How the food blogging community in NYC can change the way we see food.
By Sugee Kim
Anne Noyes Saini didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. Instead, she usually assisted in clearing the dishes and taking out the trash, leaving the actual cooking up to her older sisters. “I didn’t really learn how to cook much within my own family,” she admits. She has several memories of her stay at home mother and oldest sister being in the kitchen, baking, laughing, and chatting over recipes. Still, she didn’t feel left out, “I wasn’t interested in food or in domestic things until I was well into my 20’s.”
Several years later and having somehow managed to learn her mother’s proud family secret recipe for “mouth-watering, overly-decadent” apple pie, Saini baked a pie for a special occasion. She was meeting her then-boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Anxious, nervous, and sweaty, she presented the pie to her Indian future-mother-in-law. It wasn’t much after that she too, found herself in the kitchen, baking, laughing, and chatting over recipes with her future-mother-in-law. “The cooking lessons commenced immediately,” she recalls fondly with a smile. “It’s cheesy, but it was my American apple pie and her traditional North Indian dishes coming together, and in the kitchen was when I really got to know her.”
While it was the future-in-laws that got Saini to stay in the kitchen, it was the absence of Siobhan Brett’s family that attracted her to the kitchen. Brett comes from a lower class working family, where her mother and father were often both at work and expected her older brother to take care of the youngest Brett until they came home in time for dinner.
“I had a very interesting relationship with food growing up,” she recalls. “My mother was in college and grad school and working full time until I was 13, so I never really saw her in the kitchen.” The holidays were when her mother was home all day, baking, and cooking, with Brett as her assistant. Having an incredible sweet tooth, Brett quickly discovered “the magic of Pillsbury” and was in the kitchen by herself, making various baked goods and watching the Food Network. With childlike innocence, she had wanted to do something “nice for Mom and Dad who came home so tired every night”, and incidentally, her brother had no problem supplying her with baking goods as long as she gave him first pick (“Still today! He’ll text me saying he wants cookies or crepes!”)
Today, both women are independently co-creators of two separate, very successful food blogs. Both part of a female duo and in their late-twenties. Both are located in New York City, and both don’t make a single nickel off of their blogs, managing it through sponsors and ads.
Saini is co-creator of City Spoonful, a popular food blog that recently turned one year old this past March. Long time friend and City Spoonful co-founder, Clare Trapasso says she and Saini had always had a passion for “not fancy, five-star food but real, authentic, as if a mom had made dinner” food. This blog was a new and exciting way for them to try all of the cuisines that MTA transportation and day-trips had to offer. It was an extracurricular-activity that motivated them to share their passion of food without it feeling like work, Trapasso explained in an email. Both women do indeed, have “real” careers outside of running this rather successful food blog (averaging up to 2 new posts a week and 500 hits a day). She’s a reporter at the New York Daily News, and also teaches media writing classes downtown.
Saini is a wife, an economics editor at New York University, contributor to various economic publications, and board member of Elders Share The Arts (ESTA), a program that honors older generations as storytellers, bearers and teachers of traditions through the arts. As busy as both women are, Saini spoke about their obligation and passion for City Spoonful, “I wouldn’t say Clare and I consider this ‘work’, we’ve just kind of built up an audience and can’t let them down now.” Both are committed to preparing at least three posts a week and spanning them over time out to post when there is a lull or hectic weeks. It takes roughly five days for a post to be completed; a day to go eat a meal and take notes and photographs, a day or two to finish writing the article, and another day or two for their copy editor to get back to them.
Brett is co-founder of Blondie and Brownie, who both post anonymously and under pen names of the color of their hair. For upkeep of their clever disguise, Brett’s “real” identity will not be revealed. Blondie and Brownie started their food blog back in 2008 as a food journal, for their friends and family who wanted recipes, ideas, and photos of their creations (both were “infamously popular in college because of our cooking,” she said with a wink and small smile). And soon, as people started to consistently revisit, re-link, and respond to the blog, the demand to make it a higher priority and to post more often came to Blondie and Brownie’s attention.
Blogging throughout the week and often during lunch breaks (Blondie is a full time mom. Brownie is in graduate school, studying Nutrition and Agricultural Studies.), they “don’t worry too much about it [the blog], it’s just for fun and not to be taken all that seriously.” This is different than Saini’s take on food blogging.
According to Saini, there are two things that have made City Spoonful a successful food blog: their choice of the food they review, and their choice of writing. “We put a focus on all of the areas in New York that we can because it’s something off the beaten path, to get people of out Manhattan.” She explained that expanding out of Manhattan and into the other boroughs was important because most authentic food is usually found in smaller, mom-and-pop eateries. And City Spoonful stays faithful to that mission – the website features tabs and posts on areas that tend to be less popular on other NYC food blogs such as Staten Island and Long Island. She rattles off her personal favorite restaurants and small “hole-in-the-wall” places to eat, where cuisines that are certainly less mainstream: Bengali noodles in Astoria, Nepali barbeque in Jackson Heights (she’s a vegetarian but has heard rave reviews about this place), Arapas in midtown, and so many more that most New Yorkers “have barely scanned the surface of.”
And at this, her eyes lit up and she has a genuine grin, a genuine desire to share and explore all of the cuisines that New York has to offer, “That’s the appeal of New York City – New York City food and culture are tied and you learn something new about that cuisine and culture all the time. That’s the brilliance of New York City.”
City Spoonful ranges widely both in the distance they travel for food as they do in the content they cover. The site is streamlined and on a white background that makes the photos pop. The headlines range from “Cheap Eats: Asia Dog”, “Passover-Themed Food Crawl of the Lower East Side” to “Recipes: Spice Up Your Super Bowl Snacks with Bengali Chaat.” It’s informational, factual, and reads like a newspaper. Both Saini and Trapaso have Masters in Journalism, and strive for a “New York Times writing style blog – simply because there isn’t anything in the [food blogging] market like that yet.” Saini admits although she has a soft spot for a delicious, artistic write up and beautiful photos but wishes to stay away from “food porn” and instead strives for a professional, journalistic post that tells a story with a message.
And she lists several of her favorite food blogs that are just the opposite from direction she wishes to take City Spoonful. Her Google Reader is constantly being updated with notices from City Spoonful emails, comments, and fans, as well as updates from the 200 other blogs she follows (many of which are “food porn”, she tells me with a big smile).
Blondie and Brownie, which isn’t quite “food porn”, has a distinctively fun levity about it. The site has splashes of color and short write-ups of popular and well-known restaurants in mainly Manhattan and Queens, accompanied by a couple of photos. Their latest project, however, brings Brett to speak passionately, rather than light-heartedly as she had been moments before. They’ve written a book on street vendors in New York City and have profiled 25 of them. Planned to go on tour later this summer, Blondie & Brownie Take NYC Street Carts is caught between a recipe book and a collection of mini-biographies. Brett explains that the purpose of the book is to document the street food scene, and to “bring the people behind [the food carts] respect from the average New Yorker.” The street carts play a big part in the food scene, from lunch specials and gourmet food on wheels to locally grown coffee and organic fruit juices.
The idea came when Brett noticed for reasons unknown, that New Yorkers seemed to scorn or have negative opinions about street food, when “they [the carts] have in turn become a part of that culture’s fabric” and wishes to change those opinions. Many of those food vendors are immigrants, coming to America and happily serving customers authentic food of their home country, working long 18-hour days. Of those she approached and talked to were quite open and happy to tell her their story. “My favorite was this Afghani man who sold kebabs in Fresh Meadows, Queens. He has three sons, [now] two doctors and another in law school – he still gets up every morning at 7 A.M. to start cooking for his customers, just as he did for the last 22 years to support and put his children through college.”
Similarly, this was a reason Saini was a big fan of mom-and-pops as well. The intersection between food and culture is surprisingly personal; it brings people together. Saini tells me with a proud smile that she knows what “real” Indian food is, thanks to her Indian mother-in-law. Brett’s childhood spent baking and wanting to make others happy through her food is embedded in her book, she explains. Both Saini and Brett make it a point to talk to the person making the food, whether it be the mom-and-pop couple behind the register or the man at the halal cart, asking for the correct pronunciations of the food (Saini) or asking if this is the original recipe (Brett).
Having a friend in the publishing industry, getting an agent and pitching the idea for Blondie & Brownie Take NYC Street Carts was no problem, “It was a very smooth transition, from idea to execution. I’d say it was lucky, very lucky – especially with the so many things food related online now.” And as for Saini, she has no plans for the future of City Spoonful “It is what it is, if I’m still doing it in ten years, so be it”, she laughs.