Cook's Shelf: A Little Weekend Reading

Craig Claiborne, the man who started it all. Kinda.
For those of you out there in Blog-O-Land who actually care about the form and function of restaurant criticism and food writing (and if the lively back-and-forth in the various comments sections is any indication, there are a lot of you), I offer this excellent bit of lore and futurism to digest over your weekend lattes and dim sum.

In the January/February edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, my fellow critic from the Village Voice, Robert Sietsema, offers up a quick and comprehensive history of modern restaurant criticism called "Everyone Eats...", harkening back to the on-again/off-again 30-year tenure of Craig Claiborne (who more or less laid down the standards for the professional and ethical behavior of critics at work and, in just a few deft edicts, laid down what stands today as the only rulebook that matters) at the New York Times, following the progression of the form on through Gael Greene, Mimi Sheraton, Bryan Miller, Ruth Reichl, making brief detours into his own career and those that followed Saint Ruth, and then looking at the jungle of modern restaurant criticism in the age of the food blog, the Yelp-er and Danyelle Freeman (Restaurant Girl to those in the know, now ex of the New York Daily News and the least anonymous critic ever).

It's a fascinating piece, encompasses decades worth of history and innovation, steps rather lightly over some of the controversy (both legal and literary) that tends to dog critics wherever they go, but digs in deep when it comes to the modern stand-off between the old guard of paid, thoughtful, (arguably) experienced staff critics at newspapers with their support staff of editors and expense accounts, closets full of wigs and ascots, and those working out there in the world without a net: the legion of self-appointed food bloggers, amateur critics and anonymous screechers who fill the pages of Yelp and Urban Spoon with their thoughts on everything from the temperature of the dining room to the authenticity of the soup dumplings.

"In the half century since Craig Claiborne developed his reviewing system," Sietsema writes, "the nation's attitude toward food has changed profoundly. Eating in restaurants has gone from being an infrequent occurrence for most people to being a primary form of entertainment. The marketplace is filled with new food, more food, and more-expensive food, and eating has become a preoccupation for the millions who consider themselves foodies. Many patrons no longer want to become regulars at one or two restaurants--they'd rather sample the vast smorgasbord the city offers, and many consider being the first to reach a new place a preferment. This behavior is creating a boom-and-bust cycle for restaurants, in which novelty and buzz is valued above excellence."

And oh, baby, am I with him there. Do I yearn for the good old days when even a city like Manhattan had only a handful of quote/unquote fine restaurants--destinations for the swells and places that regular folk were lucky to see the inside of once in their lives? Not more than once or twice a year when, sick to death of fusion menus, unprofessional service and PR firms that trumpet every half-bright cheeseburger-flipper as the new incarnation of Vatel, I retreat back to one of these temples of haute and remind myself of the way people ate when my grandparents were young--in jackets and ties, with French service and heavy silver, in a room as gilt as the court of Louis the XIV. The rest of the time, though, I am happy to hunker down in front of a bowl of pho in the morning, have sashimi and barbecue for lunch, then eat foam and lasers for dinner. The restaurant world as it is today offers no end of amusement for those with their sense of irony and hubris intact. And I agree wholeheartedly that one of the major problems caused by the advent of the instantaneous blog-broadside is a "boom-and-bust cycle" of Ouroboros hipness, with new restaurants burning out so fast that, metaphorically speaking, chefs might just as well start serving their young on the tasting menu. I generally exempt myself from that game--being more concerned with catching a restaurant when it is operating as close to its vision as possible rather than simply being the first to get a word in--so I'm not overly concerned with how all this virtual line-jumping affects my reviews. But in terms of this here blog? Yeah, we're down in the mosh pit along with everyone else. And I'm not always happy about that.

"More than ever," Sietsema continues, "diners could use a reliable critical guide. But where once there were a few dependable voices who reviewed restaurants based on a common set of professional standards and strategies, there is now a digital free-for-all. As with many things on the Web, this profusion of voices is often touted as a wondrous blow for democracy, a long-overdue rising up of the masses against the elitist overlords of the culinary realm. Thus the runaway popularity of sites like Chowhound and Yelp, which publishes city-specific reviews by anyone who cares to weigh in on everything from restaurants to churches, and whose motto is "Real People. Real Reviews." I'm all for everyone having his or her say, but when it comes to cultural criticism there is a strong case to be made for professionalism and expertise. As the eminent film critic Richard Schickel wrote in 2007, in response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: "Criticism--and its humble cousin, reviewing--is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions?.?.?.?.?It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities."

This is where I start to have issues with Sietsema's piece--in his (or Schickel's) notion of critical elitism and the value of a single critical voice. Elitism in general makes me itchy. The idea of one man ruling by inarguable fiat smacks of terrible arrogance and the kind of single-minded assholery that branded former NYT critic Bryan Miller something of a dick in the eyes of a lot of modern critics (myself included) when he got all mouthy about Ruth Reichl deigning to review Chinese noodle shops and other ethnic restaurants in the august pages of the Times dining section and claiming that she was destroying the system that he and his predecessors had labored so hard to create.

To my mind, one voice is good. Ten voices are better. A hundred voices begins to get a bit cacophonous, but I trust in the discriminating eye of the modern media consumer to be able to separate the good from the bad and the self-serving. Does Yelp have an issue with restaurants writing their own glowing reviews (or getting twenty of their biggest fans to flood the reviews section with mash notes)? Yes. But I don't think anyone out there is surprised by that revelation. Do unpaid food bloggers doing it out of nothing but love and hunger operate without editors, without budgets, without (in many cases) the kind of ethical standards applied to their paid brethern? Yes. But again, some of those bloggers are awesome anyway. Granted, some of them also seem to only have a vague understanding of how the English language operates and even less familiarity with the industry that they're writing about. But in the vast, virtual boomtown of Blog-O-Land, talent will out. Just like they did back in the days of arm garters, green visors and hats with those little PRESS tags stuck in them, audiences will gravitate to those organs of information that they like and trust. It's just that, today, the digital smorgasbord is a million times larger and competition that much more fierce.

I believe in voices, not just information. In strong, considered opinion and the occasional artistic ass-kicking, not speed and snap-judgment alone. I also happen to believe in accuracy, spelling names right and the comforting safety net of having a good copy editor and proofreader watching my back. But trust me: finding the correct balance between blog content and formal criticism, news and opinion, is something that all journalists (food journalists in particular, accredited or no) are working on. None of us have gotten it right just yet. But we think about it a lot. Then we talk about it. Then we drink. Then we think and talk some more. I have spent more time in meetings in my last two years as a working food writer than I did in the entire eight years that came before, and you wanna know what almost every single one of them was about? Voice versus information. News versus opinion. Blog versus print.

You want a rote recitation of the menu, the prices and noise level in the dining room of your favorite eatery? Go to Yelp, and god be with you. You have a local blogger you love and trust better than your own mother? Good for you. I am four-square in favor of the democratizing effect of the web and its vast panoply of cranks and weirdoes. But remember this: experience and ethics still count for something. A good food writer or critic who lives and breathes his job, who is dedicated to finding all the best and worst in a given scene, who operates under some version of the rules laid down by Claiborne so long ago and approaches every line he writes with the understanding that he is a voice for the community not of the industry is never going to be replaced by some blog-writing robot, PR fluffer or industry whore. Critics, when at their best, are less the elites posited above than the angry loners, hobbling from buffet to to prix fixe, anonymously shuffling along, buried in the public that they write for. We are the Everyman, the Travis Bickles of the food world, unspecial and unallied. The best of us write as such. But no matter how available the technology, how popular the form or how accessible the medium, not every man can be a critic.

Not that it stops every man from trying, of course.

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