Talkin’ Bout My Generation

30 Jan

Every week I see a handful of articles offering up the newest “learning” on Millennials and what they want.”7 Tricks for Marketing to Millennials.” “How to Keep Millennial Employees Happy.” “What Millennials Care About with Food.”

I read most of them. Partly because I am a brand strategist, and need to know as much as I can about important targets my clients want to reach. Partly because I am inherently curious, and love pulling apart differences. And partly because I’m a Millennial myself- and, well, it’s entertaining to see the generalizations about my generation.

The takeaways on Millennials can get rather contradictory. Trophy kids, or people out to change the world? Entitled, or empowered? Lazy, or let down by older Americans who created a troubling economy? Most sources seem to agree that we like stories in our marketing, experiences over objects, and seek fulfillment from every bit of our lives.


A handy chart from The Atlantic (

I love picking apart data to understand the why and the how. When I read many of these articles, the learnings feel off. I think some of these authors are so excited to share a click-worthy article, they forget to crouch their learnings in context. Learnings about generations are really best done longitudinally: showing shifts in behaviors and values over time, as different generations pass the same age mark. Otherwise, what you’re seeing is more of a snapshot about a particular generation at 1 point in time, about 1 thing. That works just fine for most marketing purposes: e.g. knowing that Millennials would rather buy experiences is very helpful for a wedding registry trying to cater to them. But when it comes to making conclusions about the generation as a whole, it’s misleading to look at within the context of a simple study that doesn’t control for life-stage, societal shift, etc. Many of the “trends” I read seem more about life-stage than generation. Others mark a general societal shift: people getting married later, easier access to international travel, etc.

There’s one other big difference with Millennials that really stands out to me. This is essentially the first generation that’s been subject to rapid-fire, wide-spread inspection by the Internet masses. Sure, the Internet didn’t rise up with Millennials. But over the past several years we’ve seen a marked shift in the way “news” and “content” are produced and disseminated throughout the world. We have more content than ever before- some of it amazing, some of it terrible. Everyday we see 10 more articles about Millennials… because we can. It’s possible there were just as many studies commissioned about Gen Y or Boomers, but most people never saw them. A larger proportion of information gets spread around today. There’s a lower filter on what is published, there’s a lower bar for what counts as “news” and the need for content and clicks leads to a world of hyperbolic headlines and a constant race to find something new.

We’re bombarded by news about Millennials in a way that’s evolving with our media landscape. But if you’re sick of hearing about Millennials, don’t worry- Generation Z is up next, and they’re starting to steal the headlines away from my loved/hated/adored/despised generation.



Baking Inspiration from the Fancy Food Show

24 Jan

I had the joy of attending the Winter Fancy Food Show last week. This biannual trade show is produced by the Specialty Food Association, an industry org that connects manufacturers, buyers and food professionals. Officially, I was at the Show for my day job as a brand strategy consultant. I work with many packaged food clients, so I always try to stay on top of industry trends. Of course, as a food geek, I was downright giddy about getting to attend a trade show. The show featured a mix of newer and established brands, spanning everything from mayonnaise to pasta to gourmet honey. Some of the products were basically what we’re used to seeing, e.g. potato chips. And then there were products that are just now breaking into U.S. markets, like edamame pasta and cricket chips.

I only saw one teeny section of the show, but even in that small sample I noticed a marked shift in what’s on offer for American consumers. There is a good writeup of the show’s macro trends here on the Specialty Food Association’s website. I agree with their takeaways and also noticed a big shift in how people are talking about their products: lots of allusions to “better for you,” implying improved versions of something we’re already used to (e.g. chips made from alternate grains). Lots of “controlled decadence” verbiage labeling bite-sized or single-serving desserts (e.g. 100 calorie brownies). And, of course, numerous references to “small batch,” “artisanal” etc.- which is the basis different blog post I’m going to write soon.

Today, I want to talk about something more personal: how the Show affected my baking scheming for 2016. So without further ado, here are some notes on what I saw, and how I expect that to trickle into my baking this year.

20160120_064012.jpgBolder flavors and unusual combinations: The U.S. market has seen great growth in “innovative” flavors over the past several years, and it’s going to keep growing. I have always been a sucker for “intriguing” flavors in my desserts and am so excited that these bolder flavors are going more mainstream. I tried a delicious Bourbon Pepper Caramel Corn from The Art of Caramel and now am brainstorming ways to meld those flavors in a balanced baked good- I’m thinking cookies might be the right fit. I grabbed a sample packet of the Spice Hunter’s Coriander Lime blend, which is probably going to make its way into a quickbread of some sort. I also have been thinking up ways to use Salted Caramel Fig Spread and Guava Jam (I’d already been thinking about guava since I went to Brazil, but trying the delicious guava paste from Guayeco Foods made me think about it more!)

20160120_064105.jpgTurning up the heat: Spicy and hot flavors have been growing in popularity the last few years. I saw many products that incorporated Sriracha, chili and peppers. I actually can’t handle spicy food- you should see my face when I try to eat spicy Indian curries. But: I love a spicy kick to my baked goods and really enjoy things like chipotle as a spice in my cookies, brownies and cakes. I am determined to find a way to bake with the Smoked Chili Honey I picked up from Gran Luchito. I also grabbed a delicious spicy chocolate bar from Wild Ophelia, which inspired me to bake with actual peppers.


Flavored oils and sugars: I saw a lot of flavored oils and sugars on offer at the show. Much more than I see at the grocery store, which makes me hope these sorts of products will be coming to mass supermarkets in the coming years. I was particularly inspired by the Blood Orange Olive Oil Brownie baking kit I saw from Sutter Buttes. Personally, I’ll pick up a bottle of their Blood Orange Olive Oil and try a from-scratch brownie recipe rather than using the kit. Still, I love and appreciate their baking kit line, because it brings unique flavor combos to home bakers of all sorts and stripes. Olive oil is great in baked goods and I am excited to see what added flavor comes from their flavored oils.

Veggie substitutes: I noticed a TON of snacks riffing off vegetables (and fruits, too). My favorite sample was actually from a line made for toddlers: simple snacks made from real fruits and vegetables with just a slight amount of oil, and some light frying to crisp it up. But I also saw “veggie versions” of adult snack foods like chips and snack bars. I keep saying I’m going to bake with more vegetables but haven’t actually fulfilled that pledge. Let 2016 be the year that I put veggies in my baked goods!

That’s it for now- even though I could write pages and pages about what I saw at the Show. Keep an eye out for recipes stemming from this inspirational trip!

Note: this post is cross-posted over on my other blog, Sugarsmith. That blog focuses on baking and dessert- so if you’re into such things, check it out! 

Fanning Out

17 Jan

I recently clickbaited my way over to Entertainment Weekly. I don’t even remember why. But once I got there, a photo feature caught my eye. And whattya know: I had to click again.

What got my attention? A gallery of fan photos, compiled for what EW calls “Fanuary.” The gallery shows music fans spanning from 1943 to 2015. From Sinatra to Beyonce, the photos have many things in common: excited fans, some crying from the sheer glee of seeing one of their favorite celebrities up close. People clutching signs for their celebrity of choice, or maybe even dressed up in tribute. Smiles all around, tinged with a bit of disbelief.

From EW, Sinatra fans in 1943

I think that’s the point of this particular feature: the sameness of fandom over the years, across music genres and personality types. As you click through, it’s certainly striking to see the commonalities. But I also noticed a big shift over the years, clicking through. As you progress in time you see a big evolution in the way that fans captured these special moments. The fans in the 1943 Frank Sinatra picture hold up pens and paper to get his autograph. You start seeing personal cameras pop up in the 80s, but they’re not very common until the 00’s. By 2003, a gaggle of screaming *Nsync fans holds up a mix of point-and-shoot and disposable cameras. In a 2009 picture of Taylor Swift fans, the crowd is full of point-and-shoots. And by a 2011 One Direction concert, cell phones are prominent in the front row.


From EW, Justin Bieber fans in 2013

The newest images in the gallery look like a sea of cell phones. These days, our cell phones are always at the ready to help us remember, whether or not the moment is truly “worth” capturing. I do think today’s cell phone culture can often take away from the moment, distracting us from what we’re doing, ironically, by “saving” it for later. But: I’m sure the Sinatra fans would have been grateful for a way to visually capture their memories of seeing Sinatra live. And they probably also would have loved posting a picture to Facebook to celebrate their triumphant moment meeting their idol. I have a lot of negative opinions about cell phone cameras, but the power they give us to remember happy moments is undeniable. The ability to take innumerable free photos gives us so much more capacity to record the world around us. Think about how many more photos you take today than you took even 5 years ago. There is a happy medium between people who take selfies every 2 seconds, and using our cell phones to build memories. When I go see my favorite artists, I certainly snap pictures, too. Of course my cell phone camera stinks, so all my pictures come out blurry…. but hey, at least the timestamp helps me remember which blurry celebrity is which, right?


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The Annual Report (vol. 3)

2 Jan

I am someone who loves lists. I have a “to-bake” list that classifies every recipe I want to make, sorted by baked good type. I have a “San Francisco to-do” list that groups activities and restaurants by neighborhood. I have a list of chores that, let’s be honest, never gets as short as I’d like.

But my love for lists extends beyond what I should do. I also keep track of the things I already did. Not the chores- the fun stuff. I have a list of where I traveled each year, a list of what I baked, and a list of the happenings I want to remember. While it’s easy to get sucked into worrying that my to-do list is still far too long, it’s a lot nicer and healthier to reflect on the happy things I already did.

It’s become a yearly tradition for me to write an “annual report” that sums up some of my favorite memories for the year. I was inspired by a guy named Nicholas Felton who collects data on his daily life, then publishes an “annual report” for family and friends. Felton inspired me to take all these lists I was already writing, and share them with you. Felton’s own report also tracks more “mundane” activities, like minutes spent commuting or in meetings. I love the point he’s making- but I don’t track my life quite like he does, and my lists focus on the fun. Let’s take a peek at this year’s “data,” shall we?

travel chart

My travel balance tipped further to the work side this year. I got to see some friends and family during a couple of those trips, which makes being on the road a lot nicer. LA was my most frequent destination and if you combine all the Southern California destinations I visited in 2015, that’s 11 trips down to SoCal.

Baking chart

I have nothing against repeating recipes in theory… but in practice, I can only bake so often and I love trying new things. Most of the repeats are fall-ish recipes I make every year: Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bars, for example. Others are family traditions, like this Apple Crisp.

Some 2015 Fun Facts: 

  • Bakery visits mentioned in my journal: 22 
  • Times I saw my favorite local band perform: 5 (they’re called Heartwatch and you should have a listen)
  • Baton performances completed in front of thousands of people: 1
  • Friends I saw in NYC who don’t live there either: 2
  • ZZ Top Cover bands I saw in concert: 1
  • Magnitude to which I felt grateful for friends and family: as always, non-quantifiable

Now, some data about this blog. I was bummed to see I’d only written 24 posts this year. However, I started my baking blog back in May and have been splitting my attention between the two. I have so many drafts half-written for Culture Cookies- you can expect a lot of new content in 2016!

Here’s a quick look at the year’s most popular posts on Culture Cookies:

Top 5 New Posts of 2015

  1. Let Me Google That For You
  2. Digging In
  3. Off the Charts
  4. Change is in the Air
  5. Best in Class

And 1 Older Post that Technically Cracked the Top 5:

  1. Potato, Potahto (2014)

Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, debates, and shares. I love hearing from you! And now- on to 2016!

Just Wasting My Time

20 Dec

The other day we requested an Uber and the wait time said 7 minutes. “7 minutes!,” we exclaimed with profound exasperation. “Why is it so far away?!”

A few years ago, that 7 minute wait would have been a godsend. The San Francisco cab scene was tough when I first moved here. It was hard to hail them on the street, so I’d have to call a cab company directly and usually was given a wait time of ~30 minutes. An actual wait of 30 minutes meant you were lucky: sometimes they never showed up at all. I don’t really know why it was so terrible, because I didn’t have that many cab challenges back when I lived in Chicago. Still, it’s no wonder San Franciscans have so happily adapted the on-demand ride apps.

The thing is, now that we’re so thoroughly trained to expect “on-demand” service, our sense of time has shifted. We increasingly can order more instant goods and services, from manicures to groceries to package pick-up. It’s nice for so many reasons, but it’s also warping our sense of time. A 7-minute lull feels like a travesty, and injustice to our oh-so-busy and important lives.

We’ve being trained to think that every second needs to be used productively, and every action needs to be done efficiently. We feel like we’re “wasting” time when we can’t do anything with a particular sliver of moments. Think about how often you whip out your phone to “fill lulls” when you’re waiting or “not doing anything.” How often do you just stand still and WAIT for whatever it is that you need to happen- whether that’s waiting in line at the pharmacy or taking a 30-minute bus ride across town?

I’ve noticed myself much more sucked into my phone in the past year, and I am trying to stem it. I catch myself opening the Facebook app more often, reading my emails, checking the news. I’m trying to curb that, trying to curb the temptation to always be holding my phone, and always doing something.

For me, at least, I can’t blame it all on tech. I’m the queen of wanting to cram a lot into my days. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to do something, all the time. I brought books for every car ride my family took, even if it was a 10-minute ride to a restaurant nearby. Being absorbed in those books meant I wasn’t absorbed in the world around me- and I don’t think mental absence via reading is really that much better than mental absence via phone Facebooking, in the end.

I’m trying to resist the urge to cram every minute of my day with “something.” Not every moment needs to be productive, or fruitful, or “used.” In 2016 I’m challenging myself to put the phone back down, my eyes back up.

The Mighty Pen

15 Nov

Packing to move earlier this year gave me an insightful trip down memory lane. Digging through belongings, deciding what to keep- it makes you think a lot about your past and your priorities. I loved seeing old photos, souvenirs, and the like. But even the smallest, most ordinary-seeming things can inspire reflection. This time, it was a bag of pens.

20150902_092440As I cleaned out the drawers of a dresser I wasn’t keeping, I found myself overwhelmed by stacks of paper and bags of pens. When I say “bag of pens,” I mean a giant Ziploc bag stuffed with them. Probably 50 pens of the ordinary sort, plus a selection of Sharpies and some pencils in there for good measure. Some of the pens brought back specific memories, like the ones from hotels, or the one shaped like a baton, or the one I remember buying as a Disneyland souvenir back in the day.Most the pens were rather generic, though: significant for what they represented, but not that significant in themselves.

I’ve always been a writer- ever since I could write, I was scribbling short stories and poems on every piece of paper I could find. My childhood desk is still filled with the remnants of this hobby- little bits and pieces of poems, song lyrics, and reflections on life at a tender age. My current room has some of these scraps, too, but it’s a mix of travel journals and college publications rather than the fiction and poems of my youth. Over time, I’ve shifted more toward non-fiction writing in general. And I’ve also shifted toward more writing on my computer. Though I still use a pen to write the first draft of many blog posts and work presentations, ultimately everything ends up captured on this little machine, in a digital font, preserved for what we believe to be eternity- or at least until the next technology breaks through.

The bag of pens made me smile, though, for a number of reasons. I vividly remember how proud I felt when my elementary school teachers let us use pens instead of pencils. Pencils felt so juvenile: a pen felt more confident, wiser, more mature. Pencils, with their built-in erasers, suggested that you didn’t fully know what you were doing. I loved the way it felt to write with a pen, gliding over the surface of a piece of paper. It felt more real to me, more hearty, if that makes sense.

But, without its built-in eraser, it sure was messy.  A pen means messy paper, ideas crossed out with lines rather than cleanly erased. It means starting over on a new sheet of paper if your pen-scribed thoughts need to be shared with anyone else. It means trying to write as neatly as possible, so the ink doesn’t run and blur out what you’re trying to say. My personal writings from childhood are a mess of lines and crossed out words, especially the poems. I might have whipped out the White-Out or used a new sheet of paper for schoolwork, but personal writings gave me freedom to be messy.

A shift to computers meant even more editing and even more drafts. It just isn’t the same feeling, though. I switch between handwritten drafts and computer drafts these days, depending on my mood. I’m still that person who whips out a notebook and a pen on the bus, scribbling down whatever came over my mind. And I’m that person who carries a notebook in her bag when she travels to capture in-the-moment insights and ideas. But did I really need that entire bag of ~50 pens?

I ditched most of the pens when I moved. The baton pen made it, as did the Disneyland Minnie ears. A few of the “boring” pens made it, too, but only a few. The bulk of those pens never saw the light of my new apartment.

Let’s not pretend, though- in a few years’ time, I’ll likely have a whole new bag of pens, “meaningful” and “boring” alike. I think it’s just part of being a writer, and the feeling of inspiration I grab a pen in my hand, ready to tackle another blank page.

Let Me Google That For You

18 Oct

The other day I decided to search for the word “cookie” on Google. Literally: “cookie.” No context, because I just wanted to see what would come up on top. And indeed, the results surprised me a bit. There was a nutritional table off to the right side and a picture of some pretty mediocre-looking chocolate chip cookies. Down in the actual search results, though, the first two results were about browser cookies- the kind that store info on your computer. The rest of the top 10 was a mix of browser cookies, and edible cookies. That surprised me, because I just naturally think of edible cookies. But is it fair to assume that’s “natural?”

CookieWhenever we type something into that search bar, Google has to predict what we’re asking about. Sometimes the results are spot-on. Other times, there’s a disambiguation problem, a spelling problem, or just not enough information for Google to do its job correctly. Searching a generic term like “cookie” didn’t really give Google enough information to help me out. Imagine you were a non-native speaker researching for a project and all you knew is you were supposed to do a report on “cookies.” But you didn’t know what kind. How would you handle these mixed results? Would you decide to write about food, or web lingo? Have you ever seen those lists of Google auto-completes? It’s funny to see what Google expects us to say, and it’s also funny to see what people actually are searching for.

The fact that I expected to see relevant results actually points out a perspective bias. I think about edible cookies a lot more than any other sort, so I expect Google to do the same. Plus, Google has a ton of data on my search habits and browser history, so I thought maybe that’d play a factor in how the results index. But, web cookies are likely more relevant to Google’s own bread and butter. Perhaps its indexing engines take that into account when they stack the results? I’m not really sure how their system works, of course, but I’m so intrigued by how the different factors must get weighed.

I do a lot of consumer research and whenever we ask people how they look up information on a given topic, they tell us that they go Google it. Google is a wonderful and powerful tool. I use it constantly for my own market research at work. But we have to remember that even the Great Google has bias in its results. No source can ever be completely un-biased; it’s just not possible. There is always some system classifying the information, and that classification order imparts bias. Whether it’s Google telling us which kind of cookies are most important, or a news source choosing what facts to share, we always have to dig deeper. You can’t just settle for the first few answers you find- you have to try to determine if they’re really the best answers. Imagine you were researching a controversial topic and the top 5 results all claimed the same point of view. Perhaps results 6-10 rebutted this point of view entirely. But if you never clicked past #5, you might assume there was only one possible answer and walk away mis-informed.

Just for kicks, here is a fun video mocking our Google searches:

And one last thing. Wondering about this post’s title? Check out Let Me Google That For You. This is snarky, so use it wisely. But when someone asks you a silly question they could just Google in 5 seconds… this lets you tell them that. lmgtfy


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