Friday, June 29, 2012

Why I Chose to Write About Technology Over Food

Everything that's happened over the last year has solidified my decision to stop chasing after food writing as a paid side gig or potential career and just embrace writing about technology.

Some may believe I've given up on something I love, and I can't deny there's an ounce of doubt in that regard myself. My friends know I'm fickle, and I be those who know me best will say I'll swing back to my pursuit of food writing in a matter of months. It's a real possibility. But I don't think it will happen.

Here's how it shakes down.

Life Long Learning
I didn't know who I was, really, and I didn't know that the person I was had a place in this world until I went to college. My brain felt awake during those university years. Nothing ever before stirred me up like going to class. Every day brought stimulation, an insatiable hunger for ideas, a need to seek out arguments if only so that I could work through my own ideas better with another person.

The moment I realized I loved school, I swore I was a life-long learner. No matter my age or position in life, I would never be more than a few years on either side of taking some kind of class or working toward a new degree.

More recently, though, I fell out of love with formal education. The whole system is broken -- it's not any single player. I no longer believe that going to school will quench my thirst.

But the hunger to learn remains. It's like a fire that sucks air from anywhere it can, destroying everything around it if necessary to stay lit. To be happy, I need to keep learning. My brain needs stimulation. I cannot not learn.

Writing about technology means I learn every day, and what is available to learn grows every day. With food, the learning curve tapers off. You feel confident about what you know, and the things that you do know aren't going to change radically out of the blue. Cooking techniques will change a little, but the foundations will remain the same. What we know about nutrition will shift, but the taste and smell and texture of a carrot won't. And even the odd innovation here or there takes decades to catch on.

In the tech world, however, there's a hotbed of new ideas. Nothing is certain. Trends shift in a matter of months. People's palettes, as it were, aren't predefined by deeply rooted habits or cultural norms. Technology users embrace newness. Experimenting is half the fun.

I used to write exclusively about the video game industry, a sector within the technology field that hovers on the bleeding edge. I got into the job in a semi-roundabout way. Most of my co-workers were lifelong video game fiends. I played games here and there, a normal amount for someone in my age range, but games weren't something I felt passionate about per se. But I did love writing about game development and the people who make games.

Now, I write about software, the Internet, and some consumer electronics much more generally, and it's like multiple worlds of ideas and information have opened up. Writing about video game development, as exciting as it was, still felt narrow. The space I'm in now is limitless.

Recent Successes
I don't write too much about my actual full-time job on this blog, so a short synopsis: I am a full-time, in-house writer for PC Magazine, more commonly read now on PCMag.com (because the paper edition of the magazine folded in 2009). The real heart of my job is to test software products, like programs for computers or apps for mobile devices, and write reviews of them. I specialize in a few specific areas of software and the Internet (social media, iPhone apps, programs for productivity and organization, learning and education) as well as a handful of consumer electronics, almost all having to do with health and fitness.
In addition to writing product reviews, I also write opinion articles about any topic that's hot at the moment and really anything that catches my interest.

One of my areas of expertise has always been personal organization. So my editor encouraged me to write advice and tips articles about being organized. After trying it out as a short series of related articles, called Get Organized, we eventually convinced someone higher than me to let me turn the series into a weekly column. It's been running for about six or seven months now, and just last week, a prominent link to the section was added to PCMag's homepage. No one told me that was going to happen, and I still don't know who decided to do it. But if you go to PCMag.com and look along the top, "Get Organized" appears in big red letters. I'm honored it's there.

That success, coupled with a few other little on-the-job wins, made me realize that within the whole huge space of technology writing, I actually do have real passion for the subjects I now cover. Part of it is confidence. People whose opinions I value, like my editor and the editor-in-chief, encouraged me and said they liked my ideas. They liked the kinds of things I could write about. Writers don't often hear positive feedback of that kind. Even the CEO of the company told me he reads the Get Organized articles every week. And, unlike some of the opinionated articles I write from time to time, articles in the Get Organized series provoke overwhelmingly positive and insightful comments and emails from readers. (Write anything with "Apple" or "iPhone" in the headlines, and prepare for the lashing of a lifetime by Android fans. And vice versa.)

Not So in Food
Never in the little bit of food writing that I've done have I heard the same enthusiastic and encouraging responses. Maybe if I did more food writing or wrote for a larger audience, the feedback would change. But this course of writing about technology, organization, and leading an improved digital life feels worthwhile.

Another factor, and this part may sound snobbish, is that more people think they have an educated opinion about food than technology. I'd guess around 75 percent of the people I talk to about food have an opinion and want me to hear it. They're often more interested in talking than listening. When I talk to people about technology, they're more likely to ask questions and want to know what I think. And when they do have an opinion, they still ask questions, likely because they're also life-long learners who see technology as a wide-open area the same way I do.


Despite my new allegiance to writing about technology, organization, and leading a digital life, this blog isn't going anywhere. I still enjoy sharing recipes, penning short restaurant reviews, and putting down in writing my ideas about how we eat or how other cultures see food differently. Nothing's going to change there. But it's really a hobby and personal writing only... not that I'd turn down an offer to write about food professionally! I just don't think I'm going to seek it out, for a while at least.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Borscht, Varenyky, and Mother's Cake in Kiev


Borscht (beet soup) and varenyky (dumplings). That was close to the extent of my knowledge of Ukrainian food prior to going to Kiev.

Although we were only in the city three days, being there really raised the bar on my outlook of Ukraine's food.

Borscht is definitely a staple, shown above with chewy knobs of garlic bread, as are varenyky, the Ukrainian version of what other cultures might call perigees or piroshky: small and soft, boiled or steamed dumplings, often filled with smashed potatoes, but also sometimes with ground meat or cheese. You can get dessert varenyky, too, filled with sweet cheese or cherries.

We ate some dishes that I associate with Russia, like Olivier salad (diced potatoes, other vegetables, pickles and ham, in a mayonnaise dressing), and others that seemed more like generic Continental European food, like a club sandwich, or poached eggs with smoked salmon.

One surprising dish was simply called Mother's Cake, and described as layers of cake with condensed milk. This was fairly accurate, if you imagine "cake" to be a dozen thin, pink wafers, and "condensed milk" to mean the caramelized concoction achieved by boiling for two to three hours a sealed can of sweetened milk. The cake was overly sweet and slightly dry, but a pleasantly unexpected way to end an unusual meal.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

White Asparagus, Braised Beef, and Beer in Berlin

"Berlin is the city you in particular won't want to leave."

"Berlin was made for you."

"Berlin has all your favorite things: it's clean; everything runs on time; people are orderly; bicycling is built into the city infrastructure. Plus there are all those benefits of Germany, like a shorter work week, more time off..."

These are the things people said to me before I left. More than one person told me that when I got to Berlin, I might not come home.

We've just returned from Berlin, Kiev, and Georgia last weekend, and needless to say, my expectations for Germany were high.

All told, my time in Berlin only added up to maybe 60 hours. That's not a lot of time to experience a city fully. And on the last day, my friend who lives in Bonn said this: "I think it takes a while to really appreciate Germany. You have to be here a while before you can understand the people."

First Impressions
Berlin is a remarkable city, but I was a little surprised at its scale. The city is huge, and all the most important buildings, plazas, and -- what would you call the Champs-Élysées? a main boulevard? -- main boulevards are grand. By "grand" I don't just mean big and fancy, but they take up a lot of space, and have excessive room on all sides to make them seem more grand. This largeness is something I've always disliked about Washington D.C., too. I don't like building that think they're so important that it takes you five minutes to walk to the next one. I much prefer the density of New York. I like the tightness.

Scallops and white asparagus with green apple,
Schneeweiss, Berlin.
Berlin becomes a little more compact in its neighborhoods, moving away from the city center, but there's still plenty of room to stretch out. Streets are wide. Sidewalks have lanes. Even the Soviet-area buildings don't tend to tower more than 20 stories.

Food
The food was pretty much what I expected, and I have no complaints. Sausages and currywurst are freely available any time of day (especially during the Eurocup games, which were on while we were there). This white asparagus, a different breed that what's grown in the U.S., is Berlin's springtime pride and appeared on every menu. It's only available for about eight weeks each year. Boiling is the typical cooking convention, and you can tell from presentation that the tips are prized. From what I've read, the stalks are quite tough and have to be shaved down to be edible at all.
Braised beef with polenta and cabbage at Scheneeweiss, Berlin.

Pork, veal, beef, and potatoes were also easy to come by and hard to avoid. And for breakfast, I couldn't get enough German muesli with fresh fruit.

Apple strudel at Schneeweiss, Berlin.
A favorite meal: Long before the trip, we reserved a table at trendy Schneeweiss on the eastern side of the city. We started with scallops served with the famed white asparagus, the tips of which stood at phallic attention. A variety of greens and herbs filled the plate, spotted green apple that had been shaped with a tiny mellon baller, and splotches of lemon curd-like dressing. My main was braised beef, served with a slice of polenta that had the texture of Asian fried bean curd (shown). Dessert? Apple strudel with vanilla cream, of course.

Beer
Beer selections were not what I expected. I assumed that we Americans were late-comers to the appreciation of microbreweries and that we'd see a lot of small-scale German beers that I have never heard of before. Quite the contrary. At large beer gardens, upscale restaurants, cafés, local dives, and street vendors, the same options appeared over and over again. Weinstephaner, Franziskaner, Radeberger.

I mentioned this observation to Boyfriend, who believes that smaller breweries do exist, but they don't export much to other areas of Germany. Locals drink what's made in their city. I don't know if that's true, but nevertheless, I did not expect to be so familiar with my beer options in Berlin.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Back from Berlin, Kiev, Tbilisi and Georgia


Valley and monastery in the hills of Georgia (the country).
Pan-seared scallops, green apple, and the
famous white asparagus of northern Germany. 
Now is the time of day I usually wake up. But I've been up for two hours. I could have slept more, but the appeal of having two hours to myself, to regroup and reorganize some things, after being on holiday for 11 days was too alluring.

In the quiet morning hours, of course I checked in on my social networks and took care of a few things in the house, like making coffee, watering the plants, and tossing together some lunch to take to the office later. But I also just reflected.

Borscht with garlic bread in Kiev.
I thought about how Berlin was so much grander than I expected, wide and spread out, unlike other European cities whose old architecture and 16th Century narrow cobbled streets and passageways weren't  torn down as much in years of war. I flipped through the photo-memories in my mind of Kiev, which was ramping up to host the Euro Cup soccer/football games, and the remarkably good food I ate there: rich borscht, a smoked ham and bacon club sandwich, and tiny strawberries picked no more than a few hours before I ate them. And Georgia... no comparisons fit this unique country or its cuisine (image above).

I'll be writing more about each of these places in the coming days, with many more photos to come as well.