In Defense of Food Blogging

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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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