So Much Food, So Little Food Writing Boston’s Food offering expands daily - who will competently write about it?

So Much Food, So Little Food Writing Boston’s Food offering expands daily - who will competently write about it? - blog post image

 

So Much Food, So Little Food Writing

Boston’s Food offering expands daily - who will competently write about it?

Blog post on January 13, 2020 by Deborah Hansen

In the spring of 2019 the Improper Bostonian announced its own shuttering. With it died one of the last print publications in Boston that covered food meaningfully, with the exception of The Boston Globe. Right now there is no print outlet for McSlim JB’s lovely prose, respectable food knowledge, and palpable passion. In its place there is a dark, erie void in my industry. (His erudite restaurant reviews can be read on boston.com where he continues to demonstrate a superior grasp of both food and wordsmithship!!) Filling this vacuity are the vagaries of online reviews with their utter vapidness on all matters prandial, and lousy with grammatical errors. We restaurateurs, chefs, dedicated cooks, sommeliers, and restaurant managers are now exclusively at the mercy of disgruntled or disenchanted diners trying to pass as food critics as they post. While I am truly grateful for every positive review given by someone taking the time to spread love rather than hate, I believe there is a collective bristling amongst food professionals when the topic of Yelp arises. We’ve replaced professional food journalism with a data-driven, money-riven, ad-ridden, opinion-based, online review platform.

At the back of my restaurant there’s a wall covered completely with articles mentioning Taberna de Haro for one reason or another. There are 16, plus several more at home that have yet to be mounted and hung. I see mini awards from Stuff and Stuff at Night, who may not have offered Pulitzer prize winning news coverage, but gave young people a guide to the city’s fun and flavors in the form of a free little magazine. As a business you could pay to advertise or be content to be mentioned in the respectably comprehensive listings of bars, restaurants, music venues, ice cream shops, etc. Remember The Phoenix? It was a little 9 x 6 newsprint magazine that earned its monikers of ‘edgy’ and ‘alternative’ as it covered topics political, artistic, gastronomic, and musical to name a few. For 46 years it was a reliable resource for making weekend plans or reading some damn decent writing in an unassuming little format. In its 47th year, it went 12 x 14 and glossy, and then it went out of print one year later. (The Phoenix once dubbed me a ‘Foodie Mecca’ and the uptick in unusual dishes such as frogs legs, veal sweetbreads, and blood sausage was noticeable immediately thereafter). The Weekly Dig became Dig Boston and they, too, strive to give pertinent weekend guidance, but they don’t take the risks that the Phoenix did, and food coverage is not a priority.

Why do I kvetch about the lack of printed food writing? It’s not only that I am nostalgic for the days when readers opened the Calendar section of the Boston Globe, read the restaurant review, and then clamored to make reservations at the establishment discussed. This was a weekly ritual, and it meant something. People talked about it; they called each other and made plans to visit the spot. They made reservations at restaurants - and get this - they kept those reservations! And if you owned a restaurant, you knew there’d be a line outside your front door for weeks to come. It was thrilling, honestly.

No it’s not just nostalgia. It is the wildly diverse set of facts before me that all tack toward the same theme - Boston needs to up its food-writing game. The Michelin Guide does not come to Boston so we are excluded from this prestigious list altogether. The most daring and well-funded chefs seeking culinary glory will choose New York or Chicago over Boston if it is Michelin mojo they're after. This fact alone should make us Bostonians think and write more about food! As the city empties itself of independent chef-owned establishments and replaces them with predictable, unsexy chain restaurants, Boston grows less unique as a destination or residence. McSlim JB, in his review of Peregrine in November of 2019, appears to share my view: “…dull, middlebrow chains with deep pockets and hundreds of clones across America are oozing into the aching void these unique places leave behind.” Boston!!! Is this what we want??

Another fact before my eyes: guests seem to be less daring when it comes to ordering food, sticking to the dishes whose photos they can see online. That leads me directly to another. Nowadays diners choose restaurants based on what comes up first in the search on their smart phone, which will always be the place with the most hits, usually translatable to biggest advertising budget. Something else: there are new restaurants every week and Eater is there (online) to trumpet their debuts but not to conduct proper reviews. By ‘review’ I mean a thorough critiquing of the fare by actually visiting a time or three and sampling several dishes as well as the wine. It seems relevant to mention here that if growth in middle class housing kept pace with restaurant openings, there would be nearby abodes aplenty for the all diners and employees needed to keep these new establishments humming, and the industry would be considerably less fraught with stress, struggle, and subsequent closures. But I digress…

Why is food writing so important? Because it raises the bar. As a knowledgeable food writer explains what sea beans are and how omakase works, she bestows upon her readers a bit of familiarity with the topics. When a food critic delves into the virtues of a well-made risotto vs. an inferior one, diners know what to look for and they become more discerning. When we read articles about Native American traditional dishes or the difference between conventional meat and pasture-raised meat, or how parsnips are a vegetable that winters over, our curiosity is piqued. We think outside the box; we seek a new taste experience. If someone spells out the differences between terms like pickling, brining, marinating, preserving, etc., we are armed with useful, factual information as we look over the next menu in our hands. When a contributing journalist with an expertise in mushrooms writes an article parsing out the flavor profiles and natural habitats of fascinating fungi, readers have a new repertoire within the genre - and can tell in an instant if the claim of ‘Local’ on a given menu is bogus.

Do we need a printed outlet for all of the above? I think we do. Why can’t this happen on line? To some extent it does. The Food Lens is stunningly beautiful, and succinctly reviews dining and drinking spots. The Boston Globe’s boston.com covers local food topics in a newsy fashion that is definitely informative and helpful, if a bit superficial. Blogs abound and several of them are quite good. But certain facts remain. Articles in print, with their tangibility, have gravitas. They are fact checked. They have staying power. What are we losing when there are no longer clipped newspaper articles and magazine recipes to tuck away into recipe books and scrapbooks? Or to frame and hang on walls. Or to show your children so they can marvel at the wispy, yellowing paper and a date in the previous century. Reams of history, that’s what we’re losing. Articles got shorter when people started consuming their news on their computers, and now they are minuscule because the tiny phone screen is the main source of information. Sound bites, keywords, and clichés are now the miniature attempt to cover our whole diverse and wonderful food scene. The fact that Tony Maws’ vast talents often get summed up with a picture of his burger proves my point as much as it pisses me off.

I was excited to see Devra First’s article “A Decade in Dining” splashed importantly across the front page of the Boston Sunday Globe 3 weeks ago. With firsthand experience and a graceful style, she points out that the ‘…change in the dining landscape has been tectonic.’ She touches upon Uber, Instagram, and Yelp, as well as listing the tear-jerking losses of chef-owned restaurants in Boston of late. And although she is thorough in her coverage, addressing issues such as #MeToo and earning inequality between front and back of the house, she is too modest, perhaps, as one of the last in-print food writers in Boston, to take up that very topic. There is almost no one left to teach us, in the form of weekly periodical print, about food. Cook’s Illustrated and Saveur live, but Gourmet Magazine died. Is tangible print simply in a hiatus, a sort of hibernation borne of the pain of rejection, plotting its colorful, touchable comeback as the barren landscape littered with blue-lit screens flickers psychotically in the background? Can we coax the youngsters to treasure the feel of paper and its keep-ability without sounding like outmoded luddites? Sure, we can print that article we read on our phone today because it really resonated with us, but will we? Knowing that on the T ride home we’ve filled our eager brains with 17 more articles and 17,000 posts? How many times does that noteworthy article faded into the full-up folds of our hurried minds?

Food knowledge is broadened by good food writing, and begets more diverse, adventurous eating. I’d like to see online food writing go into more depth and detail so as to really educate and inform. And I’d really like to see more food writing in print.

Deborah Hansen

Chef-Owner-Sommelier

Taberna de Haro, est. 1998

 

 

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