Thanks to Blogs, a Bigger Menu for Food Criticism

Here's a sampling from the food criticism smorgasbord of summer 2009: Some 1.3 million people have signed on to follow Martha Stewart's tweets about condensed recipes for bruschetta and rack of lamb as well as about tomato blight in her garden and a fiery car crash near her property. Meanwhile, Travel Channel star Anthony Bourdain rants on his popular blog about "blissed out St. Alice" Waters, one of the nation's most vocal proponents of locally grown, organic food. As for food critics, some big names, including The New York Times' (NYT) Amanda Hesser and Gael Greene, formerly of New York magazine, are turning to blogs and Twitter to promote themselves, trading some of the elitism of the country's culinary and media capital to join the faster-paced, less rarefied cadences of food conversations on the Web. Hesser's new Web site, Food52, is tapping readers' recipes to assemble a cookbook.

A chorus of amateur food bloggers, meanwhile, is singing the virtues of everything from frontier-style fried steak and cornbread to Sex and the City-inspired New York cupcakes. Their ranks could swell even more in the wake of the new Meryl Streep movie, Julie & Julia, based partly on the story of New York food blogger Julie Powell, who cooked every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The film's Web site features rotating links to various food blogs. In an Aug. 5 blog post, The New York Times' new restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, said the abundance of Internet critics is creating a discussion reviewers would do well to join.

At a cultural moment when food consciousness is in ascendance, helped by a national conversation about healthier eating and a recessionary revival of do-it-yourself cooking and gardening, the proliferation of food blogs, foodie twitterers, and celebrity chef sightings online ironically is making it harder for diners and grocery shoppers to get what they traditionally sought from food writing: guidance in determining what's good to eat.

Opinions of Their Peers Chefs and bloggers are trading on upscale urbanites' current fascination with food in part to sell merchandise, promote TV shows, and forge personal brands through their online musings. "It's completely changed the face of food criticism," says Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods and the upcoming Bizarre World on the Travel Channel. Zimmern, a former chef who also writes for Mpls. St. Paul magazine and Delta's (DAL) Sky in-flight publication, reads more than a dozen blogs each week about dining in the Twin Cities alone to keep up on what's current. "My audience has changed over the years, because now they have access to the opinions of their peers," says Zimmern, who lives in Minneapolis. "There's so much more to hear on the Web."

But the hordes of Web critics dishing up praise and scorn can deny diners the benefit of professional critics' breadth of expertise, Zimmern says. Missing from many food blogs are knowledge of a chef's range and the ability to cast a gimlet eye on some establishments' dubious claims of authentic cuisine. "A lot of the people who are doing food writing who don't know what they're talking about will disappear," he says. "There's no way for the dining public to tell who's full of [it]."

Chefs too are turning to blogs to flog their eateries, a pursuit that doesn't always leave time for actual cooking, says Chris Cosentino, a chef at San Francisco's Incanto and host of the Food Network's Chefs vs. City. "It's getting harder and harder for chefs to write and cook," says Cosentino, who often stays up until 2 a.m. writing about cooking on his Web site, Offal Good, after leaving the restaurant at midnight. "A lot of times I try reading it the next morning, and it's such f---ing garbage I can't make sense out of it," he says.

Fresh Voices Still, the spread of culinary blogs has brought a passel of fresh voices to the food conversation. There's a food blog for seemingly every taste. On Chocolate & Zucchini, Clotilde Dusoulier, a 30-year-old Frenchwoman who discovered cooking in California, dissects the finer points of terrines and flambé and has parlayed her franchise into printed cookbooks. In The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, a self-described "thirtysomething ranch wife [and] mother of four" in Oklahoma, teaches readers how to make down-home fare such as cornbread and caramel apple sticky buns. Searching "cupcake blogs" online turns up scores of sites, including one called Legalize Frostitution.

BlogHer, a network of women's blogging sites, plans to host its first food blogging conference Sept. 26 in San Francisco, with a keynote speech by Drummond and other prominent bloggers. Food-related sites attract about 30% of the network's 15 million monthly unique visitors, according to Elisa Camahort Page, a co-founder and chief operating officer. "What's been gained is this plethora of new voices," says Gretchen Kurtz, a former food writer for The New York Times and 5280 magazine in Denver, who in January started Seed to Spoon, a blog that combines guidelines about healthy eating with tips about how to safely store and handle food. Blogs can "have a freshness and an immediacy you lose when you've been in the business for a while."

What's fading is the power of the trusted guides consumers had for decades to tell them where to eat, what to cook, and what was better left untouched. "In the old days, before the blogs, people trusted a brand like Gourmet or Bon Appétit" magazines, says Kurtz. "The days of the lengthy food review are kind of over."

There's little doubt that the economic recession has fueled some of the interest in cooking, gardening, and talking about food that's spilling into the blogosphere. Cookbook sales are up, seed sales are booming, and homeowners are planting more gardens, à la Michelle Obama's patch of White House ground. The fortunes of Whole Foods Market (WFMI) and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) have diverged as grocery shoppers become more price-conscious. In another sign of the downturn (or the apocalypse) 4,800 volcano burrito fans have signed up to follow the perambulations of a Taco Bell truck on Twitter.

Hungry for More Than Food Another reason the food blogs have blossomed is the 360-degree marketing plans that encourage TV chefs and cookbook authors to interact with their fans through every possible medium. "The fans are insanely hungry for the content," says Zimmern. But many readers of his Travel Channel blog are more interested in his exotic destinations, such as India and Cuba, than in the food he eats during the show. Similarly, fans of Anthony Bourdain flock to his blog "because they want more of Tony," says Zimmern.

A lot more than food is being dished on the celebrity blogs. Visit Food Network star Rachael Ray's blog, and there's precious little discussion of recipes. Instead, she's documenting the bands she caught on a trip to Austin, Tex.; hanging out with Miley Cyrus; and a recent surgery to remove a cyst from her vocal cord. In essence, Ray's blog is an avenue to advance Ray's brand.

Ultimately, the appetite for deeply researched, meticulous reviews that put chefs and restaurants in gastronomical context may be vanishing. As with many of the business and societal changes the Internet has wrought, what's arrived instead trades more on enthusiasm than deep knowledge. An optimistic reading is that the food blogging movement is long on potential.

Gastronomes hope the more self-promotional blogs wither and say culinary culture would benefit from a winnowing. Yet foodies' national moment has sprung partly from anti-elitism. "Attention spans are shorter," says Seed to Spoon's Kurtz. Then again, "if 300 people are blogging about cupcakes, I'm all for it because they're passionate about their food."

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