A Response To C. Kimball

[Last week, Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated wrote a rather nasty Op-Ed in the NYT, linking the closing of Gourmet Magazine to the proliferation of food blogs. Obviously, this hit a nerve with me, so I penned my own Op-Ed in response. I share it with you below, but recommend you read his first (click here), so you get the context.]

A few years ago, as my relatively new food blog began to gain in popularity, I turned to a mentor, John Kessler of The Atlanta Journal Constitution and asked him how I might break into mainstream food media. “Should I pitch stories to the Times? To Gourmet? Where do I start?”

Mr. Kessler’s response was surprising. “Adam,” he said, “What you’re already doing is what every newspaper and magazine is desperately trying to do, unsuccessfully. So just keep doing it and you’ll be ok.”

Years later, his prophecy proved true. With the demise of Gourmet Magazine, the bastions of old food media are scrambling to stay current; dispatching their writers, editors and recipe-testers into the blogosphere, the Twittersphere, and even the Facebookosphere, eager to latch-onto a phenomenon that threatens their sacred institutions.

As Cook’s Illustrated editor Christopher Kimball made quite clear in his own Op-Ed (“Gourmet To All That,” Oct. 9, 2009), they’re not doing so gladly. “The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up.”

The derision and condescension in this statement is baffling. Every food writer—from MFK Fisher to Ruth Reichl herself—started at the bottom and worked their way up. Kimball, at the end of his column, invokes Julia Child, a cook who didn’t start her food career until much later in life. If she’d had a blog documenting her time at Le Cordon Bleu (and maybe she would have, if she’d been born a few decades later), would Kimball complain that she hadn’t spilled enough blood in the kitchen yet? That “inexperience rarely leads to wisdom?”

It’s na├»ve to think that all food writing on the web is created equal, that the “million instant pundits” are all valued the same. The truth is that there are, indeed, an enormous number of food blogs out there, but it’s still a meritocracy: only the good ones gain traction. The most popular food blogs are popular because of their quality; in many ways, their content is better than much of what you’ll find in actual food magazines, including Kimball’s.

For example, the pictures and recipes on 101 Cookbooks and Smitten Kitchen outshine those in Bon Appetit; the lyricism and emotional honesty of Orangette and The Wednesday Chef rival pieces you’d find in the Sunday Times Magazine; and the humor of David Lebovitz and Gastropoda are a welcome antidote to the dry, bloodless writing of Cook’s Illustrated.

These food blogs represent a welcome break from institutional food writing; they are fresher, brighter and more truthful than the kind of writing Kimball mourns—writing that must pass through board rooms, across copy desks, and into editorial meetings before it’s ok-ed and printed. By the time it hits the stands, it has all the relevancy of a tomato in January.

What I will miss about Gourmet isn’t its pedigree or its ability “to coronate,” I will miss its thoughtful food writing and—more importantly—its open-armed approach to the genre. As an editor, Reichl was best loved for culling her writers from all areas, including blogs. She understood something that Kimball doesn’t; that though the medium may continue to change, cream still rises to the top. Kimball may consider the food blogosphere a “ship of fools,” but his ship is the one that’s sinking.

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