My parents hate going out to dinner with me because I am that person. You know the one. With the camera, the lens getting the first bite of every dish the minute it hits the table.
“Are you done yet? We’re hungry!”
I usually only get five shots before the uprising takes away my subject.
But even if I’m annoying my parents, at least I can defend myself by pointing to other tables. It’s no longer uncommon to walk into a restaurant and see people at several tables holding smartphones, or even Nikons, over their plates. The fruit of their blogging, Instagramming, Facebooking and Yelping labors floods the Internet with personal dining experiences.
For the professionals who write about food, where is their genre of writing going? What used to be a revered position at a newspaper has become significantly more uncertain. The days of the anonymous food critic are slowly fading; in the past several years, Pat Bruno of the Chicago Sun-Times, Gael Greene, longtime restaurant critic for Crain’s and Robert Sietsema, 20-year Village Voice critic — all beacons in the field of food writing — have been let go. People don’t just want ambiance, they crave flavors, too. We’ve traded the fine dining experience for the next trendy place. And with outlets such as Yelp in our radar, who is to be trusted?
“Food has gone from something a few people paid attention to, to something lots of people pay attention to,” said Phil Vettel, food critic at the Chicago Tribune. Writing about food for over 20 years, Vettel has seen the food culture paradigm shift firsthand.
“In the old days I would get requests for a restaurant suggestion, usually based on fashion [clothing] choices.” These days, he says, people “are much more food specific… what’s new and hot right now, that’s really killing it in the kitchen. People’s decisions on where to dine are more food-based than before.”
How did we get here?
There has been an explosion in the popularity of the social aspects of food and food writing due to our paradoxical relationship with food: people want to eat, even if sometimes it’s not the best for our waistlines. Cooking, talking about food, growing it, sharing it with others, this is increasingly how our society has come to express itself. Sustenance, in other words, is turning into a movement.
“The culture at large continues to be obsessed with food and there is a huge appetite for this kind of thing, not just print, but in television,” says Mike Sula, the Chicago Reader’s lead food critic. “Food Network is incredibly popular and successful.”
John T. Edge, a writer covering the foodways of the American South for the New York Times and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, sees more than popularity in the increased focus on food.
“I think what’s happened in the past 10 years is that food has matured and has become more recently politicized,” Edge said. “A whole new generation of kids are coming up and there is a generational divide. I think (the young adult) generation has taken on food as its social conscience and being of expression — (what) rock n’ roll was for a previous generation… I think the politicization of food has changed the marketplace of ideas about food.”
The problem with Yelp
Yelp, a crowd-sourced rating and review guide to shopping, dining and more, has grown exponentially since it was founded in 2004. In January of 2013, Yelp saw 100 million unique users visit the website, (up from 71 million a year before), not to mention an additional 9.4 million unique visitors via mobile devices.
But the marketplace of ideas leaves much to be desired in the eyes of the professional food writer.
“You have a glowing review or you have a slam, but who wrote it?” Vettel said. “Who is kleeko4591? Is that the chef’s mom? An investor in the place? Who is that person? Is that one of those people who tells everyone that they’re reviewers and tries to get discounts or free meals? You just don’t know who you’re talking to.”
The problem with Yelp, many food writers say, is the impossibility of distinguishing who is writing what in a sea of anonymously aggregated ratings and reviews — and what kind of value system and experience they bring to the enterprise.
“Everybody can write about food, which is fine — very democratic,” said Fabio Parasecoli, Coordinator of Food Studies at New York University and author of Bite Me! Food and Pop Culture. “But at the same time, the general public cannot filter who’s writing and for what goals.”
Vettel concurs, citing reviews on Yelp that are shaped by idiosyncratic concerns. “You find these folks overly concerned about how fast your water glassed got refilled. Does anybody choose a restaurant based on how quickly you can get a glass of water? I’ve yet to see anyone die of thirst in a restaurant.”
Still, social media is becoming a larger part of how we experience food. Meals can now be shared with physically distant friends via a single click.
“The basic function remains the same: Be a consumer advocate and tell people where to get great food,” Kevin Pang, a Chicago Tribune staff writer and “Cheap Eats” columnist, said. “The medium of delivering this information has changed, though. Now it’s now longer in print, but via Instagram photos thru Twitter. Still, there’s nothing like the gravitas of holding a newspaper restaurant review.”
Despite some critics’ low opinions, Yelp does serve a purpose to discerning readers.
“Among people who read closely, it’s made quite clear the difference between honest, thoughtful criticism and somebody upchucking all over the page,” Edge said. “If you filter any sort of online commentary about food or anything else, you can see patterns and recognize the possibility of good food and an interesting story by way of Yelp.”
Edge also cites Yelp as a useful anti-example. “If we’re exposed to more criticism now by way of Yelp, I hope it helps people realize what food criticism is,” Edge said. “Where do you get more useful, thoughtful information?
What can we expect next?
Because of Yelp’s ubiquity and the surge of interest in food, writers, chefs and bloggers are going a step beyond just writing about how it tastes and how it’s made. We’re now seeing a rise in niche cookbooks, blogs, websites, columns and books.
“The best part about where food writing is heading is the incredible specialization,” said Pang. “There is a blog out called Waffelizer, and it’s just a guy seeing what sort of food besides waffles that he can make in a waffle iron. There are sites out there specializing in Northern Thai cuisine. Essentially, we’re seeing more experts out there tackling specific areas of food.”
The specialization of food writing has also seen a shift in topics, moving beyond the food itself, to the processes behind it, the impact it has on our planet and the people who make it.
Parasecoli identifies three fundamental realms of food writing. The first and most familiar is “all about chefs and celebrity and ingredients… Then there is the food writing at the New York Times about new restaurants, trends, ingredients and recipes.” Parasecoli’s last category “is about issues, like sustainability and local food… So this is one of the interesting things, there is a third food writing world that is growing – the academic world.”
“For the longest time, we didn’t value the men and women who cooked or raised or served our food,” Edge said. “For the most part they were women and/or ‘other’ in the south, meaning blacks and in other parts of the country, immigrants, somehow other lesser classes. Food was stigmatized in that way and people who work in the world of food were stigmatized in that way.”
Still, social media has dissipated the influence of professional food critics and writers.
Vettel, revealing a trace of nostalgia, comments that “there are a lot of opinions out there which sort of blunts the opinion of one food critic. I don’t know how many say whether this guy or woman can make or break a place, there are so many influencers out there.”
Brett Martin, a correspondent for GQ, thinks that social media has already revealed its basic ecosystem — enormous amounts of chatter hiding some gems — and will continue to assert itself more as time goes on. Regardless, Martin believes that “the technology … doesn’t kill the need for educated, authoritative experienced voices.”
Ultimately, the shape of future food journalism is something we will discover when the future arrives. But there’s one thing that the experts, bloggers and anonymous armies of Yelp have already proven — whatever comes, it will be built on the love of food.
“I hope and think our appreciation and understanding of food matures,” Edge said. “Food’s serious stuff…the popular cognizance of foodie-ism will pass, but I think our relationship with food and our understanding of food as a cultural and political construct will continue to mature. It’s progress, we’re not going to hit some peak.”
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