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Life at Sea: The Pleasures and Perils of Nautical Cooking

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The sun slowly melts into the horizon in a riot of fluorescent streaks—pink and orange flame the sky, while the rippling water of the Bali Sea takes on a delicate lavender hue. The silhouette of a volcano rises gently from the water. And there we are, on a little sailboat from San Francisco called Saltbreaker, barely able to believe that this scene has become a nightly occurrence. We lean back against the mast and raise our drinks for a toast. "This," I say, "this is what sailing is all about."

Saltbreaker belongs to my boyfriend, Alex, and his brother, Nick. They purchased the 32-foot boat in 2011, with the aim of sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand, which they did via Mexico, Central America, French Polynesia, Tonga.* Last summer, Nick sailed her from New Zealand to Bali, where Alex and I got back on board to take our turn adventuring around Indonesian islands. Our destination: wherever the wind blows us (or something like that).

*You can read more about Saltbreaker's adventures here, and my take on dating a wandering sailor here.

When I tell people about our current travel plans and Saltbreaker's past adventures, I always get one of two reactions:

  1. "Oh wow, that is so magical and romantic and amazing!" or:
  2. " do you eat?"

On the one hand, the first group is right, it can be pretty magical. The sunsets barely seem real, and that's not even getting into the occasional dolphin escorts and the pristine beaches hidden in remote coves. But it can also be exhausting, dirty, smelly, and cramped, depending on sailing conditions and where we happen to be anchored. Like almost any travel that takes you outside of your comfort zone, it's worth it about 95% of the time.

As for answering the second group, the truth is that we eat pretty damn well. Sailing as a form of travel is pretty much like taking your house from place to place, kitchen (or galley, in sailor-speak) included. Your house just happens to be the size of a walk-in closet, and more often than not, it's rocking back and forth or hanging out at a 25-degree angle. And the average temperature is 90 degrees.


Still, while it's more difficult than your standard home-cooking experience, cooking on a boat is easier than you'd think. You're usually limited to the supplies you have onboard, with little or no ability to purchase more—that issue isn't much different from when you go camping. But you're generally better equipped and stocked than the average backpacker. And you're constantly inspired by the food cultures of the places you visit, as well as the crazy-fresh fish that, on good days, figures into your meal plan.

Stocking a boat for a multiple-month journey requires serious planning for the most culinarily apathetic of sailors. But for us, it's an even more involved process—we want to be excited about our meals as often as possible. We make eating well a priority, even if all we're doing is doctoring a packet of instant noodles or a jarred pasta sauce. And because we can't run to the grocery store to grab a missing ingredient or satisfy a craving, we do our best to anticipate what will enliven each meal.

Interested in plotting your own ocean-bound journey, or curious about how we fuel ours? Then check out how our boat is equipped for cooking, how we plot our provisions before a long trip, and the little luxuries that we can't live without (hint: Nutella is involved).

The Setup


Like any respectable New York-style shoebox apartment that happens to be a sailboat, Saltbreaker has a small galley. We've got a three-burner stove and a oven that both run on propane and, generally speaking, work quite well.

This whole setup is gimbaled, meaning the stove and oven can rock counter to the boat's movement, helping to prevent hot pans and spoons from going flying as the boat leans and rocks. There's also a safety strap that wraps behind the chef-of-the-moment, just in case balance is a challenge.

We have a sink that has two faucets, one of which connects to two 40-gallon tanks filled with freshwater. Back in the States, this was filled with tap water pumped at a marina. Now, we purchase gallon jugs of filtered water and pour them in by hand. We save as much as possible for drinking water, but will also use it for cooking soups and, more importantly, making coffee. The faucet is operated by a foot pump—an excellent way to stay aware of exactly how much water you're using. The sink's second faucet pumps saltwater directly from the ocean, which we use for washing dishes (save our knives and cast iron skillet).

Though the boat is relatively small, it has incredible built-in storage capabilities. Every bit of counter space visible in our little galley opens up to become storage for food, cooking supplies, spices, bottles of whiskey, and more. Food can be stored beyond the galley, too, in a large space under the starboard settee (bench on the righthand side), or in baskets in a port cubby. I quickly became accustomed to the fact that, on a boat, it makes perfect sense to have your clothes stored next to a basket of onions and garlic.

What about refrigeration? You might not be able to imagine cooking sans fridge, but we mostly do without. Saltbreaker does have a small mini-fridge, but we don't use it continuously. Many boats do have full-scale refrigeration systems; we've found that it takes more power than it's worth. (Saltbreaker's power runs off batteries, which are charged primarily by three solar panels.) We'll turn the fridge on for truly pressing concerns: say, if we catch a fish that we don't eat all at once, or if we want to drink a cold beer. Saltbreaker didn't have a fridge at all for close to two years; it made everyone get all the more creative with fish preparation (pickling, smoking, trading), and meant that cold beer on shore tasted even better.

The Provisions: Stocking Up and Strategizing


Some evenings, as the sun is getting low, Alex can be seen duck-diving a few feet off our boat, outfitted in a snorkel mask and freediving fins, as he plunges into the turquoise depths with a speargun in hand. I peer anxiously over the side, crossing my fingers that he's successful. He emerges once, twice, three times, pacing his breath and slowing his heartrate so he can inhale and dive 20-40 meters down again. Moments later, he pops up, triumphant—a gleaming silver fish flecked with gold cleanly pierced with the tip of his spear. "Sweetlips!" he calls, heaving the gun and fish on board as I ready a knife and a bucket of water for cleaning. "Dinner!" I say in response, watching as the fish's body shudders and is still.

It may sound primitive, but this dive for dinner is one of the biggest highlights of our eating life these days. Fishing excursions from San Francisco across the Pacific yielded tasty prizes like dorado, skipjack, tuna, sierra, and even a six-foot sailfish. Here in Bali, we've been eating a good amount of those gold-spotted sweetlips, and have our eyes on some tasty-looking schools of mackerel.


We'll eat a fish straight out of the water pan-fried whole; if it's a firm, meaty fish (like tuna), we might eat it raw as sashimi, on seasoned sushi rice, or as ceviche. We'll turn filets and heads into curry (making use of a solid store-bought green curry paste and boxes of coconut milk) or soup, laced with lemongrass, garlic, and peppercorns.

Fishing doesn't always pan out, though, despite Alex's prowess with a speargun. Sometimes, the surrounding reefs are packed with snorkelers, or the fish are too small. We'll often leave a fishing line behind our boat when we're underway (a practice known as trolling), only to stare at it wistfully for hours on end, resigning ourselves to eating canned tuna instead. Since we can't rely on catching fish every single day, we have to be well-stocked t o ensure that we remain well-fed.

Provisioning for a sailing trip requires that you anticipate what might taste good weeks or even months out, and to realistically consider what you'll be willing to cook when you're too tired to even think about food. On the other hand, it's also worth considering bigger cooking projects (say, making fresh bread or pasta) for when you find yourself with a lot of time to think about your daily meals, and can spend much of your day prepping for them.

Provisions can be divided into two major categories: long-lasting and fresh. The first category includes a whole mess of pantry staples—dried goods like rice, beans, lentils, pasta, and couscous; canned tomatoes, beans, vegetables, and condiments; and fun snack items that hit the spot when we're mid-sail, like chips, nuts, dried fruits, and chocolate (and at least three jars of Nutella). After a long, tiring sail, you'll crave the same sorts of foods you'd want as a tasty reward after a hike. Our quick-and-easy meals often draw heavily from this provisioning category: things like instant noodles and ready-made packs of curry sauce, which can be thrown together in minutes and eaten just as quickly.

I almost cried with happiness at the sight of a towering salad of freshly-grown leafy greens

Fresh food requires a little more strategy. I remember a strenuous, four-day journey down the coast of Nicaragua with no green vegetables and no trips to shore. When we finally made our way to land, I almost cried with happiness at the sight of a towering salad of freshly-grown leafy greens. These days, whenever we're on shore I'm eyeing the local stores and stands like a hawk—when I spy a pile of vegetables, it's all I can do not to start jumping up and down.

Part of the fun is experimenting with local goods that we don't necessarily recognize. Lately, we've had some great meals of kang kung, a type of earthy, spinach-like greens that are wonderful simply sautéed with garlic and coconut oil.


Our meal planning is based around what we have that's fresh and what's likely to go bad first. We make a point to stock up on long-lasting vegetables—onions, garlic, potatoes, and cabbage (which we've seen last for five to six weeks!) all fall under that umbrella—but we don't hesitate to get more fleeting goods like dark leafy greens, local fruit, tomatoes, and eggplants. We keep the produce that is most likely to turn in a basket hanging right over the galley as a reminder to use it up in good time.

Produce isn't the only fresh provision near and dear to my heart and stomach. When stored and sold unrefrigerated (as they are in most places outside of the U.S.) eggs last a long, long time—even multiple weeks—without going bad. They're an easy source of protein with rice, on pasta, or in soup, and I've yet to get sick of eggs simply scrambled or fried with some salt and spice.

traveling to delicious and exotic places has allowed us the opportunity to round out our pantry selection

A well-stocked spice stash is essential for our cooking purposes, too. Saltbreaker left the US with a healthy supply of all of the essentials (cumin, coriander, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and many more), but traveling to delicious and exotic places has allowed us the opportunity to round out our pantry selection with additions like flaky chili powder and vanilla from Mexico, and cardamom, star anise, and tingly peppercorns here in Bali. The other week, I was delighted to find a hidden bottle of Lizano's hot sauce from Nicaragua buried under a mess of cans—the vinegary, spicy sauce was one of my favorite flavor discoveries in Central America, and tastes just as good here in Indonesia.

If there's one truly essential tool in our galley, it's the pressure cooker, where we regularly prepare things like stews and sauces, not to mention dried beans and brown rice. Our stove runs on precious propane, and the pressure cooker allows us to regularly plan on slow-cooked favorites without completely depleting our fuel supply (or causing the cabin temperature to spike to 100 degrees). I've whipped up some seriously good lentil stew in around 15 minutes, and Alex threw together a pasta sauce using a batch of must-use tomatoes and chili peppers in 20 that tasted like they'd spent all day simmering on the stovetop.

The Inevitabilities: Things Will Go Bad (No Matter How Well You Plan)


When you're living on a boat, you may have food-supply surprises. A normally long-lasting cabbage may rot in two days, while a delicate-seeming eggplant will last for a week and a half. The only thing you can plan is that you need to check on your vegetables every day, and should probably be checking in on your canned and dried goods every couple of weeks, too. Our rule: if it smells okay, it probably is. If it's attracting bugs, get rid of it ASAP.

Because our living space is on the small end, it's usually quite evident when something has gone bad. The smell is inescapable; as are the fruit flies. Fortunately, our removal method is a lot more cathartic than your average refrigerator clean-out at home—we get to toss our bad veggies overboard.

One way to slow the rapid pace of vegetable rotting is to intentionally get underripe vegetables which will be ready to eat in a week or so. We expected the worst when we bought a bag of green tomatoes and two massive green avocados, but we kept them as wrapped up and protected as possible, and were rewarded with two magical days of guacamole.

Dried goods are much less likely to go bad, but it happens. Bugs will infest bags of rice and beans that have been opened and left for too long. Cans may rust, rendering their contents inedible. Keeping things as cool and dry as possible helps us avoid a lot, if not all spoilage.


A silver lining to this much-accelerated pace of food rotting is that you're forced to think of ways to preserve what you've got. I dried a huge bunch of Balinese peppers by threading them with fishing line and hanging them in the sun, while a hefty head of cauliflower made a fine jar of lemony, peppery pickles.

So... What Do We Cook?


We may be traveling with our home in tow, but that doesn't make us totally immune from homesickness. My favorite remedy: Recreating our favorite flavors from California. (Tacos, obviously.) Remember our massive, underripe Balinese avocados? The morning we discovered that they'd softened we had new plans for the day: a frenzy of fish taco preparations, which included making fresh flour tortillas, guacamole, and glaring at every and all snorkeler who came within twenty feet of our boat, delaying our ability to spearfish for taco fillings. Finally, we had an opening: Alex promptly speared a sweetlips, we slapped tortillas into shape, and we were gloriously rewarded in the form of two guacamole-laden fish tacos apiece.


And then there are the foods we often cook at home. Alex and I make a lot of fresh pasta in our San Francisco kitchen, and, thanks to a crank-operated pasta maker onboard, can do the same here. Alex is a skilled bread baker, and while baking in the tropics is definitely different from the cooler climes of San Francisco, the fresh bread might taste even better (particularly topped with a healthy smear of Nutella).

But we're not traveling to live on tacos and pasta alone—we draw inspiration from the foods and flavors we're finding on land. I've been making batch after batch of Balinese-style sambal—coconut oil laced with chilies, shallots, and fresh lemongrass—it's the perfect accompaniment to a whole fried or grilled fish, and a killer cooking base for eggs, fried rice, and quick-sautéed vegetables. Our soups are inspired by cap cay (pronounced chap-chay), a garlic-heavy soup loaded with vegetables and a fried egg. It's hard to get too bored when we're constantly trying foods that are so delicious that we pretty much have to recreate them... though beef rendang might have to wait until we get home (unless we find a reliable butcher onshore, that is).

Still, you can't have it all. I miss cheese like crazy, not to mention good wine, strong beer, and kale salads (yep, I'm one of those). There are days that we're eating fresh fish curry when I'd kill for a good cheeseburger topped with bacon.

But we make do. More than that—because every meal takes a little more thought and effort, it tastes a little better, too. Or maybe that's just the salty air talking.

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12 hours ago
My friend wrote this, and I'm crazy envious of her, even if life at sea has its hardships.
San Francisco, CA
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Wal-Mart, EBay pulling Confederate flag products

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Retail giants Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sears Holding Corp. said they would stop selling Confederate flags and flag merchandise following South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s call to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds.

Wal-Mart said Monday it would remove all merchandise promoting the Confederate flag from its stores and website.

“We have a process in place to help lead us to the right decisions when it comes to the merchandise we sell,” Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick said in a statement. “Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly. This is one of those instances.

“We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” he said.

Sears said in a statement Monday night that it was removing Confederate flag merchandise from its Sears and Kmart stores, as well as online, including items sold by third-party merchants on Sears Marketplace.

Online marketplace EBay also said it would prohibit Confederate flags and many items containing the image of the flag because “it has become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism,” company spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said in a statement.

“This decision is consistent with our long-standing policy that prohibits items that promote or glorify hatred, violence and racial intolerance,” she said.

Civil rights leaders have called on Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos to follow the lead of Wal-Mart and Sears and stop sales of the Confederate flag.

“Amazon now has an opportunity to again prove it is a good corporate citizen and join with other major retailers, business leaders and elected officials that now call for an end to sales and displays of a symbol that stands for hate and bigotry,” Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable President Earl Ofari Hutchinson said in a statement.

Amazon did not comment, but by Tuesday afternoon, many Confederate flags were listed as unavailable on the site. The top three best-selling items over the past 24 hours had been Confederate flags, with the top item up 5,466%.

Other retailers also saw sales of the Confederate flag spike.

Kerry McCoy, owner of <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> in Arkansas, said the site sold 50 lapel pins of the Confederate flag Monday and sales were increasing Tuesday afternoon. Normally, Confederate flag sales make up less than 1% of business, McCoy said.

“Not everybody that uses the Confederate flag is doing it for hate,” she said. “Some of them have a family member that fought in that war. I’m not going to deny one sector of Americans the right to fly the flag of their choice.”

At least one flag manufacturer said it would stop making Confederate flags.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an event like this to kind of focus you on doing the right thing,” said Reggie Vandenbosch, vice president of sales at Valley Forge Flag Co.

BMW, which is one of South Carolina’s largest employers and has its largest manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, said it “applauds the courage” of Haley and “supports her leadership” in calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the Statehouse.

While running for her second term in 2014, Haley, a Republican, defended the Confederate flag’s presence on the Statehouse grounds. Her Democratic challenger, Vincent Sheheen, called for the flag’s removal.

“I think the people of South Carolina are tired of having an image across America that's not truly who we are,” Sheheen said during a debate.

Haley responded that the flag was a “sensitive issue,” but she rejected the idea of removing it.

“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

For more business news, follow @smasunaga

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

1:17 p.m.: This article has been updated with details about products on <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> and quotes from flag sellers.

10:52 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from representatives of EBay and flag manufacturers.

8:41 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details.

This article was originally published at 7 a.m.

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8 days ago
For someone who grew up in the South, this is beyond huge. You get used to seeing these everywhere. It's so nice to see the mainstream finally standing up to them.
San Francisco, CA
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Ten Times I Knew I Loved You

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1. It’s Feb. 14, 2005, and I am 15 years old. I’m standing by a row of lockers just down the hall from the cafeteria, waiting for the last few minutes of lunch to go by so I can get through my afternoon classes, go home, and forget about school. I hate school, but I like lunch because it means I get to see you. And on the best days I get to talk to you if you happen to wander away from the junior boys into my lowly freshman territory. I live for those days. Our interactions are awkward, stilted at best, but talking to you is the only part of high school I actively look forward to. But today I don’t see you anywhere in the cafeteria. You’ve recently made friends with some seniors and I suspect you’ve left school with them (a senior privilege, not that that stops anyone) to eat overcooked hot dogs at the 7-Eleven. I try to mask my disappointment as I lean against a bright yellow locker and make small talk with a fellow freshman before the inevitable end-of-lunch bell. There’s a tap at my shoulder. I turn around. It’s you. You’re holding out a rose. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” you say. I am stunned and silent but screaming inside my head as I take the cellophane-wrapped flower from you. I know you bought it at 7-Eleven. I don’t care. I feel like my organs are leaking out my shoes.

2. It’s four months later. Summer vacation has just started. Not much has changed in our friendship, but now I know for sure you like me. That should make it easier to be around you but for some reason I am terrified of you, so I decide to not show up when you invite me to hang out one afternoon. You’re upset, so I tell you to come to my house so I can apologize. We are in my living room, seated on the black leather couch that my parents still have to this day. Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove is on TV and for some reason, we watch it. Then out of nowhere you turn to me, grab my face, and kiss me. Your lips don’t find mine exactly and your tongue is moving too fast, but it’s still The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened To Me. You tell me you have to go, so I walk you to your car. You kiss me once more and this time we find our rhythm, and then you get in and drive away. I am so ecstatic that I run inside and vomit into the kitchen sink. The date is June 20. We don’t know it yet, but we’ll celebrate today for the next 10 years.

3. We’ve been dating about a year. You’re a senior, I’m a sophomore, and there’s nothing to do in our suburban New Jersey town but drive around in your car and waste gas. We decide to park at the high school around midnight one Saturday because we are teenagers and we have only bad ideas. We are sitting and talking, making out occasionally, but really just enjoying the only semi-private space we have. We’re there so long the windows have fogged up. Then there’s a knock on the driver’s side window. We’re both startled, but you roll it down. A cop is shining a flashlight into the car, asking us what we’re doing at the high school so late. We’re honest when we tell him “nothing,” but he’s suspicious nonetheless. He’s reaching into the car, grabbing old Poland Spring water bottles from the center console and smelling them to see if they contain alcohol. He’s scanning the floor for anything that will make his night more eventful. His light stops on a hunk of green at my feet. “What’s that?” he asks. “That?” you say. “That’s a penis, sir.” The cop’s face turns red. “I’m going to ask you again. What is that?” You reach down between my feet and pick up the object so he can see it better. “It’s a piece of wax I use for skateboarding that my friends have molded,” you say as you slowly rotate the waxy green dick in the light, “into a penis.” The cop has no idea how to respond, so he tells us to leave. You tell him to have a pleasant evening and roll up the window before starting the engine to take me home. I stare at your profile while the passing street lights light up one side of your face. You are the bravest person I have ever met.

4. It’s the end of my freshman year of college, and despite being 200 miles away from each other, we’re still together. We spend too much time taking $15 bus trips between your school in New York and mine in Boston and even more time Skyping from our shitty dorm rooms. It’s finally April, which means an entire summer together is within our reach. I pull a muscle in my neck on a particularly arduous bus journey and decide to see the on campus doctor. The neck cramp is not a cramp, it’s a lump. I am given an X-ray, blood tests, and a quick rundown about a cancer called lymphoma, which typically affects 20- to 35-year-olds. I am 19, I am too young to have cancer and I don’t like needles. I am so fucking angry that the doctor has wasted my time when he should just stick to handing out condoms. I call you. The concern in your voice makes me realize my anger is masking a deeper fear inside me. It’s raining outside, and all of a sudden I’m crying.

5. I am losing my hair in clumps. I can’t take a shower without a rat-size clod of my dark blonde hair stopping the drain. I wake up choking on balls of it. I can see my scalp in places, but in others my hair is shoulder length, which makes me feel like Frankenstein’s monster but uglier. I ask a neighbor who has three young sons to borrow her hair clippers. In the backyard my family gathers and watches as my neighbor sheers off the remaining patches of hair. The backyard is covered in golden tumbleweeds, and my mom tells me the birds will make nests out of them. I go into the house and look in the hallway mirror. I am so bald. I hear your car pull up outside and I panic. I run into the kitchen and grab the first thing I see: a tea cozy. I put it on my head and go outside to meet you. “Nice hat,” you say. You take the tea cozy off my head. You tell me that I’m beautiful, but I don’t believe you until the next day, when you show up to my house with a shaved head where your long black curls used to be.

6. It’s my last chemotherapy appointment. I am 20 pounds lighter, sicker, and somehow more bald than six months earlier when I shaved off all my hair. You have come to every single doctor’s appointment since I got sick, but today you have a final exam and the professor won’t let you reschedule without losing credit, even to hold the hand of your sick girlfriend on her final round of chemo. Today should be a happy day but I just feel done, and it’s especially hard to feel up to anything without you here. Normally we’d be sneaking around the hospital, eating French fries from the cafeteria, and playing pool in the patient lounge until I am called to the infusion room, where we’d watch DVDs of Arrested Development and drink mini cans of ginger ale while they pump me full of poisons. When my name is called to start chemo I get a sick feeling in the back of my throat in anticipation for the battery chemicals that are about to be forced into my veins. Then I see you walk through the curtain. “But your exam,” I try to protest. “Yeah,” you say. “Fuck that class.” And you plop down next to me in the infusion chair.

7. I’m standing inside the arriving flights terminal at Heathrow Airport in London scanning the river of faces for yours. It’s been less than a year since I recovered from cancer, and in an attempt to reclaim my bizarrely interrupted college career, I decided to study abroad. You’re supportive even though it means we’ll be apart — really, truly apart — for an entire semester. And it’s been hard — especially for you, because while you’re home starting your unbelievably stressful student-teaching stint in the South Bronx, I am eating and dancing and laughing my way through every corner of Europe. It’s March, your spring break, and you’ve scrounged up the money to visit me, cutting our four-month-long hiatus in half. As I watch passengers walk by I can feel my heart pounding against my rib cage. I have stolen a beer out of a corner store in Paris and urinated on a famous windmill in Mykonos. I have smoked hashish in a strange apartment in Barcelona and ridden on the back of a motorcycle in Athens. But none of it is half as thrilling as how I feel when I see you round the corner in that airport terminal.

8. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and we’re buying microwavable breakfast burritos at a truck stop somewhere in the swamps of eastern Texas. I have somehow convinced you and our good friend Jordan to take this cross-country-and-back road trip with me in an attempt to escape my six-month-long, post-college unemployment and there’s a good chance you’ll never forgive me for it. In the last five weeks and 9,000 miles we’ve slept at a complete stranger’s apartment in West Virginia, been woken up by a hungry black bear in Wisconsin, ran from the police for illegal camping in Washington, stranded the car on a beach in California, and we still have days’ worth of driving before we get back home to Jersey. We are broke — broker than broke — exhausted, and heavily unshowered but we are hoping to make it to New Orleans by nightfall to celebrate my 23rd birthday. Jordan starts the engine and I settle into the backseat in preparation for the long drive. Just then, you turn around in the passenger seat holding a truck stop brownie with a lit pink candle stuck in it. You start singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of your lungs, and Jordan beeps the horn for every “Cha! Cha! Cha!” The early-morning ruckus has caught the attention of truckers in the parking lot, and many of them are leaning out their driver’s side window to see what’s going on. I’m laughing so hard I’m practically screaming and when the song is over you tell me to please blow out the candle so we don’t set the car on fire and have to call our parents to pick us up. The road trip was supposed to be over by my birthday, but bad luck and worse scheduling has landed us here instead. Somehow it still feels like home.

9. Against all odds I’ve landed my dream job. Well, sort of. I’ve landed a fellowship at my dream job, writing for a website I love, which means if I don’t perform well in the four-month-long audition period I won’t be hired full-time. So I have a taste of my dream job, which is somehow even scarier than never knowing what it’s like. I have only a few weeks left in my fellowship to impress the hiring managers so I throw a Hail Mary, a post about why you should never mess with the ocean. The post creeps up to 900,000 views and I am happy enough with that, so I stop obsessively checking the view count and leave it up to fate. Then one morning before work you tell me you’re coming over to my parents’ house where I regrettably still live before I run out to catch the train to New York. I think nothing of it, as I hear you come in the house and run up the stairs to my bedroom. “Hey,” I say over my shoulder as I dig through my closet, trying to find a shirt to wear. “Hey,” you say. “Ms. Million.” I turn around and you’re holding a homemade trophy. “1,000,000 Views for Ocean Post Awarded To Erin Chack.” You made the plaque out of construction paper and glued it to your old T-ball trophy. Today I’ve been with that job long enough to watch it outgrow three separate offices, but that trophy has never left my desk.

10. Not even a month ago I bike home from work to find you sitting on the porch of our little Queens apartment. We’ve moved into this pre-war one-bedroom together about two years ago and over the months slowly built it into a home: There are skateboards hanging above the dining room table and an herb garden on the ledge of our kitchen window. Spring has just started creeping into New York and the porch has once again become our favorite spot in the apartment, so it’s no surprise you’re there enjoying the last rays of the setting sun. We’ve both been invited to hang out with separate groups of friends tonight but we decide to blow them off to hang at home, drink Coronas, and talk. Maybe it’s because your birthday is coming up, but I decide to bring up something that’s been floating around my brain. “It’s weird,” I tell you. “We’re finally at the point in our lives where I feel like I’ve caught up to you. I watched you graduate high school, go away to college, get your first job, and I’ve always had to trail behind. Watch what you did and try to do it my own way when it was my turn. But now for the first time in our relationship we’re sort of standing on equal ground.” You take a second to consider this, looking at the ceiling for a second before returning your eyes to meet mine. “But it doesn’t feel like equal ground to me,” you say, “because throughout the years I’ve always loved you. But now I admire you.”

So I wrote this to tell you that I admire you too. I have for 10 years, and I plan to for 10 million more.

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9 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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Helen Rosner: On Chicken Tenders

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Perfection, performance, and the allure of the kids’ menu.
Image from Flickr user Garrett Ziegler.

By Helen Rosner

I know this about you: you love chicken tenders. You love them. You might not ever eat them—you might be a vegetarian or a vegan, or not consume birds for whatever reason, or not want to deal with the carbs, or not think it’s okay for adult humans with serious opinions about fracking to dip a toe into the children’s menu—but that’s a choice about ingesting them. It’s not you not loving them. Because you do. You love chicken tenders. Everybody does.

This is because chicken tenders are perfect. They’re perfect in flavor, perfect in aroma, perfect in shape, perfect in color. They’re salty and savory, crisp and juicy, easy to eat with the hands but absolutely okay to go at with a knife and fork. Their ubiquity on kids’ menus isn’t a mark against their perfection, but rather proof of it: the kids’ menu is where all perfect foods live. Pizza, hot dogs, spaghetti. But king of all perfect foods is the chicken tender.

Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.

Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland. It’s a circle. A cloudless sky. An unmarked page. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s glorious, and it usually comes with fries.

*                      *                     *

In 2009 I began eating professionally. This isn’t as common among food writers as you might think. Food is a topic, not a practice. Researching and reporting on chefs and restaurants gives you access to an unending feast, but very few people in the food-writing world have jobs that demand the consumption and consideration of actual food. But when I began reviewing restaurants, I become one of them: eating became a job requirement.

This was very weird. Any leisure activity loses some appeal once it becomes mandatory, and eating dinner at New York’s cool new restaurants isn’t an exception to that. The civilian pleasures of dining out are largely connected to ideas of novelty and choice. At a restaurant, you’re getting something you wouldn’t normally get at home: a fully funkadelic dry-aged tomahawk ribeye, a soul-warming bowl of bún bò huế, or the undivided attention of a balletic thirteen-person service team. And you get to make a lot of decisions—what restaurant to go to, what food you want to eat, when and how often you want to go out at all.

Just as we naturally tune out familiar noises or lingering foul smells, we can also become inured to delight.

When you’re eating a meal for a paycheck, all of that is stripped away. And what remains? A miraculous adaptation, the inverse of the receptive adjustments we perform when faced with unpleasantness: just as we naturally tune out familiar noises or lingering foul smells, we can also become inured to delight. In a months-long barrage of sensory spectacle, enchantment rapidly gives way to tedium. Restaurant reviewing is a parade of the extraordinary, a half-dozen special-occasion meals each week. You hear a hundred explanations of how to order, smile your thanks at a thousand amuse bouches, read a million back-of-the-menu culinary manifestos. I texted to my boyfriend on my way from the office to a review dinner: I’m so tired of foie gras. He replied: Read back to yourself what you just typed. You can have too much of a good thing.

But the truly oddest part of being a restaurant critic was what happened to me when I was off the clock. You don’t get into food writing without loving food, loving to eat. I’d always been an adventurous and ambitious eater, ordering the most outlandish things at restaurants and swinging for the fences with my kitchen experiments. And I still was—as long as I was working. But on my own time, ordering delivery or cooking dinner or out with friends, I reverted to the palate of a suburban six-year-old. All I ever wanted was toast with butter, pasta with the thinnest-possible coating of red sauce, or—my salvation, my obsession, the only thing I ever reliably wanted to eat—chicken tenders.

*                      *                     *

A true connoisseur of the chicken tender knows that there are three immutable rules.

The first is the rule of physical integrity. A tender has a proper shape: flattish, oblong, and gradually tapering from a wide front to a narrow end. Unlike nuggets, which are largely made from processed, re-formed scraps, the chicken tender takes its name from an actual piece of the chicken: the pectoralis minor, a muscle located under the breast, against the sternum. The tenderloin. It’s rare nowadays to get actual tenders when you order them (hence the rise of “fingers” and “strips,” terms of art that veil all manner of creative butchery), but integrity demands that a wedge of breast put at least some effort into mimicking the actual part of the chicken it is trying to be.

The second rule of chicken tenders is that, contra any advice your mother may have given you, what’s on the outside matters infinitely more than anything on the inside. A chicken tender lives or dies by its exterior: batters, breadings, the disappointing faux-sophistication of panko. The subtlety or intensity of its spice and salt. The crispness of the exterior is what creates the tenderness of the interior, its structural cohesion when submerged in hot oil helps the chicken inside stay juicy and good. But it can’t adhere only to itself: a good chicken tender’s breading stays connected to the chicken inside once you take a bite, not slipping off like a silk stocking or the bullshit batter on an onion ring.

The third rule of chicken tenders is that sauce is a last resort. You shouldn’t have to dip your chicken tenders in anything. If you want a vehicle for ranch dressing, order the crudités.

*                      *                     *

I wasn’t a big-deal restaurant critic; you wouldn’t know my byline. I was writing capsule reviews for the weekly magazine where my day job was covering restaurant news and gossip. But I brought up my curious change in palate with a friend who is a big deal, the kind of guy whose photo is pinned up in restaurant kitchens like a wanted sign, and he nodded with recognition.

“Why do you think every chef says his favorite food is roast chicken, or oysters, or a steak?” he asked. So much complexity makes simplicity appealing. Spending your days trying to one-up your own palate is exhausting. Stepping away from the wood-grilled matsutake mushrooms with nasturtium agrodolce, and towards an uncomplicated hunk of meat is the gastronomic equivalent of collapsing into your bed at the end of a long day.

It’s true that ribeyes and oysters and even pizza and tacos share a soothing simplicity, but nothing is more nothing than a chicken tender. A roast chicken has a certain dinner-party elegance to it, and you know at least the sketch of an origin story for your pizza or your taco—but a chicken tender is a chicken tender is a chicken tender. Some restaurants might try to gussy them up, gently carve each tender from the breast of a bird that lived a happy life and lovingly dust them in a custom spice blend, but a true chicken tender comes out of a five-hundred-count freezer bag. They come from nowhere in particular—when you eat them, you could be anywhere.

Even the other kids’ menu stalwarts have more history to them than the chicken tender, a relatively new addition to the gastronomic landscape that only reached deep-fryer ubiquity in the 1990s. (This itself is a fascinatingly rare phenomenon: when was the last time something truly novel hit the culinary zeitgeist that didn’t have a trademark appended to it?) It takes more than one generation to develop the intricate root system of nostalgia that anchors the ballpark pastoral of hot dogs or nachos, the picket-fence vignette of fried bologna sandwiches, or the dusty-road Americana of a burger and an ice-cold Coke. Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.

Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe.

This deliciousness without backstory was liberating for me when I was reviewing restaurants. I don’t do much of that kind of writing anymore—for the most part, my meals are my own again—but I still need the kind of relief chicken tenders provide. It’s exhilarating to be part of the food world as it rockets from fringe interest to massive cultural force, but there are times when I want to step off the ride, to make a food choice that doesn’t double as a performance of my identity.

Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe. Instagram means that once-private pleasures can be even more pleasurable when they’re broadcast to an audience of thousands. I may love the garlic scape pesto I whizzed up at home yesterday, or the peppery buttermilk panna cotta at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, but more than that, I love broadcasting that love, a narcotic combination of “but it’s my job” rationalization and the validating thrill of a push notification. Every picture of food is a selfie.

Not so with chicken tenders. There’s no narrative to chicken tenders, there’s no performance. That is the substance of their allure: If you’re ordering them, you don’t have to look at the menu. You don’t have to think about whether you’ve been posting a lot of pasta lately or whether it’s kind of passé at this point to go for a kale salad. Chicken tenders aren’t cool. They’re not retro. They’re not funny. They ask nothing of you, and they don’t say anything about you. They are two things, and two things only: perfect, and delicious. That’s enough. That’s everything.

Helen Rosner is the features editor at Eater and co-host of the interview podcast the Eater Upsell. Her work appears in Saveur, New York, Afar, the Hairpin, Departures, and elsewhere. Watch her identity performance unfold in real time on Instagram and Twitter.

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19 days ago
Ugh, this is so good. I hate Helen for being so good.
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'Thank You' in Hindi and English Mean Very Different Things

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I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, and I now say thank you about 50 times a day. Most of the time, I do it without thinking. I say thank you to the bus driver who takes me from point A to point B along with 20 other people. He usually can’t even hear me. I say thank you to the cashier at the coffee shop. I say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open for me at a restaurant. I say thank you to my wife and my 5-year-old daughter several times a day for various things: turning the volume of the television down or up, flicking the light switch on or off, asking me if I want to eat something or do something with them.

When I first moved to the United States, all this took some getting used to. I didn’t know I was supposed to thank someone who took my money for something I bought at a store. I didn’t know I was supposed to thank people when they asked how I was doing (and almost everyone who walks by me says “Hyadoin” to me). I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to the police officer who gave me a speeding ticket and then said, “Thanks, and have a good day.”

I grew up in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, in a culture in which saying thank you is not done lightly. I learned to say thank you in English in elementary school, and when I thanked anyone, I said it in English, which was less awkward and more casual than doing so in Hindi. I reserved my thanks for those who had done huge favors for me. And I rarely thanked my friends or classmates. When I did, they either smiled quizzically at me or interpreted the act as a kind of joke—a playful way to practice English. I’ve never thanked my parents for anything. In the Hindi language, in everyday gestures and culture, there is an unspoken understanding of gratitude.

Saying dhanyavaad, or “thank you” in Hindi, would almost be sarcastic. It seems inadequate. When I thank anyone in Hindi, I make sure to look the person in the eye. Saying dhanyavaad to someone without looking at him or her is just as good as not saying it at all. As a kid, I never heard anyone my age say thank you in Hindi. I did hear my father say dhanyavaad to people his age, but he did it as sincerely as possible, with his hands joined in front of his chest in the solemn gesture of namaste. He wasn’t just thanking someone for something, but asking for an opportunity to return the favor. That’s how I came to understand expressions of gratitude.

In America, by contrast, saying thank you often marks an end to the transaction, an end to the conversation, an end to the interaction. It is like a period at the end of a sentence. Only in the United States have people offered thanks for coming to their homes or parties. Initially I was surprised when people thanked me for visiting their house when they were the ones who’d invited me, but then I learned that, “Thank you for coming to my home” actually meant, “It’s time for you to get out of my house.”

Saying thank you in Hindi is more like joining a cycle of exchange, creating the possibility of a new relationship.

After moving to America, it took me several years to say thanks to people without actually meaning it. Putting “thank you” on the tip of my tongue, ready to escape at a moment’s notice, rather than extracting it from the depths of my heart, was one of the hardest language lessons I had to learn in the United States.

Now, when I travel to India, I often offend people by saying thank you to them. On a recent trip home, I was invited to my uncle’s house for dinner. He’s been a father figure to me, teaching me many things and advising me at every step of my life. As a kid, I spent more time at his home, and ate more lunches there, than at my parents’ place. That day, I made the mistake of telling him, in English, “Thank you for inviting me” before leaving his house, realizing the import of my words only after they had left my mouth. He didn’t respond, but I saw his expression turn sour. He was filled with disgust. I couldn’t even apologize for thanking him. The damage was done.

In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist. They may think that you’re closing off the possibility of relying on each other in the future. Saying dhanyavaad to strangers helps initiate a cycle of exchange and familiarity. But with family and friends, dhanyavaad can instead chill relations because you are already intimate and in a cycle of exchange. And few things can be more painful than ending a relationship.

Thank you for reading this essay. Let me assure you that I really mean it, but also that I mean no offense. Dhanyavaad.

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22 days ago
"Thank you" is not universal. Who knew?
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ClickHole: How the Onion’s Internet parody spinoff became the best thing online.

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Photo by 4774344sean/Thinkstock

No judgment, but you waste a lot of time on the internet, right? Which means sometime in the past year or so, something like this happened: You’re on Facebook, and you see that a friend has shared an interesting-looking article, such as a map of the United States with the headline “We Can Determine Which State You’re From Just From the Way You Answer This One Simple Question.” Wait, you think, is this that New York Times dialect map—the one you read already? Or did someone make an even better version of the quiz?

So you click, and there’s the map, and some introductory text you kind of skim—“The regional dialects … words you use … we can pinpoint exactly which state”—and the question “What do you call the article of clothing you wear on your legs?” And then a long, long list of possible answers, all of them insane. “Knee Curtains”? “Gam Quivers”? “Lucifer’s Hotrods”? Bewildered, you click one of the options (“The One Garment”) and the quiz tells you that you are from Massachusetts. You are not from Massachusetts. As far as you can tell, there are 50 options, each one presumably affixed to a different state, all of them absurd. What is this thing? Who made it? Where are you?

You’re on ClickHole. ClickHole launched a year ago as a spinoff of the Onion, its editor a longtime staffer for that venerable satirical newspaper, its staff made up mostly of Onion writers. (The publications still share a managing editor.) ClickHole spoofs the kinds of buzzy articles that feed your social Web experience. You know, buzzing, feedy things that buzz all over your feed. What? OK, yes, ClickHole is, among other things, a satire of BuzzFeed and its utter mastery of the social Web. (According to staff writer Cullen Crawford, one name they floated for the site prelaunch was StuffFeed.) The day the site launched last June, it was rich with headlines pointing to clear BuzzFeed precedents: “Quiz: Is Your Dad Proud of You?”; “16 Pictures of Beyoncé Where She’s Not Sinking in Quicksand”; “Which Hungry Hungry Hippo Are You?” The entire site was branded by a beef jerky manufacturer in a way that called to mind BuzzFeed’s omnipresent sponsored content.

“No one writes them. They just appear on the website. We are only here to make sure that they go viral.”

Editor Jermaine Affonso, on ClickHole articles Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Jermaine Affonso.

But the site has grown and changed in the past year. ClickHole is now a small, prized cog in a growing and profitable media company. It’s not clear how much ClickHole contributes to the bottom line; the site’s editors wouldn’t share details. The beef jerky company is gone, and most of the Onion’s revenue is brought in by its in-house ad agency, Onion Labs. But the Atlantic reports that the company plans more independent site launches in the ClickHole mode, and according to Quantcast, the online traffic-measuring tool, ClickHole’s traffic has mostly held steady between 10 million and 15 million page views per month. Like many websites, ClickHole’s had game-changing mammoth viral hits; in November about 7 million people read what I believe to be ClickHole’s masterpiece, “’90s Kids Rejoice! The Spider Eggs They Used to Fill Beanie Babies Are Finally Hatching,” in part because at least a few social-Web visitors worried the threat was real. And as ClickHole has grown, the site’s moved away from being a simple BuzzFeed parody; instead it’s become richer, weirder, a darker reflection of our own dark times.

If you’re an avid Internet reader, you may not recall the moment when you first noticed ClickHole, but you definitely remember the moment your jaw first dropped at ClickHole. For me, it was the article “7 Classic ’90s Toys That Weren’t Fun Anymore After 9/11,” a tour de force mocking the generation-pandering I constantly saw on my Facebook feed. (“When those towers went down, something in you died forever and now Furby is nothing more than some fluff and plastic.”) I loved its audacity; I hated the reminder that online media, which I both make and consume avidly, panders so grossly to readers’ generational identities and employs such banal emotional shorthand for real-life tragic events. That is to say, when I read it, I simultaneously laughed and felt bad. It turns out this is the platonic ideal of a response to a ClickHole story.

How does the site, with its small staff of young writers and editors tucked around a few tables at the Onion’s Chicago offices, generate so many stories that make me laugh really hard? And why do so many of these stories also make me feel bad? And what does it mean to make a website that does both of these things—that makes extremely viral media, while ruthlessly satirizing the world of viral media? When I share stories from ClickHole, I share because a story made me chuckle; I also share out of a deep fear that the content business makes me a little less human. I share because the way Playboy embodied the voice of 1965, and Ms. embodied the voice of 1972, and Spy embodied the voice of 1988, ClickHole embodies the voice of our own misbegotten era. Mostly, I share ClickHole stories because ClickHole—in its cleverness, its fearlessness, and its weirdness—is literally the best website, and what do you do with stories from the best website but share them?

On a warm day at the end of March, the writers and editors of ClickHole assembled in a sunny conference room for a headlines meeting. (I could describe the conference room, but instead will direct you to the ClickHole story “6 Tips for Throwing the Perfect Boardroom Tantrum,” which, thriftily, was photographed in that very space.) The first order of business was to grapple with whether a comedy site should even observe April Fools’ Day. There was general dismay around the table at the thought of the lame April Fools’ pranks other websites would pull the next day. “God, they’re so self-aware, and then everyone Likes them,” moaned Jamie Brew, the site’s associate editor.

“Should we tweet a photo of Chris Webber that says ‘Teach the Controversy’ on it?”

Staff writer Cullen Crawford Photo illustration and photo by Slate

“I like the Christmas idea,” someone said, referring to an agreeably daffy April Fools’ pitch on the last page of the printed ideas memo the writers were reviewing—a shareable image of a Christmas tree and the words Today is Christmas. Share if you agree! “Well,” chuffed writer Cullen Crawford, italics deeply embedded in his tone: “April Fools’ is Christmas to pranksters like us.” He turned to look at me, as did everyone else at the conference table. “Can you write that I was wearing sunglasses when I said that?”

Soon the team dug in for the hour-long process of systematically winnowing the pages of headline ideas. ClickHole editorial meetings tweak the famous Onion meeting model, memorably portrayed in a 2008 This American Life episode, in which writers pitch headline after headline in hopes a few will be assigned as full stories. At ClickHole, instead of writers pitching a dozen of their own ideas, headline proposals are collected on a long memo without writers’ names attached, and staffers advocate for others’ ideas, not their own. (In fact, it’s considered gauche to pitch your own headline.) So rather than talk about hundreds of ideas, only a few of which will make it to print, participants in the ClickHole edit meeting discuss only the ideas that at least one disinterested party thinks are worthwhile.

Photo by Fuse/Thinkstock

“I thought No. 1 was pretty funny,” Crawford offered. We all looked down at our six-page printouts to find No. 1: “BLOG: We Need to Stop Teaching Our Girls That It’s OK to Think Chris Webber Was a Complete Basketball Player.” Crawford, trying on the headline for size, put on an outraged persona: “These girls are going to turn into women who think Chris Webber was a good all-around basketball player.”

Jermaine Affonso, the editor of ClickHole, sat at the head of the table. He rarely chimed in to add to the jokes in the room; instead, he ushered the meeting along and asked the rest of the staff how they felt. Now he raised a concern. “I wonder if this sounds like a girls-and-sports thing? Like the joke is, girls aren’t into sports?”

Writer Adam Levine nodded. “Right, like, Girls Have Bad Opinions About Sports. That’s not what’s funny about it.”

“I’m sure that’s not at all what was meant,” said another writer, Matt Powers.

“You could just change it to ‘children,’ ” said Lauren Moser, ClickHole’s writing fellow. “And go from a parenting angle.” Soon, the entire table was off, rat-a-tat-tatting bits for the piece.

“ ‘Look, we all know that player efficiency is the real measure of all-around success.’ ”

“ ‘An entire generation will be stuck with this backwards thinking!’ ”

“ ‘He was a shoot-first player—sure it’s glamorous, but it hurt the Kings.’ ”

“Should we tweet a photo of Chris Webber that says ‘Teach the Controversy’ on it?”

“ ‘I know you don’t want to talk to your kids about Chris Webber’ ”—

“Parents are talking about him—but as a complete player. ‘You’re talking to your kids about Chris Webber, but in the wrong way.’ ”

“Just remember, no matter how many videos you watch, or how many lists you read, you’re still gonna feel all alone.”

This adorable little girl Photo illustration by Slate. Screencap courtesy ClickHole.

The conversation paused for a moment, everyone taking a quick breath as they prepared to launch a new salvo of gags. The session hadn’t just generated a bunch of good lines; it had homed in on the funniest, sharpest angle on the story, which was to pose it as the kind of hectoring, judge-y column that cautions against allowing a particularly objectionable belief to persist into the next generation of young people.

“So let’s do this with the new headline,” Affonso said quickly. “ ‘Children’ or ‘kids’?” The piece was assigned to one of the writers over email later that day. No real writer would be bylined, as with all ClickHole stories. Per the site’s founding legend, Affonso notes, “No one writes them. They just appear on the website. We are only here to make sure that they go viral.”

A few years ago, the staff of the Onion began to realize that, while the publication would occasionally satirize Web-native publishing as opposed to the print news product that was its chief target, those stories “didn’t exactly fit on a website that’s a hard news parody,” Affonso told me. “We needed some kind of separate place.” In the spring of 2014, Affonso and the Onion’s managing editor, Ben Berkley, staffed up, hiring about half a dozen writers, pitching the new site as “a broader clickbait viral-media parody spinoff.”

ClickHole launched last June, immediately making clear the site’s desperate, near-psychopathic raison d’être: to bait clicks. “ClickHole has one and only one core belief,” its statement of purpose reads: “All web content deserves to go viral.” Its launch was accompanied by a wonderful video titled “What This Adorable Little Girl Says Will Melt Your Heart.” In the video, a pigtailed 8-year-old tells viewers, “The fact is, the people who posted this video would stop at nothing to get you to click on this link, so it would increase the website’s page views, and make the advertisers happy.” She combs her doll’s hair and adds: “Just remember, no matter how many videos you watch, or how many lists you read, you’re still gonna feel all alone.” She raises her arms in a familiar grinning shrug. “I guess that’s just the way it is!” 

I asked the site’s editors how they would define clickbait. “Awesome,” said Affonso. “Incredible,” added Berkley. “To me,” Affonso said, more seriously, “clickbait, in the pejorative sense, promises something awesome and exciting and great, but it’s ultimately vacuous and empty and doesn’t fulfill that promise. Clickbait tricks you.”

“There’s not actually that much of it,” added Berkley. “A lot of sites are accused of it, but I think most sites really come close to delivering what they promise. But a few bad eggs are hurting everyone else.”

I noted that by that definition, ClickHole—a site satirizing clickbait—doesn’t actually post that much clickbait. “Thank you,” Affonso replied with a grin. “We don’t want to trick someone into clicking on something that disappoints them. If you click because you’re excited about it, you get either what you expected, or something even funnier.”

A Slate Plus Special Feature:

For the unconvinced, here’s a collection of the best ClickHole stories.

Indeed, most ClickHole stories deliver precisely what their headlines promise, often to an absurdly literal degree. In some cases the headline promises something extremely banal, and the content delivers it. In other cases the promise itself is bizarre or outlandish or very, very sad, yet the piece makes good on that promise. Some of the best ClickHole stories represent the headline’s promise as interpreted by a stupid person or a deeply disturbed person or a racist person or a fictional character or, in the case of a bananas Calvin and Hobbes video the site published last June, a straight-up pervert. (“If You Grew Up With ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ You Need to Watch This Right Now,” the headline read, and the video—which is still floating around the Internet in all its awful splendor—featured the two beloved cartoon characters extravagantly, explicitly fucking, followed by the words, “We love you, Bill Watterson!” The post disappeared quickly, but bolstered the suspicion among readers, me included, that ClickHole was a site that might not actually have any boundaries of taste.)

“The Internet is so full of awfulness that deserves a takedown. That’s really exciting for us.”

Managing editor Ben Berkley Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.

Where ClickHole really utilizes the tools of clickbait is in the linguistic grace notes it employs. “It’s rhetorically funny to play with that clickbait language,” Berkley said. In the edit meeting, the writers discussed a headline that felt straight out of my Facebook feed, but with a twist: “For Shame: This Greedy Teacher Didn’t Spend Her Own Money on Art Supplies.” “ ‘For shame’ doesn’t really sound Internetty,” Affonso said. “Maybe ‘SMH’?”

“ ‘Disgusting,’ ” another writer suggested.

The site is broadening its aim, seeking out other popular forms of viral-friendly content that are ripe for parody. Affonso is interested in exploring the ClickHole take on Humans of New York and other single-voice storytelling posts. Adam Levine recently used the pages-from-history technique epitomized by sites like Letters of Note and Slate’s Vault blog to write “This Is the Speech JFK Would’ve Given if the Cuban Missile Crisis Had Triggered Nuclear War.” Associate editor Jamie Brew is working on a science explainer video series he’s calling “Learn-a-Tech,” inspired by Smarter Every Day’s wildly shareable video about surface tension and poop splash. Just like the media companies it lampoons, the site is experimenting with Facebook native content; it often uses its social-media accounts to launch quixotic shame campaigns. At the edit meeting, writers discussed FiveThirtyEight-style data journalism and Grantland-style oral histories. Since that meeting the site has run several oral histories, including a glorious take on Mad Men that posited Jon Hamm as a cretin who for seven seasons concluded every scene by announcing, “I’m not Don Draper, I’m Dick Whitman! Yowza!” (“John Slattery: When Jon Hamm says the word ‘Yowza!’ his voice gets extremely low-pitched, like a dragon is talking.”)

When I asked what ClickHole might target next, Berkley immediately replied, “Slate. We’re just gonna attack Slate.” Then we all laughed. But the editors pointed out that while ClickHole has not specifically skewered #slatepitches, the hashtag that mocks this magazine’s penchant for contrarianism, its writers have vigorously satirized the world of argument-based news coverage—the world, in short, of hot takes—many times in its Blogs section. It’s all there: the hysterical overreaction, the speculative pre-condemnation, the comprehensive rebuttal to an argument no one is making. The Blogs section, Berkley told me, pokes fun at the opinion-journalism technique of “people getting a venue who absolutely don’t deserve a venue—even on an infinite platform like the Internet.”

Affonso brought up an absurd opinion post ClickHole had recently published, “Only Some People Are Jewish,” written by Lauren Moser. “These are such empty arguments,” he said. “So many sites run these non-arguments! You have to argue about something, or to stand behind some point, because you just need some content out that day.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a great point about, like, Salon.”

“Sure, Salon,” Affonso replied.

In fact, the editors insist, the goal is rarely to satirize any specific site. It is, instead, to evolve in order to capture the feel of the entire social Web. “As websites shift their strategies, ideally our site should also shift its strategy,” said Affonso.

“We did a lot of quizzes early on,” pointed out Berkley, “because that was kind of the hot thing last summer, but at this point we’re not churning out as many of those. To peg yourself to one specific site is dangerous. The Onion is relevant so long as the overall tradition of journalism is relevant. It’s the same for us—as long as the Internet is relevant, so too is ClickHole.”

“The Internet is so full of awfulness that deserves a takedown,” said Berkley. “So that’s really exciting for us.”

In the end, said Cullen Crawford, ClickHole is about something bigger than the social Web. It’s about a certain way of looking at the world, a lens that will appear familiar even to those readers who don’t frequent ClickHole. Crawford told me, “The thesis of the site is: The world is terrifying garbage.”

Photo by Medioimages/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Wait a minute, I thought, talking to Crawford in the kitchen of the Onion offices, where we sat between a packed-full company refrigerator and a gilded portrait of a jumpsuited Joe Biden atop a motorcycle. That kind of flippant nihilism—the sense that a person exists enthusiastically in a world in which LOL NOTHING MATTERS—sounded awfully familiar. You can spot it in many media-savvy outlets online: in the influential newsletter Today in Tabs, in much of Gawker, in the ominous-yet-clever GIFs that illustrate the thoughtful-yet-hopeless media criticism of the Awl’s John Herrman. It even populates some odd neighborhoods of BuzzFeed, a site otherwise relentlessly positive by design—especially the writing of Daniel Kibblesmith, who came to BuzzFeed six months back from … ClickHole, where he was an editor. Until he was hired in May as a writer for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, he made a cottage industry of very funny posts that seem as though they could just as easily have run at his former home, among them the recent “6 Theories That Will Transform the Way You See Popular Movies” (“Theory #2: The Terminators in Terminator 2 Are Actually From the Future”).

The gleeful Kibblesmith-style nonsense and the blithe Herrman-style despair are twinned, related expressions of the desperation felt by much of the media world. The rise of social networks and their ability to determine the fortunes of media companies by delivering millions of readers—or not—with the flick of an algorithm feels existentially destabilizing. These market forces threatening our careers are ever more apparent but no less inexorable, and we all need the uniques, and so—to paraphrase a 2011 observation by an ex-Facebook analyst about Silicon Valley—the best journalistic minds of my generation are battling each other for Facebook’s attention. The fact that none of us knows how this will turn out leads to a kind of whistling-to-the-gallows attitude.

Photo by Litvinenko Vadim/Thinkstock

ClickHole employs this same flippant-nihilism mode, but in a manner I find not depressing but invigorating. Perversely so, perhaps. It’s a no-holds-barred, extremely mean, rules-free satire of what I do every day—publishing pieces upon which I hope people will click—that often succeeds at that exact task better than I do. Sure, ClickHole plays at playing the traffic game, espousing a comic ethos of shameless pandering. But ClickHole also frequently publishes Web content that goes viral because it is extremely funny and great.

I left ClickHole’s offices thinking once more about their tongue-in-cheek motto: “All web content deserves to go viral.” I laugh at this bit but, like everyone I know who works in online media, I also believe it to be true. Maybe not all Web content, but my Web content certainly deserves to go viral. I want people to read the things I write and edit, and I get pissed when no one does. It’s ClickHole’s cheerful exhumation of that buried desire, the thirst I feel that is partly my natural writerly exhibitionism but mostly attributable to my magazine’s need to garner ever greater numbers of eyeballs in order to survive, that makes reading ClickHole such an intense experience for me and for other people inside media.

The stories Slate publishes, I have always believed, would never be published in the same way in another magazine. Sometimes this belief is proved wrong, as when a reporter from Capital New York compiled a list of responses to Trevor Noah’s appointment as new host of the Daily Show on which our blogpost looked pretty much the same as everyone else’s blogposts. ClickHole’s Adam Levine referenced the Trevor Noah news wave during our interview, in explaining a particular frustration he feels about the Internet and wants to exorcise through his work on the site: “The Internet can feel really predictable,” he said. “Almost scripted.” ClickHole takes that script, highlights the craziest parts, and then sets it on fire.

Reading that list of Trevor Noah takes bums me out, not because I thought ours was bad—indeed, ours thoroughly addressed a question a lot of our readers really wanted to know the answer to—but because I am reminded that sometimes exigencies of the market force us to be basically the same as everyone else. The genius of ClickHole is that the site doesn’t seem the same as anyone else, even as it is designed to remind you of everyone else.

Indeed, a site launched as a parody of BuzzFeed now has a more complicated and fascinating relationship to the social Web than BuzzFeed does. Somehow the exact market forces that make me and much of the rest of media rend our garments and bite our nails have created in the wilds of Chicago the exact thing we mourn, or at least anticipate mourning: perfectly packaged, finely tuned editorial brilliance. Reading ClickHole no longer feels like reading a parody of BuzzFeed, or Slate, or Upworthy, or ViralNova. It doesn’t feel like a parody at all. Reading one ClickHole piece feels like reading your Facebook feed for an hour. ClickHole is the ultrapure product of a refinery at the end of that Keystone pipeline of crap shared by your uncle, by your pushy co-worker, by that guy you went to high school with. To read ClickHole is to read the institutional voice of the Internet. No one is responsible for the place we all live now. It just appeared. We are all, every one of us, only here to make sure it goes viral.

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23 days ago
"The rise of social networks and their ability to determine the fortunes of media companies by delivering millions of readers—or not—with the flick of an algorithm feels existentially destabilizing...The fact that none of us knows how this will turn out leads to a kind of whistling-to-the-gallows attitude."
San Francisco, CA
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