There’s been an ocean of indignant digital ink spilled already about Paula Deen’s disgraceful deal flogging diabetes drugs after making herself sick eating the ghastly “food” she has become very wealthy advocating for years. As I mentioned on the Twitter, it’s like having unprotected sex with lots of junkies and hookers and then scoring a fat endorsement deal for STD meds. I’m not going to spend any more time on it, since it’s boring as well as depressing. But it did get me thinking, since it happened around same time I was reading about a few other equally distasteful subjects, all the while thinking about what it is that I want for this blog in the future.
I have always hated advertisements; back in the days when we had TV I was lightning fast with the mute button. I think they look tacky and ugly on websites, too, and the more they move around or occlude what I’m looking at the quicker I leave the site. I’m clearly not anybody’s target audience: I believe that voting with our eyeballs (and wallets) is as important as voting in elections these days, and I find commercials to be ugly. So while I ponder and slowly lurch towards several possible futures as a food writer, I can offer a few examples of what I absolutely do not want this happy second career to become.
Bow and Scrape
When I began paying attention to other food blogs, I started to notice some interesting patterns, especially in the comments. A hefty percentage of comments were the useless, generic compliments and emoticons that always felt like de rigeur “I read yours, so come read mine” scorekeeping. One dude in particular would always cut and paste the title of someone’s post into his comment so that it said “That [title of post] looks great!” or some variation thereof, every single time. On hundreds and hundreds of blogs, like a tireless little spambot. He never left me a comment, but then my post titles are always witty, witty puns or obscure song lyric references so he couldn’t do the cut and paste trick for me. Some friends were in on the joke, and we laughed and laughed about how lame he was. His work is lackluster, written at an eighth grade level, and his content is all but scraped from other blogs, so I never paid it any attention.
The thing is, he now has like 12,000 followers on Google and Facebook, and gets tons of comments on his posts. That transparent, shamelessly impersonal, nearly mechanized pandering in the service of utterly lackluster content worked. And therein lies a lesson about popularity on the web: people like attention, even if it’s from near-bots and trolls. Everyone who is not famous cherishes everyone who makes the effort to leave a message after the post. And there’s a tendency to lean into that attention, to do more of what conjured it out of Internetular ether. And when there is potential ad revenue at stake, the incentive is tangible. The problem is that the urge to pander ruins credibility and makes for weak content. And it’s a slippery slope, since the traffic and compensation can seduce.
Redundant Blogger is Redundant
Someone even crankier than I wrote a rant recently about a particularly dumb piece of whining that I dutifully clicked over and read because watching the defectives in the GOP primaries clearly isn’t enough fail for me.
The “author” contends–with lots of bold type for people in a hurry–that the label “Food Blogger” plays into negative stereotypes of lazy, basement-dwelling, cheeto-munching hobbyists who get no respect from the people one bumps into at the Beverly Hills farmers’ market. Thus, in over 1300 words of painfully adolescent prose, she determines that “Internet content producer in the culinary sector” best conveys the gravitas and legitimacy of her job. Seriously. Apart from the plodding stupidity of the whole damn thing–and the two identical author portraits helpfully placed at the top and bottom of the post–what struck me most was the abject horror of somebody so desperate to be co-opted by corporatism that she invented a tortured mouthful of jargon that could make an HR manager at Cargill pump his fist in the air so vigorously that his polo shirt would come untucked from his pleated chinos and obscure his phone holster.
The palpable aspiration to mutilate language into verbose yet vapid constructs that manage to be simultaneously self-aggrandizing and totally humiliating speaks volumes, but not at all in the way she wants it to. And when it’s couched within a blog that is a cluttered visual train wreck of advertising and obviously sponsored posts that are not labeled as such, the overwhelming meta-message is a clear and blaring “I’m for sale!”
With buyers aplenty, it would appear. She has 80,000 fans, the person who wrote this: “A ‘blog’ is really just a series of posts written from someone about some topic.”
It Rhymes With “Whore”
This article does a pretty good job of describing the degree to which Marco Pierre White has debased himself from influential wunderkind to corporate shill. For those of you dying to know exactly how much money it would take to get a chef with three Michelin stars to repeatedly tell lies in public about his love for Knorr stock cubes–which are, like all such bouillon products, complete garbage–the answer is 1.9 million dollars. That’s a lot of money; the man clearly has a talent for self-promotion as well as cooking. But after this complete and total sellout, nobody serious will ever take him seriously again. Maybe that won’t matter; he can be famous for being famous and make lots of commercials. But to people who know and love good food he’ll just be another insufferable douche who went over to the dark side.
The credibility one accrues through cooking or writing or doing anything else well over time is a fragile commodity; it is not easily regained if squandered. And since most of us do not have reputations with street values in the millions, it is up to us to determine what they are worth. I replied to a friend’s tweet recently, and only realized later that it was part of a PR campaign s/he had joined. So the sponsor’s subsequent retweet of mine was free advertising and momentum for them (however tiny) and it made me feel a little dirty and annoyed that I’d been suckered. Disclosure matters. A lot. If you take money to write about something and don’t say so right up front, you’re a shill. My aversion to good old American fee-for-service content might seem quaint, but if I don’t trust you, I won’t read you. And I expect my readers to hold me to the same standard.
The Land That Belongs To You Is Grand
Recently, I was talking in real life to a couple of other food bloggers and someone mentioned the Pioneer Woman. I was only vaguely aware of her, but I was surprised to hear that she’d made a million bucks last year off her site. So I went and took a look. It’s awful. The food is barely cooking; dumbed-down dump-and-stir “recipes” where there’s photo illustrating every single step, practically down to opening the jar of Kraft mayonnaise. There’s a picture of how to rinse your grape tomatoes–still in their plastic clamshell container, shipped from Ecuador or somewhere–before cutting them in half. There’s a picture of that too. One post has–I shit you not–two consecutive pictures showing salt and then pepper being added to a pot.
She even has a grammar section where twice in one month the “lesson” was the difference between “your” and “you’re.” Now as a knee-jerk grammar fascist, I suppose I should applaud her efforts to educate the less lettered among her audience, and yet this part of the site is so dismally depressing that she or her designated minion for this page has stopped writing new posts for it. This section of the site is a blatant admission that her readers are not fluent in their first language, which might be why it seems to have been discontinued.
But besides these side shows, the “pioneer” aspect is fraudulent on its face, reminiscent of nothing so much as George W. Bush’s “ranch” which was really just an estate that he bought because Karl Rove told him to so he could be elected Governor and then President. It’s not to say that they don’t live on a ranch; they do, it seems, in Oklahoma. It’s just that there aren’t any pioneers any more; the frontier ceased to exist 100 years ago. So they’re ranchers, but they’re not farmers. If they eat food that they grow and/or raise, the recipes she offers don’t show it; she appears to mostly buy processed stuff from the nearest supermarket and make lousy meals with it.
I spent a meaningful and car-crash fascinating period of time scrolling back through her cooking posts and besides some arugula on a pizza could hardly find a green vegetable in anything, let alone much talk of growing, producing, or preserving her own food, which is of course what actual Pioneer Women did every day of their difficult, dangerous, non-millionaire lives. There are occasional gardening posts, but they contain no actual information, just a picture of some dirty potatoes or the like accompanied by a very few lines of trademark bubbly pride at having grown them.
She is a pioneer of nothing except making lots of money writing a blog that peddles a fantasy lifestyle. What’s really American about this site, though, and the key to its massive popularity, is the safety of it all. She regularly implores her readers “don’t be like me,” as she describes using a whole stick of butter (OMG!!!) to make her French toast topping, but of course that admonition is intended to be taken ironically because it’s nothing but her version of Emeril’s “Bam!”: It’s a catchphrase that she uses constantly to underscore how she’s just like her readers, even though she’s very wealthy and thus not at all like her readers, who she acknowledges are sub-literate and who line up in desperation for her handouts: a recent giveaway for a Target gift card got over 47,000 comments.
She also says “Amen” a lot, usually when talking about butter, just like the Bible does. This, combined with the home schooling page on the site, would seem to indicate that there’s some faith at work in her ethos, and yet there’s hardly a mention of it on the site anywhere, probably because religion is too divisive when it comes to making millions of dollars from something that is not expressly about God in the first place, like the 700 Club. And don’t for a minute think that I have some liberal coastal elitist problem with sites that view food through a faith-informed worldview; I recently wrote a guest post on a wonderful blog where the author’s faith features prominently. But the Pioneer Woman traffics only in the trappings of faith, at least as far as her glib writing is concerned.
There’s lots of lite, sassy sarcasm, but it’s the brand talking; she never breaks the tone of breezy, insubstantial banter that reassures constantly, even when the task set before the reader is as simple as dipping bread in beaten eggs. “It’s all going to be OK,” she says, “I live out on the prairie and my husband (whom she calls Marlboro Man) wears a cowboy hat.” Besides maybe an account of going to a football game, she doesn’t deal with autobiographical specifics, just appealing generalities that her readers can color in with the crayons of their imaginations.
She’s like the hideous offspring of Martha Stewart, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Rachael Ray. Recently she posted picture of a gallon jar with a spigot near the bottom for dispensing iced tea and the like, encouraging readers to buy one. “I die,” she wrote beneath a picture of a glass jar, without disclosing whether the link was a paid endorsement or not. “I die.” It’s another of her catchphrases. She goes out of her way to say when her various giveaways and endorsements are not paid for, but neglects to ever mention when they are. That sin of omission reeks of old-fashioned frontier shilling so brazen that it would make Al Swearengen blush. And this sort of Chatty Cathy hyperbolic pitch is the entirety of her tone and content, so when the cheerful veneer is thus punctured by meta-awareness, the entire edifice collapses under the weight of its abject money-grubbing. Her whole site is an infomercial.
But that semiotic Snuggie of safety and validation, that coddling embrace of encouraging approval is still seductive, evidently, even when the bar for receiving the Pavlovian pats of approbation is set so low. Hell, you don’t even have to make anything she describes; you can just read about it and imagine being married to a cowboy and making butter-drenched pancakes in a consequence-free environment. Her prose reads like some New Country lyrics where every line is a cliché and there’s not an original phrase in the entire song. And that content, as with the music, is obviously enough for very many people to be content with.
And there’s the rub. To have your food blog become famous and lucrative on this scale, you pretty much have to dumb it down to this level. Like insipid pop music or reality shows, her site isn’t really malicious; it’s just peddling a fantasy lifestyle that’s unmoored from reality, particularly for people who don’t have a staff working for them. It’s escapist, aspirational lifestyle porn for stupid people who can’t cook.
Now I know nothing about her as a person. I’m sure she’s very nice, and a good mother. She’s clearly a good businesswoman. But her content is crap. I know I’m very far from her target audience, but beyond self-enrichment where is the justification for what she does? She’s maybe teaching some deeply inept people to cook very basic things, sure, but only with packaged goods from the store. She eschews vegetables and spends zero time talking the way a real farmer would about where food comes from and what that means and entails. She’s a floating signifier, begging to be filled with her readers’ longings for some mythic, archetypal way of life, but she’s not offering her actual life as an example. She’s doing shtick for money.
Besides the millions in revenue from the website, she has a book deal and just shot episodes of a TV show on (of course) the Food Network. Her internet acumen may ultimately bump up against the harsher, even shallower standards of television: she’s not beautiful, her husband appears to be a real dick, and hundreds of thousands of readers don’t necessarily equal squat when it comes to ratings. Whether or not the TV show succeeds, the website remains an outsize part of the landscape, and something that influences many people who should know better.
Don’t be like her.
But Wait, There’s More!
In the last couple of years, the Internet has expanded and professionalized to a degree where as a medium it is no longer a scrappy upstart any more. Sure, there are infinite backwaters of unread content, like this blog, but the widely familiar terrain is slick, well produced, and bristling with SEO savvy. Popularity doesn’t equal quality, though; I for one enjoy the nooks and crannies of uncensored self-expression. My most-read posts are usually the ones where I say exactly what I think and feel, not the polite version of it.
Too many people are not comfortable cooking for themselves or others. Those of us who are–and who enjoy communicating–can explain how much joy and pleasure making and sharing real food can be for cook and eater alike in ways that can demystify and entice. Our rivals in this struggle to connect our fellow citizens more deeply with their food are all the many monied interests at every stage of the vast and rapacious industrial food system. When we give them money, we help enrich them. When we take their money, we give them purchase in our own identities. This is why our politics are so wretched: most elected officials owe whole or partial fealty to their contributors, not their constituents.
If you write about growing food, or making things from scratch, or advocate actively or by example for not using processed and industrial foods and you have an ad for Miracle Whip in your sidebar, you’re undercutting your own argument before you type a single word. Your message becomes polluted and diluted by the tacit admission that you still need the industrial system to supplement your income. It reminds me of Reason magazine; that most strident advocate for the free market is not profitable, and would not exist without subsidies from the Koch brothers, which means they’re bought and paid for and thus have vastly diminished credibility. If you advocate for a lifestyle of minimal corporate contamination, why would you give them a garishly visible toehold right in the middle of your own platform? If you agree with the Occupy movement, start by occupying your own damn blog.
This site could easily pay for its hosting and much more if I put an ad up on it, but I hate ads so I don’t. I designed this site to be a clean, well-lighted place, and that’s how I like it. I hope you do too. Having said that, lots of people are struggling and I do not begrudge anybody making an honest living. I don’t think you’re a sellout if you put a banner ad on your site, but I’d rather you didn’t, because they are ugly. If you really need the $20 or $100 a month that your ad gets you, I’m not going to tell you to take it down. If you get enough traffic that you can pay for your health insurance with ad revenue, zei gesunt. But if you don’t need their money, don’t take it.
This is all easy for me to say; I am allergic to advertising and am lucky enough to make a little money writing for magazines. But in this age of weaponized bullshit, the truth has never been more important. I like telling the truth, and I aim to keep doing it.
If you doubt that, send me 1.9 million dollars and I’ll take it all back.