Twentieth Anniversary of the Blog!

I know I should have baked a cake, or rather, someone else should have baked a cake. But no matter. (Okay, so it matters a little…) I’m happy to celebrate the blog turning twenty this month!

I’m not sure how the twenty-year mark snuck up so fast, but it did. Who knew when I started posting a bunch of random thoughts, ramblings, and recipes online in October of 1999, that I’d be doing it this long. But here I am.

Back then, few people knew what a blog was, not even me. My first book had just come out, Room for Dessert, and I thought I’d use the internet to connect to bakers and cooks, so readers could reach out to me with baking queries and questions. Which at times, I think belongs in the “Be careful what you wish for” file 😉

At the time, I had forums and a “Recipe of the Month” feature. Other cookbook authors told to me that I was not making the best use of my time. Perhaps coming from San Francisco helped me become an early-adopter as we like to try new things and believe in the possibilities. And in France, the idea of sharing information digitally was viewed with apprehension. But I liked the interaction and kept going.

Five years later, perhaps around 2004, I learned there were others doing the same; Chocolate & Zucchini, Orangette, Noodlepie, Cooking with Amy, 101 Cookbooks, Simply Recipes, Chez Pim, Cooking for Engineers, Deep End Dining, Gastropoda, Beck’s and Posh, and The Amateur Gourmet, were some of the others that were blogging about food. We networked and added link lists to our blog sidebars, which were usually composed of the same six or seven food blogs, passing along new ones as we learned about them. Some credit me as being the first food blogger, which is a murky statement; I later learned David Leite had started his blog, Leite’s Culinaria the same year as I did, and perhaps there were others that started closer to when I did, too.

A few events brought attention to food blogs. One was when CNN picked up a story about Adam Roberts’ Janet Jackson Breast Cupcakes, which aligned with the coining of the phrase “wardrobe malfunction.” Another was when a New York Times food writer pondered whether food bloggers were just a bunch of people posting photos of grilled cheese sandwiches, which sparked food bloggers to band together to post pictures of – yup – grilled cheese sandwiches.

In spite of the less-elevated status of bloggers (to some), the upside of food blogging was that no matter where you were, you could get a taste of Germany, Vietnam, New York, Rome, and even Paris, via people sharing what they were eating where they lived. I loved that aspect of it and it was a blast seeing what people were cooking and baking, unfiltered, in places like Korea, India, Mexico, and Germany.

I plugged along with my site, getting a comment once in a while, as I added more recipes to the blog, as well as a goofy haiku about Italian espresso candies and tales about les jeunes hommes fawning over my midsection when buying blue jeans in Paris. I made some observations about my new home (a few that in retrospect, could easily be written off as rants of a newly-planted expat – which raised some, um, discussions…) Honestly, though, some things perplexed me…

I also met Romain, who became an important part of my life, as well as the subject of my stories. For those of you who’ve read L’appart, you know why he’s the hero of the book, and my life. I have a fantasy of writing a cookbook about him cooking because he’s such a character…in a good way, of course. But as is often the case, he doesn’t quite understand what motivates me. (In his defense, neither do I.)

When I moved to Paris, I thought the food and travel magazines back in the States would be interested in me sharing some of the small, and up-and-coming chocolatiers and bakeries I was finding in Paris. But most wanted stories about the already well-known places. But I (and other locals), had discovered little gems like Patrick Roger, Jean-Charles Rochoux, and Blé Sucré. After a major food magazine asked me to send them a list of new places I wanted to feature in an article I’d proposed, I eventually heard back that they were passing along my list to their Paris correspondent.

Hrrmph! So I decided to feature les bonnes adresses myself, including those in Paris as well as when I traveled.

I’ll be the first to admit, my photos back then weren’t perfect, like the ones below, taken at Pierre Hermé – with belated apologies to Chef Hermé for not doing justice to his beautiful pastries. No wonder places in Paris aren’t wild about people taking pictures in their shops. (If they are reading this, I’m happy to come back and do a reshoot. Get in touch.)

Probably the turning point for the blog was when I visited the KitchenAid factory in Ohio. This was wa-a-a-y before brands wooed bloggers (and eventually, influencers), and they hadn’t let anyone in their factory before to take pictures. It was a great visit and I loved watching my favorite mixers were made, and sharing it with others.

(On a related note, who knew that one day there would be awards given to people who are considered the best influencers?)

I was also the first person they let into Garrett’s popcorn in Chicago, who told me they had turned down Oprah’s request to bring cameras inside. But not everyone was pleased to be featured on the blog. A woman in a coffee shop screamed at me after I took this shot:

Even though I had asked the other woman, the one preparing the coffee, if I could take her picture, which she said was fine, the other one wasn’t having it and gave me an earful for taking a photo without asking. That was one of the many times I struggled to get pictures to share. If you’ve even been scolded for taking a picture in Paris, you know what that’s like. (Yes, always ask first, even if it’s just something as seemingly benign as a bunch of carrots sitting on a table. For some reason, those carrots must be protected.)

In 2008, the blog was given a major overhaul by Jesse Gardner of Plasticmind. The site was originally designed by Ben McCullough, whose mother was a cookbook editor, and it was a great fit. He’d installed Movable Type on the site, which was a new platform (and concept) at the time, which allowed me to update things on my own, but required me to code everything in html code. So writing a blog post looked like this:

I know…right?

So when people wrote, “You forgot a comma in the third sentence. Don’t you know anything about grammar?” It took a lot to write a post. In fact, most of it could be called coding, rather than writing. And looking at that screenshot now, I’m probably the first food writer to use “incontinence” in a story introducing a chocolate cake. That was probably the real scandal, not the missed comma.

Having to write in code meant that it took about ten keystrokes just to write an “é” in italics. Fortunately, I wasn’t writing about science, as words like hémidécérébellé would have given me carpal tunnel even faster than my wrists (and brain) were already giving out.

Jesse lighted up the design of the site, stripped out all the complicated code, and installed WordPress, which meant I no longer had to code everything and it was much easier to write a post. The blog design was tweaked and customized in 2015 by Cre8d, adding features and helping to keep the site on top of the avalanche of technology that is always changing, and challenging to me. I wanted to focus on baking cakes and cookies.

Sometimes, though, I had to handle more technology that this cake and cookie baker was prepared for. I almost abandoned the blog in 2011 when the site inexplicably went down continuously for several months. Readers were panicking because they couldn’t get my recipes (one reason to buy cookbooks, folks…they don’t go down) and I was panicking because I was trying to coordinate three tech companies I’d hired to fix the issue, which lived in different parts of the world, and didn’t walk to talk to each other.

Technicians were barking terms at me, like CDN, atom feeds, Apache configurations, S3 service, and PHP, which I had to relay between everyone, and fondly remembered how my life used to revolve around making ice cream and baking cakes. I never imagined I’d be spending time on the phone at 3am talking to service technicians in other time zones about things like sitemaps, access logs, Sucuri, proxy servers, IP addresses, and something called ModSecurity. (I like the snazzy name, though!) Anyways, that episode finally ended, which coincided exactly with the time that I lost two-thirds of my hair.

Another milestone on the blog was improving my photo skills. I started the blog with a little point-and-shoot camera that had a tiny lens half the size of a postage stamp. I thought the pictures it took were pretty amazing:

But a decade later, I bit the bullet and bought a DSLR which required me to do everyone’s least favorite activity: Read the instruction booklet. After many trials and errors, and thanks to some professional photographer friends who taught me about things like aperture sizes and RAW images, the photos on the blog got better, and I began to update pictures on older posts, and new posts featured images that I think were a little more appetizing.

Having nicer props helped, too, courtesy of years of scouring French flea markets.

What else has changed since I started? The biggest has been social media. In the past, most people used RSS readers to read blogs, putting our favorites in there so they’d all be organized and ready for us, automatically updated when a new blog entry was published. For some reason, RSS readers fell out of favor, and people either wanted to get blog posts emailed to them, or hoped to catch the update on social media. That meant that bloggers (like me) had to post notifications on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, and the late, not-so-great Google+, whenever we updated our blogs. We were (and still are) also at the whims of algorithms, which curate what you see and what you don’t see. So it’s not necessarily the best way to find out when new blog posts are published. (FYI: You can subscribe to get blog posts as I publish them, sent to your inbox here.)

Food blogging eventually morphed into blogs that now have staff members (sometimes in their own offices) to create posts and recipes. Here, it’s still me in my kitchen. Some are getting into it with the goal of making money, and to do so, they craft and create recipes specifically for search engines, loading keywords into posts, and writing sentences and phrases that make recipes and text Alexa-friendly. If you’ve ever read a recipe online that has several paragraphs of robotic information ahead of it, that’s why.

The upside to all of that is that food blogging has removed barriers, and created spaces for interesting voices that previously wouldn’t have been heard. The food world expanded with limitless possibilities; a world of multicultural cuisines opened up with fresh voices and new recipes that people are sharing, connecting cooks and bakers around the world in ways that weren’t possible before.

As for me, I’m happy to still be doing what I do here, and I don’t think I’m going anywhere. I’m still trying to cope with all those pesky typos (or gremlins, as Maida Heatter called them) by reviewing blog posts over and over, and over and over, until I think I caught them all, like the one below, which was reviewed 70 times:

Some readers have insisted I work with an editor, which I tried, but it added a few more layers to creating a post and I want to preserve the casual, immediate nature of blogging, rather being laborious, so I decided a missed comma or a “2 teaspoon” (rather than “2 teaspoons”) measurement was just going to happen on occasion. So appreciate those of you who’ve been able to cope with an errant comma or misplaced apostrophe, and stuck around.

When we were all just starting out, I was talking to Elise Bauer, who founded Simply Recipes, and I told her, “My blog isn’t a food blog.” She gave me a funny look, but this blog was never intended to just be about food or recipes, because we’re all more than that, and I find cultural differences fascinating. Readers seem to enjoy stories sprinkled through the blog about things I observe, like the Parisian penchant for sneakers, the importance of keys in the French capital (and the staggering price you pay if you get locked out), where (and where not to) faire pipi, the French umami bomb, the two hour goodbye, and the resistance (and value) of change.

You may have noticed that I’ve recently added a new voice to the site. Emily has been helping me out by doing things like formatting Pinterest images and answering emails. And because she’s such a good writer, I’ve asked her to write guest posts, so you can get more information about Paris and France. She also helped shake up – and taste – the cocktail and apéritif recipes for those chapters in my upcoming book, Drinking French. It’s been great having her around, and now that she’s a new mom, I’ve got a new baby (and an adorable one at that) in my life now, too.

It’s been especially great having you! Big thanks to all of you who read the blog, who have followed it over the years, or who just stop by from time-to-time to get a recipe or to pick up some tips for your trip to Paris. Many of you have left comments over the years, which I truly appreciate. I read all of them and am happy when people add to the conversation. I try to answer as many of your comments as I can because the interaction is a big part of what makes the blog special to me. And extra thanks to everyone who’s bought one or more of my books, and those who have also left a positive review online, which really helps with book sales. When I write a book, I devote my entire life to that project. The two years that it takes from start to finish, each one has been a labor of love. I’m always appreciative when someone gets a book and enjoys it as much as I did writing it.

Moving forward, I retired two projects; leading culinary tours and my Paris pastry app, because I only have the bandwidth for so many projects, and I want to narrow my focus on my books and this blog. And I’m also want to have more personal time as I work on that life/work balance thing. Still, I’ve been toying with launching a podcast and the rights to The Sweet Life in Paris and L’appart have been optioned for film or television projects. I keep thinking how great it would be to do more videos, especially cooking ones, and I’ve got some proposals floating around for other media projects, which may or may not come to fruition. It’s all a chance, like this blog was back in 1999, and I’m looking forward to seeing where everything goes.

Twentieth Anniversary of