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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Of Boners, bitching, and Foodie Buddha

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For all its uses — from organizing revolutions to “personal branding” of dubiously talented people — social media and blogging have turned our world into an ear-splitting echo chamber.

Until now, I ignored the recent brouhaha between Boners BBQ and a complaining Yelper. For full details on the plot that went internationally viral as quickly as Newt’s sex life, go Google.

Why did I ignore it? Because it’s stupid beyond belief. In the cyberworld there is no enforceable etiquette. As long as there has been popular online access, we have all now and then flamed our keyboards without taking a breath. Further, cyberspace confers (superficial) anonymity that can fan the flames if not enable the fire’s start.

But wait. There’s more. In this same world, getting attention means everything. Thus, it’s not generally even considered a liability to piss people off in any way. The more you do that, the more “hits” you receive and the more ego-satisfying or literally marketable your commentary becomes. Why do you think this story became a media fixation? All it needed was the inclusion of a beautiful blonde who disappeared in Nassau with a pulled-pork sandwich.

So Boners owner Andrew Capron’s attack on the unflattering Yelper was tacky. But he later apologized and sincerely. It also will undoubtedly bring him a flood of curious visitors. It’s lotsa hits, baby.

Had he taken the usual route, he would have created an anonymous identity (or two or three or more) and gone to Yelp to trash the complaining customer. “Formal” critics watch this happen in comments on their reviews constantly. It’s not just people associated with the particular restaurant but all kinds of commenters with personal agendas too.

Kessler speaks

AJC dining critic John Kessler, an especially nice guy, wrote a thoughtful piece about this “lashing out” in the online foodie community a few days ago, recounting the Boners drama and then taking on local blogger Foodie Buddha. The issue was the Buddha’s strongly critical review of Cardamom Hill based on one visit the day after its opening. It was also highly critical of the hysteria of the owner's fans that preceded the opening. (Kind of ironically, the lengthy review was entitled "Cardamom Hill: Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves." Arguably, that's just what he did.)

I visited the restaurant twice during the same week and tasted a lot of its menu and wrote a “first look” that was very complimentary. I’ve received plenty of criticism myself for saying anything at all negative about a brand-new restaurant — and just as much for being positive.

Kessler says in his blog post that no judgment is definitive during a restaurant’s first few weeks. He puts it well by saying that first looks should be mainly expository. I tend to agree with this, but I like to think that readers understand that a “first look” is exactly that, since the lead critic — Besha Rodell these days — writes a definitive review later.

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  • www.foodiebudha.com
Over the years, I’ve learned that readers often don’t understand this, and maybe understandably so. So I’ve frequently decided not to write about a restaurant early on that is significantly plagued with problems. In the case of Cardamom Hill, I want people to know how good Asha Gomez’s cooking is (and I stand by that, having never tasted it earlier).

I should note too that my emphasis for years was on dining as adventure . That changed a lot over time with the truncation of my “Grazing” column. Now, its cutback to monthly means I’m not paid to visit more than a few restaurants and my approach is thematic.

I like Foodie Buddha’s blog. I think he’s a good, often funny writer, especially when he takes an essay approach. He has been controversial from the day he started blogging. But he also frequently scoops everyone else. The majority of these scoops have not been severely critical. His blog also displayed design skill way beyond the average. Frankly, too, foodie politics may be involved in the outrage he’s created.

The Foodie Round Table

Perhaps readers will find this hard to believe, but the community of critics (including “name” bloggers) in Atlanta — and everywhere else — is something of a round table where outsiders and Yelper types are, shall we say, "discussed." As a lifelong, extreme introvert for whom dining is of secondary interest, I have avoided this scene, just as I’ve avoided most other social milieus. Thus that competitive scene has not been much of an issue to me.

One other comment in this context: Critics have — right or wrong— traditionally written for one another. This is true in every field of criticism. During the years I edited publications, including Creative Loafing, this was often a subject of debate. You want depth but you know that limited space and the emphasis on provocative copy makes that more and more impractical. It also makes the critic's role less satisfying, especially when the glib are eclipsing your own role.

One of our regular contributors to this blog, Food Geek, reminded me a few months back that the authority of paid critics is history. I’ve honestly never thought otherwise. That’s why, as I’ve often explained, I always included other characters, like my partner Wayne, in “Grazing” and used narrative rather than pure critical evaluation and intense description. It was important to me to provide a differing opinion. Taste is extremely subjective, of course — and, believe me, the quality of experience at a restaurant can change in a flash with a chef’s departure.

I’m glad the community is discussing this subject, but the context has to be realistic. The rapid fading of critical authority will not reverse itself. Nor will the compensatory tendency to substitute the shocking and outrageous. But there is always the genuine satisfaction of mindful reticence: Can we eat, drink and be wary of what we say? I'm gonna try harder.

(NOTE: Edited to include material apparently not saved in the original posting.)

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