The Ethereal Community of Food Bloggers
If you read food blogs, you might not be surprised (as I was) by how charmingly written some of them are. It seems a great many misbegotten writers have found a way to revive their talent by cataloguing what they ate for dinner. And, between the recipes, many of them make interesting notes on culture, politics, and science--all food-related, naturally. No matter how pithy the blog post, it always centers around a toothsome image of the dish in question, contours caressed by delicate mood lighting.
A broader sweep of food blogs, especially those with a local focus, revealed that they brook no such thing as a casual reader. The readership is intense and opinionated, as perhaps only an online community can be. Under pseudonyms such as "Bravetart" and "Fujimama", they effuse such things as
"I want to be you when I grow up."
"OMG. Why haven't I thought to add caramelized onions to my mac and cheese?!!"
"I want to make this and add a touch of truffle oil and some sauteed chanterelles. And then I want to stuff my face."
They scold each other viciously:
"I’m glad that I’m not dumb enough to visit this rat hole!!!"
and, "Now shut up and let me eat this fluffy bunny in peace."
They compare their restaurant loyalties to religious affiliation, and their address of each other runs the gamut from "joy rising" to "moran" [sic].
As a city's food scene burgeons, so does its food writing, both professional and amateur. I formerly viewed it as ground cover, creating a carpet of legitimacy for chefs and restauranteurs to find and test their target audience. However, the recent seismic activity concerning anonymous restaurant reviewers, suggested that food writing may have a heavier hand in the community than I supposed.
One might argue whether this, or any other collection of HTML voices, constitutes community, a word that has historically indicated a material place and its resident population. But unlike online gaming, social networking, or even political stumping, the loyalties created and broken in the food writing world have an immediate impact on the material economy and culture. It's easy to scream one's opinions in block capital letters about a governmental figure; few are likely to run as his replacement when reelection rolls around.
But when merely nosing around for a lead on a good restaurant, reading a food writer's derisive pan of a local restaurant is often sufficient to dissuade you from making a visit. By keeping your money in your wallet, you are indeed the change that someone wishes to see in the world.
Similarly, a prop from a food writer can fill the reservation book of a languishing restaurant. When Los Angeles blogger MyLastBite tweets her eager anticipation for a dinner special, the restaurant is booked by 5.30. Portland blogger LemonBasil shared her enthusiasm for a local eatery's fried chicken event; the next month's event sold out.
One might expect that the opinions of professional reviewers would hold more weight than that of an amateur gourmand. Two factors have changed this, however. First, there is the quality of writing. So many minds are working 9-5 jobs that leave their creative stores untapped. Our idle brains gravitate toward what we can consume, and being both socially acceptable and cost-effective, food is the consumption of choice for untapped creative minds to breed on. Writing produced in the desperate throes of escapism is, understandably, more compelling than writing produced to meet a deadline and earn a paycheck.
The second factor turns on the issue of anonymity. Before bloggers began to propagate, professional critics enjoyed exclusive rights to the red button of commercial success. Their visits were either occasions of pomp and adulation, tokened by a surplus of waitstaff and specially created dishes, or else cloak-and-dagger missions aimed to gauge the experience an average diner might anticipate.
Neither variety of reviewer is someone that readers can relate to. From the open critic, they learn how the restaurant achieves excellence; from the anonymous critic, how the restaurant handles mediocrity. Food bloggers, on the other hand, appeal to place, to nostalgia, to the brain's limbic tissues that connect smell receptors to memory and emotion. By appealing to a basic human need, massaging their argument with visual appeal, and making fulfillment as easy as a phone call and a drive, bloggers reduce the question of their credibility to one of pure, instinctive trustworthiness. It's the Fireside Chat principle--I'm just like you; listen to me.
You can accord respect to a professional's education and experience, but it's hard to argue with the friendly voice of someone who lives and works openly in your own neighborhood, and likes to go out to eat at the same places you do. Further, in soliciting nothing more than your trust on what seems to be a negligible matter, a well-written food blog makes you feel like an activist, for simply refusing to patronize places whose pancakes or phô don't meet a reasonable standard.
In fact, you are an activist by following their lead. This is the unexpected iron fist in the velvet glove of food writing. By your choice of restaurant, you are casting a vote for or against your local economy. Did you know that? One wonders if many of these food bloggers know that, either.
LemonBasil has an admittedly food-centric blog, but considers herself a Portland blogger first of all. What started as a way to keep in touch with her parents has turned into a "one-woman PR campaign for this city." Her enjoyment of the vibrant local food scene in Portland secured a prominent place on her blog for imagery of the farmers' market and the food she enjoys at local restaurants. In turn, this resulted in relationships with local chefs, and the sparkling relationship she now enjoys with the food community has attracted the connection of not only her fellow Portlanders, but also of people around the country hungry for more than just a meal.
"By being so in love with my city, I've actually influenced people to get out into their cities and find that for themselves," she relates. "I've had people in Wisconsin, in LA, in Baltimore, say 'Wow, I want to go to my farmers' market.' All I do is have a wide-eyed love affair with Portland. I'm still in awe that people want to read that."
The search for community online may, in fact, be one of the most powerful tools that a restaurant can use. Restauranteur Jay Porter asserts that reviewers dining anonymously are perpetuating a culture of anonymity--diners coming from anonymous workplaces to eat food grown and served by anonymous people, leaving with only their stomachs full. Indeed, as much is said by a commentator on Mr. Porter's controversial blog, the Farm and the City; the commentator derides Mr. Porter's screed for suggesting "that people are coming to your restaurant to do anything other than satiate their body’s need of correcting a rapidly plummeting blood sugar level."
The choice to support any business, by spending our own money or by influencing where others spend theirs, is picketing in its most gentle and self-indulgent form. That fascinatingly short-sighted comment works as a stark negative of everything else we know a restaurant can offer a neighborhood. Even the harried commuter has, at any intersection, a handful of fast-food options to correct his rapidly plummeting blood sugar level. What stands out is not a take-out window or a full belly, but an experience so noteworthy it begs to be talked about.
Primary image courtesy Allison Jones