Cookbook Etiquette

December 10, 2010

Let me preface this post by saying that it is not a rant.  I am not complaining.  I’m just somewhat confused.

Here’s the story.

In November of 2008, I received an email from a friend who’s in the food industry.  Here’s what the email said:

I’m working on a project and am asking my food savvy friends for help. I am
searching for recipes for a few specific dishes, with these caveats:

1. the recipes must be authentically Southern, although appropriate updates
and variations are fine
2. they must be from unsung cooking hero home cooks, although recipes that
wound up in restaurants and diners are fine if they originated at home
3. the cook must be willing to talk to me and share the recipe and the back

I responded that I might be able to help, and she later wrote that she was working for Molly O’Neill on a “big cookbook project.”  Frankly, I didn’t even notice that comment.  I talked to my friend for about 15 minutes, and then I gave her links to two recipes on my blog, recipes that I had made many times and which were well-received.  That’s the last I heard of this; in fact, I totally forgot about it.

In early November, Andrea Weigl of the News & Observer posted this on Twitter: “Congrats to @VarmintBites, Kavanah and Gabe for their recipes appearing in @onebigtable.”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  I didn’t know what @onebigtable was.  After a couple of messages back and forth, I learned that I had two recipes prominently featured in Molly O’Neill’s new cookbook, “One Big Table.”  Needless to say, I was excited, but I had no clue what those recipes were and how they made it into Ms. O’Neill’s book.  I learned that the recipes were for my Strawberry Shortcake for a Crowd and for the Four Berry Cobbler that I’ve made many times.  Through the power of Gmail archiving, I realized then that it was through my friend, two years earlier, that these recipes made it into Ms. O’Neill’s book.  When Andrea Weigl showed me the book, and how well done it was, I was extremely proud and tickled.

But then, the lawyer part of me started thinking, and this is what this post is about.  Yes, I shared those recipes with my friend, but that’s all I did.  Ms. O’Neill never contacted me.  No one from the publisher contacted me.  No release.  No forms.  Not even a “head’s up” or a thank you.  This may simply be a type of journalism where authorization is not needed, but shouldn’t there be some approval process prior to publication?  If not, shouldn’t there at least be some form of acknowledgment?

I am not complaining, as once again, I’m very appreciative of having not one, but two, recipes included in this marvelous book (yes, I’ll be giving copies for Christmas, although Amazon only let me buy 3 copies).  It’s cool to have your name and recipes featured in such a work.  And let me be clear, this was not a case of Ms. O’Neill lifting these recipes from my blog without my permission.  I readily suggested these two recipes to my friend two years ago, but I certainly didn’t think they were worthy of publication.  Was that act on my part sufficient to move forward with publishing the recipes and my comments?

In the end, what is the appropriate process here?  If not legally required, should etiquette have demanded some follow-up from the publisher?  Help me here, those of you in the cookbook industry!

The Best Community Cookbook Ever — And Two Events to Celebrate It

October 12, 2010

Yes, I love the Southern Foodways Alliance.  Yes, I’m a member.  And yes, I’ve even been nominated to be on its Board of Directors.  So it should be no surprise to you that I’ll do just about anything this organization asks of me — not just because I’m a good soldier, but because there’s nothing this organization does that I don’t support.  Whether it’s a fundraiser for their film or oral history initiatives or for scholarships for burgeoning food writers, I’m going to spread the word.

This time, however, it’s different.  This time, the event is to celebrate a cookbook.  A fantastic, spiral-bound, community cookbook, suitably named, “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.”  The cookbook  is divided into chapters that represent the region’s iconic foods: Gravy, Garden Goods, Roots, Greens, Rice, Grist, Yardbird, Pig, The Hook, The Hunt, Put Up, and Cane.  It’s been edited, written and compiled by some of my favorite people in the world, including April McGreger, baker and pickler extraordinaire of Farmer’s Daughter in Carrboro, Chapel Hill’s great cooking instructor, Sheri Castle,  and Sara Roahen, author of the fantastic book on New Orleans, “Gumbo Tales.”  Heck, I even submitted a recipe for the book — and yes, it is a recipe for cooking one type of varmint.

To celebrate the release of the book, there are not one, but two events planned for this weekend in Chapel Hill.

The first event is this Friday, October 15th, at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill (750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd).  This event is a book signing and is free to the public — and, yes, there will be a little bit of food there.

The second event has a lot of food, and this is a ticketed event.  It will be on Sunday at 4:00 PM at Chapel Hill’s 3CUPS (227 South Elliott Rd.).  If you just want to come and eat, it’ll cost you $25.  If you want one of these awesome cookbooks (all the cool kids have them), then that will cost you an additional 15 bucks.  That’s less than the Amazon price!  So, you get a soon-to-be iconic cookbook, lots of great food (with both cake and pie, as there will be a debate about which is better), lots of social interaction with writers, and all on a Sunday evening!  And because it is 3CUPS, there will be wine.  Tasty, wonderful wine.

So, get off your butt and head to Chapel Hill this weekend to buy a book — the best community cookbook ever!  And if you need more information, just check out the SFA’s Blog.

Why I Blog

May 18, 2010

Last night, I had the honor to eat at Herons where a handful of local chefs put together a great meal to support a super cause.  I was in attendance because I’m the chair-elect of the charity benefiting from the dinner, the Lucy Daniels Center.  Before the dinner I was invited back into the kitchen to talk to the chefs, all of whom I knew pretty well except for one.  As the dinner started, I was given the opportunity to talk about the Center to the guests, and then I sat down to enjoy the splendid food and wine.  Over the course of the evening, two or three folks introduced themselves to me, saying that they read my blog.  My initial reaction in those situations is typically, “Really?  Why?”  I’m always surprised to meet one of my readers, as I just don’t think about that side of the blogging equation.  And when I’m asked, “Why do you blog?” my answer is almost always the same: “For me.”

To me, there is no creation of human beings greater than food (other than other human beings, of course).  We must eat to survive, of course, but it’s far more complex than that.  Societies and cultures are defined in great part by food, by the rituals surrounding the dining table.  We celebrate with food and drink.  The most intimate way to welcome guests from abroad is to cook for them.  When I think of France or Italy or Morocco or India or Mexico, my first thoughts are about the food and cuisine of those nations.

I write about food because it is important to me and my family, and quite honestly, I want to keep a journal of my life with food.  I want to help preserve the memories of my 9 year old daughter’s passion for baking, or the time when my older daughter wanted me to cook a multi-course dinner for her birthday party.  I want to remember when my 10 year old son and I bellied up to the bar in DC or when my then 15 year old son went to Herons on a night I was working in the kitchen.  I also want to remember what I cooked a couple of weeks ago, or when I first tried a livermush sandwich.

I like to write about my friends, and that’s why you’ll rarely see me writing negative things in this blog.  Heck, any blog post here about restaurants is typically about a friend’s place, so why on earth would I ever write bad things about them.  I’m not a journalist, I’m an advocate for the local food community.

I rarely write about events that I know nothing about.  I get a handful of press releases each week about this event or the next.  I sometimes even get a very nicely written email about a particular event, but if I don’t know anyone involved, I typically write back explaining that I have chosen not to write about such events.  I do break from that rule now and then, but not very often.

I have also learned that writing about food does in fact give me some credibility in the food world and some access that I might not otherwise have.  I got to work in the kitchen at Herons and the Globe because of this blog, in part.  Some of my best friends are chefs and food writers, but I have learned that those friendships did not evolve because I blog.  It’s because food is nearly as important to me as it is to them.  Folks in the food industry love to “talk shop” more than any other industry I know.  We health care lawyers really don’t want to what we do or health care reform.  We want to talk about music or sports or, of course, food.  When I’m with a group of chefs and food writers, the only thing they talk about is food.  It’s not just their business, it’s their life.  And because I share that similar passion, they’re happy to talk to me about it to.

I do not blog for economic gain, that’s for sure.  You’ll note the lack of advertising here, as I’ve chosen not to commercialize VarmintBites, even though several offers came my way.  First of all, there’s hardly any money in it, unless you become a huge entity with multiple writers and hundreds of thousands of daily visitors.  Second, you have to write every day, several times a day, and you have to write well.  I have a blog with hundreds of daily visitors and on a busy week, I might have 3 posts, each of which I wrote over a course of 10 minutes, with no re-writes or much proof-reading.  And I can also go two weeks with only one post.  It’s my party and I can write when I want to .

In the end, I write for my memories, for my passion, and yes, for my ego.  I am flattered when someone does tell me they read the blog.  I have my insecurities, too, wondering whether anyone really cares.  It sort of reminds me of some of my chef friends, when I tell them how much I loved a particular dish, and they respond, “Really?  You’re just not saying that?”  It’s pretty funny, those folks who work to feed us.  They’re not rock stars or ego-driven maniacs.  They’re just plain folks, like you and me, who happen to love food and have made it their career.  I don’t have the skills or the stamina to do what they do.  But I’m glad I get to be in their world from time to time.

Andrea Weigl Finalist for AFJ Awards — Twice!

May 5, 2010

I’ve known Andrea Weigl since she started writing about food for the News & Observer several years ago.  She had covered death penalty issues for several years before then, and I was surprised that the N&O would let a person so green in culinary issues (and someone who really knew almost no one in the industry) take over this position.  I quickly realized that Weigl was not only a great writer with a passion for food, but she had more initiative in her left pinkie than most others have in their entire bodies.  She is fearless, never hesitating to ask questions or meet people.  She immersed herself in the business, even going to culinary school, just so she could be a better food writer.  Her piece on the closing of Durham’s Starlu restaurant was a masterful story, garnering a lot of acclaim.

Weigl has continued to write fantastic stories for the N&O, even as the paper, and the print news industry as a whole, is struggling to survive.  Writers and editors have left the N&O, many of whom are friends of Weigl.  Budget cuts have forced Weigl to share a greater portion of the cost of reporting.  It’s a tough world, yet Weigl has found a way to continue to put out a great product.  One benefit of the cut-backs is that Weigl started to work more closely with the N&O’s sister publication, The Charlotte Observer, and its food editor, Kathleen Purvis.  Purvis is one of the best food writers in the country, and although the two writers knew each other, they didn’t necessarily work together all that frequently.

Well, Weigl, Purvis and the N&O have just won several awards in the prestigious Association of Food Journalists Awards.  The awards recognize excellence in reporting and writing in all media, newspaper food section design and content, food illustration and food photography.  The AFJ announced the three finalists in several categories, and Weigl is a finalist in two — Best Newspaper Food Coverage for a Paper with a Circulation of 150,000 or Less and Best Newspaper Food Feature for a Paper with a Circulation of 200,000 or Less.  To be a finalist in one category is a noteworthy achievement.  To be a double finalist in the same year just means you’re a food writing rock star.  The placing of each finalist (i.e., first, second, third) will be announced in September at the AFJ’s annual conference, but these folks are already winners.  And what’s even more fun about this is that Kathleen Purvis is one of the other nominees in the Food Feature category.  I believe both of those stories — Weigl’s “When Chefs Dine” and Purvis’ “Roux the Day” — appeared in the N&O, as the budget cuts have led to a sharing of the talents of these writers in both newspapers.  The industry’s loss is our gain.

I’ve written about how lucky we are to have such a good food writer in our area, and this recognition by the AFJ only substantiates that claim.  Weigl made a list last year about the top 50 food items/icons in the Triangle.  There was a huge omission on that list — Andrea Weigl herself.  Congratulations to you and Kathi!

(Image of Weigl courtesy of the N&O)

Restaurant Review Prognostication

February 17, 2010

Let’s start something really silly for the area.  Each week, the News & Observer tells us in its Wednesday edition what restaurant will be reviewed on the following Friday.  Greg Cox’s review of Durham’s Guglhupf will be published on Friday, and it’s time for us to guess how many stars he’ll give it.

As you know, the N&O has a 5 star system, and only the best of the best get all 5 stars.

So, how many stars will Guglhupf get???


Edit (Feb. 19, 2010) —  Guglhupf received 4 stars from Greg Cox, making it the highest ranked German/Eastern European restaurant in the Triangle, surpassing J. Betski’s.  Wow.   Congratulations to Drew and Smily, who nailed it.  You have the admiration and respect of the Greater Triangle Blogosphere, but alas, no tangible prizes are coming your way.

Southern Folks and Southern Foodways

November 16, 2009
Ashley and Bill

Ashley Christensen, Bill Smith, and Smoked Chicken Wings

I’m sipping a cold beer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, lazing about on a screened-in porch in rural Mississippi.  The conversation goes from football to Brazilian forestry camps and then to food.  Ah, the conversation always gets back to food, and that’s because I’m surrounded by chefs, who I’ve learned, love to “talk shop” more than just about any other professional I know.  These chefs include three winners of the prestigious James Beard Award, one who was recently nominated, and another who will likely win in the next few years.  Chefs love to talk about food, and so do I, so I feel right at home on this early November day. Read the rest of this entry »

The FTC and Me

October 5, 2009

As a health care attorney, I’ve had to work with the Federal Trade Commission, as they are the agency that enforces the antitrust laws (along with the Justice Department).  Frankly, the FTC can be a royal pain in the ass, but I understand their purpose in the antitrust world.  The FTC also regulates advertising to the extent that it may be deceptive or misleading, and they just adopted new rules that require bloggers to disclose whenever they receive anything in value in exchange for a review.


Now I believe in full disclosure, and in the one instance that I accepted a fully complementary meal, I disclosed that fact.  However, I also informed the restaurant that providing that gratis meal did not mean that I would review the restaurant and certainly did not guarantee that they’d receive praise.  Frankly, I really don’t write restaurant reviews for the most part.  In this case, however, I did write about the restaurant because I loved it.  If I didn’t like it, I would probably not have written anything at all.

But with the new FTC rules, bloggers like me have to be worried whenever we receive anything of value.  If I’m at a restaurant and the chef sends out an extra course, do I need to disclose that?  What about if the chef has no idea who I am?  I would argue that in the latter case, the extra course has nothing to do with providing something of value in exchange for reviews — it’s just a nice thing to do.  And in the first case, assuming the chef knows me, I would argue that the extra course was sent out with the hope– but not the expectation — that I might provide a favorable review.  That might fall short of the FTC’s requirement.  However, the bottom line is that the FTC wants to ensure that reviews are not bought, and if they are, then it should be disclosed.

So to ensure that I don’t run afoul of federal requirements (which, at this point, aren’t really law, just guidelines), I offer the following blanket statement that addresses everything I write about in this blog:

“I don’t write true reviews, but I do offer my thoughts on various aspects of the food and restaurant industries.  I also write about food and my family.  I sometimes may receive a discounted meal or free drink or a slab of bacon, primarily because I’ve pretty much immersed myself in the food world.  I generally only write about places I like, so if a restaurant gives me something for free, and it sucks, I won’t write about it.  If they give me something for free and I like it, I’ll probably write about it.  If they don’t give me a thing and I like it, I’ll probably write about it, too.  I also am biased in that I’m much more likely to write about places where my friends work.  I like to write about my friends who are chefs, and I have to admit that they have indeed given me something of value: their friendship.  From time to time, they give me a free dish.  I may not always disclose that, because I really think that what my friends do is our own business.  I am horribly biased by that relationship, so please do not be misled into thinking I’m fully objective when writing about their restaurants.  I try, but you know how friendships work.  So if I write about a restaurant or a food item, just assume that my objectivity has been compromised in some manner.”

And if that’s not good enough for the FTC, then I guess I better start boning up on my legal defense skills.