What Makes Good Food Writing

Food is a form of communication.

When someone cooks for you, the food can tell you where they came from, what’s important to them, what influenced them, and what they dream of being and doing. On one plate, everything from the ingredients to the cooking methods to the service style can give you a veritable masterclass in the entire culture the dish came from.

Then there’s people like me who try to write about all of that and what’s more, make a buck off of it. It takes no small amount of hubris to assume you can summarize a multimedia, multi-sensory experience to words on a page. Sometimes the only thing that encourages me in trying to do so is that 1. Someone has to, and 2. People have.

When your office is wherever you want it to be, things usually wind up delicious if a little unglamorous.
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What Restores You?

If anyone was to ask me what I’ve noticed about my professional life in the last year, I would says “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life, but I’m minding it less.” There’s something to be said for getting yourself into a job that provides more eustress (the good kind of stress that comes from challenging yourself or doing something exciting) and distress (which is… well, distressing.)

Stress is still stress, though, and one of my issues is finding ways to “turn it off” and letting myself relax without the feeling of “Yes, I’m relaxing, but surely I could be relaxing more productively…” Sitting down with my therapist, he suggested a good mix of self-love and self-care. “Give yourself permission to not be firing on all cylinders,” “make time for rest,” etcetera. All good advice I need to keep in mind more often. Critical for today, though, was his last suggestion- What activities inspire and restore you?”

Well… that’s what writing used to be. Baking too. Both still work now and again, but the cathartic aspect just doesn’t hit like it used to. THIS is what restores me now.

The author sits on a dimly lit patio, smiling. He is wrapped in a brown shawl.
Chilly night at Bellwether Bar on Stark
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The Flawed Thinking of “Passive Income”

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.

A man counts money sitting in front of a laptop
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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?!”

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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.
Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory puckering his lips pensively.

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.”

If you really want to make a living writing- something I have yet to fully accomplish after nearly a decade– it is definitely not going to be “passive income” and you are going to want to spit in the face of anyone who suggests such. You have to love the work. You have to love the struggle. You have to love working hard in a state of terrible freedom.

And if you’re going to run ads on your blog, make sure they don’t ruin the experience of READING YOUR BLOG.

Stay Classy,

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A Quick Thank You Note

As I type this, Emily is clattering around in the kitchen getting the last few things ready before we run out the door for a belated Thanksgiving dinner with my friend Gwen and her partner, so I am on something of a time constraint. I wanted to write something for this week, but given that I’d been working my whole ass off this week at the pie shop, I just never had the energy to think longer than 20 minutes about it.

In place of a proper entry then, please accept this simple post of “thank you.”

This last year was wild and hard, but I’m thankful for so many things.
First and foremost, the love and presence of Emily, my family, and friends in my life who cheered me on and kept me on the level when things got weird.

I’m grateful that I have a new job in the industry that I love, and one that values my skills and abilities. I feel more excited to work now than I have in the last several years, and Em smiles seeing me come up with new menu ideas. This past week was the hardest have ever worked in my life, but thanks to my amazing team we landed the metaphorical plane. Over 1500 pies in 4 days… I earned a day of doing nothing yesterday.

I’m also beyond thankful to all of you. The readers who enjoy and share my blog, who support me on Patreon, buy my books, and remind me that I have good stories to tell and people that want to hear them.

I’ll be back with more thoughts next week, but Em is in the shower now and that means I ned to back everything up. According to Gwen, dinner’s ready.

Stay Classy, and THANK YOU-

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The BHB’s Latest Food Reads

Tuesdays are Tart Days.
After two days of prepping, making my fillings and setting up my mise en place, I walk in to the bakery of Tuesday, put my stuff down, put on my apron, and prepare to spend the first few hours of my day making upwards of 300 individual 4-inch tarts.

If my mise en place is perfect, I barely have to move. I can just pull down tray after tray, piping or scoop the fillings with an automatic motion, and slip into The Zone. I might perk up to answer questions, take in orders, or help out another baker, but otherwise I’m in my own world.

It’s a perfect time to get some reading in.

A series of books on a shelf. Visible titles are “Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain” “32 Yolks by Eric Ripert,” “The Art of Eaing by M.F.K. Fisher”, “Consider The Fork” by Bee Wilson, “The Physiology of Taste” by Brillat-Savarin,  Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interviews, “ and “Dirt” by Bill Buford
Part of my small food writing library. Recipe books take up another set of shelves.
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