“…Reviews in newspapers and elsewhere had often been looked upon suspiciously by the dining public, seen more as a reflection of a publication’s advertising aspirations than a straightforward analysis of a restaurant’s virtures.”
That quote, from Robert Sietsema’s recent piece on food blogging in the Columbia Journalism Review was written about the state of mid 20th century journalism in the US. However, it is a pretty good critique of many newspaper and magazine reviews today (including right here in Hong Kong).
Sietsema’s piece is essential reading for anyone interested in the current debate between “journalists,” and “bloggers,” especially as it relates to restaurant reviews and food writing in general. As a lover of both good food and good writing about food, it’s a conflict I’ve been following closely.
As print journalism has struggled to maintain sales and subscriptions and repeatedly failed to implement paying models online, blogging has not only retained it’s footing, some bloggers have managed to gain access to privileges that used to be reserved for mainstream journalists. Not surprisingly, this has created a backlash – though the ferocity with which some journalists attack bloggers is, perhaps, more surprising.
In this context, I find Sietsema’s protrayal of the evolution of food writing from the mid twentieth century forward informative, but ultimately false. The kind of critical and informed food writing he champions represents only a small part of the state of culinary journalism today.
For example, I always envy the restaurant reviews in the New York Times and New York Magazine. Not because of some misplaced desire to live in that city, but because, based on my experience of living in four other global cities (Sydney, London, Delhi and Hong Kong) they represent such an unattainably high level of craft and commitment. Using that as your starting point for comparison is as unfair as pretending U2 is a typical rock band or that most people drive a new Porsche.
So, if we want to evaluate the quality of food blogging, we need to start where the rest of us live, with local and regional print media and, perhaps more tellingly, the kind of online content they provide.
Here, the picture is much less flattering as far as “professional” journalism is concerned. Many reviews feel like little more than paid advertisements and writers are frequently uncritical or ignorant about the cuisine they cover.
Moreover, as Sietsema does highlight there is a growing problem with contemporary food journalism; the trend towards treating food as fashion
“Many patrons no longer want to becime regulars at one or two restaurants – they’d rather sample the smogasbord the city offers, and many consider being the first to reach a new preferment. This behaviour is creating a boom-and-bust cycle for restaurants, in which novelty and buzz is valued above excellence.”
Today newspapers and magazines often review restaurants before they have even opened. These early reviews are usually based on specific PR/Media events (with free food thrown in) and atypical levels of service. Interestingly there is a trend for more and more food bloggers to participate in these kinds of “shows.”
This raises an interesting question though, since most food bloggers don’t review early under exceptional circumstances. They review later, once a restaurant has established itself and in conditions closer to those of the average consumer. In a way, many food bloggers now are closer to the journalistic ideal that Sietsema set out in his piece.
Sietsema concludes that any act of reviewing and criticism should be a “public service.” I agree with him on that and next week I’ll look, in a little more detail, at how food blogging can be such a public service.