In Defense of Food Blogging

June 18, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

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A noted food journalist–one of my first mentors–got on the phone with me earlier this year to talk about my future. I told him that I wanted to get a regular job for a newspaper food section. What should I do? “Adam,” he said, “you’ve got to be kidding. What you’re doing right now is what most newspapers are desperate to do for themselves. Old media is on its way out. Your blog is the future!”

Since that conversation, the evidence to support his claim is overwhelming: food critics, food writers, magazine editors, seasoned journalists, cookbook authors, and even cab drivers are all getting into the game, and with fervor. Newspaper food sections are becoming less and less relevant as food blogs are becoming more and more popular. And to that I say: woohoo!

Woo-hoo because I love food blogs. I love reading them. I have about 30 food blogs bookmarked in my browser and many more that I click on throughout the day. Whereas traditional food media (The New York Times food section, for example) often feels fussy and strained, like a college roundtable discussion of “Beowulf,” food blogs feel fresh and exciting–like hanging out with a new group of friends or an old group of friends, depending on how long you’ve been reading food blogs.

And yet, Mario Batali slammed food blogs last week on Eater. In his essay Why I Hate Food Bloggers, Mario wrote: “Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web. This allows them a peculiar and nasty vocabulary that seems to be taken as truth by virtue of the fact that it has been printed somewhere.”

As many have noted in the comments of that post, what Mario seems to be ranting about isn’t so much food blogs as restaurant industry blogs that give false reports about his comings and goings (notably, the very site where his rant appears). I find his rant funny because when I met him a few months ago he said the same thing to me: that he hates food bloggers and anonymous people posting nasty reviews all over the web. “It’s the worst thing to happen to food journalism in a long time,” he told me, apparently unaware that he was speaking to the enemy.

But am I the enemy? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that food bloggers like me, who write about food and cooking and the occasional meal out, are allies of good, honest, hard-working chefs who have quality food to share and, perhaps, very few outlets in which to promote that food. David Chang, of Momofuku and Ssam Bar, is the darling of the food blog world (even Jason Kottke, not a food blogger, used his blog to rave) and I would guess that it’s a big boon to Chang’s business. Chang himself is friendly with food bloggers (check out his stuff on Eater) and his young age–he’s only 29–suggests a familiarity and comfort level with the internet that, perhaps, Mario lacks.

What food blogs offer, ultimately, is the democratization of food criticism. In Arthur Miller’s autobiography “Timebends,” the famous playwright recalls the period in 1967 when the Herald Tribune vanished and The New York Times became the sole critical force in New York theater. Miller writes:

Monopoly in anything is not only an evil but an insidious one, and there was actually a moment, in 1967, soon after the Herald Tribune vanished, when Clifton Daniel, then the Times managing editor, convoked a meeting of some hundred authors, newspeople, producers, and actors in a midtown restaurant to discuss what might be done to mitigate the paper’s awesome new power and its unhealthy, undemocratic potentialities. The Times, Daniel declared, did not create this monopoly and did not wish to hold the power it had been handed by history. After some wayward discussion, I suggested that since the nub of the issue was the danger of injustice in a single critic carrying all the immense prestige of the Times, perhaps the solution was to send two or three critics to write independent notices, maybe even on occasion asking an informed theatergoer to write his impressions of a show in a paragraph or two…. Daniel thought for a moment and said that my idea was impossible, and when I asked him his reasons, he replied, “But who would be speaking for The New York Times?”

Miller’s dream of an egalitarian system for criticism–a system that “would broaden the public’s awareness of how fictional, rather than a matter of plain fact, all criticism really is, which is to say, how subjective”–is being realized today, at least in the food world, with food blogs. Because of our varying voices, our palpable passions, and–most importantly–our lack of editorial control, we are the distant drums in the distance growing closer and closer, our torches waving, our laptops poised for posting. Mario will disagree, but I think food blogs are the best thing to happen to food journalism in a long time. To quote a friend and mentor: we are the future.

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Categories: Essays

  • http://angusindex.blogspot.com emily

    Hear hear, AG! What a prescient quote from Arthur Miller….like many things today, “establishment” pursuits like theater, real estate, food & wine, publishing, politics, etc etc are being frogmarched into a communal, accessible future thanks to the internet. It isn’t always perfect or comfortable, but that’s change, baby.

    I think Mario has a point that a plethora of soapboxes makes for a lot of shouting. But you have the longer view here — blogging is here to stay (until Twitter takes over the world, anyway). The wise entrepreneur or artist uses the tech to get closer to her customer/audience, not run away and hide. It’s a little weird that Mario complained about foodbloggers on a food blog…shouldn’t he have sent a fax? :)

  • http://angusindex.blogspot.com emily

    Hmmm, reading Mario’s piece more closely, I think his real complaint is about scurrilous gossip about his restaurants on certain food blogs. Don’t shoot (all) the messenger(s), dude…

  • http://bergus.vox.com nicholas bergus

    Let’s be careful before we start saying one medium is better than anther. I like reading the Dining section and anonymous reviews fly in the face of good sense (how an I to know if I agree with a review if I have not idea of who the reviewer is?).

    I like different media for different things.

    Blogs are great for shorter, more personal pieces. And I would hate to read a restaurant play-by-play in The Times.

    But a lot of blogs rely on traditional media for things to write about (have you read Megnut lately?).

    Even the Food Network has its good points.

    That said, online the most flexible of mediums and the future of food journalism.

  • http://nikas-culinaria.com nika

    Batali mistakes blogs for journalism.

    He and I are of the same age I believe (its not an age thing) – I get it, he needs to get the clue STAT.

    If he thinks that bloggers can be dismissed and minimized he forgets the primal quality of the food blogger – we are the CUSTOMER.

    He and other restaurateurs would do well remembering that fact.

    Will web surfers identify with Batali (I sure do not) or with cottage-industry food bloggers who have no conflict of interest and who pay their own way into Batali’s restaurants.

    The more negative press he spouts about “food bloggers” (without even caring to understand who he is criticizing) the more people will be fascinated by the “new food world order” oh I mean food blogs.

  • livetotravel

    I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.

    Edward Gibbon

    This medium has the POTENTIAL of great promise as long as there is not a tyranny of bloggers. I’m continually troubled by the “rush to be first” syndrome prevalent – and in that rush is a lot of inaccuracies and misinformation – and “trash talk.” The real test will be time – and how the consuming market adjusts to that time.

  • http://clevelandfoodie.blogspot.com/ michelle v

    I love food blogs! I trust foodie blogs when I travel just as much as word-of-mouth from friends. And I’m a huge Mario fan so I’m going to let that one slip. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. If anyone is heading to Cleveland, check out the food scene here:

    http://clevelandfoodie.blogspot.com/

  • dan

    PLEASE take the magazine food writer job, then you can be edited properly.

  • Jim

    Food blogs lack editorial oversight. MANY of them do read very pretentious and snarky. Just because one can take a decent photo of some ingredients and prepare a recipe does not mean one needs to tell the world about it. I’ve been hearing about the “death of old media” since 1995, come on. The idea that blogging is anti establishment and revolutionizing media is akin to the idea that the little girl selling lemonade on the corner is somehow sticking it to Coca-Cola.

  • Meg

    Marvelous essay. I love your “Pretentious Food Essays” just as much as your wide variety of other genres housed in this blog. Which is perhaps why this blog is so much fun — it’s not just one thing, it is several: restaurant criticism, cooking class (that is, watching an amateur in his own adventures in cooking), musical theatre, travelogue, loving family memoir, wicked commentary, etc, etc.

    Anyway, my comment is, isn’t there room for a variety of venues? Personally, I love the food section of my local paper (The Miami Herald) and have always read the food sections of my “hometown” newspapers (The Boston Globe, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, The Washington Post). I subscribe to Eating Well, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated, and Saveur. I bookmark several food blogs (and buy their books — hooray, Clotilde!), and purchase books of food writing (such as Anthony Bourdain). The more the merrier, I say!

    I agree with Dan — I’d love to see you well-edited in a food magazine!

  • zeep

    bloggers are people – people with computers… and opinions…. and since when are food bloggers anonymous? I think Mario might not be fully grokking the whole “intar-web” thing. I have much, much more to say on this topic – but the wine is going to my head at the moment. anon.

  • cigarlady

    I think chefs’ real problem w/blogs is it means that have to give good food and service to everyone and not just coddle the handful of noted food critics. Food critics get special attention whether they admit to it or not. Anyone can be a blogger. And considering how many bloggers are getting book deals, the quality of writing isn’t the issue either. I really enjoy your blog.

    P.S. a little off subject, but do you know of a mexican cooking blog, beyond the taco truck reviews? Thanks

  • http://www.silverbrowonfood.com Silverbrow

    A particularly succinct and well put argument Adam. Nice one

  • http://www.megnut.com megnut

    @ Nicholas: Lately? Ever since my site switched to food coverage full-time, a huge chunk of what I write has been links and commentary “on traditional media.” It’s much more of an overview of what’s happening online in the world of food than my thoughts on what I cooked for dinner, or the latest restaurant I visited. It’s a blog in the style of early blogs: links to other interesting things on the web. Blogging has, and will continue to have, a symbiotic relationship, with big media.

  • http://baixagastronomia.blogspot.com Mar

    It’s so funny because the other way I was talking to an ex cook (who at one point had worked at El Bulli) and when a common friend told him I was writing a food blog he made such a face… and I say funny because this guy is now working in broadcasting without any real qualifications, which is actually what I studied at college. I suppose he just didn’t see how ironic it was.

    Blogs have to offer something beyond general media (whether in personal or culinary terms) to be of any value. But if a cook believes I’m not qualified to judge his work just because I don’t have any formal credentials, he doesn’t deserve my money.

  • http://nikas-culinaria.com nika

    Mar: AMEN.

    There is this dichotomy – elitists who like to think they are the arbiters of food fashion and we consumers who actually PAY money to eat their food. We pay, we taste, we get to say what we like about it. Its pretty simple. I dont even DO restaurant reviews and here I am commenting up a storm on it. I stick to food and my experience with making it myself. Believe it or not, eating food in a restaurant is not the only authentic and superior food experience.

    I am not a personality cultist so I really have no patience for all this derivative crap around caring what a chef thinks or says. If Batali and I were having a private conversation, I would care what he had to say. But on the meta level, what “chef” says is so much more noise.

  • http://www.judithgreenwood.com/thinkonit/ Judith in Umbria

    I’m on both sides of it because although I find some pro reviewers pretentious and faddish in the use of the language, I also see some bloggers who know nothing of food having an awful lot to say about the food they eat. If they know nothing of food, and if they have never eaten celery root before, all they can really say about celery root is, “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.”

    There’s also a tendency in some to get carried away by big servings, or to not be able to see past precious presentation.

    You can adore a certain dish, but if you don’t understand the ingredients, know how it is prepared or should be prepared, you’re ill-placed to decide whether it is made better by one place versus another. Mum and her version normally has no place in this.

    I think in the end the reader has to be picky about what credence he places on every review. Fifty good reviews of a popular local dive shouldn’t make you spend your money there if the reviewers are ignorant. One bad review by a NY Times reviewer shouldn’t turn your eyes forever away from an innovative chef.

    Look at some of the stuff Jeffrey Steingarten will eat!

  • livetotravel

    One more thing I forgot to mention re “Old media is on its way out” and “newspaper food sections are becoming less and less relevant” specifically as it applies to The New York Times . . .if there has ever been a funnier more relevant article than Frank Bruni’s piece on “fat, glorious fat…” in NYC restaurants, I have yet to read it. And I think that this antiquated newspaper article may be one of the most referenced and linked to on blog/food sites I can recall – including ruhlman and Levine.

    No matter the medium, be it newspapers, radio, TV or the Internet, nothing beats great writing and great editing. If food blogs are the future there is a lot of catching up to do on those two fronts.

  • the pauper

    the best clue that blogs are the future is that places like the new york times even do blogs now.

    people mistake the word “future” for “the next monopoly.” just because blogs aren’t going to generate the same amount of revenue, it doesn’t mean it’s not the future. the fact that old media is trying to use new media to connect to new viewers is proof enough that this new medium and new content *is* the future.

    mario batali runs pretty good restaurants, and if you noticed in his rant, he basically just hates on the person who reported a rumor on his restaurant. it’s clear that batali’s stance is about his bottom line. when it hurts his revenue, he doesn’t like it. how many rave blog postings of Babbo has he complained about in the past?

  • http://chewonthat.blogspot.com Hillary

    I love this post because it addresses a lot of issues that are very close to home. I’m a recent college graduate who studied journalism (I am now at a job where food blogging is a large part of what I do) and much of what was discussed in my classes centered around convergence. Blogging, especially food blogging, creates a community feel where everyone is on the same level and able to engage. And for a journalist, that is a haven! Our job is to be the checking function of government and authority and the more equal we are, the better off the marketplace of ideas.

    Mario Batali is a chef that doesn’t want to be criticized but from a journalist’s point of view, we have every right to criticize him. But fortunately for him, at the same time, we have every right to encourage and support, and if you’ll notice, most of the time that is what we do.

    Thanks for the post!

  • St. S. Wade

    Very few food blogs or sites are like this, where the credentials and foibles of the writer are well known. That, or have processes, like Sam at B&P, who revised her process for reviewing restaurants — it’s a process very VERY few bloggers subscribe to, and if more did, I think there’d be fewer complaints from restauranteurs and chefs. If there’s one other issue at work here — and there never is only ONE issue — that hasn’t been mentioned, it’s that one has to question the legitimacy of the reviews being made on both sides, traditional print and blogs/websites alike. I have as much a hard time taking advice from Frank Bruni (who, up until taking his Times position was doing international news stories) as I do taking it from people on Chow (because frankly, self-proclaimed foodies are more often than not only tangentially connected or aware of the foods they’re eating or the establishments they’re dining at).

  • http://baixagastronomia.blogspot.com Mar

    But St. S. Wade, to me the key is not as much the real credentials as to what degree people are being honest in portraying their point of view… In much of Jeffrey Steingarten’s earlier work he plays the spiel of the common man trying to make sense out of his kitchen appliances or his visits to restaurants. One of the first things you get taught when you study journalism or broadcasting or anything of the sort is that there is no such a thing as impartiality (and then your lecturers will try to make you write as if you were impartial, but that’s entirely a different problem). What I’m trying to say here -and excuse me, as English is not my mother tongue and I may not be entirely clear- is that good writing is good writing, no matter what kind of media it comes from. Same as bad cooking is bad cooking, no matter how many stars the chef may have. Adam wrote a piece on a restaurant he couldn’t get in because its exclusive reservation policy. That post was informative, relevant, funny, opinionated and really well written and that has nothing to do with being a foodie. Having say that, it’s obvious that the better informed you are about a subject, the more interesting your prose will probably be. But blogging, in my mind, is more akin to op-ed pieces or personal literature than to hard news.

    As for the debate on “Old” and “New” media, I don’t think bloggers stop people from buying newspapers or watching cooking shows. Our perspective is quite different, same as political blogs appeal to different needs than to those served by political pages in newspapers. Just because a blog has no aspirations from a business point of view doesn’t make it any less valid.

    Sorry for the long rant! I’m off to cook!

  • http://dc365.blogspot.com DC365

    Ha! Food bloggers ARE a threat to chefs. You wanna know why? I stumbled on Orangette, then Smitten, then Tea & Cookies, you, Bake or Break…now I never go out to eat! I am inspired every day by the creative home chefs that write these blogs and have taken an increasingly obsessive interest in creating seasonal, fresh meals. Much to the detriment of my own blog, for which eating out used to be something I wrote about fairly frequently…

  • http://www.missginsu.com missginsu

    (Assembling my tiny soap box…)

    As much as I believe in striving for the well-turned phrase and the elegantly carved tale, I believe that self-publishing (whether it be in the form of a zine, a blog, a website or a good, old-fashioned pamphleteering campaign) is the antidote for a kind of groupthink and elitism that’s almost inevitable within a large organization.

    Traditional media is advertising-driven. Much as some people enjoy a belief in press independence, magazines and newspapers are necessarily beholden to their advertising and marketing departments. There’s an inherent conservatism in that. Years ago, what major newspaper would have taken Adam Kuban up on an idea to do random daily news bits concerning nothing but pizza? That kind of narrowcasting would have been ridiculous. Yet Slice drew (and continues to draw) scads of people who wanted that very thing.

    Aside from the few blogs that rake in ad money or happen into book deals (and my congratulations to all of you), the average food blogger blogs for the pure joy of cooking, eating and sharing. We don’t get paid. We don’t get kickbacks. We don’t score any stuff. We usually lose money (when you figure in hosting fees), reap a fair amount of mockery and, as the AG noted, encounter sour faces.

    Yes, blogging suffers from a lack of sharp-eyed editing, but it’s also able to offer a venue for passion-driven extemporaneous expression by anyone with a keyboard and an internet hookup. That kind of freedom ain’t always pretty, but it offers a cure for stagnation and maybe even a strong attempt at that whole “marketplace of ideas” concept. Mmm… hot, fresh ideas.

  • SilverlakeGirl

    Way to go, Adam!

  • drbehavior

    When Mr. Batali suggests that people writing Blogs have the relative luxury of anonymity so that they can ‘spout’ vituperative comments without fear of retribution, I wonder if he’s forgotten the days when many newspaper food critics practiced there craft anonymously.

  • http://elegantsufficiency.typepad.com SW

    As both a food blogger and a newspaper staffer who used to write restaurant reviews for my paper (don’t do it anymore because I found that reviewing them took all the pleasure away from eating at them), I can see a number of issues here.

    For all of the personality and irreverence and humour that blogs might offer, for all of their anti-elitism and the “democratisation” of food media they might allow, I have read only one that sets out its code of ethics — about advertising, about accepting free gifts and products, about restaurant reviewing processes, about the re-use of other people’s recipes, about transparency.

    I’m sure there are any number of other bloggers who follow similar codes, but who’s to know? We just don’t know what their conflicts of interest are. Journalists working for a newspaper banner at least can be held to account if they transgress.

    If this unruly, democratic mob of bloggers out there — me included — wants to garner the same degree of respect that, say, a Ruth Reichl might have had as a reviewer, or a Mark Bittman might have as a food writer, they’re going to have to adopt, state and adhere to an even higher set of standards than their journalistic counterparts, at least until they become known and trusted.

    That’s not to say that newspaper reviewers are angelic. I have concerns about a ton of stuff that I see happening, but at some point, because it happens in a traditional media environment, transgressors at least can be called to account.

    Aspirational bloggers too, have to be prepared for this.

    Then there are those annoying things — accuracy, fairness, identifying sources, attribution of information. Anyone who has ever been through one journalism course will have been well and truly indoctrinated into the importance of all this — in both news reporting and op-ed/column writing. That same rigour just isn’t innate to someone who has stumbled on Typepad or Blogger… (Mind you, there are a lot of working journalists for whom its not innate either.) Of course, I’m working on the assumption that we think that those are important, good things.

    I think we just have to hope that the good bloggers, the ones who rise to the top, who have the strength of voice and character and originality, adhere to these principals and that the system, and Batali, will shake them out if they don’t.

  • http://www.mrsbadcrumble.wordpress.com mrsbadcrumble

    Personally, I don’t read restaurant reviews in the newspaper (mainly because my local newspaper wouldn’t know a good restaurant if it came up and slapped them in the face). Rather, I listen to what my friends tell me. The reason? Because I trust my friends to tell me the truth and because I know that they have good taste. IMHO food blogging is just an extension of this.

    If my city had a good food section I would read that too in the interests of gaining a rounded perspective.

    Seems to me that Mario is behind the times- very few people actually blog anonymously these days (especially now that so many are getting book deals), it is on food forums such as chowhound that anonymous vitriolic comments are most prevalent- not blogs.

  • melovefood

    Honestly, this day and age everyone is turning to the internet because everything is becoming faster and the internet is the best place to do that, such as this website I checked out called http://www.eatnet.com, where there are videos of people making food, so instead of the repeats on Food Network, you can post your own stuff. That’s why the internet is way more reliable because it’s the people we know and can trust instead of people we don’t know and think they know best.

  • http://www.syrupandtang.com Duncan

    Part of the problem is that some bloggers (especially those who do reviews) seem evangelical in their belief that they *are* the future, and that ‘old media’ is elitist/irrelevant/dead. Rubbish, of course. The future is in good, relevant writing in many media, and not in writing in a bubble. Good bloggers, such as Adam, know they are part of a bigger picture and that there are common goals and constraints.

  • Natalie

    Just recently I read a food blog where it was clear the owner of said blog was not editing any responses and I took exception to this. Apparently, on this particular blog, I was in a minority on the subject of the kind of language that is acceptable to use. It seems this blog is no holds barred.

    So, should a food or other blog owner, who invites sponsors to advertise or link to his site, raise the bar or lower it by virtue of the posts and comments that are on his/her site?

  • http://www.obsessionwithfood.com Derrick Schneider

    Natalie,

    I’d be surprised to know that there are bloggers out there who edit reader comments. Block/delete/mark as spam/ignore, sure, but editing their content? It seems unlikely.

    I have a pretty liberal comments policy (unofficial, since I almost never have to use it), and my readers are welcome to use whatever language they like, as long as it’s not an attack on another reader. I imagine most bloggers have similar policies. I will only delete comments that are blatant ads unrelated to the post’s content. In the whole lifetime of OWF, I’ve had to do that about 10 times.

    St. S. Wade,

    Actually, lots of bloggers have official policies posted. Sam inspired a bunch of us (I would communicate mine to any PR person who wrote me before that), but even before then, I know of a number of food blogs that had official policies on samples and so forth. Alder at vinography.com leaps to mind; Lenn at lenndevours, too, I think.

  • http://www.syrupandtang.com Duncan

    @Derrick Schneider and Natalie – I guess it depends what sort of atmosphere and, um, style one wants to promote. My site is in its early days, but I decided to tone down one well intentioned comment which was too risqué – I don’t want prospective readers to be offended by a random comment.

  • http://www.beansandcaviar.blogspot.com BC

    Perhaps snarky blogg rage is like road rage – an anonymous way to vent and feel powerful. Many of us are drivers but few of us are professional racers. There is no merit to being offended by someone who gives you the one finger salute on the highway. Shake it off and go your way … or pay attention if you’re daydreaming at the wheel.

  • http://nikas-culinaria.com nika

    In my book, editing someone’s comments is a fantastically major no-no.

    Its just simply unethical.

    One can choose to moderate and not approve a certain comment but to edit it? Nope. Even the most hateful nasty comment should not be edited, it should simply not be approved.

  • gracee

    Sorry, but I think I’d have to agree with Jason Perlow on this.

    http://offthebroiler.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/im-with-mario/

    It’s difficult for me to see the credibility in your argument for pro-blogging when you are inherently partial to it. Whereas Jason takes a more objective perspective. Argue the other side, then maybe….