Sky Full of Bacon


Andy’s Thai Kitchen and LTHForum as a Reaction to 9/11

Apologies for the bad language but if you follow my Twitter feed, you know what this is about. I went to Andy’s Thai Kitchen, the new restaurant from the longtime chef of TAC Quick, and ran into a group of— I don’t want to say LTHers because that could be anybody; LTH insiders will do for now. There were three of them and four menus, so I didn’t presume to sit down, but as the place is small, I chitchatted with them from the adjacent table. When I addressed one of them, a former friend and now a Tribune contributor, directly he instantly turned belligerent, and in no time was screaming “Go fuck yourself!” at me. (Needless to say, I decided there was other company for lunch that wasn’t barking mad to be had, and left.) I now regard that as the unofficial motto of LTHForum, since when I called him out on it on Twitter and Facebook, the response of present-day LTHForum management was to deactivate my account. Calling out bad behavior was an unforgivable offense, but they apparently approve of an LTHer bullying diners out of a restaurant. (No word yet on how the Tribune might feel about a Trib stringer chasing other food media out of an establishment.)

Hmm, chasing people out of the great ethnic restaurants in town— now that is a strategy shift from when I ran the place. I don’t really have anything beyond that to say about the incident itself, but it does point to something I’ve never really talked about, which is the broader implications of leaving LTHForum when I did at the end of 2007 to pursue what would become Sky Full of Bacon and all these other things I’ve done.

David Hammond has mentioned that the growth of our community on Chowhound seemed to be spurred in some oblique way by 9/11— my time there certainly coincided with that post 9/11 period of foreboding— and if that’s the case, then you have to see our central mission, cherishing and promoting Chicago’s richness of ethnic food, as in some way being a response to 9/11, a celebration of the American ideal of immigration and cross-pollination, of the city as a place where peoples met peacefully and shared food and culture. We went to Thai and Arabic and Mexican and Indian restaurants, whether we thought about it or not, to keep our world from closing down into fortress America, to celebrate the polyglot world that comes together, uniquely, in American cities like ours.

And of course a big part of our spirit of adventure, on Chowhound and explicitly in how we founded LTHForum, was sharing it freely, staging dinners, inviting strangers, and above all, not keeping secrets— if you discovered something, you might sit on it long enough to feel you’d investigated it fully, but always, the idea was to get it out there for others to try as quickly as possible. It was as inclusive as possible, and we took joy in total strangers acting on our suggestions— or vice versa.

Beyond its social gathering role, I think LTHForum had a mission, at that point, to get the food media in Chicago to pay attention to more than just the strip along the lakefront— downtown and Lincoln Park, with a minimal awareness that there was such a thing as Chinatown. And the thing is… that mission was largely complete within a couple of years. Suddenly the food publications in town routinely dropped the names that had once been our secrets— Katsu, Katy’s Dumpling House, Uncle John’s BBQ, TAC Quick. (Even if they had heard of these places before, as they sometimes surely had, they hadn’t assumed their readers had, or would care to, until we showed them that we were their readers and we cared to.)

So when I left LTHForum around the end of 2007 over some personal and monetary issues (if you’re reading this, I expect you know how that turned out, many years later), part of the reason I did so without a lot of regret was a feeling that, hey, mission accomplished. And also maybe a sense that after four years, personally it was time to graduate.

Which has sort of made LTHForum the small town where the people I went to high school with still live, and where they haven’t changed, even though I have. At least that’s how I look at this incident; the anger of the person who is still there towards me who left is 1000 times stronger and more vehement than the fairly pallid regret I feel that things worked out a certain way.

But why is the LTH inner circle so worked up in the first place? I think one answer is that the evolution of interactive food media has continued. LTHForum, when we founded it eight years ago, was the cutting edge of democratic, populist food interaction online; newspapers had been one voice speaking to many, Chowhound was many voices speaking to many, but in a constricted way that didn’t let discussion really flow and community form. LTHForum was, at the time, as open and welcoming a platform as you could imagine. There were restrictions and moderation to keep the community peaceful, but beyond that, it was as democratic a platform as you could wish.

Jump ahead half a dozen years, though, and we have a very different world— the flattening of the food world into equals which was implicit at LTHForum has become the anarchically classless free-for-all of Twitter and Facebook, the universal achievement of “freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one” through blogs. The unity of a well-behaved, fairly likeminded community which was our strength in 2005 or 2006 seems too constricting when Twitter gives you an outlet to snark at the person who the moderators just pulled your post mocking. Instead of belonging to a relatively stable community, we are all continuously reshaping our food worlds and the audiences we talk to and belong to.

So the people who rose to become LTH insiders and the center of adulation in the wake of the departure of so many of the original LTHers, find that they’ve done so right when it stopped counting for much. You can be fawned over on the board but Twitter and Facebook will be out there, arguing (if a Tweet counts as an argument) that that place blows, or worse yet, snarking on, even parodying your purpler prose— and you may in fact have no way of even responding.

The instinctive response, which seems to be theirs, is to circle the wagons closer, guard the community against outsiders that much more. This is not irrational— it increases the value of the social side of things to those for whom that has value— but it obviously isn’t going to matter to those already outside the circle. And it’s led to a clubbishness and insularity— a suckup atmosphere at times, different rules for different people— that is antithetical to what LTH was founded as. (For instance, discoveries have been kept quiet, out of the awareness of the hoi polloi.) If this is a problem, I don’t have a solution; all I am doing is observing that just as LTHForum felt so cutting edge and like it was putting an end to boring, old school newspapers, now something else, basically anarchy, is making it seem out of date, not responsive enough to a community which isn’t likely to be moderated by anything except itself.

But I still don’t think that even if I was still at LTHForum to this day, knowing that that was happening out there would be enough to make me angry enough to scream “Go fuck yourself!” in a Thai restaurant at someone who’s simply moved on. I’d hope I’d have the vision to see that that’s just hastening the demise of one model for participation, and there’s no sense in going down with that ship. It was an exciting time to be at the cutting edge in 2004; it is now, too, whatever the cutting edge proves to be next.

UPDATE 9/15: So I am told– I can’t log in at LTHForum and see that it says that I can now log in– that there is a post at LTHForum explaining that, oh no, I wasn’t banned, that was a “probationary” period. Probation, obviously, is what you do when someone has done something wrong and you want them to cool down and think about the error of their ways. But they don’t tell me what I did wrong.

Was going to Andy’s Thai Kitchen wrong? There was certainly a likelihood that LTHers would be there that day, but since only a few LTHers would go nuts like that at the mere sight of me, it’s hard to know where I’m allowed on any given day.

Or am I supposed to stop being yelled at public places by enraged LTH insiders? I’ve actually gotten quite good at that in the last 5 years, versus around 2008 when it was more common, so I feel I’m being judged unfairly here for one little misstep on my part.

In all seriousness, talking about this in terms of my alleged offense and its disciplining shows that they remain clueless about the real offense here, which is a member who believes he can turn abusive in public with no consequence. (I have since learned this was by no means the first time other members have been abused by him in some fashion.) Yet the moderators specifically refused to answer a member’s question about whether he had faced any consequences for this behavior (which obviously means no).

Besides the disrespect for and even danger to other members, this obviously disrespects the restaurant and restaurateur to turn the restaurant you’re supposedly honoring with attention into the site of a brawl. Any word of respect paid to Andy’s Thai Kitchen on the board is a lie if you respect the man’s place of business so little. It will do LTH grave harm if it becomes known that its attention, and winning a GNR, means its members consider that license to treat your restaurant as their drunken clubhouse and have fights there.

This issue is not going to go away, though individual members already are, until the management of LTHForum recognizes that it has to deal with three serious issues:

1) What is the appropriate code of behavior for LTHers in public places? If you’re going to suspend members for what they say on Twitter and Facebook, clearly their actual behavior in public at a lunch that produces a post, or at other events, is within your purview. (One of the issues here is the reported feeling that this individual’s verbal abuse was, in some sense, coming with the approval of the management.)

2) What is the standard for respectful treatment of the restaurants written about at LTHForum?

3) What is the disciplinary system for members who violate these rules, and how can you ensure that it applies equally to all members and close friends of the management don’t get a pass?

Not to idealize the early years when myself and others were in charge, but we did strive to have transparency, to explain decisions (especially bannings) carefully, and I believe there was trust in our basic fairness and intentions. LTHForum needs to act now to regain that trust.

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