rumination 17: on being a blogger…

Until September of this year, I remained ulterior, or, as ulterior as possible.

I explained why in an interview with Eater.

But, I’ve not really shared my thoughts on blogging and being a blogger here. I pause briefly to do so.

I started this blog as an online journal of my eating life. It was and, to a large extent, remains nothing more than that.

This blog is not about me. It is about the food I eat, and the people and places that make it worth remembering, which is why my identity wasn’t (and isn’t) important.

Although I’ve been told by others that I’m not a shy person, I’m not particularly a public person either. I admit that it was naïve of me to put myself on the internet thinking that I could maintain a short leash on privacy simply by hiding my name and face. But, realize that I began blogging as a law school student, under the eye of potential employers. Even if my anonymity would eventually meet an end, I viewed it as a necessity at the time.

Ironically, anonymity only fueled the curiosity and craziness of the internet. As I told Eater, in my eight years of blogging, I’ve received everything from innocuous, if not charming invitations to dinner at strangers’ homes to disturbing messages soliciting marriage, sex, and a few threatening death. While I’m sure that cyberstalking isn’t uncommon to bloggers, I seemed to have attracted an unusually high amount of attention, which I can only attribute to my anonymity, and which only strengthened my resolve to remain hidden.

Eating out as much as I do, especially with a camera, it’s hard to avoid attention or recognition. And, when you love something, it’s hard to keep a distance. So, although I resisted contact with others, defiant at first, it was inevitable that I would eventually befriend people in the food and beverage industry, as well as fellow food enthusiasts. I’m glad I did; many of them have become close friends and have enriched my life tremendously.

But, slowly, my anonymity wore thin. And so did my resolve to remain hermetically sealed from the community that gave me so much happiness otherwise. Regardless, I marched on, even if behind a threadless veil, until I quit my job in January of this year. With that last reason for maintaining my anonymity gone, I decided to fold my cards and quit the charade.

Little changes, however. I still write this blog for the love of the food, to share with you where and what I’ve been eating. I make no profit from your clicks (directly, anyway, as pim insists; she is right). And I don’t expect fame or camera crews to arrive on my doorstep anytime soon.

But perhaps my role as a blogger is changing. Beyond restaurant meals, there are important issues in food that intrigue and inspire me, trends to challenge, artisans to champion, people to move. I will always write about food, but perhaps there are ancillary subjects that I could explore as well, including the thoughts I share here about food bloggers and blogging.

On legitimacy…

I hate the label “blogger.”

The stereotypes are horrifying, the implications are embarrassing. Blogs are written by dilettantes, groupies, and self-promoters, right? Like a plague, they’ve infected and rotted the internet with bad writing, inaccurate claims, and sensationalist junk.

Yet, we read them. And, ultimately, that is what I am – a blogger.

It is ironic that, in an age when electronic media threatens to bankrupt print media, being published in print remains the primary avenue to legitimacy. Your opinion matters more if your name appears on paper. And one of the primary reasons for this, my friend John Sconzo, a doctor and blogger, keenly observes, is that print media has “peer review.” Gatekeepers, like editors, copywriters, agents, experts on the subject at hand, and those in the print industry vet what is published, printing only what they deem worth reading. And, we trust them.

But, the internet is the great equalizer of our time, isn’t it? A nobody in everyday life can now be widely read online. That’s both an exciting and scary thought.

And, like it or not, blogs have an increasing influence on our world. Although it’s happening slowly, blogs are becoming recognized as a legitimate and important – and often, the most immediate – source of information.

While I didn’t exclude the possibility of accruing an audience, I never imagined my blog would get the amount of attention that it has.

Even still, this is far from the most popular, or the most-visited food-related blog on the internet. Like its audience, its focus is quite specific, its scope rather narrow. This is a cult blog, with a cult following.

I have always approached my writing from the standpoint of a consumer advocate, unafraid to tell the good and the bad. The ulterior epicure was intended as resource for people interested in restaurant dining. But a critic I am not, and have never claimed to be. Very few of my “reviews” are legitimately so. Most of them are nothing more than a recap of one meal, a snapshot in time rather than a dependable representation of the restaurant’s operation on a continuum. And I’ve never claimed to be an authority, on food or anything else. I am but one voice, with one opinion among millions. That is all.

Thankfully, most of the people who read this blog seem to understand this about my writing.

But I’ve discovered an increasing number of people in the food and beverage industry reading this blog, namely chefs and cooks. In fact, they may now comprise the majority of my readership. I know this because they’ve emailed me, or told me in person how much they appreciate what I do. As someone who has relatively few credentials in the food industry, this is a little unnerving and immensely humbling. Tied to their kitchens, unable to leave, they use blogs like mine as a resource and reference, a window into kitchens and a seat at tables around the world that they are unable to visit.

I tell you this not to be boastful or to mark myself as exemplary. There are many who enjoy the same, if not a wider readership and recognition than I, whose voices are more weighty and more important than mine: Ideas in Food, chuckeats, A Life Worth Eating, High End Food, and TomoStyle, just to name a few. If not me, look to one of them.

Rather, I tell you this to show how peer review is happening for blogs. People in the food and beverage industry are reaching out to bloggers for press, relying on them for information, and working with them to create new dining experiences. Print media cite blogs, and even hand out awards to them. And, among bloggers, we refer to each other, vet each other, legitimize each other.

But more importantly, I tell you this to emphasize how careful we bloggers need to be with what we write. Much has been written on blogging ethics; I’m not interested in revisiting that subject or preaching it here in detail. But keep this in mind: even if you think you’re a nobody, if you’re on the internet, you’re somebody. Even if you don’t think people are reading your blog, they are. And you never know who is reading. That’s both an exciting and scary thought, isn’t it?

I had a hard time believing this about my blog (I still do), unwilling and scared to know the reach it had. But I was recently shaken to the reality and gravity of the situation when I was notified that a chef of a rather high-profile restaurant was forced by management to clear out a good portion of the kitchen’s provisions, thereby loosing a significant amount of revenue, based on something I wrote.

Given the reputation and level of professionalism of this chef, I thought that the management had overreacted – there’s no way anything in that kitchen could have been less than pristine. With my tail between my legs, I quickly contacted the chef to apologize for the grief I had caused. Thankfully, my apology was generously accepted.

It is true that unreasonable and irrational reactions by others are beyond our control. But this incident awakened me to the fact that my words have consequences, and that I needed to be more vigilant and more careful about what I write and how I write it, even if what I have to say is “ethical.”

I never imagined (and I still have a hard time truly believing) that my blog, which I’ve always considered to be a scrapbook, a cut-and-paste operation without legitimacy or authority, could be a useful resource to those whom I consider authorities in their field. Knowing this is gratifying beyond words.

I can continue being ashamed of my class and calling, or I can try to change behaviors and perception.

If we, bloggers, are to be taken seriously, if we are to overcome our stereotypes, if our opinions are to be traded as a valued commodity, if we are not to be viewed and treated as bastard journalists, then we cannot afford to be flippant.

The pen is mightier than the sword. We must use it responsibly.

On special treatment…

The other day, Eater referred to me as “blogger royalty.” I presume this amusing and rather impotent coronation resulted from the increasing amount of special treatment that I’ve been given in restaurants lately.

Honestly, this embarrasses me.

I know that no one is accusing me of soliciting or demanding special treatment. But just to be clear: I don’t invite it, and neither do I encourage it. As a consumer advocate, how can I be trusted when I’m not eating what everyone else is eating? Who am I to be singled out and treated differently?

Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t let it happen sometimes. How do you refuse generosity without sounding ungrateful? So, when it does happen, I try to compensate accordingly.

I don’t dine to be noticed. If I did, I would have broadcasted my name on this blog long ago, publish my dining itinerary well in advance of my travels, and mark my reservations, as I’ve heard some do. In fact, I often go to unusual lengths (some of my friends might characterize it as paranoia) to ensure that I’m not noticed. Even before I ended my anonymity, I made reservations under friends’ names. I still do sometimes, including at bluestem, where I have no reason to hide my identity (from my co-authors). Of course, I do want good service, and it’s always nice to be welcomed and approached by friends who work in restaurants when I’m there, but excessive fawning and fussing suits me not at all. There is a difference between genuine hospitality and sycophantic superficiality, and I know it when I see it. It not only cheapens the experience, but it is distracting.

Of course, some have no problem with giving and getting special treatment, including free meals, in exchange for favorable press. But I do, and I’d like to think that I’m usually pretty good about identifying and avoiding these situations. When they’re unavoidable, I either don’t write about the experience, or I disclaim the situation. This also applies to situations where I know I’ve been given extraordinary attention or exception.

Interestingly, I recently had conversations with two chefs who have two very different, but valid outlooks on this issue.

One of them took the stance that treating bloggers and members of the press favorably only creates false expectations among the public. The fear is that people reading blogs like mine will expect the same level of attention and the same amount or type of food that bloggers, like me, often receive, even though its unlikely to happen. It also adds undue pressure on the restaurant’s staff to outperform itself when “notable” diners pass through.

This is a very valid point, one against which I have no objections.

In fact, as an egalitarian and consumer advocate, I applaud this chef’s principled approach. From a business standpoint, it’s practical and correct. It’s simple. It’s clear-cut. It’s fair. And if it helps this chef and his staff maintain a high level of consistency, then I’m all for it.

The other chef took a very different approach, one that I find more common.

Chefs are artists. And artists are enthused to find likeminded thinkers who appreciate their passion and work, who are able to give thoughtful feedback and act as a sounding board for ideas. So, when they’ve found a likeminded thinker, they want to cook their little hearts out for them. For many chefs and cooks, cooking is not just what they love to do, it’s what they need to do. Between all of the expense accounts and tourists, who pay the bills, they live to feed those who truly appreciate their craft and are willing to let them reach for their full potential. As an artist, I understand this.

To this chef, special treatment is merely an expression of his desire to feed and please those who appreciate what he does. And he finds no shame or complication in doing so. It is an altruistic symbiosis between artist and audience, chef and diner, whereby each feeds the other.

But some remain rightfully suspicious. We are all emotional beings, and special treatment of any kind is more likely to elicit a positive reaction on the receiving end. I know this, and I try to guard myself constantly against the slippery slope that favor and attention offers, one that must be railed and roped tightly.

I am not a machine, my world is not black and white. Thankfully, mine is a world full of colors, flavors and textures. Even if I could shut down my emotions and evaluate experiences in complete objectivity, I wouldn’t want to, and least of all with food. And I don’t think people would want to read about my experiences in that way either. So, when I am unable to clearly segregate the subjective from the objective, the only thing I can do is disclaim, disclaim, disclaim. This not only helps keep false expectations at bay, but more importantly, disclaiming extraordinary circumstances allows the reader to determine for themselves the weight of my word.

One last note on special treatment: it’s not alway as “special” as it seems.

I know that I’ve taken on a reputation for only appearing in high-end restaurants (even though that’s not the case). Multiple courses, if not extraordinary courses, are expected of me. Yet, despite what many may think, getting tricked-out tasting menus, with countless courses doesn’t always increase the pleasure of a dining experience. More is, often, just that: more. And, when chefs try to impress, they’re often tempted to venture into uncharted territory. And things can go awry in uncharted territory.

Frills and theatrics quickly lose their appeal, cosmetic surgery never lasts. What I value the most, and what stays with me the longest, is food that is thoughtful, confident, and above all, well-executed. If story and length can be included without compromising the quality, all the better. A meal that includes these things will surely be special, regardless of how it compares with others.

On blogtography…
A knife can be a tool or a weapon. A camera is no different.

This is the one aspect of blogging on which I have commented before. I really have nothing more to add.

~ by ulterior epicure on December 3, 2011.

16 Responses to “rumination 17: on being a blogger…”

  1. I enjoyed this post and the perspective you have as a writer, eater and enthusiast of taste…even if you are indeed a blogger. I share many of these thoughts and views from the chef’s standpoint…I write a food blog about cooking, my cuisine and philosophies, and yes, anonymous as well. I have contemplated this aspect and topic many times and still stand true to many fo the thinsg you have expounded upon within this post. I just wanted to say thank you and congratualations on your accomplishments of your blog thus far! Looking forward to reading more in the future.

  2. The world is a stage and all the men and women are merely players. – WS.

    This post is heartfelt and honest. Much needed to life.

  3. I did not discover your blog too long ago but I was, like others, intrigued with the anonymity. So intrigued that I dug around enough to find out more about you mainly because of a bet with someone who was convinced you were a woman; my sense was a man. I started blogging myself nearly 2 years ago. I detest the word blogger a little less than I hate foodie. And yet I wear that label whether I want to or not. I am a lawyer, a mother, a writer, an educated eater, a skilled cook who is beating her head against the wall of the blogosphere- half fighting to get my work in print, half embracing it to rip some of its benefits, always conflicted about my place in it. Thank you for sharing and congrats on the recent accomplishments!

  4. Boo hoo. You’ve got it tough.

  5. @Bill Morris, @BakeAnything, and @FrenchPressMemos: Thanks for your kind words! Keep blogging!

    @Steve: Well, I certainly wasn’t asking for any pity.

  6. I’ve been an avid reader for sometime now, and beyond the skilled writing and beautiful photographs I’ve always appreciated your honesty.

    I’m glad the anonymity ended for your sake, thereby allowing you to interact more freely with people who share the same passions.

    Thanks for continually sharing, and entertaining. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading.

  7. If you are confused at why you have been so successful you need to look no further than intention. Your intentions to be a consumer advocate have rang true in this forum; they are real and authentic and we, the audience, can tell the difference. THAT is why what you have done here is so amazing. And THAT, my friend, is why you will continue to soar.

  8. What a load of self justifying bullshit..and I’m not jealous of all your eight zillion courses… I find most of what you write about ridiculous, jerk-off food writing anyway. I mean let’s face it, who but for a very small minority, who wants to sup some stupid foam with a pairing of whatever and go, “oh wow!” .but hey, I try to keep my mind open… I’m just real curious how you could afford all those meals after quitting your job without getting comped???

  9. @Shannon: Thank you. We’ve come a long way since hairspray, rolled jeans, and penny loafers, haven’t we? Keep blogging!

    @David Pierson: And yet you keep reading and commenting on this blog. I simply can’t figure you out.

  10. Word

  11. I’m a recent reader of yours, having only found your blog a few months ago, and I think that this piece, as well as your others, are intelligently and beautifully written. I’ve also recently started a blog myself because I am working towards my Masters degree in Food Studies with a concentration in writing and communication, and I figured it was good for me to have “something” out there to polish my writing and journal my thoughts. I look to bloggers (whether or not we like that term, there it is) and writers like you for inspiration and mentoring, of sorts. Thank you for your thoughts on this, as it puts things into perspective for a novice blogger.

  12. “This blog is not about me.” I see this as a very strong instance of paralipsis. I don’t think your blog is or ever was an intentionally or overtly egotistic project, but the screen of anonymity never absolved you from a charge of ego-centrism. If anything, anonymity creates the mystery of identity and draws attention to the personality underwriting the anonymous figure. Similarly, in this post you say “This blog is not about me” and proceed to talk about yourself for a thousand words or so. Not that that’s a bad thing, but something you should be aware of–it’s impossible to escape the trap of public discourse as a generation of public figure.

  13. Outstanding piece, though I’ll disagree on one point. This blog is very much about you. Yes, it’s in a meal-chronicle style, but one of my favorite parts of reading a blog is that everyone has their own perspective, and over time I learn to identify with the person’s unique view on each dish, meal, and the food world in general.

    Keep up the nice work.

  14. @collegecritic: While it’s certainly true this post has me painted all over it, as I noted in the first few paragraphs, this post is an exception, an aside from the usual business on my blog at large. You’re conflating the two. Now, as Jimmy notes, perspective is personality. I’ll agree with that. All I was trying to say with that sentence is that my perspective and personality are back-seated to those other things, about which I write, and for which this blog was created.

  15. not to be especially contrary

    but i think you’ll find your/an identity constituted, explicitly and meaningfully so, in all posts, anonymous and otherwise, on this and every blog.

    I just found the paragraph “This blog is not about me. It is about the food I eat, and the people and places that make it worth remembering, which is why my identity wasn’t (and isn’t) important.” curious, because it seems to set you up as some sort of neutral, objective observer, or at least to separate out your essential perspective from your commentary. I think it edges towards framing you as some sort of neutral, objective arbiter of taste. My main objection with what you do, which I think I’ve said elsewhere, is that you have deep commitments to certain individuals and still offer seemingly objective commentary on their food. You frequently, but sometimes imperfectly, say things like “I know x very well, they love me, I carried their third child as a surrogate, they gave me 25 extra courses, but that doesn’t reallllly color what I’m saying here too terribly much because they’re awesome.” I just don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to provide commentary from an anonymous standpoint and to frame anonymity as some sort of authorization of your criticism when you’re not actually anonymous to the chefs in question. So really, your identity is massively important, which is why I think it’s strongly paraliptic. Even if the whole ‘use anonymity as a framing device for criticism but not actually be anonymous’ thing isn’t so horrible, which it definitely isn’t and I don’t want to come across as leveling nasty accusations at you, I think it’s always important to recognize who you are and where you’re coming from when advancing commentary or criticisms. That’s one reason why New Journalism became popular, is because the reading public became disenchanted with pseudo-objective reporting that gestured at divorcing the author from the material (which is impossible). Besides the ‘he eats everywhere and is very well eaten’ argument, I don’t have a lot on you to base my understanding of your commentary/criticism, and it might be helpful to know, for instance, any interesting encounters you had in early childhood with glass eels if you’re talking about pasta with glass eels. And of course you’d tell us that, as you are wont to do, all the while telling us the blog isn’t about you, which it is, insofar as it’s about the tension between the world of your personality and the vessel of anonymity (which can’t contain the former).

  16. Appreciated your comments. Thank you for posting.

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