It's a mantra among food writers that healthy food scenes can't thrive without us. Since we don't stitch up wounds or shape young minds, we like to comfort ourselves with the conceit that we're elevating tastes and championing artistry that might otherwise go unnoticed. While my colleagues in the Association of Food Journalists value the contributions of food bloggers, I suspect many professional critics think eaters would have to subsist on bacon explosions, cupcakes, and upscale food-truck tacos if they weren't around to challenge and contextualize food trends.
What makes Portland so scary for critics intent on hanging onto their jobs is that the city's doing just fine without an Anton Ego type issuing culinary decrees. The Oregonian last year laid off its respected dining critic, and has since replaced her with a cops reporter who had washed dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Karen Brooks is still in town, writing for Portland Monthly, but the city is otherwise without a nationally known food critic. For some of Portland's working food writers, even locally known might be a stretch: I recently had lunch with a leading Portland blogger and restaurant consultant who struggled to name the critics at the various weeklies and magazines.
Portland appears to have entered the post-professional critic era, and the food scene hasn't suffered. Far from it: Judging from the edible weirdness I witnessed--including coffee liqueurs made with locally roasted beans, the nation's first all-cider bar, and food trucks on almost every block--it's flourishing.
I shouldn't be surprised that the imagined relationship between rigorous professional criticism and good food doesn't hold up. I moved here from Dallas, a city that's covered ruthlessly by established food critics, including the Dallas Morning News' Leslie Brenner, D Magazine's Nancy Nichols, and Texas Monthly's Pat Sharpe. The food there isn't any better for it.
When The Oregonian last year booted a James Beard-nominated critic from its team of contributors--"We had had some disagreement over the paper's forthcoming increased attention to restaurants in the suburbs and to chains," Roger Porter told Eater PDX at the time--the move was decried as sad and short-sighted.
I don't know Porter, who was described as the "dean of [Portland] restaurant reviewers," but I hate for anyone to lose a job. And I can't condone a paper of record's decision to prioritize chain restaurants over locally owned establishments. Yet I was still able to find some pretty phenomenal chicken wings at Pok Pok.