Serendipitous emails

An electronic encounter with a woman named Tana who professed to be a fan began this guest blog; Tana was quirky and engaging with a really genuine e-voice. After a while she told me I should be blogging (she has a blog I admire on a subject that I care a lot about). I’ve got enough to write as it is, I said, it’s my family’s main source of income, I don’t need extra writing. Tana didn’t actually call me a loser, I think she was just quiet. Simultaneously, Meg Hourihan emailed asking if she could get a press copy of my new book The Reach of a Chef. I mentioned Tana’s suggestion and Meg laid out the pros and cons and gave me the names of a couple emblematic blogs by non-fiction writers (stevenberlinjohnson, for example). Then she suggested I guest blog right here to see how I liked it. I’ve long known about her blog, liked it, liked that she’d gone over to food absolutely, and I respected the fact that she’d actually done time in kitchens. That’s not a vanity shot she put on her about page. I also like her straightforward and clearheaded writing. So here I am, and happy to be so.

What’s in it for you, reader, remains to be seen. What’s in it for me, though, I've thought a lot about.

First, I get to write about whatever I want in the way that I want to, immediately. When I write for magazines such as gourmet or most recently the NYTimes, the copy gets heavily worked over. It feels kind of like getting beaten up, and you have to stand there and take it. When it’s over I sometimes feel it’s not a better story, it’s just a different story. I’m sure it’s a better story when the mauling is over, and the editors I’ve worked with have been without exception excellent—I would even go so far as to say they’re necessary! I’m speaking only of my bruised viscera. (My editor at Gourmet just last week emailed a comment from another of her writers, a gentler version and just as true: “My copy is the cat toy of the masthead.”) While we need the many-chefs-stirring-the-soup, heavily worked over, highly compressed newspaper and magazine story, I also have liked the unfinished, untucked nature of the blog. I like people unadorned and in their natural state, too. There’s a credibility to an encounter when the person you’re talking with has bed head and a mug of coffee that simply isn’t there in the more formal circumstance of a job interview, say, or cocktail party.

Blogs also have a thrilling immediacy. I write books. I spend months gathering material and organizing it and structuring a narrative on which to hang all the stuff I’ve gathered, and then more months to do the writing work, which is the work I love best. But to write something and publish it instantly is still a novelty to me. There are dangers inherent in this ability, but also great energy and possibility.

Third, I get to see if blogging suits my writing life. I was a copyboy at The New York Times from 1985-87. Of the many important things I learned there was a reporter’s absolute obedience to balance, to giving all parties their own voice, the fairness essential to anything as powerful as The Times. This checks-and-balance ethic of journalistic integrity has arguably never been stronger there since the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller catastrophes. The other thing I learned there was that I was not a newspaperman, I was physically unsuited to writing daily on deadline for tomorrow’s paper. People who don’t write daily for a living rarely realize how physical the work of writing every day is. Blogging in this respect is an unknown to me.

Fourth, as Meg argued to me, it could be a way of amplifying my other writing, perhaps developing new readers and engaging more immediately with those already out there. Am I doing it to promote my new book? Not really, the timing is coincidental. I don’t expect to sell a bundle of books by blogging (no matter how much I’d LIKE to, but that’s another topic). If I could just let others who didn’t know about my work know about it through this very high-persona form of writing, blogging, that would make it worthwhile. Also, engaging with readers about my books is important to me.

Fifth, there’s so much fun stuff I encounter that could just never fit in an article or a book (a surprise dinner with the writer Molly O’Neill or some really disgusting information about agribusiness sausages). Maybe there’s a reason for that, maybe this stuff shouldn’t be written at all–but you don’t have to read it and you don’t have to pay for it.

In this blog I imagine I will want to discuss food, food writing, books, issues in my new book about the world of restaurants and chefs and about writing about them, not to mention general issues of a writing life. And anything else readers out there might be curious about. I’ll leave the comments on.

With thanks to Meg,

Michael Ruhlman

20 thoughts on “Serendipitous emails

  1. Welcome Michael! I’m also a fan of one of your non-food books, Wooden Boats, and I look forward to reading your writing here.

  2. Hi!
    Welcome to blogging. Don’t over think things. It only muddies the stew. As for what I’d like to see you write? Dish the dirt. To coin another phrase? What’s your kitchen confidential?

  3. Fantastic, Michael! I will definitely stay tuned. I’m blogging on food while trying to get that elusive big break in publishing, so it’ll be good to read your experiences comparing both worlds.

  4. I’ve been a fan of Tana’s Small Farm blog for months now. I love the stories and the photos and the occasional rants, but mostly I like how obvious it is that she loves farmers and the products they produce.
    Can’t wait to read more from you!

  5. Michael, You mentioned megnut and blogging at the Joseph Beth book signing but didn’t say you were going to start blogging yourself. Looking forward to reading your posts!
    Oh, and my husband is in love with Wooden Boats 🙂

  6. I’m excited for you to be doing more immediate writing, off the cuff, so to speak. Remember that if you are entertaining yourself, chances are, we will be entertained as well. Let your personality shine through, that’s what makes blogging fun and helps us to connect.
    I’m thinking anecdotes, humor, outrageous behavior, bad meals, extraordinary events…just let it rip baby!
    Though I haven’t posted on my blog in a long time, this is going to inspire me to write a new article.
    This is gonna be great and I get to talk back (not that I’ve ever had a problem with that).

  7. The idea that I was “just quiet” is going to be fodder for family teasing for a long time to come. (In other words: BWAH!)
    I am thrilled to see you taking my advice (ya whippersnapper) to enjoy a more immediate and succinct form of writing. I’m betting that some of your smallest posts germinate into articles or even books. Sometimes comments or questions can engender sparks that turn into bonfires. I don’t mean this in a destructive sense. I know you have so many readers who will want to come and warm their hands by your fire.
    Thank you again for your kind support. And I am grateful to Megnut for extending the invitation: an idea whose time has come.

  8. Welcome! I’m midway through Reach right now and enjoying it.
    Suggested post topic: ratios
    In Reach you touch on the topic. IIRC, in Soul you mentioned a sheet of ratios that students used at the CIA. It would follow on nicely to Meg’s post on Instinctive cooking and it seems like there is a lot to say on the subject.

  9. Michael, so pleased to read you here. Your books were absolutely terrific, engaging, educational, loved them, and can’t wait to read the new one!

  10. Just finished “Reach” and love Love LOVED it. (And even tho it arrived from Amazon the same day as Bourdain’s book I read yours first so that blows your theory that his fans are more rabid than yours…neener neener and all that…that said I would donate various and sundry body parts to science for a chance to accompany you two on a tequila binge).
    I look forward to reading whatever you choose to blog. It seems these things work best when they’re more stream of consciousness…so I’d say to write whatever strikes or moves you that day.

  11. Welcome Michael- many of us have been eagerly anticipating your entry into the blogging world.

  12. Oh swell . . . another way to use my valuable time on the Net instead of doing my work. Thanks a lot. 🙁
    Seriously, I look forwarding to reading you here! Just got Reach, and if it’s as good as Soul, that will be very good indeed.

  13. MIchael–Your first two chef books were instrumental in getting me interested in food generally. I treasure them. Thanks for getting into this crazy internet thing!

  14. I’m only midway through Soul of a Chef, but wanted to throw in a comment for your excellent cookbooks, which no one seems to have mentioned yet. Charcuterie, Bouchon, and TFL Cookbook are three of my most prized amongst a collection of about 50 and I look to them frequently not just for the recipes but for your excellent insights as well.
    What is your next project? Is it true that Thomas Keller is working on a Molecular Gastronomy type cookbook? C’mon, dish some good dirt…

  15. Michael, nice to see you on a blog all these years after our kitchen conversation about online writing. Congrats on the new book — can’t wait to read it and add it to all your others on my shelf.

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