Individual Exceptionalism, The Myth of Gatekeeping, and Self-Imposed Barriers of Progress
TL;DR: Gatekeeping is an illogical, fear-mongering, scapegoat-esqe phrase that discourages creators from attempting cuisine of another culture or even attempting to be a better blogger. The outright refusal of bloggers to change their recipe development tenets is fostering a watered down, sterile, and toxic environment where food is bastardized and homogeneous.
For some background context (skip down a paragraph if you've heard this before on my IG stories): in early July, I read through a recipe of someone I follow (of which I will not link to) for a Vietnamese-inspired "Banh Mi Burger" and its apparent lack of actual Vietnamese inspiration. Approximately zero of the ingredients had anything to do with Southeast Asia, and seemed to instead be loosely tied to a general Asian inspiration (at best, as if adding ginger and garlic to an item immediately makes it Asian). I have witnessed several bastardizations of Asian cuisine over the years, especially as it has risen in popularity in social spaces in general. I left an educational critique of how the dish could be better, encouraged her to explore options, or at least inform the comment was deleted and I was met with a retort from the blogger that her recipe was indeed representative of Vietnamese fusion and that she would not be editing her recipe. To myself and countless others in my social sphere, this is wholly unacceptable behavior from any blogger that makes food content, much less for one that financially profits from one's content.
When blogging is intrinsically tied to your income (or arguably your self worth if you do it for the likes on social media), you may begin treating your feed and content cycle as you would a job, maybe a job that is your dream career. You pump out content to set yourself apart from the pack, as social media would dictate, you attempt to innovate, inspire others, have your ego stroked. This predominantly happens at the intermediate level of food blogging and recipe development, where you publish your recipes online but have not expanded into print media (yet). You desire to extract the maximum profit for the least amount of work possible. However, in doing so, you compromise the integrity of your blog and recipes by being lax in research, development of, procurement of ingredients, and an overall education from your reader base. Any threat of that cushioned, relaxed atmosphere is an attack on you and your brand, so naturally when someone asks you to do better, you see this as an affront to your personal self. Thus, there is a natural resistance to change, to be better, and to be more inclusive in food media, and this stems directly from toxic individualism and the designed systems of social media to highlight and incentivize egocentricity (having little or no regard for interests, beliefs, or attitudes other than one's own).
The strawman argument often placed at one's feet when confronted with tiptoeing into another culture's food "Someone will *always* find something wrong with what I made! I'm just not even going to try so I don't offend." Or in other words, bloggers fear the concept of being gatekept out of a certain community, because of X different reasons. False. I am deriving this from purely anecdotal evidence talking with my friends, but I have received nothing but support for cooking foods from their shared culture. People (ideally the friends that you share the dish with) get excited when you make some of their favorite dishes - similarly anecdotally, recall how excited *you* are when someone makes *your* recipe for a weeknight dinner. Ignore the petulance of that statement, but are you letting your own stubbornness or unwillingness to learn get in the way of you experiencing food outside your normal rotation? Perfection as it applies to a dish is also highly overrated and illogically unattainable, as I stated in my last blog post, that objective markers of food do not exist. A fear of being critiqued by a small minority of an already misrepresented small minority is a) shifting the blame for your own shortcomings onto someone else and b) oddly selfish and skittish that one person can dictate to you what food you cannot make. Yes, this *is* deeply ironic as you read a singular blog post by a white guy on how to make responsible content, thanks for noticing.
"They just don't want me to mess up their food..." Correct. After generations of white American society bastardizing their food and culture (see: vilification of Chinese American restaurants, etc), how would people in a culture NOT be upset? When presented with a "guilt" or hesitation about cooking another culture's food many "...obviously missed the point on what [I was] talking about...or what it means for people of other culture (especially minorities to see food of their heritage portrayed as such" (Wendy @theciaofandiary on Instagram). In reality, we are all guilty of content that could use some work, and it may even come from a place of ignorance or no cognizance, but look at the response a creator has to becoming more informed...a genuine reaction should be obviously respectful, introspective, and lack excuses. "How can *I* make this food better or be more faithful to its origins?", "I'm sorry that I missed the mark, I will do better next time", are things you should hear. I know for a fact, that many bloggers plan out their content weeks or months in advance, so there is little excuse to rush through a project.
I did not begin cooking a large share of dishes spanning all of Asia to pander to a certain audience, or to try to dethrone individuals from their already held authoritative positions on the subject. I do not use my position to seem 'novel' or 'unique' being "that one white guy that cooks a bunch of Asian food" (or at least I attempt to make this not my online persona, any Cas Nai Nai jokes aside). None of my actions online, Instagram posts, countless hours of research poring over odd-corner of the internet blogs, or developed recipes are meant as a political move to monetarily capitalize on bringing these foods to the West or making them accessible for a traditionally American palate. I am similarly not here to tell you to not cook a dish; humans have free will (arguably maybe: see every piece of postmodern philosophy of the 21st century). I am here to hold you to the same standard I hold myself when I develop a recipe from my own or someone else's culture. Even when I am transcribing a dominantly Sichuan Chinese dish, it is not mine, I am not claiming it as mine, I am simply as described before, the transcriber, a borrower of knowledge, technique, and my own learned experience from consuming good content on social media. For every critique or even helpful tip you may have received from a person of color, I can show you the hundreds of messages and responses from people extremely proud of my work. This is not to be a signal of me braggadociously stating how good my content is.
Much like the rising idea of American Exceptionalism, where our toxic past has led us to believe we, as Americans, can do no wrong, and are thus immune to criticism, there is an overarching sentiment of what I am calling Individualistic Exceptionalism in food blogging. Bloggers a) are wholly unprepared to receive criticism, b) may not realize that their baseline level of effort is insufficient in many aspects, c) are simply not incentivized to do better or speak up against poor representation d) are performing a 21st Century equivalent of Manifest Destiny, where dishes are claimed by the author, with no regard to its origins. If you might have guessed, these aspects apply directly to food blogging. Whether that be from "giving a recipe the ol' college try", a sense that one is congratulated for the bare minimum effort pervades online spaces and food bloggers - you might imagine that this is a toxic mentality because it fosters little to no drive to champion good practices in blogging. Putting forth the same effort in a recipe of your own culture does not equate to that same effort in representing a dish that is NOT yours. Similar to how a critique or concern about the systems in place is often seen as the complete denouncement of the parent object, collectively, bloggers see criticism as personal attacks - I have noticed this from the outright refusal (from some) to learn from mistakes or even really accept criticism from any source.
One telling example of criticisms being taken as attack, an excerpt from a conversation I had a few weeks ago with @mealsbymalek on Instagram: upon sharing the case of misrepresentation, I was able to have an open dialogue with him, and he brought up good counterpoints, and even points that needed some clarification or expansion upon. "This was a really good discussion...It's nice to be able to talk and disagree without getting defensive". The points he brought up were completely valid, and in his own words, he felt refreshed that I didn't completely shut him down, that "upped my faith in mankind a little bit more today." This is a base reaction that should be present in us as content creators, and yet...the surrounding context of the previous sentiment would lead us to believe the opposite is true.
Collectively, nothing has been learned from now almost two months of campaigns on social media to be a better ally (you know the performative activism pieces for starters, but is also not limited to those pink and green pastel-background squares with "3 steps to anti-racism"), to support diverse creators, and to produce more enlightening, thoughtful content. Allyship and germane actions of anti-racism fall on deaf ears and lazy hands for some, or in some cases has missed all impact for those who want to turn a blind eye to injustices, as it would negatively affect their personal brand or bottom line. Those who are hesitant to change explicitly benefit off the systems in place that condone bastardization in the first place. The alarm bells of the obvious parallels to white privilege should be ringing in your head. Meaningful change of the system and its empowered bad actors is uncomfortable for those in positions of perceived power. We must progress food media beyond its current stale iterations, styles, and behaviors that plague it: "It's not good to be comfortable and stay in status quo" - Wendy @theciaofandiary on Instagram. Complacency breeds a lack of creativity and a narrow mind. But as mentioned above, there is no real incentive to do so because it requires effort: "It's more work to do what [I'm] saying they should do, so why change if it works for them[?]...You need to do you so they can continue what they [are doing]" - Candy from Soupbelly (@soupbelly_atl on Instagram).
As for a solution or a handily accessible bulleted list of items for making sure you are representing a culture correctly? There are plenty. They do, however, require effort. Effort that will pay you dividends, but it is our responsibility to do our due diligence.
I) If you are making content from a culture that is not your own, and have questions, concerns, or are worried it may not correctly represent that culture: talk to your followers, friends, and colleagues about it. This is by far the easiest barrier to entry. You should be exposing yourself and making friends with a diverse following, anyway, so earn your humility badge and talk to them about a recipe you're working on. Their voices should be heard, or at the very least your platform should highlight their viewpoint(s).
II) Ensure that you are careful about wording related to "authentic". Be prepared to learn that your notions of that food item may be skewed from a limited exposure to that dish. This is also solved by talking to other creators. If you are using the term "authentic", I expect a cookbook from you soon, as I know it can take months, years, and/or lifetimes of intense practice and ingrained exposure to fully master singular techniques. Some argue that individuals from outside a culture (namely white people) cannot place a badge of authenticity on a dish, but I have not made up my mind on this, it seems to lack nuance and is too restrictive. Maybe let's talk about this point in the future.
III) Realize that your recipe can and will have shortcuts and compromises based on your availability "I call them 'my version'...it should be clearly stated what you have concocted is not meant to be authentic, but a quick fix for your personal solution". - Priya from TheGheeSpot (@mistressghee on Instagram). Some days, I cannot find select ingredients for a dish I am trying to make. If it is critical, I will not make the dish until I have the ingredients, or will go back to the internet to research alternatives. Nobody is out to say that your soy sauce should be home-brewed from soybeans you grew yourself, or that the deeply umami shrimp paste of Thailand or Malaysia need to be made yourself. Sometimes, you can't find a garnish, and this is fine; as I have stated multiple times, recognize the origins, offer alternatives.
IV) Acknowledge the danger in classifying your dish as an "interpretation". The term "interpretation" itself has been overused, and has lost a lot of its meaning, but this is not to say that interpretation is inherently bad. Food is a fluid concept throughout cultures sharing and mixing, as people traverse tracts of land or as ideas change. Tom Yum Soup from Thailand is not a monolithic, unwavering concept. Flavors can and will change as you travel around the planet. "interpretation is always welcome as long as the original recipe is respected...[it] is inevitable, like you said, because of migration, what the land can offer, etc" - Wendy @theciaofandiary on Instagram.
V) Explicitly cite sources of inspiration or technique. I will be the first to admit that I need to be better about this, and I really have no excuse; you likely keep a detailed journal for recipe development or even a bullet journal for your day-to-day existence, why not keep a rolling tally of citations for posts, articles, and recipes you find inspiring?
For you as the creator/blogger, you certainly have no contractual obligation to make conscious changes in your feed and content, because I am not your social media manager nor do I have authority over your artistic intent. However, you do have a moral responsibility and duty to do so under progressive 21st Century ideals; I honestly cannot see a defense for this reprehensible behavior where bloggers steal from, manipulate dishes from, and misrepresent other cultures. This cultural litmus test, however, is easy to pass if you put in effort just above the bare minimum. Now, go make some delicious food.
Food, Authenticity, and Intent
This is a collection of thoughts and ideas I have been pondering over the course of the past few weeks and months on where food, food media, collectivism, and (slightly ironically) individualism are trending towards. It might get ramble-y at times, but these ideas need to be said.
Screened under both the lens of what has transpired at Bon Appetit (not going to bother with the grave accent, because they don’t really deserve that recognition right now), and the culmination of centuries of racial tension in America, there has been a growing conversation about truly representative food, the presence of diverse voices in food media, and tokenism in our shared space. I won’t mince words, this dialogue needed to happen; mainstream, mass appeal, and popular food media is extremely white. Deeply ironic for a white guy to say, but for the sake of conversation, humor me. A lack of representation, authenticity, and intent damages our thought processes as humans (much less as creators or as a ‘brand’), and at times is offensive to entire cultures when we omit these ideas from food and own consciousness.
Too often are we enticed by the addition of some low-hanging SEO key-phrases such as “Asian inspired X”, “Authentic Y”, “Z Fusion”, etc in our vernacular to describe a dish we have cooked. Often, these recipes or ideas are astoundingly average and/or lack nuance when one needs to sufficiently talk about a food. Even more so, they are often white washed to appeal to a predominantly Western palate (either intently, or subconsciously because this mass-market appeal will ‘sell’). For example, “Asian inspired chicken bake”: what does this mean exactly? Asia is a pretty big place, you know? You have successfully taken one of the most complex histories and traditions and food and completely sanitized it down to putting soy sauce on chicken. Food media and its consumption has become a vast ocean with a lack of authenticity, somewhat by design, as a rudderless entity hellbent on being free of gatekeepers on food (even though Italians would have it be that way). Don’t get me wrong, food SHOULD be accessible; everyone has to eat a few times a day, and we are programmed to enjoy a variety of food (there is science on this subject), but a standard needs to be set. Perhaps not a global standard that applies to every individual making food content, but we should strive to be paragons of intentional food content creation. Attempts to lower the bar so far to the point of trivializing are damning, you stray far too close to Theseus’ Ship (wow, a lot of nautical themed analogies today) when you start replacing ingredients. Now, am I saying you have to make a pilgrimage to Calabria to find the freshest of peppers for your piquant stew you’re making? Of course not, stay within your means (there is an entire other essay on food privilege that could be said here). But seek out local markets where you can at least get close to the ideas and flavors that should be captured. Break out of your comfort zone and look around for Pixian doubanjiang (ask around, 90%+ of people would be glad to help you find something), or actual Thai eggplants instead of going with the big purple emoji one you’re used to seeing in your DMs. If you cannot find the exact ingredient, consider consulting with someone more experienced to guide you in the right direction. Don’t a) let that shy you away from experiencing a new dish or b) self-censor yourself because you would be afraid ingredient X will be too off-putting for your audience or your own palate. Cultural sanitation has occurred many times in food spaces, with restaurants trying to “clean” Chinese food (implying it is dirty), by removing key aspects like MSG from a food because of dubious scientific claims, or by succumbing to reductionist thinking by saying pho bo is just pot au feu from the French (which again, is itself its own essay on food colonialism).
Food does not have to be this monolithic entity; there is no Ministry of Food (yet, at least) to keep individuals siloed into camps that “Cas, you must cook Vietnamese food”, and by that, I also mean that cultures and ideas of food morph into a collective mass of trends combined with traditions.
I am breaking the self-made mold and veneer-like brand of scientific thinking here to iterate: food is simply more than science and technique. Shocking to hear coming out of my [digital] mouth, I know. Food is a (if not one of *the* most effective) medium in which shared cultures, lineages, and ideas can transcend physical space and time (even death) to make an impact on our lives. This is one of the surrounding theses behind Anthony Bourdain’s line of thought and philosophy he talks about in his various shows and books. The lowest barrier of entry to even begin appreciation of a culture that differs from yours is to eat their food and listen to the people surrounding you when you eat it. Acknowledge this cultural divide and appreciate it, lest your meals or way of thought become routine, homogeneous, and identical. Listen to the people telling their story about food (yes, even if it is Becky reminiscing about how mashed potatoes remind her of her grandmother). Oftentimes, the candidness and authenticity of someone speaking about something he or she loves is a truly moving and powerful moment, especially on platforms like Instagram where we have the upfront aesthetics of the photo put on a pedestal far above any actual content below said photo. Appreciate the conversation. Appreciate the time and effort put into expression. Appreciate the memories someone halfway across the planet decided to share with you.
Acknowledge that food is iterative, people of all backgrounds have come before you to set the stage. Food, at least at the level in which 99% of people operate, is rarely revolutionary. You did not discover a life-changing kitchen hack. You did not invent a new method of cooking X. You did not discover that cilantro would taste good in place of parsley. You are not the first person to think that umami-filled caramelized onions would taste good in a pasta sauce (no shit). You have inspirations, whether you want to believe it or not. This content denialism happens on a massive scale, in this semi-Mandela Effect manner, and I believe it is intentional because it can serve as a carte blanche for making oneself seem more genuine than he or she is. YouTube media figures do this all the time, with a sort of of “well, *I* have months long content ideas, it just so happens me and John Doe published a macaroni and cheese video within 3 days of each other” aura. Credit erasure is subversively intentional, and it can be extremely damaging when coupled with the exploitation of a culture or one of its dishes for the benefit of the content creator. Diet Plagiarism. Bargain Bin Cultural Appropriation.
On cultural appropriation, some can view this as a motivation to “stay in one’s lane and never branch out”. I vehemently disagree with this assertion, under the caveat(s) that you give a dish or technique the same (if not more) respect than you would give your own. I have *never* received an angry DM that I “shouldn’t be profiteering off cooking all this Asian food”, nor have I intentionally sought to “claim” Sichuan Chili Oil as my own invention (see above) in some strange Christ*pher Columbian discovery of the 21st Century. I have definitely received feedback on some topics such as “you misspelled this”, “usually we tend to eat the rice and curry separately [maybe don’t toss it in a bowl together]”, etc. I welcome these comments, it is how I learn, as we can’t learn everything through print media. This is constructive criticism at its core though, y’all. American students (and society at large) are never taught how to take (or really dole out) meaningful critiques, so we can view this as an attack or accusation that we are not doing our due diligence – in some cases this is warranted, by all means, when someone decides to inauthentically toss some random meat into a tortilla (and even go so far as calling it a tortilla shell), and proclaiming it is an XYZ taco. Toxic individualism can be somewhat to blame for this and the growing use of cultural appropriation, however, as the need to stand out amongst a sea of tray bakes and one-skillet pasta dishes. So the low-hanging fruit approach is to bastardize concept A from a culture or to take technique B and loosely apply it to foodstuff C. Does this rule out the concept of fusion entirely? Not exactly, especially not when both ends of the stick are treated with respect (maybe this is a topic for another discussion). There are however, a finite number of combinations to apply, so be careful, and don’t masquerade your idea of taking Korean ingredients and putting them with tortillas as Korean nachos as your own invention.
Diversify your following and exposure to food accounts. Praise the accounts that cook a variety of dishes with great precision. We are nearly a month deep into a revelatory period where people are examining their following and followers for diversity. Embrace this, because I know I can do a lot better. Be your own individual on social media, while also respecting cultures and realizing that food is a great binder of humanity.
All of this rambling, just to say that food and cooking should (and must) be done with judicious commitment and purpose, it must be made with intent, thought about, pondered upon, reflected on, else we do our cultural influencers (both intrinsically and extrinsically), our audience, and ourselves a great disservice. After all, posting pictures on Instagram would be excessively boring if everything coalesces into a sheet pan dinner, instant pot solution, or Mexican-inspired chicken stew.
Sacrificing upwards of 50 g of flour per day to the levain gods isn't really a sustainable model, nor is it convenient - eventually we'd like to get back to a regular schedule, right?
So, how do you put your bread adventures on hold, without needing to wait 5-6 days to start a new culture of yeast from scratch? People often throw their starter in the back of the fridge in a glass jar to sit in timeout, right next to the bread and butter pickles that you regret buying because B&B are absolutely disgusting. Don't @ me. But if your fridge is at all unlike a professional kitchen's (read: a superposition of controlled and uncontrolled chaos), you'll forget about it. For weeks, or at worst, months, you'll have a still slowly fermenting jar of flour sludge (alas! is that mold also? can we bake mold? *frantically Googles*). You can certainly do this if you know you'll be back on the sourdough train within a week or two - hey, we all need breaks. Any longer though, and you'll need to almost pay more attention to it than if it were freely fermenting on your counter. You can read conflicting answers on how to store it in the cold recess of your fridge: open top, tight lid, only cheesecloth, cheesecloth plus a rubber band, cheesecloth with a layer of parchment as well, cheesecloth with the blessings of Martin Luther himself. And truthfully, you've already had a cold fermented loaf before - you know the yeast doesn't just stop being active at 35-38 deg F. It will keep fermenting and accumulating excess acidity in an uncontrolled fashion. So what's the point? What's the solution?
Don't put your starter in the fridge.
At the point where you have a healthy sourdough starter (i.e. it can easily double in volume after feeding over the course of 5-6 hours), you'll have excess. The discard. You've seen the bakers on the 'gram making everything from sourdough pasta, to sourdough pie crusts, to sourdough biscuits, sourdough liege waffles, to sourdough hair ties. I generally do not fall into this camp of what I do with my discard. I cannot sustainably eat or store the baked goods that you can make from an every day discard schedule. I'm sorry, sometimes I just don't want discard pancakes - read: very often I do not want discard pancakes.
But Cas, that seems supremely wasteful to just throw away the flour and water mixture resulting in a yeast colony that you worked so hard to cultivate by doing absolutely nothing but awaiting the cruel passage of time, right? Right. You can toss it. I'm not going to judge you, but remember, the more you throw away when you aren't under the explicit plans to bake loaves of sourdough within the next several days to a week, the more flour you wind up wasting in the long run.
That was merely an aside to the true argument I want to make here: dehydrate and freeze your starter. What are the chemical and physical process that are keeping your yeast colony alive? The presence of liquid water and above freezing temperatures - you know damn well it's harder to make a new sourdough starter in the winter than it is in the summer due to differences in ambient temperature. Solve this problem by spreading out your discard (or your entire ripe levain) onto a silicone mat as thin as you can - I use an offset spatula to aid with this. It'll get sticky, but whatever, you were going to throw the starter away anyway. Let this sit out, uncovered, in a dry-ish room temperature location in your house. If you have a crafts room, feel free to use that, but you'll need to make sure it goes undisturbed for 2-3 days while it completely dehydrates. If you were to somehow suck all of the water content out of your starter, it would surely kill it, but by slowly starving it of water, the colony sacrifices parts of itself to save the whole (maybe the analogy here is broken, but hopefully you get what I'm talking about). Smooth gradient dehydration. Don't try to speed this up in a warm oven or anything, let nature do its magic.
Once you can easily pick up the sheet of dehydrated starter and snap it like a Christmas cookie, do just that. Break it up into tiny chunks like you're reenacting the one scene from Breaking Bad, you know...the one where they make meth. Weigh out the starter and place into a freezer bag, and FFS, label the bag with how much you have, it'll make your life much easier. Toss that bag into the freezer. Congratulations, you've now preserved a portion of your culture that you took so long to make in the first place (unless you were gifted an already ripe sourdough).
But the temperature!! Won't this kill the yeast)? It will not. Commercial yeast production facilities essentially flash freeze and coat their yeast with a protective barrier to place into those nice little packets. Recall that the yeast SLOWS DOWN at fridge temperatures, but will essentially go dormant at near-zero deg F temperatures. You can now call yourself a preservationist for your lactobacillius.
When the spark of sourdough strikes you again, or for when you have another protracted length of time when you're home for say, a pandemic, you can start your addiction much quicker than going from scratch. And is much less of a pain than taking up precious fresh food storage in your refrigerator.
Simply take 30-40 g of your broken chunks of frozen starter and place into a jar with equal parts room temperature water. Let that sit for 2-3 hours and give it a stir to make sure your chunks are well hydrated. If you smell it, you should already be getting whiffs of acidity and sourness. Once you have a tahini-like consistency in your starter, give it a small feed (if you normally feed 50 g of flour and water each day, go with 25 g on this first one), and check back in after another 4 hours. If there isn't any activity, let it go another 4, or until you start to see activity and bubbles popping on the now ideally domed surface of your starter. After 2 subsequent days of regular feeding, your starter is now ready to be baked with for full loaves of bread. Record time, if you ask me.
For testing purposes, I have now successfully revived frozen, dehydrated starters 3 times, all from the same mother starter at regular intervals (after 6 months, 12 months, and 18 months). They are all winners. I have some data to show a side-by-side of how a frozen starter and a fresh starter compare at the same time interval. 5-6 days on average for a fresh starter; 2-3 days for the frozen one. The math is there, folks.
As a closing remark, I want to remind you of the crucial second element: temperature. Your dehydrated starter will fizzle out in activity if you do not put it into your freezer. I conducted an experiment where I took the same dehydrated chunks and tossed them in my room temperature pantry and attempted a revival after 12 months. This did not work, even after several days of feeding. By then, the yeast is fully dead. I don't recommend this.
I have plenty of pictures to below that show the process of revival and dehydration process. Ask me if you have any questions or need clarification in the comments below, or email me at my contact page.
Comparison of two sourdough starters that were revived at the same time, each measurement on each day on the x-axis is at 5PM after an 8AM feeding schedule, identical amounts of whole wheat flour and room temperature tap water for both. (color online: frozen starter in blue, fresh starter in orange) Note: on day 2.5, I was able to measure the height over lunch, indicating that the frozen starter had reached its activity peak for the day and had sank down by the time I measured again at 5PM
Instagram has connected me with an overwhelming level of supportive, real individuals who encourage me to expand the repressed creative urges (thanks science). People are generally more than willing to go to bat for you and your content if you truly put your soul and energy into it. You'll (and we'll by extension) share recipes, ideas, helpful commentary and/or critique, product reviews, and even passing massive heart eye emojis in the comments. You're all sharing your experience(s) in the kitchen, whether they be good, bad, a complete disaster, or the beginning of something that is truly joyful. It becomes a creative outlet for you, displaying the confidence to be able to express your feelings on a passion through writing about food in my case. Life is good. You enjoy the challenge. You enjoy the experimentation. You enjoy the social aspect of it.
Continuing to do this will inevitably grow your audience. An increase in your influence will inevitably lead to branded, sponsored content appearing in your feed. You might get a DM, an email, maybe even a phone call (for all you freaks that keep a phone number on your 'gram profile) from people that enjoy your content. What's this? You want to send me a bottle or two of wine to use in a recipe? Hell yeah I love free shit, plus I can easily take down a bottle of wine in an evening. And that's your downfall as a creator; that's where integrity begins to erode, not by your doing, but by the temptation from someone or something much more nefarious than it seems.
Brands. I'm talking about the toxicity of brands and sponsored content here, if you aren't catching on.
Brands that are looking to increase their digital presence online can farm out their work to third-party advertising agencies to do the work of setting up social media posts, promotion, etc. A lot of these agencies are looking to exploit the carrot-on-a-stick mentality of giving you two bottles of (subpar) wine to, what is essentially, buy the cheapest advertising space they will ever purchase. Payment in cold hard cash for services rendered? Blasphemy, this [INSERT PRODUCT] is just as good as cash (can only be redeemed at Chuck-E-Cheezes in Indiana and Ohio only). I hesitate to call this a consciously malicious practice, in that they are complicit in the exploitation of adventurous/enthusiastic content creators who may be creating content to challenge themselves in the kitchen, but it definitely exploitative in nature.
A brand that seeks to do this level of grassroots advertising and outreach is similarly capable of reaching a plurality of potential sources for new advertising opportunities. Creator A talks about a product, Creator B finds out the connection and pushes the same product onto his or her audience. The cycle multiplies, arguably faster than traditional print media, broadcast media or otherwise. It is clear which party holds the power and the largest share of what is to gain. You've all seen the meme where someone claps back to an eXpoSurE agreement instead of monetary compensation, saying that their rent is only 43 or whatever the number exposures per month. Exposure can be good for people like me who aren't necessarily in love with the idea of monetization of my content. So a share is great to gain a following; we all want to be popular and liked, I'm not here to argue the point of social media, go read a sociological thesis on the matter.
Brands also inherently affect your editorial, oftentimes by design. How can I possibly write an even average review for something I didn't buy and was "gifted" to me (knowing well that there's a very slim probability I'd ever jump at the product on a Tuesday night grocery run). I HAVE to endorse this somehow, even worse whenever the agency requests that you include a 200 word essay and links back to their client's website, thus completing the trauma cycle induced by 8th grade writing assignments as a kid. By displaying a brand, not out of your own will, but as an obligation for receipt of a product, you have opened your entire audience to a subversive advertisement that some cannot distinguish from a genuine endorsement.
I have turned down more brands than I have worked with based in part by their reputation amongst other creators online, but mainly with complete and utter confusion how their product that would fit anywhere inside my aesthetic or cooking philosophy. Yeah, sure an instant ramen packet would be PERFECT for my line of cooking, as would pre-bottled combinations of brown sugar, soy sauce, and hoisin. I want to be extremely careful with what products I endorse or feel comfortable working with on a regular basis. Otherwise, I lose all credibility in my perceived authority in my sphere of a thousand people that know I exist. I personally hold little to no brand loyalty, or at least publicly. I have certain things that I can speak for in private or things that I prefer to use in my own kitchen, but the farcical activity of incessantly posting branded content and tagging the multi million dollar company on Instagram will do you or I no good. Cooking *isn't* all about having the next biggest line of (insert haughty french name tourtière dish) to show off to your entertaining buddies.
Allow me to wax my self-indulgent philosophizing to say that cooking is one of the base human instincts that keep us alive. Anyone can do it, our ancestors did it with extremely primitive tools, people in dimly lit YouTube videos do it. You don't NEED expensive equipment to do it (at any level, I've seen extremely good cooking out of very basic kitchen gadgets). Skill, enthusiasm, and research make a good cook. Not a "perfectly balanced" Riesling with ye olde foode photographye props. I'm not here to argue if fancy tools make the job easier, they arguably do, but that's not the point of this essay.
I hope that none of this information is revelatory at all, and that *I'm* the only naive asshole willing to make content for what is now free labor.
All of that, just to say: There will be *no* more sponsored content on my page for the forseeable future. My vision and cooking philosophy was challenged by a recent encounter, and I will simply not be taking product without payment in addition. I encourage you to do the same. This practice is as toxic as it is unfair to creators such as myself, if you even consider me a creator.
Now that we're at the end...it's painfully clear I am specifically not pleased with my dealings with Pacific Rim wines or their hired ad agency THAT Agency (referred to as TA). Do not work with this company, and I would implore you to spread this knowledge.
Stop reading here if you don't care about the specifics or drama. Thanks for coming.
To summarize my dealings: I was asked to create content in return for two bottles of wine (valued at a whopping $24 total) and a non-specific amount of exposure on their social media platform(s) totally 1 million impressions annually. Lemme know if that's actually an impressive number (it isn't). The representative from TA (let's call her Obama) that set me up with the deal initially gave no indication on a time frame to post the content, an important detail to dissect, and that I should email them when I post so they can uphold their end of the bargain. I was to create a recipe using their wine, with a middle school writing assignment of 200 words and from 2-4 links back to their client's website. Cool, I can do that. A few months go by (don't @ me, life got in the way) with me finally publishing the content at the end of January. This entire period, they've been flying under complete radio silence, because why should an ad agency hound an independent content creator about his or her schedule? Seems wild to assume that.
So, I send an email to Obama about my published content. No response, and then later a returned email saying it could not be delivered. Awesome, not sure what that means beyond Obama left the office for a new job. I send a direct message back to Pacific Rim wines, informing them that I posted the agreed-upon content. It was left on "Seen" for 5 days. Unprofessional. I think by then, PR actually engaged with my content in the least-effort way imaginable. A like. No comment, no thanks for making content either publicly or in my DMs. Just a like. Hardly enough serotonin and dopamine to fill a neuron. Finally I get a reply from a new representative, let's call her Dern, to email her instead. So, I forwarded the entire conversation Obama and I had to Dern to fill her in on the details. This should clear everything up. Narrator: things were not going to be clear.
Dern either willingly ignored my email or is terrible at her job. Seven full days go by without a reply, an update, a heads up, anything. This is now nearly two weeks with a mainly one-sided interaction with TA, and I'm tired of my content not being reposted as part of our original agreement. Other brands that I have worked with were extremely grateful for the content I made and generally reposted things within minutes of them seeing it. On a fundamental level, that's really all I want, the repost for exposure for a) my own personal influence and growth and b) for their end of the agreement. I send a formal email to Dern informing her that I will be removing the content within 24 hours and that if they wish to repost my content, it will be reinstated. Nice and firm; I have years of sounding like a complete asshole via emails.
Reminder: two weeks pass with radio silence. All of a sudden, I get a reply *within the hour* claiming that my content was "planned to go out" on Feb 20, but Dern can "talk with my team and see if we can get it out tomorrow, Feb 13". Right. That wasn't impromptu at all. By now, I'm completely done with the entire interaction, so I agree to let them post it on the 20th. If they do, great, transaction complete. If not, then that's why you're reading this. I thank them, because I'm a total asshole.
No reply. It is currently the afternoon of the 18th. I'm waiting, with little expectation, for their repost. The content will likely be removed anyway, as there is little to no incentive or legal binding for me to keep the post active with the links back to their ecommerce site. Expect some snarky follow-up post including that second bottle of wine that I used.
Oh, and the wine was frankly awful. It was unpalatable on its own, and was only edible by cooking or baking with it. I tried to pawn it off on the in-laws after cooking with it, and eventually left it with my mother in law. I'm not sure she finished it or tossed it down the drain. I haven't cared to ask.
Make my coq au riesling recipe; it's excellent. Use any dry riesling you'd like. Make my upcoming pear and riesling tart. Use any sweet riesling you'd like. Just...maybe look elsewhere, like a riesling actually made in Germany or Eastern France.
Let’s pretend that I am going to reserve this space for penning somewhat refined, yet carefully calculated thoughts on food culture as I perceive the greater spheres of influence in my day-to-day life. In reality, this post and the greater content of my blog may devolve into madness, but you should be expecting that if you’re around me.
First though, perhaps some context: I’ve been doing the whole ‘Post Pictures of My Food on Instagram for All to See’ thing for almost two years at the time of me penning this, and it’s honestly been an unequivocally beneficial aspect of my life. In terms of personal growth, good ol’ self-worth, and creativity, I have never been at a greater high point. I’m surrounded by individuals who share a passion for food, cooking, drink, and sundry other things. I’m finally able to hone one of my longest held hobbies of mine (one imparted to me by my father) in a setting where I have the freedom (and financial stability) to approach each day as a new adventure in the kitchen.
However, there are aspects about the greater foodie culture that bother me. Maybe this is a new paradigm shift in what it means to be a foodie. Maybe these elements have always existed, and I’m just now cognizant of them.
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth…Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
In my journey to have a pretty faithful group of y’all that are supportive (for which I am eternally blessed), I have noticed a large degree of (perceived) disingenuity in circles outside of mine in the form of trend-surfing, low-effort content, recycled content, and everyone’s favorite ‘get IG famous fast’ scheme via aggressive follow-unfollow techniques. Generally, in lieu of engaging, original content, posts like that garner success (results may vary, obviously – insert jab about the IG algorithm), so individuals are incentivized to take these route(s). Is there anything inherently wrong with trend-surfing? Hell no. The seasons are changing right now – you can see both pumpkins and fresh watermelons in side-by-side displays at your local grocery store – so you can bet your ass I’ll have some Fall harvest-themed meals to post. Really, there’s nothing wrong with any of my gripes in isolation, but there’s definitely A TYPE of individual that milks all of them for what they’re worth, and y’all know how much I can’t have dairy.
Amongst a jungle of homogeneous, Instagram posts, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish oneself, even with the production of clever, honest, original content. You all have been there – you’re ready to post something that you poured a lot of work into, only to have it ‘underperform’ in reaction from your followers. Sometimes, you post a literal picture of some melted cheese on top of potatoes in a post-consumer beige-colored recyclable container and you’re raking in the fame. It’s disheartening.
Earlier this year, this overwhelmed me, and I became extremely jaded, in that I was not successfully fulfilling the niche I had carved out for myself and my audience. Had I not been a science nerd and actually picked up a book about content creation and a general sense of inadequacy, I might would have known this going in, but alas, here we are. I took a break, an extended hiatus one might say, and I felt like my posts lacked character; I struggled with writing captions (that a large percentage of people don’t read) because my heart and mind were just not feeling it. It’s easy to get burned out on your passion – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s exactly what happened to me.
So what do I do? I’ve invested a lot of time into this passion, and I’m not about to let it go. Take the scientific approach and distill exactly what you enjoy about the general foodie community and seek out/rediscover accounts that really exemplify what makes this community great. At the same time, I’ve aligned my (what I’m calling) content-mindset with those same creators that do amazing work. In summary:
All of that bullshit, just to say that I can almost fully credit @feelinwhisky (links to social media below) for reinvigorating my spirit on Instagram. I honestly only have positive things to say about her and her work – everything she does is approachable, realistic, unfiltered, and unfettered by ‘traditional/stereotypical IG standards’. Since I’m not that creative, and it’s a flawless tagline to describe her body of work, Emily makes “Real food that doesn't suck.” She said it herself. A particular element of her page that is aspiring is her commitment to effective, honest, and genuine story-telling. It’s almost like she has a communications degree and understands nuances of human interactions. She’s killing it more than I am, but I feel like we are both carving a path through this vast digital landscape of colorful food pictures, and that’s really what this is all about. That is, making delicious food that looks good, is easy, and affordable while also providing a platform for other like-minded individuals with genuine passion to do the same. That, and you can always expect Emily to have a thoroughly steeped personality of millennial attitude and wit in her posts (an attitude that we should all strive to achieve).
Plus, I mean, she shops at Fresh Thyme. What’s not to love?
I’ve blatantly ripped off (read: modified for my own purposes) several of her recipes and greater content as inspiration for some of the content I’ve posted – sometimes this has been consenting, but other times by pure coincidence, which lends more credence to the idea that one should find content creators that one can align to easily (organically or via emulation). They’re ALL home runs (also insert other sports-based analogies here). They’re ALL cheap to make. I can’t complain, and neither should you.
In fact, I’ve recreated her biscuit pot pie bake recently(see below), and ALTHOUGH I didn’t make enough gravy to go with it, it was still undoubtedly delicious. It’s really got everything you’d need for this transitionary weather period: vegetables, filling starches, mouth-feely gravy, and biscuits which “are better anyway so like, who even cares?” You can find her amazing recipe here: https://www.feelinwhisky.com/vegetarian-biscuit-pot-pie/ to make it for yourself and all your loved ones – inclusive of soon to be loved ones of the people you serve it to.
Again, you can find Emily and her body of work at (@feelinwhisky on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/feelinwhisky/ and on her recipe archive and blog https://www.feelinwhisky.com/ where she updates it a much higher frequency than I update mine). Check her out, maybe she’ll reinvigorate your broken spirit. Maybe you’ll learn a few things about sustainable, healthy, and mostly plant-based cooking. Maybe you don’t even have Instagram, for which I’d like to congratulate you on finding this paragraph buried in the infinite of the internet.
Have fun out there cooking, y’all.
I'm Clark (AKA Cas).