So I Made a Book

Most readers who follow this blog or follow me on Twitter probably already know that I spent the better part of this past year working on a book of food-related essays. Those of you who are not aware – hey, I wrote a book!

I’m posting about it now only because i realized that, in the flurry of activity getting stuff ready for the launch, I haven’t really said much about it here.

Publishing a book is a whole lot of waiting, interspersed with flurries of often stressful activity, in which you do all the grunt work that would be the responsibility of a publisher, should you be so lucky as to score a deal with a mainstream publishing house, which is more and more rare these days.

There are all the things you never think of when you sit down with the intention of becoming a writer, instead picturing yourself banging away at a typewriter, a cigarette hanging from your lips, a bottle of whisky at your side like William Burroughs; or perhaps imagining yourself sitting on the veranda of a hotel cafe in the tropics, watching the world pass by and scribbling away in a journal like Somerset Maugham.

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I’m so Sexy in this Pub

As a collector of pin-up art, and the wife of a beer writer, I am probably more exposed to, and less bothered by, cheeky and puerile beer labels and tap handles than other women. I don’t know if beer labels with cute (hot) cartoon babes actually sell more beer – that would be kind of a sad thing, actually – but they certainly are out there. Here in Ontario, we’re all familiar with Niagara Brewery’s Niagara’s Best Blonde, with the 40s era bombshell on the label. She is not scantily clad, mind you, in fact she’s downright wholesome, but I can see where some women would take issue with an image of a woman being used to sell and promote beer.

Of course, busty women have been a marketing default for beer companies for years, and it’s only lately, with the rising popularity of craft beer, that mainstream brewers have changed gears to be more inclusive of women, portraying them more as beer consumers and less as a set of tits in a bikini top, emerging from a lake to bring the man in the ad a crisp, cold one.

Oddly enough, the “sexy-making” in the beer industry has seemed to revert back to the little guy, with craft brewers, especially in the UK, using sexual imagery and innuendo to gain attention for their products in a market that is becoming ever more saturated with competition.

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Your Fat Makes Me Crazy

If you live in the western world, no doubt you’ve seen or heard about this video, created by a Wisconsin news anchor after receiving a letter from a viewer who was ostensibly “concerned” about her health and her ability to be a role model to viewers.

As a fat woman, I am fully supportive of Jennifer Livingston and her decision to turn the tables on her critic by taking to the air to rebut his passive-aggressive comments (according to the Toronto Star, the two exchanged emails back and forth but when contacted by Associated Press, the man claims to have deleted the email conversation.)

What is disturbing about all of this is that there are people out there who think they have every right to tell a complete stranger what they think of their looks.

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Macleans, Restaurants and Whiny Temper Tantrums

For anyone in the restaurant industry, this week the buzz is all about Maclean’s Magazine and their Canada’s Best Restaurants edition, in which a team of food critics led by Jacob Richler picked the Top 50 restaurants in the country.

Richler knew what he was getting into – the first line of his introduction makes it clear:

However much work goes into such things, they are seldom praised and always attacked – and gleefully.

What has been surprising is just how vehement those attacks are. I’ve seen no glee, just a level of childish pettiness that is embarrassing for the entire restaurant industry.

It would be idealistic to hope that food writers and the chefs and restaurateurs they write about would aspire to a level of maturity and professionalism in their interactions. That they would approach the work of the other with a realization that the “enemy” is just trying to do their job to the best of their ability with fairness and integrity, and that other factors (editors and readers in the case of writers; business partners and staff in the case of the restaurant owners) sometimes come into play. A restaurant review should never be personal, and should never be taken that way. At its best, a review is the perfect example of a symbiotic relationship where food writer and chef help and promote each other’s businesses (a review – good or bad – gives a restaurant publicity, and a popular review helps to sell copies or push traffic to a website).

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Those Who Like It… Have Probably Bought Into the Marketing Scheme

I am, in terms of family history and genealogy, a bit of a mutt. The name Kirby, derived from Kerr, and meaning “by the Kerr”; Kerr being a copse or wood, arrived in England with the Norman invasion and spread to most parts of England, Scotland and even Ireland. The Kirbys have both English and Irish tartans and crests. As far as I know, my family, way way back, came from northern England, around Yorkshire, but no one in our family has ever traced the tree back that far to say for sure. (There’s also a story that gets told when family members have had a bit too much to drink that links us to pirates but the veracity of this yarn is unproven. Still.. yarr!)

In any case, I spent my youth not really feeling as if I had a “culture” per se. Which was alright growing up in Nova Scotia, since most of us were pasty anglo-saxons who had little clue as to what part of the Isles we came from.

It wasn’t until I was older, and when someone else pointed it out as a positive trait, that I looked to my Nova Scotian upbringing as part of my own “culture”.

Living in Toronto, surrounded by ethnic groups where people kept close ties to the motherland and continued to live within their culture (through religion, food, music and even dress), I felt a little lost. Embracing my Nova Scotian upbringing was a anchor for me in a sea of otherness.

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She Works Hard for the Money

In my last post (really? August 24th? Whoops.) I ranted on about how bloggers shouldn’t solicit or accept payment for endorsed posts on their own blogs. And I still firmly believe that. But there is a way for bloggers, especially those with a specific area of expertise, to work with companies and corporations, and that is as a consultant. The oft-touted theory of “I deserve to be paid for my time and effort” doesn’t ring true when you’re being paid to say nice things about a product on your own blog, but when a company comes to you, asking for your help with something they’re producing, you most absolutely deserve to be paid a fair price for your work.

I bring this up now because I have been contacted, yet again, by a corporate entity that expected me to “help” them for free.

The person in question represented a very well-known show on the Food Network. The host of this show has a product line and endorsement deals. Their show is aired internationally. It is safe to presume that the major players involved are making a decent amount of money.

The request I received was for me to call the show’s researcher (long distance) and advise on some places in the Toronto area that would be appropriate for the show to visit on an upcoming trip here. I am familiar with the show only peripherally; I watched part of an episode once and didn’t much care for it, and since we cancelled our cable about six months ago, I haven’t watched anything on the Food Network at all. So I calculated how much research I would have to do to learn about the show and the types of places they covered, as well as how much work I’d have to do to come up with a short list of places that would be appropriate, and I replied via email stating a rate for my consulting services.

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Blogging 101 – Do You Need to Make Money at Blogging?

Allow me to direct your attention to my sidebar momentarily. What do you see there? Your standard archives, search option, a link to my Twitter account and one single solitary ad, for my own publishing company. What don’t you see? Ads for anything else. And that’s because this blog is not a business. I do it for fun, and to promote my own writing and other projects. I don’t expect to make money at it.

For many years, I ran a professional, blog-based website that was a business. It was done with the intention of making money. We ran paid ads in the sidebar. It was registered as a business; we paid business taxes, we had a business account at the bank. But this site, my personal blog, is not something I expect to make money on.

I point out this difference because I think it gets lost on a lot of bloggers. The project that they started out for fun, as a hobby, suddenly becomes something they feel they must make money at. They see a few high-profile bloggers get book deals or report massive traffic and high ad earnings and suddenly doing it for fun doesn’t cut it anymore. They attend blogging conferences where so-called “experts” give seminars on how to “monetize” their sites and all of a sudden they feel entitled to be paid for their time and effort.

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Why I’ll (Probably) Never Publish Your Cookbook

It happened again. My own book is still a couple of months away from publication and already, I am getting pitches from people wanting me to publish their book. Specifically, their cookbook.

The first came via Twitter. (Incidentally – do not ever do this.) A public message asking if I’d be interested in a fun, quirky cookbook. Besides the fact that you destroy any credibility you might have as a serious writer by pitching to a publisher via Twitter, it helps to actually visit the website of the publisher and learn more about them and what they’re looking for, or if they’re accepting submissions at all. That you came across an indie publisher on Twitter and contacted them doesn’t get you points for taking the initiative, it makes you look like someone who is clueless, can’t follow protocol or written instructions, and who probably doesn’t really care about how professionally things are done.

Far moreso in the US than here in Canada, successful bloggers have been able to translate their blogs into book deals. But Canadian publishers have never had a lot of money to do such things and tend to stick with the more tried and true – TV chefs or chefs from restaurants with a strong customer base. And while there are many publishers who offer a lot of cookbooks and obviously do well with them, I don’t want to be one of them.

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Seeing Red

If you watched the last episode of Mad Men this season, you may or may not have noticed a trend towards the use of the colour red strategically throughout the episode.  An article on Slate works on the theory that the red, used at some point to costume each of the female leads, represents female power, as Joan, Peggy and Megan all wear red as they move on to achieve goals or more important roles in their respective careers.

Studies show, however, that the colour red works in a very specific way on men (but not women) to make them amorous. To men, red is the colour of love (which might explain the marketing machine that is red roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day). Photos of women wearing red, as opposed to other colours, were thought by men in the study to be more attractive.

In the restaurant industry, female servers who wore red got better tips from male customers. There was no difference with female customers.

The initial study took place in 2008, and the restaurant study earlier this year. But the phenomenon likely started long ago.

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The Group of 7 Chefs – Go Fish

I’m not sure how I failed to attend a dinner by the Group of 7 Chefs up until now. Timing, finances, their predilection for odd bits of the insides of animals… all may play a role. But when they announced they would be doing a fish and beer dinner, teaming up with Bellwoods Brewery and serving sustainable fish, Greg and I knew we had to go.

The Group of 7 Chefs is actually comprised of more than seven local chefs. Scott Vivian (Beast), Rob Gentile (Buca), Mark Cutrara (Cowbell), Kevin McKenna (Globe and Earth), Matty Matheson (Parts & Labour), Chris Brown (The Stop), Bertrand Alepee (The Tempered Chef), and Marc Dufour (Globe and Earth) are the main crew, but they have been joined occasionally by local chefs Nick Liu (GwaiLo), Guy Rawlings and others, depending on the specific dinner and individual availability.

The premise is that the chefs get together once a month, on a Monday, when they’re all off from their regular gigs, and work together to create a multi-course dinner. There are a few sous chefs helping out, but most of the work is done by the chefs themselves, with everyone helping to cook and plate each others’ dishes, and a grand sense of fun and camaraderie, despite the stress and hard work.

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Skydiving in Literary Form

So, as you probably know, I wrote a book, and I’m in the process of setting up a publishing imprint to self-publish it, and eventually, other books, maybe even by other people. When I tell people this, they often react with a note of awe in their voices. “Wow! That’s amazing, I could never do that.” I find myself confused by this, to be honest. Because writing the book, particularly this book, wasn’t really very hard. About half of the content is new, stories that I intentionally sat down to write for this publication, but about half of it is stuff that I’ve written over the past ten years. Compared to running TasteTO and writing 2 or 3 pieces a day at 500 – 1000 words each, writing a book of essays about my life and food was, well, easy and fun.

Writing a novel, which I did in 2005 (it’s sitting in a drawer, waiting to be published); that was a lot harder. But still not as hard as running a daily-updated website.

What is hard, and scary, and intimidating, is the actual work involved in publishing a book.

Normally, writers who deal with established publishers don’t ever have to deal with the technical aspects of putting together a book. They submit a manuscript, get galleys in return to do edits, and while they may have some say in the cover, or paper quality or overall design, they don’t literally have to set up templates or calculate signatures (those little bundles of sheets of paper that make up the pages of a book) to determine spine width.

I don’t think I have uttered the phrase “This scares the crap out of me!” so many times in my life as I have in the past few weeks.

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Me, I Disconnect From You, Part 2

The film God.Bless.America played last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. I didn’t see it there – too many people. I hate crowds. But I did get a chance to see it recently, and despite a few flaws, it’s probably in my current Top 5 movies of all time. Because who hasn’t dreamed of picking off stupid people with an automatic weapon?

Okay, maybe some of you don’t have that fantasy. Maybe some of you aren’t misanthropic curmudgeons. But I know quite a few people who, given the right circumstances (such as a series of life disasters and a terminal illness) might just say to themselves, “Why the hell not?”

This is not actually a post about who I’d take out if I were in the same situation as Frank, the lead character in Bobcat Goldthwait’s movie. (The husband and I discussed it, though – he’d go after specific celebrities, whereas I’d just stand on the street corner and take down people who text while driving or ride their bikes on the sidewalk), but rather a discussion about the changes in society that lead Frank to snap.

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Farmer’s Market Etiquette

It’s that time of year again – the growing season is in full swing and people everywhere are heading out to the markets to get in on all the tasty fruits and vegetables. But it can get a little crazy out there. A little bit “every man for himself” in what should really be a fun and relaxing experience. Here then, are a few helpful tips.

  • Go with change. Not, you know, in your life overall, but rather in your pocket or perhaps a small change purse. Farmers will love you if you have anything close to exact change. (That’s why most items are priced at either rounded dollar figures or something-fifty. They’re desperately hoping not to have to crack a twenty.) Unless you need your loonies and toonies for the bus or laundry, consider keeping a dish and tossing your loose ones in there for market day.
  • Go with bags. Here in Toronto, many farmers I’ve talked to are super cranky about the city’s looming plastic bag ban, especially farmers who grow things that need to be kept moist, such as greens. So most definitely go with backpacks or reusable bags, but consider bringing a few plastic bags as well for wet or messy stuff.
  • Park the cart. And the stroller. Some outdoor markets are spread out enough that strollers, dogs or shopping buggies are not an encumbrance for other shoppers, but for indoor markets with tiny aisles, please, please, please, leave the wheelie things outside. Not only do you impede the flow, but I’ve actually had my foot driven over. And then gotten yelled at by the entitled Yummy Mummy pushing said stroller for daring to say “Ow!”
  • You squish it, you buy it. Many farmers pick their products at various stages of ripeness. Some of these products (peaches, tomatoes, berries) can be quite delicate when fully ripe. Before you get all touchy-feely, ask. Tell the vendor what you’re looking for, and when you plan on eating/cooking it. They’ll know which items are more ripe or more green and can direct you to the appropriate products. Or they’ll show you how to properly squeeze a peach without turning it into a mushy mess.
  • You knock it on the ground, you buy it.
  • Try the free samples when they’re offered, but keep your five sticky fingers out of the boxes of berries until you’ve paid for them.
  • You get the number of items (berries, beans, etc.) that the farmer puts in the box, which is generally determined by weight. Don’t be stealing extra berries from other boxes to top up your own.
  • An ear of corn includes the husks. Take that shit home and throw it away in your own garbage. Or better yet, a compost bin.
  • Speaking of garbage, if you must carry your coffee cup around the market with you, find an actual garbage bin to discard it in, don’t leave it on some farmer’s table.
  • Lookie-loos, rubberneckers, lollygaggers and tourists – yes, the vegetables are pretty aren’t they? But you know what, some of us are here to get our groceries, so if you need to stand there in awe, kindly step to the side so as not to impede the flow of traffic.
  • Get to know your farmers – but not if there is a line-up behind you. These folks are working and the rest of us have shopping to do. You want to hang out with the guy who grows your beans, make a date and do it on your own time.
  • Be patient. Some markets open as early as 5am, and the farmers have been up since midnight loading their trucks. If they’re not moving as quickly as you’d like (I bought berries last week from a young guy who could barely keep his eyes open), take the time to meditate on how truly fortunate you are to be here at the market on a lovely day, and able to afford beautiful, fresh locally-grown produce.
  • Thank a farmer. They work hard to put food on our plates.
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Me, I Disconnect From You

My husband is a huge Louis C. K. fan. When it was announced that C.K. would headline the JFL42 Festival taking place in Toronto in September, Greg’s brain near exploded with glee. More so when it was announced that another major act would be comedian Patton Oswald. But then we started looking at the ticketing system. Besides a whole bar code thing that prevents people from selling or passing on tickets to events if they can’t use them, it turns out that the only way to order tickets to JFL42 was via Facebook.

Too bad for me then that I’ve deactivated my Facebook account and have no plans at present to use it again.

I get that the festival organizers are trying to be hip or wired in or something, but the whole thing is incredibly illogical, particularly the part requiring attendees to use a particular social media platform to take part.

Over the past few months, while I’ve still been online in some capacity and still check a pared down Twitter feed every day, I’ve been using social media a lot less. At first, this was so that I could concentrate on getting my book written. Most of my previous writing gigs had required that I be tuned in to the local restaurant scene and it was actually a relief to stop worrying about who was opening what where, and which chefs were leaving to open their own businesses, etc.

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Bag Lady Redux

Let me tell you about my bags. I have many.

My black knapsack is my go-to bag for any kind of shopping. I bought it for $15 in 2003 in Chinatown during the SARS epidemic, half off because the shop owner was just so delighted that anybody was in his store at all. Nine years later, it’s seen better days – it’s faded, a couple of parts are broken, and I’ve had to reattach the straps a couple of times. I’ve started looking for a replacement because eventually this bag will die, but in the meantime, I use it at least a few times a week for grocery shopping, running books back and forth to the library and pretty much any other situation where I need to carry stuff. It’s stylish and I get many compliments on the ginormous zipper.

Being car-free (I don’t even have a driver’s licence), all of my shopping requires the process of carrying it home, either by foot or TTC, and in addition to the knapsack, I also use a couple of canvas bags. The Hudson’s Bay bag was purchased for $1 in 1991 and has been used at least once a week for the past 21 years. It used to have a mate but the bottom of that one gave out a few years back, so now I use this canvas bag that I got when I ran the food and drink website TasteTO. It’s not as roomy as the Bay bag, but it’s good and sturdy.

Those three bags are the backbone of most of my shopping expeditions, and I almost never use a plastic bag unless I have bought more stuff than will fit in my regular trio. For really big loads, I also have a shopping buggy, but it’s unwieldy and I try to avoid it if I can.

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