Like most of the internet, I’ve gotten a real kick out of the Tik Tok videos of Dylan Hollis. The vintage style aficionado and self-described amateur food historian has carved a space for himself on the internet with his bombastic personality and humor while testing out recipes spanning the 1800s to early 2000s.
The recipes he tries vary wildly in quality, and the recurrence of typically timely ingredients (especially lard and gelatin) regularly turn into comedic gold. More than once, Dylan strikes oil in his search for tasty recipes (“magic” peanut butter cookies and an eggnog recipe from the 1800s spring quickly to mind) and I sometimes use his videos as inspiration for things I can make at the pie shop.
Most often, I find myself intrigued by the recipes he picks and the trends they exhibit. WHY so much lard in everything made before the 60s? Why so much gelatin in mid-century America? Just HOW freaking high, lonely, horny, or all three must someone have been to create the “Candlelight Salad?”
The answer is, simply, that these recipes- like the books, movies, and music that were enjoyed then- are products of their time. Foodways are a part of culture and one can track the historyand trends of a period of time as easily in a cookbook as you could a textbook.
Some people pick new projects to work on with care. They weigh their existing time and energy, the effectiveness of their efforts at any given moment, and choose their next task efficiently.
I, on the other hand, seem to pick my projects by going “Fuck it,” buying a new 1-subject notebook and a green pen, and burying myself in the internet.
Just because I start researching projects like that though doesn’t mean I jump in haphazardly. I’ve already learned the consequences of that. I know to try and cover all my bases, get the best insight and information I can, and of course get the guidance of pros.
The best thing about being in the food business is that when you decide you’re gonna try something out, there’s tons of people who’ve done it before you and not all of them sucked at it.
Guides and Teachers, NOT Cheerleaders
No mistake, everyone needs a cheer squad- folks who love you, support you, and will remind you of everything you have going for you that will help you succeed- but it’s even better when you have people that you know support you but will grab you by the collar to smack some sense into you.
The ones that will call you out on cutting corners, letting things slide, and acting outside your values. They’ll point out how you are messing up, not mince words, and help you find new ways forward.
As an interesting fact, did you know that the Japanese word for teacher- 先生 (sensei) literally translates as “one who as gone before?” In other words, someone who’s done this before and knows the way.
It’s easy to imagine the best mentors as being like the favorite Wise Old Teachers of our stories and media- Gandalf, Uncle Iroh, Obi Wan Kenobi. Folks like that might exist, but most of us aren’t lucky (or plot-armored) enough for them to find us. We need to seek them out.
That alone is a challenge because there are plenty of people who might have gone before you, but not all of them were successful, or successful the same way you want to be. Part of being a student is being able to learn from everyone, but not FOLLOW everyone.
Everyone Has Something To Teach
My bakery is currently hiring for bakers and servers. After a friend of one of our employees (who left restaurants because of mistreatment, shitty conditions, and general abuse) hemmed and hawed about sending in her application, the employee asked me “Hey, do you mind if I just grab her and bring her over here to meet you? She’s stressing about her resume, her experience… everything!”
I told her she could- that it wasn’t even a real interview, she didn’t have to bring anything, and that she could tour the space, see our work and meet me. Then she could make a better decision.
The friend came by and she seemed nervous at first, but after seeing the chef just standing next to an oven quietly peeling potatoes for Shepards pie and getting a tour of the space, she sent in her application. My assistant later said “Finally! I mean, yeah, we ALL came from shit restaurant jobs- but you’re really cool to work with, I’m okay I think, and her friend is here and having a good time! This is a good place- she doesn’t need to worry so much.”
Regardless of how long I stay with my current kitchen, that fact and statement are what I’m proudest of. More than recipes, more than sales and figures, more than prestige- the fact that I ran a kitchen where my staff felt appreciated, respected, safe, and happy will stay on my resume until the day I die.
I learned to make it that way by paying attention to what I needed in their position, learning from the people who provided it- and learning from the people who didn’t. After all, “if you can’t be a glowing example, be a terrible warning.”
I’ve had bosses and been in business that made me miserable. I wanted to quit the industry all together. At one point, I wanted to end my life. I learned as much from them as I did from the better ones. Instead of “classically” learning to bring up cooks “the way I did,” I learned to do it different.
As a result, my cooks WANT to push themselves. They WANT to learn more, and feel encouraged to do so rather than threatened into perfection. I wouldn’t have realized quite how to communicate and offer that if I hadn’t learned from people who didn’t, or couldn’t.
We can learn from others without choosing to emulate them. For some of our teachers, their best lessons can be “don’t be like me.”
We can learn from everyone, but remember to be picky about who’s in your corner.
I spend way too much time on social media. If it wasn’t the best engine for reaching out to my readers and sharing what I do with a global audience, I would have wiped my accounts ages ago for the sheer amount of half-assed “hot takes” people are encouraged to belch out about everything from Sudanese economics to Dr. Seuss. It really is the dark side of the democratization of knowledge that anyone with a keyboard thinks “I have an opinion and a way to express it, therefore it is just as valid and important as any expert.”
Yes, so says the pastry chef and food writer with a blog who is about to expound on the psychology and philosophy of labor, but stick with me for a minute.
As a guy who works for a living, is trying to create a work environment that his employees can thrive in, and is having difficulty finding qualified help, I think I have some insight into the whole “no one wants to work anymore,” “quiet-quitting/working to contract” kerfufflefiasco mass whining “discussion” that has been making the rounds lately.
When it comes to our favorite recipes- whether it’s the dishes we make for family or the ones we sell at our businesses- whether or not to share recipes can cause a lot of emotion either way you lean. The same people that have no problem sharing the recipes they created might be a little twitchy about sharing their family’s “secret” meatloaf. That goes double if you are in the business of cooking for others. Why would you want to give away your perfect fried chicken recipe where a competitor could get it? Can we protect our recipes? Should we protect our recipes and keep them secret?
The short answers are “Sorta?” and “Only if you really want to.”
I am what you might call a “working man.” I’m also a bit of a workaholic, but that’s its own blog post. What I mean by “working man” is that I work to make a living. The term is usually used for those that do “blue collar” work, but I apply it to anyone who goes to some kind of effort to earn a wage whether it’s from someone else or working for themselves. In other words, they earn money by creating value in the world. Yes, that does include the arts.
Not too long ago, my social media feeds were positively beset by sponsored articles and boosted posts talking about “passive income” and “easy ways to make money.” If the bad car salesman lingo wasn’t enough to indicate the lack of value these articles offered, their suggestions surely did:
“Start a blog and run ads on it! You’ll make money for nothing!”
“Write a book and self-publish. You only have to write the book once!”
“Sign up for one of our apps/partners and earn money taking quizzes or being a secret shopper or telling us what you bought!”
I can’t speak to the efficacy of that last one, but I know the first two pretty well at this point. If you think writing books or a blog is the easy way to a life of wealth and leisure… this post is for you.
Is Passive Income a Thing?
Yes, but also no.
Passive income is popularly defined as money you earn without having to work for it, usually through things like royalties or investments. For example, if you invest in a stock and that stock increases in value, your wealth just increased without you having to do anything related to increasing the value of the stock (provided you then sell it before the value decreases.) Investing in real estate might also be considered “passive income” since, as a landlord, you might develop the land or collect rent on it.
It can be argued, however, that both of those things involve some form of labor. An artist earning royalties still needs to do something to promote themselves and keep earning. Investors need to stay on top of their investments because all investments involve risk and knowing when to get out is vital. Landlords are also usually responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the properties they rent out. Even if those things are handled by other people, someone needs to be creating the value that the person collecting “passive income” amasses. If it’s not them, then who? Think about that next time you negotiate with your boss for a raise.
“But surely Matt, compared to owning property or investing, having a blog or writing a book and selling copies isn’t THAT much work?!”
Super Awesome Blogging Secrets!
Until you get used to all the ins and outs of blogging- CMSs, SEO, scheduling, social media seeding and the like- running a blog is HARD. If you don’t write well,regularly, and material your audience wants, you’ll be waiting a long time before you even see a dime.
I’ve been writing this blog for over 9 years. I still don’t know everything about SEO (but I know a few tricks,) I’ve learned about a couple different CMSs, and I keep a pretty regular schedule. I also write very well and promote my blog regularly.
With all that in mind, some time ago I decided to try running ads on my blog just to see how much it would net me. Ads tend to earn based on the number of clicks, the number of views, or both. Surely with all the work I’ve done, it couldn’t be that hard.
When the ads appeared, I saw a drop in readership. The ads broke up my writing awkwardly and were peddling the same kind of spurious clickbait trash I mentioned above. Few things are more awkward than reading an excellent piece about the emotional toll culinary life takes just to have two paragraphs separated by and add that screams about how “DOCTORS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK TO REMOVE HORNETS FROM YOUR ANUS WITH VINEGAR.”
After 8 months of suffering through this ridiculousness, I finally checked how much money the ads had rolled in.5 cents. For 8 months or making my reading experience miserable and losing a chunk of my audience, the path to easy riches this was certainly not.
I was considering making the work involved in “just write a book!” its own section on this post, but I realized I could easily sum it up in a couple of salient bullet points.
WRITING A BOOK IS HARD. Seriously. Writing a book alone is an accomplishment, and writing one that people actually want to read even more so. Even Amazon will spit your book back out if it thinks it’s completely worthless or contains hateful nonsense. Amazon loves its bottom line more than it loves you or your “freedom of speech.”
SELF-PUBLISHING MEANS SELF-EVERYTHING.Need to advertise your book? That’s on you. Arrange a book tour? Also you. Distribution? Anywhere beyond to folks publishing the book is YOU. The business and financial responsibilities involved in selling books? Hey guess what IT’S YOU.
KEEP WRITING. The best way to to sell your book is through your next book.You have to keep producing. If you want to retire from writing, you better have some other ways of making money or have done a LOT of work that means you can live of of royalities… and keeping your name alive in peoples minds so they buy copies.
Ad Astra Per Alia Porci
John Steinbeck used this Latin phrase as his motto- “To the stars on the wings of a pig”- to describe himself as “a lumbering soul trying to fly.”