So. I’ve done it. I’ve voluntarily chosen to subject myself to the pressure of getting a good grade in school – again. It’s not that I’ve never thought about going back to school; to the contrary, I know lots of people – many of whom I envy for it – who have gone back to school, some several times, for advanced degrees in fields wildly disparate from their previous careers (although who’s to say which, if any, careers remain unconnected anymore): I ride bikes with a guy who got his PhD in history and practices criminal law, chilled out after Levi’s Gran Fondo with a cyclist who practices medicine and has several PhDs (clearly, cyclists have too much time on their hands…), and married an expert in Former Soviet & Russian studies, with an MBA from Yale, who now practices full-time motherhood and runs her own dance school here in town

But I never took that plunge, not since I extracted myself, sheepishly AbD, from the doctoral program in which I enrolled straight out of college (if taking 5 years to graduate can properly be considered “straight”). At least, not until last week, when I cleared the wait-list for this continuing-ed course in Web writing. The downside, quite obviously, is that I have to do the work (in a fit of masochism – or,  perhaps, in recognition of my vacuous self-discipline – I’m taking it for credit, with a letter grade to boot); the upside, on the other hand, is that you may end up reading a better piece of writing and, in the meantime, that I get lots of freebie material, because I get to write to you about learning how to write to you.

Herewith, my first bit of homework: Find a couple of significant blogs in my chosen space, and review them. I’m not suggesting that you’ll necessarily enjoy reading my homework per se, but you may well enjoy these talented food bloggers’ work…

Two Must-Read Food Blogs

Precisely because I’m trying to write this very food and wine blog, I take both a personal and professional interest in other food blogs, particularly the successful ones and most particularly the successful ones that I think don’t suck, not least because I’ve still got a PageRank of identically zero, and they don’t. Two sites that hurdle this bar without breaking a sweat are Orangette and mattbites: Yes, they’re really big, successful sites (solidly amongst the Global Top 50, Google PageRanks of 6 per), but they’re also, and not coincidentally, well-written, beautifully photographed (this, in particular, differentiates them), and thoroughly engaging blogs; ergo, they don’t suck, and they’re worth reading.

Orangette

Prior to engaging in this review, Orangette was not, truth be told, the sort of thing I normally read, although not for the obvious reasons: She’s as as serious as the business end of a knife about her food, her prose is exceptionally clean and well composed, and her photography – entirely self-taught, as far as I know – is good enough to make you begrudge her lucky draw in the talent lottery. While that all matters, it is, I believe, somewhat peripheral to her phenomenal success, because surely food porn alone is insufficient to inspire millions of people to bother reading what someone has to say about their own, largely normal, life. No, I can only imagine that people read her because they feel like they know her, and the more they know her, the more they like her, and how could they not? This is a person who writes in such a disarmingly personal way, with such candor and warmth, that you feel like she’s writing just for you. I even get this sense from her bio pic:

Seriously, who picks that particular picture – half-smiling, possibly but by no means definitively showered, looking you straight in the eye with a nearly perceptible twinkle – unless that really is who they are, and unless they truly want you to know it? Check out her About page: This is a person who managed to find marriage through her online musings (she explains this inconceivable breach of Web security in some detail, although I still can’t shake my initial impression of a vague creepiness…). My guess is, cooking and pictures aside, Molly could produce a reasonably successful site if all she did was write randomly about her life because, as a reader, she makes you feel a part of it, and all of us – online or not – want to share another person’s life. That she is a talented writer, photographer, and, by all accounts, cooks her butt off… Well, I guess that’s why Orangette is what it is.

mattbites

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for a little while now. In addition to publishing a highly successful blog,
Matt is somewhat unique in that his name is “Matt” and that he is a “he” in what has thus far evolved into an industry primarily defined by women. (I’m still puzzling over why this should be: Celebrity chefdom, outside of the Web, remains disproportionately populated by men; so, too, the making of – and for that matter, blogging about – wine; but the heavy hitters in the corner of the blogosphere reserved specifically for food are, by and large, women. I’m tempted to speculate that we’ve always had this vast, untapped pool of female talent in food and wine – perhaps all the larger for its under-representation in professional kitchens – and that the Internet has unlocked the floodgates; or perhaps it’s just a natural selection bias, inherited from the empirical composition of the food-blog readership; or perhaps – like Molly of Orangette – women are just inherently better at opening their digital kimonos, more effective at making personal connections over fiber optic cables and WiFi, than men… But, I digress.)

Matt is a professional photographer and graphic designer, and his site struts past you in a visual panoply of foods you want to eat, beaches you want to visit, and frosty bottles of beer bottles that I, for one, want to drink on one of those beaches. While I have no doubt that lots of folks go to mattbites just for the photos – they really are that good – the photos in and of themselves seem inadequate to explain a site visited by millions. Surely, part of the common theme is the ability to connect with the audience, and clearly, Matt is a personable and charismatic digital persona, but not really in the same way that Molly is. If to follow Orangette is to sit at Molly’s family’s table, then to follow Matt is to laugh together over beers; where Molly’s language is evocative, Matt’s is conversational; if Molly is a writer who happens to write about food, then Matt is a food photographer who happens to write.

I don’t know if that’s fair, but that’s my take, and the more I think about it, the more I wonder, just where, precisely, this guy’s mojo is at. I suspect a big part of it is humor: He may take food, travel and photography very seriously, but I think an important part of the attraction has to be his fun, easygoing, and often very funny disposition. For some – this is what I alluded to when I said earlier that it’s not the sort of thing I normally read – Orangette may be too personal, too emotional; but for those who still want to connect with the blogger’s life but are slightly discomfited by Orangette’s speed-dial to Molly’s soul, I’m guessing that mattbites, all flashy photos and clever one liners by a guy you’d like to be friends with, makes the top of their shortcut list.

*All photo credits: Orangette and mattbites, respectively.