I Like Books So Much, I Wrote One

When I started this blog in 2010, I remember it feeling like an enormous jumping off from my comfort zone. I was putting myself out there in a way my public relations career and all its accompanying writing never had – my name would be attached to every word I published, and with that comes responsibility. I have taken that seriously, and I hope my food writing, both here and for my column in the Watertown Daily Times, has reflected the weight of that over the last eight years.

Despite hundreds of blog posts, I never thought I had a book in me. People have asked me about a cookbook periodically over the years, but recipe generation is not my strong suite. Then, last summer, a thread on Facebook about conspiracy theories got my mind racing. What if there really was a bunker underneath the Denver Airport? Who would inhabit this bunker? Who would choose those inhabitants? What would life be like down there?

It was something I couldn’t put aside once the wheels began to turn. Before I knew it, I had two main characters and the beginning of a plot hastily scrawled in the pages of a blank journal, with scraps of dialogue saved as notes in my phone. By December, I had a first draft. It happened out of the blue, and then suddenly, I had written a book! It’s called The Curated, and I hope that you all will get to read it someday.

The book is not about food, which people who know me from Big Hungry tend to be shocked to hear. It really is a novel about a survival bunker under the Denver Airport, the people who live in it after worldwide floods ravage the Earth, and the group who selected these particular inhabitants for its population.

Of course, there is a chef in the bunker. His name is Bobby Guerrero, and in addition to teaching my main characters how to make carnitas and apple cinnamon ice cream, he wears a series of funny t-shirts throughout the book and is just generally a super friend and a guide to my main characters.

I’m now just about done polishing my manuscript and am beginning the long process of querying literary agents in the quest to get it published. Have you heard stories about how hard this is? Most authors get around 80 rejections before signing with an agent, and then you begin pitching the book to publishers, which means more rejection. I have six rejections so far from the 16 agents I’ve queried. Every rejection stings, even though I know they are normal and part of the callus you need to build as a writer.

It's a slow process. You have to do your research to find an agent who handles your genre of book and is looking for either the subject matter or style of story you’re telling. Then you follow them on Twitter, so you can appeal to them in the right voice in your query letter, hoping you’re not sucking up too much, but also that your letter markets your book to them properly, and that your first few pages are scintillating enough to convince them to request your full manuscript.

It’s like asking 100 people to be your friend, knowing full well the overwhelming majority of them will say, “No thanks, you’re just not what I’m looking for.” All the while, you’re obsessively polishing both your pitch letter and your manuscript so that if and when you get the nod from someone, you won’t full-on panic that it’s not good enough to send.

So if you’ve been wondering why I’ve cut back so much on posting about restaurants around Upstate New York and the rest of the country, now you know. I’ve poured 75,000 words into The Curated, and it's tapped me out when it comes to describing even the tastiest treats from around our state. I’m not abandoning blogging, but I’ve really found something I’m passionate about in this novel writing game, and I hope, if I ever do get a book deal, you’ll read it and love it! 

If you'd like to keep up on my journey as I seek a book deal, make sure you're following me @BigHungryShelby on both Instagram and Twitter. It turns out Twitter is really where it's at in terms of agents and publishers, so I'm sharing much of the process there, and trying to grown my following to show agents that I can handle marketing a book when the time comes. I appreciate your engagement on the blog, and I hope you'll be interested enough in The Curated to come along for the ride!


The Weck Diaries

I've brought you many posts from Staten Island over the years, where the Miss New York Pageant was held. Most of you probably know that I have volunteered for a long time with the Miss America Organization, serving as the executive director of Miss Thousand Islands. Traveling for pageants is one of the ways I have been able to see so much of New York State and bring so many exceptional restaurants to life through Big Hungry Shelby these past eight years.

This year, Miss New York moved to Buffalo, and was held at the beautiful Shea's Performing Arts Center downtown. The venue switch was a perfect opportunity for the Miss New York Class of 2018 queens to visit Niagara Falls and Oishei's Children's Hospital, and for me to sample some of the best eats the Queen City has to offer.

In accordance with the prophecy, we first went to Anchor Bar. Yes, yes, it's a tourist restaurant, but how can one judge other wings before one has had the original? The place is both smaller than I had imagined it to be, but also much easier to access and with better service. I expected hoards of tourists, but we were shown to our table straight away on a Thursday at lunchtime.

The wings were classic - straight Frank's Red Hot sauce with a hefty dose of melted butter. We split 20 of the large wings, medium-hot, crispy but saucy. They were very nearly identical to the ones Shawn and I make at home, served with lots of crunchy celery, creamy blue cheese and ranch dressings on the side.

It's worth noting something the Food Network shows on Anchor Bar don't tell you - there's a whole menu here, from pizza to sandwiches and every fried appetizer imaginable. My mom had a turkey sandwich on rye with a house made potato salad she absolutely raved about - the potatoes in it mostly mashed, to give it a fluffy, creamy texture. So if you're not a wing lover, but someone in your group is, you can still find good eats at Anchor Bar.

The next day, it was Gabriel's Gate, a cool old row house in the Allentown neighborhood, for lunch. Gabe's, as our Buffalo guides Kristina and Pat call it, is known for French onion soup and poutine, but it was too hot for soup on the day we visited, and Kristina is dairy free. She and I split an order of fries and gravy, which was pretty damn tasty. While the fries were standard freezer fare, the gravy was rich and beefy - very yummy.

The beef on weck - Buffalo's favorite sandwich and a regional dish somewhat overshadowed by the more-famous wings - at Gabe's is something really special. The beef on said sandwich was uncommonly tender, juicy and shaved, with just a blush of pink rareness. The salt on top of the kimmelweck roll was coarse, and there was just enough caraway seed joining it to add earthy complexity without overpowering the meat flavor. A little cup of horseradish was served alongside. It was fabulous.

The wings at Gabe's are less greasy than Anchor Bar's, and I believe there's a bit more going on in the sauce besides just Frank's and butter. Perhaps a little vinegar and just maybe some pepper? I'm not sure, but I can tell you they are delicious, and what many people consider to be Buffalo's best.

We popped over to Elmwood street to shop that afternoon and had excellent iced coffee at The Spot, which is another favorite of our hosts. I really wish we had more really good coffee shops in the Southern Tier - The Spot made me crave great coffee from a independent shop.

For real deal, classic beef on weck, you need to hit up Schwabl's, in West Seneca. I loved everything about this tiny tavern, from the fact that they had Tom and Jerry's right on the menu (!), to the pickled beets and housemade, thick dill spears served with every meal. The beef on weck here was hand-carved, with thick, rare slices of juicy roast beef. The salt on the roll was finer grained than the one at Gabe's, and the caraway seeds fewer. It was a chewier, heartier sandwich, and the acidic, sweet/tart, wonderful German potato salad served with it was so delicious I don't even know how to describe it - I can only explain my jealousy. I want the recipe!

My parents split a turkey sandwich and Kristina enjoyed a ham sandwich, and these meats were house-roasted and hand-carved as well. Everything here was simply done but old school and high quality. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip, and I would not miss Schwabl's on any visit to Buffalo.

Our big dinner out was at Toutant, right downtown. This is newer than the Buffalo institutions we visited, but if they keep up food like this, it will be around a long time. As long as you don't mind climbing stairs - the dining rooms are up them.

Toutant boasts Southern cuisine, and the pork hush puppies and biscuits with blackberry jam (house made, of course) that began our meal certainly proved right off the bat that someone in the kitchen had real roots in the South.

I'm pretty sure the biscuits were made with lard, you guys. They were ridiculously yummy, and the jam served alongside was bursting with fruit and black pepper - totally delicious. We didn't even need butter.

Do you like muffaletta sandwiches? If you're smart, you do. The one at Toutant is especially decadent, served on fluffy garlic focaccia, with melted cheese and olive salad.

My oysters Rockefeller were lighter than most iterations, the gorgeous, sweet shellfish just barely cooked. The topping was just breadcrumbs and herbs with a little butter, and it was complimentary to the seafood rather than overpowering.

A side dish of collard greens were cooked perfectly, with a peppery, acidic liquor that perfectly countered some of the richer dishes we had ordered, while a tiny cast iron skillet of candied yams were literally like candy - deliciously sweet and soft, with a bruleed marshmallow topping.

Even my mom's shrimp salad with house ranch was something special, the dressing creamy and herbaceous, and the shrimp sweet, with fresh bacon bits topping the colorful dish.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that we ate impeccably in Buffalo. A lot of people think of it as a food town solely based on wings, but if you don't include awesome pickles, tart pickled beets, delicious potato salad, and achingly good biscuits in your visit, plus the venerable beef on weck, you're really missing out. It's no wonder they call it the Queen City - I certainly ate like a queen all weekend! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!