Tag Archives: St. Patrick’s Day

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

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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St. Patrick’s Day with Mike Meyers, Judy Garland, Hal, Mal, Jill, Lance Romance, a Whole Lot of Tammies and One Single Barbie.

(…even though I’m not sure any of them are/were Irish…)

I feel like I’ve been in such a rut lately…and, like Austin Powers, my mojo is gone. But…to carry the analogy a bit further, I’ve been unable to find my Dr. Evil and somehow learn a powerful Dorothy-esque lesson that I never really lost it at all.

I still haven’t been baking much…even though a friend recently took me to Costco and I got 72 ounces of chocolate chips and could theoretically bake cookies for every last one of the 2,556,598 people who live in Brooklyn. And, sure, *that* would be one heck of a post…but…let’s be realistic.

Today is March 14…or 3.14…or Pi…which I suppose means I should be making pies. But I’m not. Cat-sitting, yes. Old-bill-shredding, yes. Laundry-doing, yes. Book-draft-tweaking, yes. Golden-Girls-watching, yes. But…pie-baking, no.

I just sort of accepted that maybe I’m not going to have anything to write about for awhile. And…I’ve been pitching stories — a girl’s gotta eat — and I was trying to think of some good ideas for St. Patrick’s Day and *that* got me thinking about the Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, Mississippi and their yearly parade (or, rather, the yearly parade they march in…) and I realized the timing is perfect and I *do* actually have something to write about now.

For the uninitiated, the Sweet Potato Queens are a group of women in Jackson who dress up in spangly green outfits with pink fur and fringe and big red wigs with sparkly crowns and accentuated body parts. They march in Hal and Mal’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade every year and are led by Jill Conner Browne, who calls herself the “Boss Queen,” and has written numerous books on being a Queen that are both amusing and empowering…even though I sort of feel like if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. She’s a good writer — and has definitely found her niche — but I think (and I mean this in the nicest way possible as I really do think it’s a good example of someone who found a way to make a living doing something she loves…) it’s the same brand of fiery Southernisms packaged under different themes, like Love or Money or Divorce or Getting Older. Nothing wrong with it. Just…like I said, if you’ve read one, you pretty much know the gist. (Although…to be fair, I don’t think I’ve read anything after the Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner).

And yet…despite the repetition or whatever, I really like those ladies and part of me wishes I was en route to Jackson for next weekend’s parade.

I went to the parade one year while I was living there…but I only vaguely remember the very end in which Tiny Tim — the Grand Marshal that year — passed by on the back of a convertible with his ukulele. And…it sort of begs the question how I could possibly miss and/or not remember a brassy gang of Southern women in sequined outfits and giant boobs who go by “Tammy” while Lance Romance tickles the ivory and they dance on a float…but I have absolutely no recollection of them. It’s kind of sad. I guess I had different priorities circa 1994…

A few things I *do* remember about the Magnolia State:

  • The boiled (pronounced “bald”) peanuts sold on the side of the road by an old guy with a crusty nose. When my mother first saw his sign, she said, “P-Nuts? What’s that? Pine nuts?” and our real estate agent furrowed her brow and said, “No. Peanuts.”
  • The prisoners wore pants with big green and white stripes and served lunch at a barbecue festival called Red Hot in July…which was a little weird. I’ve never had a felon serve me food before. (I don’t think.)
  • I had my first pulled pork sandwich at Red Hot and Blue (which my parents tried to find again when passing through Jackson last year but it maybe doesn’t exist anymore?).
  • My dad’s coworkers called him, “Mr. Brian,” because they wanted to be respectful, but also friendly…
  • I was on the yearbook staff with the mayor’s son and I played basketball with the Secretary of Agriculture’s daughter…and we had a dress code that said we could only wear t-shirts from the school itself or from colleges…and every time someone walked into the gym in a Yale shirt, my basketball coach would scream and when that person looked around, confused, he’d say, “Well it said, ‘Yale,'” but he pronounced “yell,” and “Yale,” just about exactly the same…or if anyone walked in with a shirt from say, Brown, that wasn’t Brown, he LOVED saying, “That ain’t brown, that’s blue!” (or gray or white or whatever). He was born in California, but only lived there for a few months when he was an infant…and yet still felt we had some sort of bond because of it. “My mama said you could get green beans real cheap there,” he’d say. He was the first person I ever met who actually chewed tobacco and he would spit it into the back of his truck. And, for whatever reason, I can remember him talking about getting fire ants in the innards of his truck and watching them spit out at him when he turned on the AC.
  • Mississippi also introduced me to king cake and beignets (I’m not a big fan of either)…fried pickles (which I like better), a grocery store chain called Jitney Jungle…and the sweetest little four-year-old boy named Connor who used to live next door to me and who I used to babysit every Saturday night. He saw Free Willy and fell in love with orcas…and, 15 years later, I still have a drawing on my refrigerator that he made for me with the Ross Barnett Reservoir and his house and some boats and the warning, “No Killing Orcas.” It’s really scary to think that he’s 19 now…and the same age as Levi Johnston. He was just such a sweet little boy…and — spoiler alert — I’ve often thought that if I ever have a son, the name Connor will be at the top of my list.

These are just random memories from Mississippi…and don’t likely paint a very good picture. I haven’t been back since…1996? 1997? I imagine a lot has changed. But it’s what I remember. (And I say this even after catching a little bit of Wanda Sykes last night in which she interviewed Constance McMillen and said that Mississippi always has a knack for being on the wrong side of history…and…gotta admit she sorta had a point…)

Back to the Queens: I’m not really sure how Jill Conner Browne became the Boss Queen…but I’m glad she did. She’s definitely on the list of people I admire (…and whose career paths I wouldn’t mind following…) From what I’ve gathered in her books, it sounds like things haven’t always been easy for her — she’s divorced and was a single mother and it took her a long time to find the Cutest Boy in the World…so, I mean, I guess I see her as another example of how important it is to be tenacious and that things work out when they’re meant to be…even if it doesn’t always make sense when you’re in the thick of it. (Amen? [Seemed the appropriate way to end that paragraph…])

And, heck, I think this whole thing got started when she decided to declare herself a queen one day. Which sort of begs the question why I don’t just call myself the Queen of Something and get the ball rolling. But I can’t really think of anything that I’d like to be the Queen of — Artichokes? Endives? Soybeans? — nor do I really have a place to march…or anyone to play the piano for me as I do it. Although — one thing’s for sure: I’m pretty sure the Sweet Potato Queens got the boob thing right. I have a friend who went as Doralee from 9 to 5 for Halloween…and she told me that she learned that men do not care what your boobs are made of as long as they are huge. So…perhaps the lesson here is that I should get a boob job if I want a successful media career?

Or…I could always marry a pop star from the 70s?

Frank Bruni wrote a story recently about Katie Lee (formerly Joel)…and, gotta say, I envy this chick’s life. Basically everything I want to do (with the exception of my own cooking show and marrying Billy Joel), she’s either done or has in the works: the Chelsea-Handler-esque collection of short stories; the monthly entertaining column in Cosmo; the Good Morning America appearances…if I had accomplished any one of those things, I might be happy to rest on my laurels for all eternity. (It also sort of reminds me of those bumper stickers that say, “I want to be just like Barbie — that bitch has everything!” Except my bumper sticker would say, “I want to be just like Katie Lee…”? No. That can’t be right either…)

Or, you know, maybe I can just print my resume on a shirt…?

I’m not sure how we ended up here. It’s a long way from existential crises to Happy St. Patrick’s Day…but, believe it or not, that was my point. So. I’ll slam the brakes and throw this post in reverse and wrap things up with, “Don’t forget to wear green on Wednesday! And have a happy St. Patty’s Day…!”

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