Characteristically, food blogger Quelcy Kogel first appears in an email — easier to reach her there, or at her With the Grains blog.
"You'll arrive at a yellow brick building," she writes of her Polish Hill digs. "The address is printed on the step to the left of the corrugated metal garage door. Follow that step and walk through the long, white hallway. If you find the hallway a bit creepy, you're on the right track." After a Byzantine series of twists and turns, "you'll see a red wagon with empty wine bottles. That's my apartment. I use the door farthest from the steps. The other door leads to my laundry room."
If you enter the wrong door, the one with the torn screen, abandon all hope. You'll find paint strips hanging from the ceiling, holes in the floor — basically post-Blitz London. "My apartment," Kogel says with aplomb, "is a work in progress." In other words, de rigueur for her emerging Polish Hill neighborhood.
The correct door, appropriately enough, opens into Kogel's 1950s-style kitchen, all sink and stove and aquamarine cabinets and shelves. From there the visitor enters the adjacent dining room to join Kogel's ad hoc Sunday brunch — her weekly opportunity to try out new recipes, to chat, to reminisce about her undergraduate days.
Born in small-town Nebraska, brought up in suburban Philadelphia, voted by her family as least likely to succeed without mom, Kogel came to Carnegie Mellon University for an architecture degree. She then took a job with a CMU start-up, and worked on her appetite.
Deciding that her eating life had been far too interrupted by ephemera, Kogel blossomed in the kitchen, cooking, creating, blogging. (Withthegrains.com, now 18 months old, spiked at 2,000 hits a day.)
"My thrill is making recipes of my own," Kogel says. "I'm of the grandmother school: Add what you have, a pinch or a heap is close enough. Once one thing is on the table, start making something else. And know that nothing will ever taste the same twice."
"For now," she adds, "this is all a hobby. These are my ideas, my stories, my progress. These are my whole grains, and other aspects of me emerge from there."
Blogging and cooking, cooking and blogging, Kogel found that virtual friends and empty rooms weren't enough. "I needed people to make it worthwhile," she says.
Hence the Sunday brunches, for which Kogel is the genial, slender, soft-spoken hostess.
Sitting at the head of her second-hand metal table (red tablecloth with seeds scattered about, burlap throw atop) she announces the day's fare: nests (eggs poached with squash and corn in rounds of honey wheat bread), black forest bacon, cooked green apples and curry squash cake.
And, of course, the bubbly.
Setting her egg nests on red plates, Kogel serves her half-dozen guests, friends and friends of friends. The guests are dressed largely in high-tech chic — blue jeans and sweatshirts with a scarf or two thrown in for color.
A camera set to take photos for the blog, water poured into mason-jar glasses, local honey poised to drizzle onto the apples, and they're ready to dig in.
Good cheer rises, stories make their way around the table like passed plates. There's the CMU architecture program ("a weird environment," one veteran says). Los Angeles ("great if you're young and hip," a second woman makes a face). Emerging technologies ("it's going to be the coolest app ever!" a third gushes of a proprietary project). Increasingly overpopulated Lawrenceville ("not enough Dumpster and way too much trash," Kogel muses).
As the banter bounces back and forth, we see the future of food. It's one in which traditional cookbooks and fading yellow recipe cards are bypassed by omnipresent blogs, where the global village — democratic and decentralized, made up of real and virtual friends — gnaws all at once.
Now it's time for cake, slathered with hand-whipped cream laced with maple syrup and bourbon, every morsel savored.
Finally, the champagne. Put in the freezer for some flash-cooling, it — yuck! — explodes all over the place.
Sopping and mopping, Kogel giggles. "Does anyone want a champagne slushy?"
Well, sure: Glasses are raised in expectation of a bit of half-frozen moscato, which gurgles out in icy clumps.
By 1 p.m., it's time for the overworked, overscheduled folks to be on the road.
"We have a meeting."
As one, they rise, proffering thanks.
They promise to read the blog.
"If you have leftover cake at 5 o'clock, I'll be over to help you take care of it."