Pottering around the kitchen on Wednesday afternoon I heard Joanna Savill talking about restaurant reviewing on Alan Saunders’ By Design. (And so did Rita of Eating Hobart).

Savill is Co-Editor of the The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guideand has actually had dinner with a food blogger. Fancy that! But what does she mean by “a food blogger”? I transcribed the relevant bit of the interview, starting after Alan Saunders asks her if she takes notes at the table: she reacts strongly, saying no despite the fact that “half the world is a food blogger these days and people seem to be all around me taking notes and photographing and doing everything else with their meal. I think that discretion is the better part of valour“.

(Where valour comes into the role description of a restaurant reviewer is not exactly clear, but I’m snarking now.) Savill says that if she’s desperate to remember something precisely she’ll send herself a text or sit hunched in the loo scribbling into her moleskine. The conversation continues:

Alan Saunders – Yeah, well, I know people who do that [take notes at the table]. I take the view that if you and I are having dinner and I take out a notebook, well this could be a business meeting, I could be keeping notes not to do with the food.

Joanna Savill – Look, absolutely. But I can tell you I once went to dinner with a food blogger, you know people who, who, go out to restaurants and photograph it and then write all about it online, put it online, and there’s a huge community of people doing that these days, and he proceeded to photograph everything that moved in the restaurant and to take notes at the table and we had the whole restaurant galvanised. (Alan exhales!) And I was just – I wanted to hide under the table, actually, you really don’t want to stand out, that’s the bottom line.

Phil Lees of The Last Appetite opened his recent post on food blogging as Wunderkammer by saying:

More than occasionally I wonder what is food blogging and how can it continue to differ (and differentiate itself) from other media.

It’s going to be pretty hard for that differentiation to occur in the minds of food mass media professionals, it seems. It seems that they only see two kinds of food blogs – the cheese sandwich variety or sites that review restaurants but don’t need to observe the same kind of strictures that professional journalists do (other than legal ones, of course).

To me the issue is clearly one of differentiation – if it hasn’t happened already, there’s a whole taxonomy of food blogs that will make a nice thesis for someone one day. I wouldn’t mind it being me, but I can’t come up with the $27,500 that the University of Adelaide and Le Cordon Bleu charge for their Masters degree in Gastronomy. Yes, $27,500.

I do read some review-type blogs, and some recipe-type blogs, some cook-the-book blogs, some food-history blogs, some just-because-they’re-local and some smart-people-obsessed-with-food blogs. And about eighty others, from time to time. What keeps me coming back is snappy writing and a clearly considered point of view. There’s not a lot of that about in the broadsheet lifestyle inserts.

As for reviews – I almost never do them here because with two small kids I don’t eat out much. However I can offer some advice from Saturday night’s dinner at Sammy’s Kitchen in Canberra – Do Not Order the Ma Po Tofu. It’s shocking.

You can download or stream the By Design program here. Skip forward to about 43 minutes for this segment (then go back and hear about designing Orang Utan enclosures).

16 thoughts on “Metafoodblogging

  1. Zoe – great post. I don’t think traditional media are alone in the narrow-ness of their blog definition. I find most people I come across have no real idea what a blog is. Or what the possibilities are for blogs anyway. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said “I don’t read blogs” to me.

    And so our conversation ends up being about what you can do with a blog, why people read, all the different perspectives available, the many great people online. A basic blogging 101 conversation.

    The other reaction I get frequently, which I’m still trying to work out, is “I just wouldn’t have the time”. There’s a criticism in there, but also a pooh-poohing of what I’m doing – like I’m being frivolous.

    Anyway, it’s all interesting. And I think it shows there’s a long way to go with public knowledge about Web 2.0, social networking, online communities, etc, etc.

  2. I heard that – it was very sniffy. I did wonder what was behind it all, and I thought that going off to the toilet to write things in your notebook is a bit weird.

  3. As far as I can tell most bloggers are not paid, we are amateurs in the sense that we love whatever it is we choose to write about for no fiscal reward. This is why I feel the need to roll my eyes at traditional media journalists who feel so threatened by bloggers.

    If you’re a journalist of any kind, worth your salt then you have a whole range of resources, to say nothing of time, to do the kind of good work that bloggers trying to maintain a day job as well a blog often just can’t.

    If you’re a journalist who has been reduced to writing opinion because you’ve got no budget to do research and investigation, then get mad at your employer for not giving you the resources to do your job properly. We can all write an opinion, and I often think it’s the struggle over who has the right to express an opinion that fuels these traditional and new media wars.

    As far as I’m concerned there’s a place for both media because they do different things. That said, I prefer blogs, because I’ve managed to find some pretty good ones and I like what they do compared to newspapers, especially. I wouldn’t make the claim for all blogs, because it’s true that ‘blogs ain’t blogs’. Then again, ‘newspapers ain’t newspapers’ either.

  4. There’s a whole range of issues about blogging vs MSM (I hate the vs part actually… make it blogging and the MSM) that are being considered by people in both spheres as the Internet continues to shape the way we communicate with each other etc etc.

    This, I’m afraid, did not add much to that discussion.

    As someone who edits a web based publication, I deal with this bollocks from the MSM all the time. As if, by running an internet-based, regularly updated publication I am personally stealing the food from their mouths.

    Then again, someone suggested to me the other day my job could be outsourced to a “churnalist” in SE Asia and I reacted with quite some horror, so I do know from whence the angst comes.

  5. It’s fear that they’ll be found out that makes paid writers so bitchy … I find that the more I read blogs, the less I read newspapers – they’re just not as good, in so many ways

    Great post


  6. Kirsty (comment #3) sez:

    it’s the struggle over who has the right to express an opinion that fuels these traditional and new media wars

    Yes, i agree. But if its a war, its a geurilla war, with the journos as the ‘proper’ soldiers in uniform, fighting [with valour, one hopes] a force that melts into the population. Of the population of ‘bloggers’, only a few actually have a crack at the ‘real’ press, drawing attacks on the population at large. The rest of us just don’t give a stuff, glad to remember the lesson ‘sticks and stones may break our bones; words will enver hurt us’.

    And I take pix of food on plates coz it looks nice, not to draw attention to my self or pretend to be a representative of the michelin guide. (Or should that be ‘Guide Michelin’?)

    Lastly, $27k would get you a pretty good hay bailer Zoe.

  7. St33v, if it’s a war then I don’t think it’s based on anything substantial. I think the raging against bloggers by journalists (as opposed to against people who make their living from writing, publishing and editing for publications on the internet–a different kettle of fish) is based on a mis-identification of the ‘enemy’, which is in fact the very corporate structures who starve them yet they so staunchly defend.

  8. I remember seeing a nasty snark at bloggers by a food “detective” whose main output seemed to be cutting and pasting Press releases.

    Most people have opinions, some can even put them in words, others can put them in words that amuse or convince others, some of these can type, some of these can type on a blog. Some other people get paid to do this on tv, radio or newspapers.

    The MSM saves sorting time – or used to – now the quality is so bad compared to whats online that it’s rare that MSM provides better or even more entertaining analysis.

  9. well that’s the question, isn’t it? How to claim your own point of differentiation, and then keep demonstrating it, keep on song. In your own style. Repeating your strengths. How easy is it to be drawn away from the path that brought you your readers in the first place? And, apropos Sammy’s, Willa and I will abjure their style (and after-effects) in favour of Wagarama, two doors down, whose food has been great each time we’ve been there recently. And the staff are appropriately perky, and you don’t feel as if you’ve submitted yourself to a food-stuffing, eat-it-fast cultural experience… Maybe you should invite guest reviewers to your blog? First you need to check my legal professor who told me the other day that you can’t defame a company any more, only an individual. If this is true, food bloggers need to know…

  10. Yeah this MSM snarkiness comes close to getting my goat smetimes, but then i smother it in olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper and just a smidge of chilli, chuck it on the spit till it is just right and serve with unlevaned bread garlic yoghurt and salad, so if they want any they have to wait in line.

    It seems that they have forgotten that the msm is just the pale and insipid rump, prob finished on grain, of what was a vibrant and diverse set of media organs. Bunch of wosses prob don’t like offal. Back when i had to fight off the remenants of Australia’s megafauna and Joh B. P. for my bit of meat and three veg there were at least six, english language, daily papers in sydney. a generation before, at least twice that.

    I may not be a food blogger, but i have had a meal with a journo at a restaurant and they thought that they were Gandalf’s Gift to Humanity. I got to admit that i was ready to play along ’cause i was a student and they were paying. but really they are like the cheepest chicken in the supermarket cooler, not the best just the most expedient.

  11. Rating the comments, I’d say te score is:

    Bloggers: 10
    Journos: 0

    Even with a home ground advantage, I’d say they might need to sack their coach.

    [update: looks like the new Fairfax boss is keen to follow Kirk’s example of sacking journos. Maybe they will become bloggers? {fires up Les Mis soundtrack}]

  12. Excellent post – the thing that makes me smirk is when perfectly well-remunerated mainstream media journos are obliged to go and write a blog for their newspaper, just to keep with the Joneses.

    I think there is so much to be said for the food blog … much better than the faux promos you get in so much food journalism

  13. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and hesitating about commenting. The thing that keeps coming to the front of my mind is the practice of engagement, emerging from the realisation that if I sit and read words about food too long – online or onpaper – I become restless and unhappy.

    I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been blogging in one way or another for almost five years, but I feel dissatisfied to be just a consumer of information about food. When I mainly blogged about non-food things, I wrote a “why I blog” post (nearly four years ago!!!!) where the same dissatisfaction came up, which makes me think it’s a generational or constitutional issue rather than one specific to food writing. In the same way that I appreciate being able to ask questions and be taken seriously by the producers that I patronise, I don’t want information about food to be just a one-way street. I can see how that demand for engagement must be a headfuck for someone who is engaged to write about food with expectations that their expertise will set them apart from their readers.

  14. The thing that keeps coming to the front of my mind is the practice of engagement, emerging from the realisation that if I sit and read words about food too long – online or onpaper – I become restless and unhappy.

    it seems to me that one of the great cons of this urbanisation experiment that we are conducting is that we can be unengaged with our food supply. As we keep seeing contamination and blandness keep biting us on the bum. what stikes me as a little weird is that while so many of us have become unengaged with food production actors such as fast food providers, cook book publishers and food critics sell us a simulcrum of that engagement which fails to fill the vacum left left us.

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