Last week, I bought a nut bag. After spending an entire morning—a morning when I was supposed to be finishing a book review and working on the novel I’d been writing for too long—reading Nom Nom Paleo, scrolling through perfect pictures of homemade sriracha and paleo mayo, Cracklin’ Chicken and Cheesy Egg Muffins, Zucchini Spaghetti (Zoodles!) & Meatballs, X-ing away the nagging pop-up window that kept inviting me to subscribe to the mailing list and become a Nomster, I decided to try making my own almond milk. Thus the need for the nut bag, a mesh-light contraption to separate the almond meal from its milk.
I didn’t finish that book review, and the novel is still … lingering, but hey: now there’s a quart of delicious, carrageenan-free almond milk in my fridge.
I’m more than a little ambivalent about food blogs, probably because I never mean to wind up reading them. They’re always detours—and, ironically, given their sunny photos and cheerful verbiage—and depressing detours in my day. And while plenty of studies have shown a negative correlation between Facebook usage and happiness, and doctors and journalists have speculated about causation, not too many people are talking about the potential food blogs have to do the same thing. Back in 1998, when Robert Kraut found Web usage positively linked to upped depression and loneliness, the Deb Perelmans and Angela Liddons of the world were anonymously living their pre-blog days, those years chronicled in snappy summary on their blogs’ About pages.
In fact, in a Saveur piece charting the history of food blogs, Ganda Suthivarakom dates the concept (of, you know, writing about food on the Web) to Chowhound (now a quiet-looking message board under the blaring Chow umbrella). Former Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz started musing in 1999. eGullet, where people nerded out about molecular gastronomy, fast followed.
Boohoo, you say, stay away then. And, with the exception of the occasional foray onto Lebovitz’s page, I do. Or, I try to.
What causes food blog anxiety? Surely it’s unique to each reader, each skimmer, each subscriber, each browser; maybe it’s worse among women, for whom general anxiety disorder is two times more prevalent than men; I bet different bloggers bother different browsers. I say browser because anxiety is an excessive and persistent and, in my experience, fast feeling, one prompted by the overload special to the browse, the skim, the quick taste, the glance-and-click.
Though David Lebovitz rarely makes me anxious, that’s not because I spend hours with him. I skim his prose, too, even when I’m gearing up to make one of his recipes (I’m talking to you, ramp pasta). Blogs should do that, right? Provide a connection between the blogger and the blog reader, a lifeline across the virtual abyss. And what better to connect over than a shared love of food?
But maybe I feel no anxiety when Lebovitz writes about making oeufs a la niege because there’s no way I could be him. I never worked with Alice Waters; I’m not the author of multiple cookbooks; I’m not an American living in Paris, cooking in a kitchen teeming with all kinds of copper; I’m not a man.
In the 2000s, when the Web saw an explosion of food blogs, I was just a college student, a young writer who spent a lot of time baking. I’d picked up the habit from my mom, who picked up the habit from her mom, and by the end of college, I was that girl who brought a flourless chocolate torte in to a poetry workshop. (I used all the flex dollars on my meal plan to buy Endangered Species 70% dark bars, the only chocolate I deemed suitable in the campus convenient store.)
I was that girl—I thought of myself that way a lot, back then. That girl: that’s the sort of phrase food blogs remind me of.
Now, though, I realize that that girl I once was is an endangered species. I didn’t bake to share a recipe with followers. I didn’t bake to arrange a perfect slice with a perfect smattering of crumbs on a perfect plate next to a perfect knife. I baked because I was lonely and I wanted to be busy; I baked because I wanted to see, for myself, if I could do something—whether it was properly grease a tart pan (I could) or make Gale Gand’s vanilla caramels (I couldn’t).
Food blogs, even Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen or the others that use a strike-out to show how recipes have been tweaked, create the illusion of a perfect product. A clear narrative. A straight-through line (i.e., my child developed ___ allergy, so I tried the cookie like this). Perhaps what I experience when I look at food blogs is envy: at the blogger’s ability to sensibly arrange the world, zoom in on what is important, share her good work with the world.
Maybe I should do that, I think. I was a pastry chef, for a couple years. I could write books. I’ll bake something or plate something, take out my phone, and wait for the camera. But the simple act of posting one of these snaps floods me with terror. Who will be judging me? What if some anonymous they thinks I’m self-absorbed? Show-offy? Or worse, untalented? Full of myself?
Despite knowing how food blogs make me feel, I still find my fingers directing me to a few. They’re the big ones, the ones you probably know: Smitten Kitchen, Nom Nom Paleo, Oh She Glows. I have spent entire mornings, recent mornings, hopping the blogs lauded as superlative in some way by the James Beard folks. But even though I can read the About page on Oh She Glows and learn how Liddon overcame her own eating disorder partially through blogging, even though this shared experience (eating disorder) and shared passion (cooking) should make her someone I want to read, I can’t leave her site without feeling repulsed by myself, envious of her, confused by what it means to be a woman who likes to eat and cook in this world, a world that sometimes can feel invisible if you’re not participating in image sharing and virtual recipe swaps.
Maybe my feelings about food blogs are related to my social media discomfort. Maybe what I’m really talking about is loneliness, the hollow feeling that comes from an entire morning staring at the screen, toggling between websites and email accounts and my own writing, not concentrating deeply on much of anything; maybe that feeling is particular to me—after all, a similar peril floods me when I’m lying on my mat in the minutes before a yoga class begins, and it seems like everyone knows everyone else—except me.
Reading food blogs, for me, is an activity akin to one I practiced during the worst part of my eating disorder, something I’ve heard referred to as “cruising”—walking around the grocery store, skimming the aisles, reading ice cream carton copy like it was Proust. I would cruise when I wanted to be close to something I didn’t want to want; I read food blogs when I am close to something in my work as a writer that, for one reason or another, I can’t stomach. There are so many ways to procrastinate.
And so, I try to stay away from food blogs, as thankful as I am for them. Yes, I am grateful to know how to make my own almond milk, Nom Nom; and Deb Perelman, your homemade ricotta recipe is one I’ve committed to memory. Minimalist Baker, I love your wheat bread, and Angela Liddon, your avocado pasta is brilliant; food bloggers, I’ll read your recipes and scan your photos, but I’ll avoid your stories: I have my own to tell.
JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. She lives in Massachusetts. @JNovacaine