Liveblog: Closing Keynote: The Soul, Passion and Heart of a Chef

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Closing Keynote: The Soul, Passion and Heart of a Chef."

Shauna (S) - Shauna Ahern of Gluten Free Girl
Molly (M) - Molly Wizenberg of Orangette
Michael (R -- for Ruhlman) - Michael Ruhlman of
Elisa (E) - BlogHer's co-founder and COO Elisa Camahort Page

E: Introduces panelists

When we had our call, the title of this session was all about putting your heart and soul into food blogging. Title is "The Soul, Passion, and Heart of a Chef". The panelists all feel they're not really chefs; they're food writers. S, tell us a little bit about the start of your blogging. Did you start out sharing so much, digging right in, from the beginning? If so, why?

S: Nice question. When I started in 2005, I had absolutely no idea what a food blog was, and I think that's a benefit. I had been diagnosed with celiac disease, and had always been a writer, and felt an urgency to share what I was discovering, joyful discoveries, and how pissed off I was. I was 38 and had been sick all my life for no reason. That urgency is what drove that openness. I had no idea people were going to read. It started with really long emails. My brother called me "a scroller", because my emails were so long you had to scroll to read them all. I put the blog up for people who didn't have time to read the emails but wanted to have them someplace to see. Then later, someone left a comment and I'd never heard of them. Then sitemeter said 56 people a day were coming to my site, but 1/3 of them were searching for "free girl". (laughter) I feel it's really important to remember that place. I still write from that place. It really is about writing letters, sharing my life, discoveries, and joy.

E: You write about joy and anger. Curious about the ratio and wonder how people reacted to the dichotomy.

S: I didn't write angry on the page. I was fueled by indignation -- maybe that's a better word than anger. At the time, there wasn't info online about being gluten-free. The message was drudgery.

E: Is that message different now?

S: Yes, I think so. The fact that you can heal yourself through food is an incredible gift. If you're going to get a disease, choose the one where you don't have to get chemotherapy. It was fueled by "gotta change things".

E: R, how about you.

R: Anger is one of the reasons I started my blog, and even why I started to cook. My books weren't getting attention. I wrote a book about pediatric heart surgery, and it got completely ignored. I was upset, and continued to be so. Then a friend said Megnut mentioned my book on her blog, so I started reading Megnut. I started to look at blogs and liked them, and thought maybe I could promote my books that way, from a purely selfish standpoint. Meg and I struck up a friendship and she said I should blog, so I started as a guest blogger on her blog. I wrote an angry post about Frank Bruni, and it got a big reaction and I started to have fun. I like answering comments, and Meg doesn't answer comments.

E: Meg co-founded Blogger.

R: I wish she'd be back blogging more. Anyway, I really liked engaging with readers, and that's why I continued to blog.

E: How did you make this decision to be really free with what you share about your personal life?

R: It's just part of my personality. I'm a horrible gossip. (*audience laughs*) My wife is appalled. It's just my nature to be open, and I think we all should be, unless we're murderers or something. My personality fits the medium of blogging. I can express opinions, readers can express them back, and I love it.

E: M, how about you?

M: I started it as an unhappy college student. I thought grad school would be a lot of reading and talking about what you read. I was studying the French social security system, an excuse for me to travel to someplace meaningful to me, Paris. I was there in the summer of 2004. The national assembly was debating reform of social security, and I was there at just the right time, and I just didn't care. I suddenly discovered this wasn't where my heart was. My field notebook was filled with addresses of bakeries. A friend suggested I start a blog, because he knew I always loved to write. Dorie Greenspan, are you here? I've never said this in public before, but when I started my blog, my dream was to be your assistant, not that we as writers can afford to HAVE assistants. I was so excited to have this place to write about something I was psyched about, which was food. I just wrote about stuff I ran across, like a chicken that walked into a neighbor's front yard. I felt really awake, in a way I hadn't before. At a certain point, I wrote a post, and I was really into baking with sourdough starter. One day I was writing a post about some semi-successful bread with my sourdough starter. I started thinking what a good wife I'd have been in the great depression and I wrote a story about it, and the post did something that made me excited in a new way. What I love so much about writing and blogging is that it really makes me look at my own life in a surprising way. I'd never thought about the Great Depression before outside of history class, but here I was thinking about myself in a bonnet, cooking in those times. We can only write about what we know, and also that's the kind of writing I love to read. You have to do the work you want to see in the world, and I want to do the writing that I want to read. That's what I know and what I'm interested in: People and their stories.

E: I think that's really common. Every kind of blogger has moments when they suddenly feel they're observing their life with a new awareness, from inside it.

M: I often have a hard time explaining to people what I do. Not restaurant reviews. I am not just sitting around writing about myself all the time. I'm finding a new way for myself to see the world around me, my city, the people I care about. Not only what I have learned about myself, but the people around me and my city, making sense of them through stories.

R: I want to underscore that. What you just heard was the moment a writer found her voice. Successful blogs are the result of a strong, clear, unique voice. I remember an article I wrote for a magazine. It's like you're stepping onto a conveyor belt at the airport. You feel you are moving still without doing as much work.

E: What's the article?

R: Travel article to a Shaw festival. I just wrote it in a way that made me happy and it changed everything. It took me 20 years. Molly is a great writer, and she's successful because of her great voice. Ree Drummond is another of these freaks of nature; maybe it was her isolation or the menacing children that caused it. (*audience laughter*) It doesn't come easily, but it will happen. Writing is a craft, and it took me 20 years. I'm a slow learner.

E: Is Ree still here? I want to ask her if it was the menacing children.

"We write to live twice". (Quote from Virginia Woolf) Most of our days rush past us. When I write something, a little moment in time that stops me and makes me be awake in the world, it cultivates a practice of continuing that over again. I know I'm a more aware person now that I write a lot. I wrote a lot of painfully bad fiction when I was younger, because I thought writers wrote fiction. I gathered up my stories and sent them to the New Yorker, and never heard from them. Maybe they got lost in the mail. I was so invested in the title of Writer and the recognition, so I gave up for six months, and there was a moment in which I tackled the typewriter and decided I need to write. It was the act. It was so bad to not write. My writing ever since has been different. It's to be awake in this world and enjoy my life more, and it helps me remember to connect.

E: So you all just said a lot of words about writing that I just heard in a photography session, and it was a surprisingly emotional photography session. It was awesome. I want to ask you each about photography and its impact on your work.

R: I don't do any of my photography. I married a photojournalist. I'm lucky to have professional caliber food photos on my blog, but she's not a foodie and doesn't like to shoot food, so I'm just lucky. Donna Turner Ruhlman.

S: I took some very painful photographs, and some of them are on the blog. I don't care if I'm any good as a photographer. I love photography because it's a place without words. There are a lot of words in our home. I love that my husband, as a chef, has very little to do with owrds. It's very hands-on.

I was so sick before diagnosis that I was sleeping 16 hours a day and couldn't think straight or eat. Three or four days after I stopped eating gluten, suddenly sauteed spinach looked so beautiful. Not having had hot food in months, I realized we forget how great hot food is. I just grabbed my little camera and shot it. I just wanted to mark the moment. I had been eating baby food just to get nutrition. Being able to eat was so fantastic and humbling and beautiful. Photography is an act of that over and over again. I still don't think of myself as a photographer. Beginner's mind keeps me humble.

M: I think photography is also a way of living twice. Photography is a way of telling a story, like writing. I really don't know what I'm doing. I switched to shooting with film a couple years ago. What I liked about it was the accidents, the things I couldn't control. I saw that some people whose photos I admired on Flickr were catching these accidental shots with so much life in them, and that feeling is what I've always been drawn to about writing. I think our gut instinct is one of our best advisors. When I'm writing and have a gut feeling I'm capturing something new, it's so exciting. I decided to relinquish -- I'm a perfectionist -- a really slow writer. With photography, I turned off my brain a bit to capture that feeling. I'm not always happy with the photos I put up, but I use something that costs me a lot of money to put up. About half the time I'm happy with it, but I love the exercise of it, and I love the mistakes. It's just another way of writing and telling a story, and trying to capture a feeling in me or something I am observing. I'm trying always to find ways to loosen up and let that happen. I've been so much happier with my photography since I did that.

R: Your photography is what led me into your language, so I think it's really powerful.

M: Thank you.

E: Any questions from the audience?


E: Question about boundaries. [To the audience:] How many of you have people tell you they don't know how you put everything out there on your blog? And how many of you really feel like you're putting everything? What about you (panelists)?

S: I don't share everything, but what I share is authentic.

E: Are any topics ones you tend to avoid? Like when your daughter was ill?

S: I wanted to write about the fact that my relationship with food had gone awry. We had a really rough time. Lucy is fine, but when she was first born, she stopped breathing 12 hours after she was born, and I'm not going to talk about that. I lost 30 pounds in 10 days. My body went into shock mode. I suddenly understood those women who lift cars. We found out she had to have surgery. At 10 months old she had surgery on her skull and gave her a bigger skull, and she's fine. (*audience applauds*) I was so focused on making sure she was fine that I couldn't take care of myself. In the midst of this, we were editing our cookbook. She woke up every hour every night for four months. I don't know how we got through it, but we did. I was working on pie crust, so I had pie, and coffee, and more pie to make it through. It was comfort, and I understand now that if you are sleep-deprived, your body craves comfort foods. I started running, had a breast cancer scare, and went on medication 5 months after Lucy's surgery, and it means I can't get pregnant again, and I didn't talk about it, because it was too raw. My boundary is about whether I feel I can write about something yet. I waited until I was ready. I went for a run, and was feeling better, and I came home and told Danny I needed to write about it, and the fact he stopped drinking after she was born. Thought people might hate me for writing this.

E: Beautiful post, and you expressed how you didn't know how people would react. How did they?

S: I was so moved and struck. Spent the whole next day looking at messages from people saying thank you for writing this, and telling me their versions. I'm very proud of having put it up, and it scared the shit out of me. Storytelling, or blogging, that openness -- instead of endangering and pushing people away, it creates community.

E: R, on the phone, you said you share everything.

R: Yeah, but Jesus, I can't follow that! (*laughter*) I've had truly a charmed life, free of trauma. I'm out there, because that's the person I am.

E: I'll blog about religion, race, politics, but not my relationships, my family, my sex life. That's my boundary.

R: If I blogged about my sex life, I wouldn't have a sex life. (*laughter*)

E: About your relationship at all?

R: No, Donna has said "Michael, keep me out of it." She's a very private person. What Shauna's done is important. She's helping people understand the chaos of life. That's a good way to know when your personal boundaries are okay to go over, if it's in order to help people understand bigger things in life, then it's of value to people. My first writing teacher said (1) don't bore me; (2) don't think anything you have to say will be interesting to anyone but friends and family. And then start to write. We all need to ask ourselves if it'll be valuable to people. M, do you ever wonder about that, about seeming self-indulgent?

M: That's my greatest fear.

R: Because what you write is so personal.

M: Yes, I think it's strange that I ended up writing the way I do, and am up here with you, because I'm really shy, and I'm good alone. It's fun being up here as part of a Michael Ruhlman snadwich (*hoots and applause from audience*), but sometimes I have to go to my cave. I love to write, and have since I was a kid, but I never kept a journal. When teachers would tell me to, I could never do it, because I didn't like that feeling of speaking to an empty room. If I wanted to write, it's because I wanted to talk to other people. [Other panelists nod vigorously] The things I want to write about I want to put out there, because I woudln't want to write it otherwise, so that's a built-in filter.

E: I would get diaries, but would never keep them, yet I always loved to write, so it's interesting to hear you say that.

M: I tried to write a book that I didn't write, about my father. Someone said to me that I should write about him. (He died of cancer years ago.) I spent 5 months trying to write this book, and a lot of it was spent on the couch, grieving, and I realized that there wasn't a book there. My father didn't belong to me, he belonged to my older half-siblings. I felt like there was a whole part of his life that wasn't for me to talk about. The great surprise to me was that when I wrote the book I did write, I used that material in a different way. I was terrified about what my siblings would say. The man they knew was a different man. He was a bad father to them, but that wasn't how I knew him. I was scared about what they would say, and have had some uncomfortable discussions with them, because they were sad to see what I got that they didn't. Sometimes it's really scary to have written this way, but in the end I'm grateful to have had those conversations, and to be married to a man who's a great punchline guy. I feel lucky to have him in my life -- he understands me -- and to have had all those conversations. Going to the scary place is important.

S: Sounds like we're all saying the same thing: no decisions in this; we write this way because it's how we are. Sometimes people ask if I can put less of me in the blog and more food, and I say scroll down to the recipe or go someplace else. If you're in this for acclaim, this might not be for you. I never could have imagined that my first book would be a gluten-free food memoir. The more bare posts come for me because it's more painful to not write it than to write.

E: R, your books didn't start out about food.

R: Right, no. I wanted to convey my love of something directly to another reader. It didn't start with food.

Q (Dawn, Kitchen Travels): I love hearing all of you talk about feeling alive/awake. Thanks for being here. S, you mentioned something about how it was more painful not to write than to write, and not to worry about consequences. People in my non-blog world have discovered my blog, people at work, etc. Now I'm sort of self-editing now that I know people I know are reading my blog. Have any of you ever experienced that where you want to write about something but your boss might read it or something similar?

R: If you're writing about your boss, there are some practical concerns there. You shouldn't write for a certain group of people, nor should you hold back because of a person.

M: I would say you have to go with your gut. If it really makes you feel uncomfortable, pay attention to that. I feel that way all the time. Every single post I write, even unimportant stuff. I wonder what people are thinking about me. It's always there. Half is listening to your gut, and half is shutting down that demon.

R: You can't let fear get in the way of your writing.

S: If you're thinking it's so easy for us to write, it's not. It's so difficult. When I open up a computer page, I try to stay with that place where it's difficult. I could slap something up, without thinking, and people would be so bored. One day I actually downloaded a program to analyze my SEO, but I ran away from that. If I'm not being honest for myself, I don't know why anyone would read it. ALl the writers I go back to over and over again are being themselves. "Nobody can tell you what you can do or who you are, you just are." John Lennon.

E: Everything you say should be true. You don't have to say everything to be authentic.

Q: It's been so great following on the photography panel, with passion here, too. Do any of you intentionally try to balance the passion and personal stories with the recipes, or do you just let it flow?

M: It's really important to me to give people something they can use. I was talking to people before this session about how I was putting these weird constraints on myself about not blogging if I don't have a recipe ready. It's been a problem for the past year because I don't cook the way I used to. It's been really hard for me to figure out whether to keep blogging because the recipe is important to me, so you have something from me in your own home. I was robbing myself of the joy and fun of blogging by setting myself this silly rule. I recognize my readers want a recipe, but I think they're more flexible than I thought they were. I put up a recent post. I've been listening to radiolab [explains what radiolab is; see] and I was excited about the episodes, and I wondered why I wasn't putting that excitement on my blog. I would put a recipe in every post, but I think it's important not to let it rob you of the fun of blogging.

E: R, you said it's the community aspect for you. How do you balance that and sharing?

R: I try to have a blog schedule. I want to have 3 posts a week. I'm kinda anti-recipe. Not that I don't like them, but we're over-reliant on them, so when I don't have anything passionate to say, I use recipes as a crutch. Now you know my secret. Always something useful, like M said. Cool technique, great image, something useful.

S: I may have written for decades before this happened, but I found my voice because I had a sense that what I said mattered to a smattering of people. I wait sometimes until I have something urgent to say before I post. There's a lot of talk about blogs as business now, and I love those blogs, but it's not my passion. I'm not a businesswoman. Right now, I'm so geeky about gluten-free baking, and I get this direct joy from people when I do it, so then I get excited and do more, but it's like breathing: it comes and goes.

R: Blogs are living things; they have to be fed and nurtured.

Q: I think one of the best lessons I learned as a writer is that you have to feed your process. Reading isn't cheating. Who do you read on the page [that is, not blogs] that inspires you?

R: Jonathan Franzen's novel, Freedom, I like it a lot.

M: I realized 6 months ago that I had no idea what's going on in the world, so I subbed to the New Yorker. My dad used to read it. I was scared it would take over my life or give me guilt if I didn't read it, so I decided to read one article per issue. I'm eating it up. It's nice to feel like I understand what's going on in the world, but I'm also so psyched about the writing I'm reading in there. My dad used to send me the cartoons. They really let their writers take some amazing risks, so I'm surprised by how inspiring it is. Also, it's kind of cheating, but I fell in love with Francis Lam, who writes about food, and he really loves people -- he really genuinely cares about and wants to hear about you, and it shows. So if I am struggling with something, I go and read Francis Lam. It makes me feel psyched.

R: Here at the New Yorker is a great book, and a great example of voice. I read it for pleasure and inspiration all the time.

S: I went through a phase where all I was reading was food writing, and I had the opportunity to have dinner with Francis Lam, and he is just so into the food, so I read him, too. I found I go away from food writing and read a lot of novels nowadays, which takes a while with little kids. Right now, I'm reading Laurie Moore, who is excellent. She's so particular in her details, and wry and wonderful and understated. I read a lot of novels and short fiction and poetry, like Mary Oliver.

E: Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals). His writing about food and the culture/meaning of food, and his style... I finished it with tears running down my face, so I downloaded his novels.

S: His second novel is amazing.

Q (Nancy, Now that I'm blogging, my inspiration comes from exploring with my grandchildren. I want them to have the kind of food memories I grew up with. How much risk is there in sharing about the people you care about without putting yourself and others at risk? What are the realities of putting yourself out there?

M: I think you have to be sensible about this. I never tweet about where I am when I'm actually there. One thing among many about opening a restaurant is having a place where people can find me all the time. I have a lot of friends in the craft blogging world, and some of them have run into scary experiences with photos of their kids online, so they don't ever show their kids' faces. That may seem extreme, but it makes them feel a lot safer, and you can still capture the mood and tell the story, but be measured about it.

I walked into the library one day and the libararian knew me, and it kind of freaked me out. It's important to keep your wits about you.

R: I do have kids, and I've put my son on the blog, and I've thought about it, but I believe the world is a fundamentally decent place. I'm not going to worry about kidnapping and such - you go out in public, don't you? Be sensible, but I don't think you should be scared or paranoid.

E: Statistically, it's shown that the online world is not more dangerous than the world around you.

S: I have a lovely daughter, and most of you recognized her when you saw her. oOr a while, we were careful with putting her on the blog. Part of it was trolls who say nasty things. We found out there were people who had set up active Twitter streams to mock what I said, including one in "Lucy's voice", making fun of the shape of her head. [audience outcry] We wrote to Twitter and asked them to take it down, and they did, but for a while it scared me. Then I realized after we had healed, I wasn't going to let them win. [applause] I want to share our joy and share my daughter, and I just don't read those any more, and now it kind of crackes me up, because I have a thicker skin because of that. You definitely should use your common sense, but we receive so many more beautiful messages from people than the scary things.

E: Anyone have any last thoughts?

S: No

M: No

R: Yes, I do, if you don't mind. I was thinking today about this passion and what we are talking about today, and thinking of all of us, and the sea of food bloggers out there, 10,000 or more. If you want to make money, great, make money, it's important. But where blogging is concerned, money won't come unless something is underneath that. There's a book called "Catching Fire: How I learned to cook" [He stands up, people are amused, he starts pacing while talking.] We became human, not because of some genetic accident, but because we started to cook. Before then, apes had to eat for 6 hours a day to get enough food to nourish. Once we started cooking, we could do so much more, and spread our healthy genes, and feed our brain, so it changed who we were. Someone had to stay home to cook the food; we lost our hair; our brains got bigger; jaws got smaller, etc. It made us more social because we had to cooperate and divide labor. We had to come together. It changed our temperaments -- you couldn't be an asshole if you wanted to eat. I really believe it's cooking food that made us human. For the past 50 years, we've stopped cooking and given it over to the big companies. We're trashing the earth, killing the oceans, obesity is at epidemic levels, etc., since we stopped cooking. Cooking is really really important. I think you blog about this because in your heart, you know cooking is fundamental to our humanity. No matter how tiny your audience, or what you write about, it's all really important, and I hope you all recognize that it's really important, and that you continue to go out and spread this word. I'm in awe of so many of you here. I'm sort of an interloper. It's so important to me, and you obviously think so too.

Your liveblogger is Serene.

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