cheesecake…and he confessed the only cheesecake he ever liked is the one his mom makes…and I got really nervous…but, as luck would have it, he freaked out about mine. And I think he had a really good birthday.

I also think of him when I think of $2 kids’ hot dogs at Citizens Bank Park and my “Keep Drinking Until You Look Like John McCain Or Feel Like Cindy”-cup…and, of course, Coffee Talk. He did a Linda Richman impression that slayed me.

So…Mike Myers is no Bartender, but…indulge me in one last nod: Coffee Talk with Linda Richman.

Now talk amongst yourselves.

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Things I Learned at the Meat Counter Today

I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t actually cook with meat all that often. I don’t know why. Perhaps because I make a lot of pasta. Or I secretly hate protein.

In any event, when I *do*, I am always paranoid I’m going to make myself sick by not cooking it long enough, so I end up cooking it too long and it burns a little…which I guess isn’t that big of a deal as I am only feeding myself and I don’t have a vent, so I have to take the batteries out of the smoke alarm whenever I use the stove anyway. It may inconvenience the lady upstairs who has to smell my noxious fumes…but if it truly bothers her, she’s never complained about it.

All this is to say that I had to seek out pork loin today for this — Pork and Pozole Burritos — which is a rare errand. And so imagine my dismay when I got to the meat counter at the borderline crummy Met Foods near me and discovered that all they had were TEN POUND SLABS. That’s right — pork loin was only available in ten pound increments. And, for the record, that’s TWENTY TIMES the amount I needed.

I ended up going with a boneless option that came in a one-pound package…but as I stood there, staring at my options, I was shocked when I noticed boxes of Armour Star Lard in the meat case (I use that link because he seems like a curious guy…and so happy with his coupons!).

I don’t use lard in my pie crusts — I opt for shortening…but Armour Star piqued my interest because…way back when I was working at Good Housekeeping, I had to go through back issues from the 1960s once to photocopy a column called “Every Day is Mother’s Day.” It wasn’t all that exciting and/or interesting…but! I was fascinated by the ads. They were really funny…(or depressing, I guess…depending how you looked at it). They SO clearly played on women’s insecurities…which I suppose they still do today…but it was different then. Less subtle?

There were a few ads that I enjoyed in particular (I think you all know how I feel about Miss Fluffy Rice) and so I photocopied them and framed a couple that now hang in my kitchen.

One of the photocopies? You guessed it: Armour Star Lard…which asked: Whey are the most tender, flaky pie crusts you ever tasted made by someone else?

A: It’s because they use Armour Star Lard.

Who would have ever thought that paranoid crust-makers could *still* procure Armour Star in modern-day Brooklyn?

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