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A Rant: Why “Everyone’s a Critic” Should Be Taken With an Enormous Pinch of Salt

June 20, 2011 · 28 comments

in Desserts,Gluten Free,Rants,Summer,Sweets,Vegetarian

ice cream with pink pepper sasasunakku

I don’t normally weigh in on the bloggers vs. professional food writers debate because the fact that it’s always framed as a dichotomy seems to me to make any argument pointless considering the fact that many professional food writers have their own blogs; blogs and traditional media are different and for different purposes (though obviously there is a lot of overlap) and often complementary; and that many writers who started as bloggers publish in traditional media too – not to mention that I don’t believe for a minute that one (bloggers) preclude the other (journalists). I read just as many food magazines and books as I ever did and while I suppose “the people I know” don’t constitute a sample group any scientist would take seriously, if they are anything to go by, most other people continue to do so too. Despite not wanting this to turn into an “us versus them” argument, I think because I’m responding to an article which draws that line it’s impossible not to but I’d like to make it clear at the outset that that’s not how I view the world of food writing.

pink peppercorns on sasasunakku

This poorly researched article by Elizabeth Meryment in The Australian managed to stick in my craw; in what seems to be an attempt to file her copy with the minimum of effort and thought while simultaneously creating a stir by polarising readers she trots out trite old arguments which have already been discussed elsewhere endlessly, then parrots A.A Gill who declares of blogs “I don’t read them; I would never read them… As if I have the time.” He nevertheless appears to have time to have strong opinions on them, saying “[Bloggers are] not doing it particularly well.” If he doesn’t read them, I wonder how he knows that is the case – he sounds suspiciously like a kid who “knows” he hates peas.

The fact is, I actually agree with him. In many cases, restaurant review (and other) blogs don’t do it very well but I’ve actually read a lot of them and know that there are also many that have a witty, well-informed and critical take too. Meryment quotes Australian food writer Natascha Mirosch who says that because bloggers might have their own agenda, don’t feel they are bound by the constraints of traditional media and lack transparency about whether or not their meals were paid for by the restaurant they are reviewing, it is dangerous to place trust in their opinions. My reply to this is threefold: Firstly, it’s rather ironic. Surely one of the constraints of traditional media is the onus on a journalist to do good research and know the topic they purport to be writing about – clearly not true in the case of Ms. Meryment herself. Also, the fact that bloggers are not bound by some of those constraints can make for fresh and interesting reviews. However, I also think she is comparing short order cooks to starred chefs when she does so – most well-respected bloggers wouldn’t dream of posting a review without disclosing whether the meal was complimentary. Blogging is still in its teenage-hood but attempts are being made to adhere to a code of ethics and there is plenty of discussion surrounding the topic. The whole thing also elides the fact that journalists in traditional media are also often courted by representatives of those who would have their wares promoted. Is there a person in the world who doesn’t have an agenda? If so I’ve yet to meet one. Surely no-one in this post-modern milieu still believes in the myth of objectivity.

pink pepper ice cream sprinkles sasasunakku

In an attempt to cast aspersions on the veracity of bloggers, she mentions that “among the more prominent bloggers, those with fringe experience in media or food” (italics my own) are common. As far as I’m aware, journalists don’t have to be businessmen to write about business, or politicians to cover politics. Granted, good journalists tend to specialise in one or two fields but I would argue this is the same of bloggers.

She also quotes Ed Charles “ a prominent food blogger (!) and freelance journalist” (exclamation mark my own) who claims “most people under forty haven’t heard of Marco Pierre White given he hasn’t cooked in a commercial kitchen since 1999.” This – forgive me, for I am judgemental – casts immediate doubt on his expertise for me. Most people haven’t heard of Fergus Henderson of Nose to Tail fame either, unless they are interested in food. And anyone under forty who is interested in food is just as likely to know about Marco Pierre White as Fergus Henderson.

Food bloggers run the gamut from restaurant review blogs to writers in the vein of M.F.K Fisher who write about life through food to recipe blogs, nutrition blogs and food styling and photography blogs, as well as food blogs which focus on different dietary restrictions. I resent being lumped in with restaurant review bloggers by someone who has no more than a passing acquaintance with them and obviously knows even less about food blogs in general – not because I don’t like restaurant review blogs, but in the same way I would resent someone calling me anything else I am not. I also take exception to the charge of untrustworthiness. In fact, trust is a vital currency in the online world; because I reveal so much about myself – and by extension make my “agenda” obvious – my readers trust me. As to the comment about the “handful” of bloggers who cross over into paid work – please. Bloggers who publish in magazines and books – and who are paid to write online – are legion. As a percentage of the bloggers out there they are small but no-one accuses Kobe Bryant of lacking credibility merely because lots of amateurs play basketball.

While it’s abundantly clear from Meryment’s closing comment “… you would be hard-pressed to find a newspaper journalist prepared to suck packet-stock soup, even for Marco Pierre White” where she stands on the subject of food blogs, she seems to have failed to notice that when she uses the term, she is referring only to restaurant review blogs, a small niche in the vast world of food blogs which displays a sad dearth of research as well as a certain sloppiness in her use of language – disappointing in someone who has presumably been through journalism school. But I don’t then extrapolate from that that all journalists are therefore sloppy, and therein perhaps lies the difference between our approaches.

Pink Peppercorn Sprinkles for Ice-Cream

Years ago a friend of my then-boyfriend, who had pink dreadlocks (the friend, not my boyfriend) told me about how she’d eaten crushed pink peppercorns and sugar over vanilla ice-cream somewhere in Europe. The idea appealed to me and it’s always been on my to-make list. I made it just before I left Austria but I think ice-cream in a cosy house is just as appealing for those of us in winter. It has quite a kick so you won’t want to use too much – it’s definitely a treat for adults.

1 tablespoon pink peppercorns

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until fine and stir together with the sugar. Sprinkle over good quality vanilla ice-cream. The mixture will keep in a sealed container for at least a month.

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Laura June 20, 2011 at 9:10 am

I’m still not sure why Elizabeth Meryment felt the need to attack bloggers – a lot of the most beautiful food photography is available through blogs, and blogs themselves provide the reader with a very different experience to an A.A.Gill restaurant review. I enjoy reading his reviews, for his use of the English language and obvious experience. But I don’t get close ups on each and every dish, and tips and hints about how I might be re-create the dish at home.
Thanks for your post!

Mairi @ Toast June 20, 2011 at 10:07 am

Nicely put Sasa! Sometimes it is impossible not to get completely irked by the media! Given her points, her lack of research is somewhat ironic :)

Alli June 20, 2011 at 10:55 am

Great article Sasa, perhaps Meryment is trying reverse psychology of being negative about bloggers will drive more views to her article and therefore make her look interesting ;0)
I’m amazed that anyone can be so dim to think all those bloggers reviewing restaurants out there get paid for it or receive free meals, they’d be broke if they did. I also got the impression that journalist often write and get paid about subjects favorably that they don’t particularly have much interest in even if it was a packet soup. I for one write a blog because I enjoy sharing my experiences and am not really concerned about the thoughts of someone with a controversial reputation like A.A Gill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._A._Gill

Mr Noodles June 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

Great post. From my own perspective, nothing depresses me more than when (some) professional restaurant reviewers get it wrong about Asian food in general, and Chinese cuisine in particular.

For example, since I’ve started blogging, the professionals have come out with pearls of wisdom (I’ve paraphrased) such as:

‘One thing you don’t expect the Chinese to do well is vegetables’,
‘Hunan food, which is a bit like spiced-up Cantonese’,
‘I went for the dim sum set lunch, as I don’t know the difference between many of the dumplings.’

And then there’s the critic who raved on about a restaurant being Sichuan when it fact it wasn’t but merely had some Sichuan dishes on the menu.

Sasa June 20, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Ahahaha, the last one particularly, is classic.

Rosa (a.k.a. Mrs Cake) June 20, 2011 at 11:47 am

Well said! I have always thought there is enough room in the world for all of us. I admit I read one of the blogs about the Marco Pierre-White/stock event at the time and was skeptical at how enthused the blogger was – but I wasn’t there, so can’t say how good (or not) it was. Anyway, glad to hear a well balanced view – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? ;-)

sakura June 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Hear, hear! I say anyone who’s read your blog and many other food blogs won’t doubt the enthusiasm, detail and quality of writing. Isn’t that what it’s all about? And besides, I doubt there’s anyone without some sort of an agenda, however small it is (says the voice of reason). Great rant, Sasa!

Sasa June 20, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Thanks m’dear ^_^

Alessandra June 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Well Sasa, I hope we can have a good rant soon over a coffee :-). I am a ‘professional’ food writer (in the sense that I publish and get paid to write recipes) but I am also a blogger (which means that I share some of my recipes for free) and the two mix well… like a mechanic writing about cars on a blog, and repairing them for a job, or a photographer giving tips, and at the same time showing off his/her work. Me? I just have too many recipes in my head and not enough chances to have them all published!

The difference is what you get payed for. Blogging doesn’t pay. Also blogging is spontaneous, I don’t worry about style, my photos are not from a professional, I don’t spend hours writing and editing text, I don’t have a ‘client’. Writing professionally is a completely different level, and if you will become a food writer you will find that out too.

And then there are good bloggers and good food writers, and not so good bloggers and not so good food writers. We choose who to read in the end, the same way as I choose not to listen to talk back radio or watch reality TV.

I don’t know what to think of the article really, I feel that there is a bit of ‘hostility’ there.
That always spoils dinner!

Sasa June 20, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Actually quite a few bloggers do get paid – either because they have enough traffic to warrant advertising on their blogs or because they write for online publications that pay them for articles. You’re right that it’s not so common yet in Australia and New Zealand though. See you soon! Maybe we can plot ways to fix that ;P

Alessandra June 21, 2011 at 12:05 am

It would be nice getting paid… I don’t any though (except the newspaper or company blogs, but not on ‘Blogger’ as such I know a lot who get free products and lunches, an underpayment for the amount of free publicity they can give back :-).
Also I asked some who have ad sense if they had made some money, but nobody seemed to have made enough to get the money in their bank accounts yet!

Many Italian housewives have started blogging to get free chocolate, rice, mixes and pots, some have nice blog, but others look like a supermarket shelf. I was asked to blog about a product in New Zealand for the first time a few weeks ago (in exchange for free samples and some vouchers to give away on my blog), but I declined politely. I really must like something (and know it well) to talk about it, and then I am even happy to do it even for free! Anyone would like some Champagne and chocolate reviewed :-)????

And you know, the last sentence in the article you mentioned: it is not true :-O!

Give a call at home when you are free. Do you have a car?

Ciao
A.

Sasa June 21, 2011 at 2:48 am

It’s not worth putting Adsense ads unless you get more than 1000 unique visitors a day, unless you like the look of ads (!)

Alessandra June 21, 2011 at 4:51 am

1000 unique visitors who also click on the ads, that would be! hahahaha, Better to leave those ads to FB!

emm June 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm

God Sasa, I couldn’t have put it better myself. That rant totally blew Meryment’s article out of the water! I just wish that she would take the time to really read and discover what so many of us love about reading blogs (and writing them), and then she may be able to see past the cliched restaurant review type blog. I have to admit I do wonder why 50% of the bloggers I come across even bother, but really, who am I to squash someones dream and passion. Each to their own I say.
P.s I hope you’ve emailed this post to her or to The Australian at least?

Jenn June 20, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Thanks for the shout-out!

I totally agree with you about your interpretation here – sadly this person isn’t the only one who sees us this way, and I have seen a bit of a stigma against the term food blogger for exactly the things she seems to have associated with all of us. Love everything you said, so articulate and elegant.

Kocinera June 20, 2011 at 11:24 pm

This was such a great article Sasa. It really is unfortunate that sometimes traditional journalists and bloggers just can’t get along. What really stuck out to me was this writer’s concern for “transparency” in the blogging world, as if the world of journalism was squeaky clean, when even The New York Times has had scandals involving journalists lying about sources. To me, no matter what area of media you’re getting information from, the reader has to take everything with a grain of salt and be ready to search for multiple opinions before forming their own.

Delaney June 21, 2011 at 2:17 am

So interesting! I like your take. I dismissed a lot of what she said. I think honesty comes into it a lot – I’m pretty open about the fact that my blog is whatever I want it to be! Food, reviews, experiences, ranting… and when reviewing I’m open about the fact I’m not a qualified journalist or chef – I’m a former waitress who loves food. And if people want to read about my experience, then great.

Totally agree with you too Kocinera – an intelligent reader will take everything with a grain of salt!

Also – pink peppercorns! Yussssss!

H June 21, 2011 at 3:02 am

Huzzah Sasa! Your article is not only a million times better written, it also destroys almost everything Ms Meryment claims.
Coming from a communications background I get especially annoyed at the concept of new media elbowing out old media, especially in the realm of food where, just like art collectors, foodaholics collect special ‘pieces’ to add to their recipe book collection….or at least those I know (in real-time and online) do. Unlike art collectors though, foodies actually use their prized pieces. Regularly.
As for being open about reviews and their methods of payment, I’d hazard a guess that, while there are a selection who don’t tend to note the perks they receive, more bloggers than journos would be willing to admit they do. Not to mention that most of the best food bloggers seem to only endorse products they tried and tested numerous time which, I can say as a fact not all well-known journalists do.
Pot…kettle…black?

Shirleen from Sugar & Spice June 21, 2011 at 3:11 am

What a awesome post! I’m a newbie in the foodie blog scene and that article riled me a little. I don’t write my blog to please anyone but myself – it’s very much a personal gratification thing and sometimes a form of self-healing (I got let go from my job last Nov and writing my blog has provided me with much of the stimulation and feeling of self-worth that I need to keep going, whilst job hunting). I thought it was awful that Meryment was so dismissive of bloggers – and yet, she got so many of her points wrong! As I read your post, I found myself punching the air and going ‘yeah, take that Meryment’! Thank you. :)

Wandering Chopsticks June 21, 2011 at 9:37 am

All very good points. But I didn’t bother paying too much attention to the article. Frankly, I think a lot of mainstream media folks are fearful of bloggers because we offer another viewpoint and people aren’t so reliant on them anymore. Why can’t we both co-exist without taking pot shots at each other?

BTW, love the pink peppercorn on ice cream idea. I had black pepper ice cream at a Thai restaurant in London long ago and ordered it just to see what it tasted like. Don’t know why I haven’t bothered trying to replicate it myself.

Nigel June 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Meryment’s article is so half-arsed, it lacks the cheek to pull off its desired intent: to be inflammatory & provocative. Lazy arguments, backed up by ill-informed & underwhelming research serve only to hasten trad media’s looming obsolescence.

Su-Lin June 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Well put! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

And the pink peppercorn sprinkles! Definitely will be trying it as I have a newly bought bag of peppercorns on my counter and I’ve been wondering what to do with it!

Gourmet Chick June 22, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Well put – as a journalist and a blogger I don’t understand the dichotomy of blogging v journalism. It smacks of a defensive attitude. There are good and bad blogs just like there are good and bad journalists. Readers work that out.

Anna Johnston June 22, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Well, call me a silly one. But as chef who still takes a turn in commercial kitchens from time to time & a food blogger I’ve come to truly appreciate the bloggers views who pay for their food & never really make the staff or kitchen aware that they are reviewing the meal. I tend to put more weight on someone’s opinion (within reason & particularly if they demonstrate they know what they’re eating) than I do with paid reviewers or bloggers who get all the information from the chefs. Just sayin’..

Aiman June 23, 2011 at 7:35 am

Hi there! Just found your blog and I must say….you have done a great job. Instant favourite.

catty June 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm

love the rant, miss you, hate AAGill and this dumb ass biatch too ;) i love your food blog, you food blogger, you!

hungryandfrozen June 28, 2011 at 5:29 am

I read this earlier, but didn’t get a chance to comment – just want to say, very very well said!

Su-yin July 15, 2011 at 8:48 am

“[Bloggers are] not doing it particularly well.” If he doesn’t read them, I wonder how he knows that is the case – he sounds suspiciously like a kid who “knows” he hates peas.

Well said!

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