bacon gone wild

Photo credit: Dave77459 on flickr

One of the things I knew I had to write about when I started this blog was “bacon mania”. In the past few years bacon has been an unusual ingredient popping up in all sorts of desserts (and drinks): ice cream, chocolate, cookies, donuts, cupcakes, crème brûlée- you name it, it’s been done. It sounds strange but so intriguing.

UNFORTUNATELY, between me researching this bacon obsession and actually writing this post, the weirdest thing happened: The TV show ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ featured a recipe for “bacon and eggs ice cream”. What?! Bacon ice cream has gone mainstream?! Seeing “Fast Ed” make it kind of ruined the allure for me. But I’m writing this damn post anyway!

Photo credit: kightp on flickr

First, let’s break down some conventional flavour combinations:

Salty + sweet flavours= GOOD.

Consider the appeal of salted nuts on ice cream, chocolate-covered pretzels, or mixing salty popcorn and M&Ms- it’s like a party  in your mouth. And seeing salt as an important element in sweets is another relatively recent dessert trend. But there are old classics, like salted caramel. And slightly less classic inventions, like chocolate-covered potato chips.

Sweet flavours + savoury/salty food= GOOD.

I think it’s universally acknowledged that sweet flavours CAN be a good match for savoury flavours and meats: honey-glazed ham, pork and apple, turkey and cranberry, Moroccan lamb stews with apricots, raisins, or prunes – the lists goes on.

But the absolute best sweet meat hands down (this is obviously an objective statement) is the maple sausage.

Photo credit: frozenfoodjournal on flickr

Whether made with pork, chicken or turkey, the addition of (real) maple syrup somehow makes these small breakfast sausages unbelievably juicy. I’ll admit I’ve only ever ones that come frozen in a box, and they are perhaps the richest sausages in the world. But in small doses they’re the perfect special occasion breakfast treat with pancakes or waffles.

Not surprisingly, this sweet meat combination comes from the maple farming regions of eastern Canada and America’s north-east (folks in those parts can be a little maple syrup nuts).

Photo credit: ~*Lauren*~ on flickr

I don’t think you’ll find maple sausages in Australian supermarkets or cafés though, so if you want to try them you might have to make them yourself. But even if you’ve never had a maple sausage you’ve probably had bacon with pancakes and maple syrup. You might never eat steak and cake in one bite, but these three things are a match made in heaven. Bacon and maple syrup, like maple sausages, are a perfect pairing because together they feature the trinity of indulgence: salty, fatty, and sweet. That’s why many bacon desserts also include maple syrup. It’s like turning a big yummy breakfast into a small yummy dessert.

The famous Bacon Maple Bar (donut). Photo credit: mccun934 on flickr

The reason bacon is the chosen one is because unlike other meats it can get really crispy and caramelised. It has to be properly browned so that the texture is more candied than meaty. Soft bacon in sweets would NOT have the same appeal.

Maple bacon ice cream on french toast. Photo credit: Amanky on flickr

If these bacony sweets are calling out to you, dessert guru David Lebovitz has a recipe for Candied Bacon Ice Cream on his website. Or if (like me) you don’t have an ice cream maker, this article includes some really tempting recipes, like the Chocolate Chip-Bacon-Pecan Cookies. I was seriously THIS close to getting up and making them while writing this post. Although I’m missing the pecans, and more importantly, the bacon…

[Anyone with a kosher or vegetarian diet, please excuse this bacon celebration.]

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the nitty-gritty of web design

First impressions matter. Especially when people are glancing at your blog and deciding in two seconds whether they’re interested or not.

After setting up my blog, the first thing I did was test the design themes. Because I’m using wordpress.com and not wordpress.org. Because I know nothing about html, I knew creating my own blog from scratch would mean spending hours (days? weeks?) trying to tweak the tiniest things. No thank you!

Browsing WordPress’ ready-made themes, I realised I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted: something clean, simple, and elegant. I was hoping to appeal to food blog fans interested in something a little bit different. But because I was aiming more for food blog than gross-out blog (which many weird food blogs are), my target visitor was sort of different to that of most other weird food blogs. Looking at blogs like Weird Meat and Deep End Dining, I like that they have simple, clear designs, but they’re not really the look I have in mind.

I know that “clean” and “simple” are ridiculously vague descriptions of the aesthetic I like. I mean, Weird Eats has a relatively “simple” design but it’s so not what I aiming for. This blog’s subject matter is actually really similar to mine, but the site is just instantly unappealing. The red wave design of the header feels unsuited to a food blog. All the text is way too tiny. And the page is completely dominated by the white background.

The clean sort of design I had in mind was based on some of my favourite food blogs, like Smitten Kitchen. These blogs generally have plain white backgrounds, clear black font, a main column for posts, and a smaller sidebar. I admit, part of the reason I wanted “clean” was to appeal to my OCD tendencies, but also because it helps new visitors to easily navigate the site. And it makes it easier for them to focus on and read the actual content of the blog posts. Also, I think the neutral background and uncluttered design typical of good food blogs really suits the subject matter. Like a simple dining table, it falls back and allows focus to be on the food (photos in this case).

Most well-designed blogs also have clearly divided sections, usually columns. You can see it’s the design of magazines translated onto the web, especially the bare simplicity of gourmet food magazines and photography. In his book The Laws of Cool, Professor Alan Liu describes the influence of modernist graphic design on the aesthetic of Web (Liu, p. 207). By trying to bring the familiar formats of pre-existing media to the Web, the Web’s creators were also transferred the characteristics of modernist design conventional to print media (Liu, p. 211).

However, Liu states that modernist design and the Web are fundamentally incompatible because modernist design is based on a grid structure. And the Web’s “lack of fixed spatial dimensions defaces the concept of design” (Liu, p. 225). Apparently, the concept of “antidesign” is more true to the medium (Liu, p. 222). Antidesign is against the “asymmetry, unity, and clarity” of modernism (Liu, p. 219). See, Liu discusses these difference approaches in his quest to understand what makes “cool” design. The overall message seems to be that “cool” is modernist design but also “fundamentally antidesign” (Liu, p. 216). Very helpful.

When I think of antidesign, I think of the wacky amateur aesthetics of the 90’s described by Olia Lialina. The amateur design of that period is now considered the pinnacle of bad taste. But MySpace is still filled with examples of garish amateur design, like this MySpace page. This isn’t an extreme example, but the busy background, glitter graphics and glitter butterflies mean it definitely qualifies. According to Danah Boyd, MySpace and Facebook represent a class division- a fascinating observation that seems to be pretty true (in Lialina). Boyd highlights that aesthetics are more than visual appeal, they’re “culturally narrated and replicated” (in Lialina).

The social significance of design aside, I feel like amateur design is fine is what you want is a crazy visual buffet, but it just wouldn’t serve my purpose. Like the modernists, I want “clean, efficient visual communication for an age drowning in media” (Liu, p. 199). I want visitor’s focusing on my written content and photos. The last thing I want is decorative clutter, especially when the Web is so cluttered with information. I want my blog to be easy to read and scan, unlike the crazy site for Ling’s Cars.

So, the WordPress themes I considered for my blog had white backgrounds, nice black font, and customisable headers. I wanted to customise the photo in the header so it would immediately point to my blog’s subject and style. The first couple themes I tried had headers and subheadings that were too small and not bold enough. The theme I finally chose was PressRow. The header is large and bold, and the font is reminiscent of print media but not too formal. I also like that the post headers are quite large, and clearly demarcate different sections of the blog.

I might not have the perfect theme for my blog niche, but it works pretty well. Except I only realised recently that the text of my posts are in a (mild?) serif font, which some view as unsuitable for reading on screens. But I did a bit of research and found out that san-serif fonts aren’t necessarily more readable (Poole). Even better, I noticed that one of the top food blogs, La Tartine Gourmande, uses the same font as me. So it can’t be that bad!

P.S. Check out this little cartoon about the stereotypical professional/amateur divide: ‘How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell’

Sources:

Lialina, Olia (2007) ‘Vernacular Web 2’, http://www.contemporary-home-computing.org/vernacular-web-2/.

Liu, Alan. (2004) ‘Information is Style’ in Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Poole, Alex (2005) ‘Literature Review- Which Are More Legible: Serif or San Serif Typefaces?’, Alex Pool- Interaction design and research, http://www.alexpoole.info/academic/literaturereview.html.

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some mayo with your jello?

Recently I had a major craving for a peanut butter and jelly (jelly here=jam) sandwich, so I just HAD to buy peanut butter (always a dangerous move). And thinking about peanut butter combinations, I remembered the weirdest I’ve ever tasted: peanut butter and ketchup on crackers. It was a snack served to me by my grandmother, and I’ve never seen or heard of it anywhere else. I don’t know why- it was surprisingly edible. Maybe even yummy (it’s been a long time, I don’t remember). And it dawned on me: a lot of retro food is weird food.

My grandmother grew up and became a housewife in an era so different from mine. One that included jello* salad. I have to admit I’ve never encountered one, but I’ve heard stories… As a kid my father dreaded Christmas dinner because jello salad was always served. Really, is it a salad? Is it a dessert?

A lot of jello salads are made with fruit and nuts, especially nowadays. Cranberry jello salad can be made to accompany meat roasts. Those sound nice, but they are NOT the jello salads I’m talking about. I’m talking about the “congealed salads” that became all the rage in 1930s America (JELL-O History). At first when you think ‘savoury jellies’, you might think ‘aspics’. But the congealed salads Americans started making used flourescent LIME flavoured Jell-O as their base, before mixing in ingredients like grated onion and mayonnaise. It was only some 20 YEARS later that Jello-O introduced savory jelly flavours, like celery and tomato (Jello Recipes).

From Better Homes and Gardens magazine (US edition), 1954. Photo credit: larry&flo on flickr

My poor father… Born in 1950s America, the height of suburbia, when home and lifestyle magazines were filled with jello recipes, because jello mountains were the height of sophistication. And sophisticated dishes always had to be garnished with lettuce- obviously.

Photo credit: amy_b on flickr

And whatever the dish, if it came out of a mold, it was sure to impress. Like this appetizing meat cake with green frosting:

Photo credit: x-ray delta one on flickr

I bet you’re hungry now! It’s scary to think that the jello/mold craze lasted until the 70s…

P.S. If you enjoyed the photos in this post, you might want to browse this delightful flickr photo pool: Gee, That Food Looks Terrible! [Vintage]. It’s where all your nasty retro food porn dreams come true.

* “Jello”, an American term for jelly or gelatin, came from the popular gelatin brand Jell-O.

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it’s quite a small pond

It’s clear that a lot of people want to “analyse the market” or “gage online trends” before deciding what to blog about. Well, those bloggers want one thing: MONEY.

I think some of the best blogs are started just because. On a whim. And I decided to blog about food because that’s what I like to read about (besides celebrity garbage). But there are already SO many amazing food blogs out there. So many it would be a full time job to keep up with them all. Now imagine how many mediocre or BAD food blogs there must be out there.

After deciding on food I definitely needed to somehow find a much smaller niche within this huge niche of the food blog. Then inspiration struck (Thanks, SBS. I knew all my TV watching would come in handy one day).

But before starting my “weird food” blog, I should check out the neighbourhood. See what I’m up against. And maybe find a blog to idolise, since I’m not familiar with territory. A quick search reveals that there are lots of posts and articles about weird food, but very few dedicated blogs. I knew the niche was small.  Further research reveals just how small.

Teeny tiny.

According to Google Trends (link) “weird food” is a very untrendy search term. Isn’t anyone else out there curious about the same things as me? Despite the research results, I do not despair. On the Internet there’s an audience or market for (almost) everything. That’s the beauty of the internet. Online space is not limited, it’s infinite1! There’s room for every subject, however obscure, boring, or downright creepy. My blog would definitely fit into what’s called “The Long Tail”. The theory of the Long Tail is all about demand. On a graph of product demand, the most popular products are “the Short Head of hits”, and less popular products create the Long Tail (Anderson) . According to media guy, Chris Anderson, producers used to be more focused on the Short Head and products that were as broadly popular as possible. Today more attention’s shifted to the Long Tail, and the Internet’s definitely played a major role in that. Imagine: before the Internet, every dog bootie enthusiast might have thought they were the only one in the world. Now with the Internet, they can find each other, and share their passion. Isn’t that a nice thought?

Back to the point: Since I’m not trying to gather followers a la Ashton Kutcher, I’m perfectly fine with appealing to only a narrow segment (hopefully that segment is at least one person wide).

Searching for blogs in my niche turns up only a handful of results. A couple of them get zero comments and are pretty sad. Will I find a weird-food blog to idolise or is this the fate of all weird-food blogs?

Thank god I found a couple blogs that weren’t too bad:

Weird Meat

Weird Meat is a food and travel blog written by a young American guy named Michael. The blog documents his experiences trying foods from different cultures, foods that according to mainstream Western culture would be considered “weird”. Like spider in Cambodia. Rooster testicles in Taiwan. Definitely Fear Factor territory, so not exactly the same focus as my blog. I will not be tasting any animal organs for the sake of this blog.

Despite turning my stomach, Weird Meat is definitely a readable blog. The writing is good- personable and humorous. Posts aren’t too long and wordy, and there are lots of pictures. Pictures are really essential for good food blogs: if you can’t taste or smell it, you should at least be able to see it. I also like the fact that the blog design is really clear and simple, making it easy for new visitors to navigate. How many people actually visit the site and who they are, I can’t tell. But every post seems to get at least a few comments, ranging from 2 to 220 (a big debate exploded about eating dog meat).

Deep End Dining

First off, Deep End Dining seems more commercial than Weird Meat (which seems like a hobby blog). There isn’t any clear advertising, but they sell a huge range of merchandise with their logo on it. And for some strange reason the right column randomly features a link to Aquasana under the heading ‘Water Filters’, just above the post archives. Am I missing something here? Or is that just a weird method of advertising? The right column features a message encouraging visitors to use their site for advertising.

This blog is about dining out on strange and exotic fare, mostly around Los Angeles. I guess because it’s based in Los Angeles the food is definitely a lot less “weird” than on Weird Meat. Again it’s hard to know what kind of following the blog has, although posts typically get about 10 comments. But while the blog doesn’t appear hugely popular, it must be doing something right, because it’s apparently been mentioned before in the mainstream media, and the most recent post is about the main contributor appearing on Top Chef! The blog definitely has some sway. But I’m actually sort of bothered by the layout. The text column is so wide that I find it hard to read. The posts can be quite lengthy, and I think the width of the text column makes it feel even more so. I’ve realised written content definitely has to be kept scannable and manageable. Which is ironic considering the ridiculous length of this post…

Source:

Chris Anderson, ‘The Long Tail, in a nutshell’, http://thelongtail.com/about.html.

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starting is the hardest part…?

With much trepidation I’m officially starting this blog. I’ve been putting this off because I’m just not a blogger. The mini blogs I’ve made in the past were purely academic. This blog on the other hand is a little bit of business/pleasure. But I do think I should mention off the bat that creating this blog is part of a university course. So posts may sometimes veer off on tangents- blogging related, but perhaps not food blogging related.

Back to the pleasure aspect. This is a food blog!. But I’ve decided not to become one mediocre food blog lost among millions (millions?) because:

1)      Who’s going to pay for me to dine out all the time?

2)      I sadly don’t have the time or skills to cook amazing things at home every week either.

So I’ve decided to blog about weird food. Well, I don’t know if “weird” is the right word.

Unusual food?

Strange food?

Unique food?

Unexpected food?

Anything out of the ordinary, but not necessarily things they would make you eat on ‘Fear Factor’. Because I hated that show. The show I’m thinking of is ‘Heston’s Feasts’ (because it was just on SBS last month). He’s like a mad scientist in the kitchen. His inventions are sometimes revolting and sometimes Willy Wonka-esque. But that’s my inspiration and I’m running with it.

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