Sites We Love: Thursday Night Smackdown
Gorgeous photos? Check. Engaging writing? Check. Seriously inspiring recipes, tips, and culinary curiosity? Check, check, and check. The best food blogs all seem to have a lot in common — but what separates them out are the strong personalities behind them. In our Sites We Love series, we sit down with some of our favorite bloggers to find out how they do it — and why it's as much fun for them as it is for us.
Today’s site we love is Thursday Night Smackdown, where self-professed curmudgeon Michelle Weber tackles an ambitious recipe from her extensive cookbook collection each week. Recounting her exploits with searing honesty and punchy sarcasm, she brings a delightfully dark humor to her culinary adventures. Here’s what Michelle has to say about her site:
Live since: January 3, 2008
Posting rate: Three to five per week. I’ve always been an overachiever.
Geographic location: Jersey City, King of States (i.e., New Jersey)
Why is the site called Thursday Night Smackdown? As a proto-New Years’ Resolution in 2008, I decided I’d finally start using my dogeared but largely ignored cookbook collection — every Thursday, I’d pick a recipe with an interesting ingredient or technique, make it and document it, figuring it would teach me to be a better cook and give me a legitimate excuse to buy even more cookbooks. That meant that every Thursday night would be a cooking main event — and possibly a struggle — so Thursday Night Smackdown seemed apt, although I have yet to beat anyone with a folding chair. I’ve since branched out and tend to post more original recipes, but I still do a cookbook recipe every Thursday and I still dig the name.
I’m also relying on the name to bankroll my retirement, as I assume the World Wrestling Entertainment Organization will need to acquire the URL at some point and I’m going to ask for a LOT of money.
What’s been your most popular post? People like two things: dessert and liquor. A super-simple post about grapes marinated in wine and then sugared and frozen racks up hits like nobody’s business. I may start a spin-off blog dedicated to fruits soaked in booze, plaster it with ads and quit my day job. Dark chocolate-curry pots de creme is the second runner-up measured by sheer number of views. The most popular non-dessert post is about tacos, as it should be, but it’s a distant third.
In terms of posts that garner the most comments, abject failures are always popular – the internet is nothing if not a carnival of schadenfreude. Paula Deen’s chicken divan. Morimoto’s fish paste noodles. Julia Child’s creamy chicken and tarragon aspic. The people enjoy culinary suffering. It helps them feel better about the Lean Cuisine they’re eating for dinner.
What’s your favorite post? You mean I have to publicly admit which child is my favorite? That’s a toughie, because not only do I love (almost) all of them, but I have over a thousand posts and can’t realistically be expected to remember them all. Do you think Michelle Duggar remembers all those kids? She just calls out a name that starts with “J” and whoever shows up shows up.
My favorite posts fall into one of two categories: personal stories that give me the warm fuzzies and end up resonating with people, or original recipes of which I’m really proud. This post about my parents, both of whom are dead, is a fave, and this recipe for beef pho might be the best thing to have ever come out of my kitchen. But then, I also really love the posts that are only nominally about food and end up being something else entirely. This post was meant to be about a failed attempt at spoonbread and turned into a diatribe on the political war on women’s reproductive rights. Oh, and I always like the posts about failure. And then sometimes there are those posts that flow out of you beautifully written in five minutes; you can’t help but love those. So I guess my favorite posts really fall into five categories, and I’m a big fat liar.
What’s something great that you’ve learned or that’s happened to you since starting your blog? Despite being a pretty not-serious blog, Thursday Night Smackdown and its incredible readers managed to pull together in a fantastic way after the Haiti earthquake. I pledged to donate $1 (up to a max of $500) for anyone who left me a comment on the post, which 394 people did. Then, I shamed readers into making their own donations or matching what I’d be giving. Several people promised a match, and others gave what they could; one reader started a similar fundraising drive on her own blog. Between my donation, the matches, the matches-of-matches (like, through company giving programs) and the other donations, we ended up raising over $2,200 for Haiti. Most of it went to Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health or Red Cross. I don’t normally think of Thursday Night Smackdown as a particularly heartwarming place, but I believe my heart grew three sizes that day. And since I’m the site owner and have access to the analytics: I know for a fact that many other people viewed the post but did NOT leave a comment forcing me to give. I can only conclude that they are misanthropes who spend their days shooting BB guns at children who accidentally run onto their lawns while nurturing a decades-old vendetta against the Haitian people. You disgust me.
What’s the usual process for developing one of your posts? This assumes that there is a development process. I’m not sure I have one, unless “random unedited verbal diarrhea” counts as a “process.” Thursday Night Smackdown is very much a chronicle of what we’re eating day-by-day. I usually come up with a weekly meal plan on weekends so I can do the grocery shopping and make sure everything I need is ready to go when I get home from work each night. Smackdowns are picked from a cookbook, and original recipes are based off what we feel like eating at the moment, what’s in season and how much time I’ll have to cook; sometimes I also take inspiration from a dish I’ve seen on another blog or something I’ve eaten in a restaurant recently. That’s pretty much the extent of the forethought.
On nights when I post, I get home from work, start cooking and try to take some process photos as I go. When dinner’s ready, Brian (my spouse) waits patiently as I try to get a few decent shots of the finished dish before it turns completely ice cold. After dinner, I usually biff off on the clean-up because I’m kind of a jerk, spend 15 or 20 minutes picking out and uploading my favorite pictures and another 90 minutes or so writing up the post and recipe. In general, I have no idea what I’m going to say until I sit down with the laptop. Brian proofreads to make sure I don’t sound like too much of an idiot or am not being overly offensive, and then I hit “publish,” watch The Daily Show and go to bed. While I’m falling asleep, I think of better ways I could have phrased things or how a post could have been more interesting. Then I wake up the next morning having forgotten them, thus depriving the blogosphere of what was undoubtedly a searing insight and not at all the ravings of a partially shut-down mind.
When it comes down to it, I’m a pretty crappy excuse for a blogger. There’s no recipe testing or development to speak of: what I make each night is what gets blogged, even if it turns out like crap. There’s little to no editing of posts. If I remember to actually measure my ingredients rather than just tossing sh*t in a pot and making up quantities after the fact, I consider that a red-letter day. The fact that my recipes actually work and that people seem to genuinely get a kick out of reading me continues to amaze.
What are your favorite ingredients and tools? If forced at gunpoint to stock my kitchen with only the essential tools, I’d need a cast-iron skillet, tongs, a whisk and a good chef’s knife that’s comfy in the hand and has a nice weight. That way, I could knife one of my captors, bean one with the iron skillet and use the tongs to gouge out the eyes of the third. Hopefully there are only three of them, because the whisk is essentially useless and was only on the list because I really love whisks. Then, once free, I could add my secondary lineup, which would include a heavy dutch oven and a microplane.
In my pantry and fridge, you’ll always find good olive oil, butter, smoked paprika, hoisin sauce, Thai chile-garlic paste and white balsamic vinegar, which is The Best of All Possible Vinegars. Eggs, because a poached egg on anything makes a great meal. And some kind of green herb for when The Chive Effect is needed. There’s usually also some kind of smoked or cured pork product, along with the butts of seventeen different kinds of cheese.
What are your favorite food and cooking resources? I have a pretty big cookbook collection, not surprising given the premise of the blog. If I had to pick the ones that are my most trusted resources, I’d use the “which books have the most pages glued together by food splatters?” test: The Flavor Bible, for inspiration and unexpected pairings. The New Best Recipe, less for the actual recipes and more for the explanations of how the test kitchen arrived at them. I’ve never been steered wrong by Crescent City Cooking, Big Small Plates, The Improvisational Cook or Charlie Palmer’s The Guide to the New American Kitchen. For desserts, The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, who is totally my bestie but doesn’t know it yet. Call me!
For me, the key to building a great cookbook library has been keeping an eagle eye out for bookstore liquidation sales, because cookbooks ain’t cheap. I don’t know if the blog would have ever started at all if it hadn’t been for Borders going out of business. Thanks for failing to understand the impact of technology on book sales, Borders! For cookware, I love restaurant supply houses. They have everything you could ever want, and a bunch of things you never knew you wanted until you saw them there. Thankfully for my bank account, apartment living constrains me from buying the industrial deep-fryer or 20-quart stand mixer.
What photography equipment do you use? Right now, I use a Canon EOS 7D with either a 50mm f/1.4 or a 100mm f/2.8 lens; lately I lean more heavily on the 100mm because my dogs busted the 50 and I haven’t gotten it fixed yet, so the blog features a lot of unnecessary close-ups. I lust after the 24-70mm f/2.8 but can’t justify the expense. Yet. I’m living proof that pricey equipment means nothing if you don’t have good light. Since I blog what I’m actually eating that day, almost all the photos are taken at night while I’m making dinner. I don’t have a ton of space to work with so there are no fancy-pants lights or reflectors; I use a PortaStudio set up on my kitchen table, which is a half-step up from my last setup, “Brian holding a rice-paper lamp over the table.” I don’t like to do much/any post-processing, by which I mean that I (1) am extremely lazy and (2) don’t know how to use Photoshop. I do not hide my raging jealousy of bloggers who get to photograph during the daytime. Lucky bastards.
Where else can we find your work? Most of my non-blog time is taken up by my day job, since I haven’t yet figured out how to make the blog itself my day job. I’ve done a bit of restaurant reviewing and other food writing for local pubs like NEW and the Jersey City Independent, and for a while in 2011 my liveblogs of Top Chef were in The Huffington Post. I hope that the next couple of years bring more opportunities for non-blogular food writing, so any editors interested in working with me should definitely get in touch soon, while I’m still a relative nobody and don’t have the leverage to ask for much cash.
What food blogs do you follow? There are so many food blogs and I’m a philistine who doesn’t use a reader, so I’m more likely to keep an eye on my Twitter feed or scan sites like Foodgawker and click over to things that look/sound interesting than I am to regularly visit a particular blog. That being said, I do like reading blogs by people who (1) are way better cooks than I am and (2) seem like they would be fun to have a beer or nine with – A Cookblog, Voodoo and Sauce (who needs to POST MORE OFTEN), The Spiteful Chef, Use Real Butter, Minimally Invasive. I’d love to get all those people in a room together. Either we’d end up best friends and decide to found a members-only foodie kibbutz in the Pacific Northwest, or someone would end up in the hospital. Possibly both. Either way, it would be interesting.
Good recipes and photos aren’t enough; there’s gotta be a spark there. Too many blogs, food or otherwise, are the written equivalent of chicken. I’ll take a conceptually interesting but questionable recipe with hilarious flavor text over a perfect recipe with an aggressively bland post any day. I mean, I can fix a recipe if I need to, but I can’t fix someone’s voice. Oh, and it goes without saying that I like other blogs written by judgmental a**holes.
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