Monday, April 12, 2010

No One Cares About Your Food Blog

I just finished writing a 5000 word blog post about a dish that no one eats anymore. I didn't plan to write that many words, but the dish, spaghetti alla carbonara, turned out to have a fascinating history and a disputed provenance.

Photo by miss604

I just kept writing until I felt I had told the story. I didn't consider my audience, or where it might get published, I just wrote what I found to be interesting. I can assure you, I would not have invested as much time and effort in a 5000 word blog post if I didn't love doing it.

I don't make a living writing about food. I'm very fortunate to have the time to do it as an avocation. Undoubtedly one of the greatest jobs in the world is to write about food and make a living at it, but lately some of my professional colleagues lament that the job has become tedious and formulaic. 10 posts a week! 500 words each! Barbecue! Burgers! Donuts! Pageviews!

On the rare occasion that writing feels like an obligation, I always ask myself this question: "If you knew no one was going to read your blog, would you still write it?" So far, the answer has always been "yes."


Still, I realize there are a few hearty souls who will happily plow through thousands of words I might write about an obscure Italian pasta dish or a regional food like barbecue crabs. Many of them have become my friends, and I do feel an obligation to write honestly, accurately, and passionately if only because that's what they expect of me. Of course, that's what I expect of myself, so there's never a conflict there.

One of the friends I met through blogging writes the Food in Houston blog. He's currently taking a hiatus from writing about food, hinting that it may be the result of the aforementioned tedium that results when you feel obligated to write about food. Back in September 2009, he wrote an interesting blog post about Houston food blogging. Here are some excerpts:

One by one, the bloggers have been co-opted by for-profit ventures. And the blogs have changed.


Our food blogs have lost the high energy, DIY ethic of 2008 when we all did it solely for the love of food.

This blog post raised a few eyebrows, as reflected in the post's comments. Anyone who was blogging about food in Houston at the time could relate, including me. At the end of the post, he wondered which way the Houston food blogging scene would go. More generic or more idiosyncratic?

Regrettably, I think Houston food blogging has remained stagnant since this post was written. Which is unfortunate because the breadth and depth of topics about food in Houston is large and growing. However, with a few notable exceptions, most food blogging in Houston has either stopped entirely or trended toward generic subjects (in my opinion).

So here's my advice for burned-out food bloggers and those who may be thinking about starting a food blog. Sit down in front of your computer with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, write about what you love, what you're passionate about, and assume no one's going to read it. It can be three paragraphs or thirty. And when you're done, if you like what you wrote and you think others will too, post it to your blog. Don't worry about pageviews or the number of comments. Four or five dedicated readers who appreciate the thought and effort you put into your blog are worth a thousand readers just passing through.

This may all seem antithetical to what you should do to be a successful food writer, but so be it. If someone tells you the future of food writing is generic subjects written in small, bite-sized blurbs, you should immediately start writing long-form blog posts in an idiosyncratic voice about obscure topics. That's what I did for my carbonara post. I have no idea if anyone is interested in what I wrote, or if anyone will even read it, but I sure had a great time writing it.

The blog posts:

  1. Building the Perfect Carbonara: A Roman Puzzle
  2. Building the Perfect Carbonara: Meat and Cheese
  3. Building the Perfect Carbonara: The Pasta
  4. Building the Perfect Carbonara: The Recipe

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Truluck's Influencers' Event 4/7/2010

Truluck's, a small and growing chain of upscale seafood restaurants, recently sponsored an "influencers event" at its Houston location.

Truluck's Menu
Truluck's Influencer's Event

An "influencer" is the newish umbrella term created by P.R. professionals that refers to traditional media plus social media types — bloggers, Twitterers and the like. It's what a "media tasting" used to be when there were just radio, TV, and newspapers. The dinner was complimentary to those who attended, including me.

Like several of my dining companions at the event, Truluck's had been completely off my restaurant radar. I remembered going there once in the distant past, when it was in a curvy, shiny, ship-like building a bit further down Westheimer. My only other recollection was that it specialized in stone crab claws.

On this Wednesday in April, Truluck's was doing a booming business in it's sleek bar and dining room, located in a strip center just past the Galleria on Westheimer. The bar was mainly filled with professional types from surrounding Galleria-area offices. An enthusiastic piano player belted out hits from R.E.M. and Steely Dan.


Truluck's is still very much known for its Florida stone crab claws and seafood in general. It's also taken up the cause of sustainable seafood — always a plus for upscale fish restaurants. Florida stone crab claws are by nature one of the great matches of sustainability and human consumption — the big "crusher claw" that we all love to eat is harvested (ouch!) from the live crab which is then returned to the farm/ocean. It will then conveniently grow another claw in about a year. Talk about a renewable resource.

The Florida stone crab claws that came with the seafood platter were indeed delicious and I could eat my way through quite a few of them. The other appetizers were all quite good except the wedge salad which seemed dreary and droopy, and the gumbo which included tomatoes as an ingredient. This is Houston — don't put tomatoes in your gumbo, please.

The entrees were all generally good and plentiful. Texas Striped Bass Pontchartrain being a highlight. Having grown up in Southeast Texas eating pontchartrain dishes I can say this one was well executed. The Miso-Glazed Chilean Sea Bass was another standout. Chilean sea bass is usually shunned for its un-sustainability, but according to Truluck's they get their's from a sustainable farm off the coast of Chile (or is that Argentina?).

Service for the evening was professional and friendly. The general manager made frequent trips to the table and seemed genuinely interested in our experience. The wine pairings were good for the mid-range wines they served us.

Overall, Truluck's made a very positive showing for this influencer's dinner. If I'm in the mood for Florida stone crab claws, this will be the first place I think about and will go out of the way to get there. If I'm in the Galleria area without plans for lunch or dinner, and I'm in the mood for seafood, I'd definitely consider visiting Truluck's.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Houston Press Menu of Menus Extravaganza

It's springtime in Houston, and that means a flurry of festival activity: wine, food, crawfish, art, art cars — we've got it all. One of my favorites is the Houston Press Menu of Menus Extravanganza.

I've attended the last couple of years and it's a great way to taste offerings from Houston's best restaurants in one location. This year two of my personal favorites, Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood and Nelore Churrascaria, are featured prominently. Other restaurants that I've been meaning to try out but have not yet visited like Laurenzo's, Hearsay, and Blue Nile will be there. It will also be interesting to see what Textile Restaurant — known for the meticulous execution of high-end dishes — serves for the event.

And of course there's always a sleeper restaurant that uses the Menu of Menu's as a springboard to prominence. Last year, an unknown (and not yet opened) wine bar known as Block 7 created enough buzz to make it one of the most heralded openings of an Houston restaurant in a while.

This year's event takes place at West Avenue, an ambitious mixed-use development at the corner of Kirby and Westheimer. You don't see a lot of forward-thinking urban developments like this in Houston, and I'm curious to get a look. All proceeds from the event benefit Discovery Green and The Center for Hearing and Speech. Tickets are available on the Houston Press website.

Full disclosure: I have written for the Houston Press food blog Eating Our Words in the past and received two complimentary tickets to this year's event.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Catfish Out of Water

There's a Texas A&M banner hanging over the door to the restrooms at Lafayette Cajun Seafood Restaurant. It's only one example of the endearing quirkiness of this Cajun seafood restaurant located in a crazy-quilt neighborhood surrounding the intersection of West Bellfort and Wilcrest in southwest Houston.

Lafayette Seafood Restaurant - Fried Catfish
Lafayette Seafood Restaurant - Fried Catfish

I'm a sucker for anything food-related that's labeled "Cajun." It's a weakness I fully accept, and it led me to pull into the parking lot of the down-at-the-heels mini-mall that Lafayette Cajun Seafood shares with a washateria (coin-operated). It's an improbable location for a seafood restaurant, surrounded by smoke shops, taco trucks, and Middle Eastern ethnic markets. My philosophy about seafood restaurants is, "How bad can you screw up fried catfish?" Of course, it's really quite easy to screw up fried catfish. But I'm an optimist.

Lafayette Seafood Restaurant
Lafayette Seafood Restaurant

Even before you step into the restaurant, you are confronted with five, count'em five, signs taped to the front door that say "No public restrooms." Maybe the A&M banner is some kind of final warning?

Lafayette Seafood Restaurant
Lafayette Seafood Restaurant

I was seated at a table by myself in a half full restaurant around lunchtime on a Saturday. Inexplicably, each table had a removable tag with a number on it. Presumably the table number? I'd certainly never seen this before in a restaurant. As the friendly and efficient waiter took my order, I imagined the owner shuffling the numbers every morning just to keep the waiters on their toes. I liked that.

Every Cajun seafood restaurant can be judged by two things: gumbo and fried catfish. I ordered a cup of gumbo, and the fried shrimp and catfish combo. Really, just typing the words "fried shrimp and catfish" makes my mouth water. Coon-ass conditioning you might call it.

When I ordered the gumbo, I asked the waiter about the "chicken gumbo" on the menu. "Is that chicken and sausage gumbo?" I inquired. "No," he replied, "just chicken. But I can throw some sausage in there too if you like." I ordered the shrimp gumbo. When it came out, it had the requisite dark roux, but several small, rubbery shrimp were elbowed out by giant chunks of bell pepper and celery (where was the onion?). The gumbo soup was thin and one-dimensional, supported mostly with a generous component of salt. In a town with lots of good gumbo, this didn't measure up.

I didn't have much hope for the fried shrimp and catfish and resigned myself to taking one for the team. But when the dish came out, it didn't look half bad. The shrimp were small but capably fried, and quite tasty. The two generously-sized catfish fillets were fresh, flaky, moist, and covered in a finely-textured cornmeal batter. A heaping helping of dirty rice was properly prepared with flakes of meat and giblets, and mercifully devoid of any extraneous ingredients like green onions or parsley. The tartar sauce and cocktail sauce were better than expected.

As I sat and enjoyed my Cajun meal, listening to piped-in music that veered from Willie Nelson to something that sounded like Mannheim Steamroller to "Panama" by Van Halen, I asked myself, "Why, other than the competent seafood and quirky atmosphere, would someone come here rather than one of the many other Cajun restaurants in Houston?" The answer was on the menu in the form of prices. Most of the main dishes were under $10. My satisfying shrimp and catfish dinner cost all of $9.75. The same dish is listed as $18.95 at Pappadeaux and $21.00 at Danton's. It's cheap, it's good, it's Cajun. I'd go back.

This blog entry was originally posted 24 May 2010 on the website.