Sky Full of Bacon

Let’s return to something genuinely interesting: my comments about the demise of Eater Chicago, in the post “Death Eater” below.

Several reactions to the piece worth noting:

1) Helen Rosner of Menu Pages gently pointed out that the especially dull procedural item I cited as an example of Eater New York’s attempts to make newsy news out of trade news and minutiae… was in fact a quoted-in-its-entirety example of Grub Street (another NY food blog thing, which is corporately related to Menu Pages BTW) attempting to make newsy news out of trade news and minutiae.

So yeah, I kinda bungled that, but I think the point still holds, since Eater New York evidently found it thrilling enough to warrant reprinting.

2) Grub Street has its own comment on my post:

Sky Full of Bacon is ignoring the power of more “hype-ridden” blogs to drive readers to food-focused endeavors such as his own. Come on, man — all boats rise with the tide, or all bacon bits rise with the fondue or whatever. SFB points to the hype over Fergus Henderson’s appearance as an example of Eater’s superficiality — but if it gets someone to try crispy pig’s ear for the first time, or to pick up Henderson’s book in order to learn more about nose-to-tail eating than can be shared on a restaurant blog, well then what’s the harm?

Well, yes and no.  On the one hand this is the all-purpose defense of any form of media that willfully undershoots the intelligence level of its audience— to apply it to the world of film, it’s basically “Yeah, Entertainment Weekly may be bubbleheaded and running its 53rd cover story on The Dark Knight, but at least people will also hear about Kristof Kieslowski and they’ll check him out!”  You may be surprised to hear, from the snark with which that sentence was composed, that I don’t dismiss this out of hand.  Such media have greatly contributed to our hype-ridden world in which people care more about weekend grosses than the actual content of movies, seemingly creating an environment in which nothing could be more irrelevant than a European art film that makes bupkis.  But on the other hand, your local Blockbuster actually does have a couple of Kieslowski films which rent fairly steadily, which, I can assure you, is NOT what life was like when I was a 12-year-old film buff in Wichita reading about Antonioni and Godard films that seemed as impossibly remote to my life as a cocktail party thrown by Cole Porter at the top of the Ritz.

So media like this can make us a little dumber and a little smarter at the same time, depending on how we use them.  I accept that, though it also means they have to accept that I just don’t find all that industry news all that valuable to me, either, and a distraction from the things that are interesting to me.  This is really what it comes down, to the distinction between news and commentary.  Commentary interests me because there’s a person with a sensibility behind it.  News doesn’t interest me, because there just aren’t that many things happening in the restaurant biz that quite rise to the level of real news, in my book.

The other thing I am forced to accept, in honesty, is— I’m a total hypocrite and if Eater Chicago does ever launch here, please post about Sky Full of Bacon!

3) I got an email from the president of Eater inviting me to i) look more deeply at Eater NY and see some of the more feature-length, substantive stuff they’ve published, and ii) view the backstage double secret test site that Ari Bendersky has been posting to in anticipation of Eater Chicago’s launch.  I appreciate him taking the time to contact me and offer me that access, though I might still quibble about the whole idea of secret practice blogging— to me, one of the main virtues of blogging is the chance to discover what you’re about in public through feedback and just seeing how things play in the real world.  Will you do some stupid things and make mistakes along the way?  Welcome to the club.  I think corporate bloggers are foolish not to bite the bullet and accept that and be part of the world, secret practice blogging is sort of like secret practice at losing your virginity, there’s only one real thing and it requires more than one person.  Nevertheless, I appreciate his offer and will, when not eyeball deep in Obama’s transition the next Sky Full of Bacon, take him up on it.

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Eater Chicago is dead.

Yeah, what’s that? you ask. Eater is a group of online blogs about doings in the restaurant industry, with locally-focused editions in NY, SF and LA.  The name suggests a sort of gossipy thing like Defamer or Gawker, which are surely the models, although it all seems rather tamer and less trashy than such celebrity-oriented, what’s-Lindsay-snorting-now stuff.  Chicago was supposed to be the next stop, with one Ari Bendersky (ex of UR Chicago) as the blogger.  But the current environment of economic spookedness means that Eater has pulled out of the market.

To be honest, and with no disrespect meant to Mr. Bendersky, whose efforts we never got to see and can’t judge, I can’t say that I find this a huge loss, because I can’t say that I find the concept all that interesting.  It’s not like it’s been that tough to keep track of new openings (hey, I hear that Publican place is worth checking out).  If someone were to do real digging into the workings of the industry, that might be fascinating— I’m convinced there’s no end of rich material there— but such depth is unlikely to come out in a format aimed at producing ten newsy little blog items a day.  Look at this typical example, from Eater NY:

EaterWire: Ed Witt’s Chef’s Table, Jawn Chasteen in at Sea Grill, Plywood, and More

EAST VILLAGE— A little pre-plywood news over on Grub Street: Cru’s chef Shea Gallante is applying for a liquor license for the old Sea Salt space: “Orhan Yegen had trouble clinching a full liquor license before he ejected from the space earlier this year, and the CB has been no-nonsense about the Sin Sin zone (think Mercury Dime), but if anyone can charm them at the November 12 meeting, it’s a Michelin-starred chef…” [GS]

Pulse quickening yet?  There may be a certain audience for this kind of information about the latest hot places, but I find it hard to see why this kind of news of routine business transactions should be any more interesting to me than the “Heard Around the Injection-Molder” column in the latest issue of Plastics & Polymers Today.

Perhaps that’s an especially dull example.  But the attempts to gin up celebrity-sighting excitement by chronicling every movement Fergus Henderson made in New York are not really any better; it doesn’t tell you anything about Henderson (a genuinely interesting guy), it just flatters you that you’re in the know about… a guy in the foodservice industry who 99.99% of America has never heard of.

But Mike, you say, you spent years fostering an environment for exactly the dissemination of such minute foodie trivia at LTHForum.  And how can you say you aren’t interested in the doings of chefs and restaurateurs when you’re devoting so much time to a video podcast series about them? Are you saying you wouldn’t love to sit down with Fergus Henderson?

In the case of LTHForum, the news is much less what’s opening than what there is to eat there.  The focus is on the wonderful things people uncover at restaurants, which I can then go try for myself.  Yes, that’s sort of the same impulse that leads people to want to know about hot new places, but for me, at least, there’s much more interest and intellectual heft in going to a nowhere middle-eastern restaurant because some really cool authentic dish is on the menu than in going to Jerry Kleiner’s latest place just because it’s Jerry Kleiner’s latest place.

And in the case of Sky Full of Bacon, yes, I do it to get to talk to chefs and farmers and folks and observe them in action, but that’s because the action itself is interesting to look at, and I’m intrigued by the way that how they fix food and share it with others reveals their philosophy about food.  I’m interested in what they think about pork, not in their plans for expanding into Oakbrook.

What it comes down to for me is that Eater seemed to have carved out exactly the perspective on our food scene that is least interesting to me, most hype-ridden and PR firm-driven.  I can pick that info up peripherally while reading a blog like Menu Pages’, which is still focused more on what real people out there think and write about food than on what permits have been applied for.

Personal blogging is an escape from the strictures of publications that want the latest news and the five tips for this and that and a focus on the TV-famous. (Rocco DiSpirito on the 7 Ways To Drive Your Man Wild During a Post-Thanksgiving Tryptophan Drowse!) Corporate blogging, too often, isn’t an alternative to such trivial approaches but an even more extreme example of them, designed to grab attention quick so the eyeballs can be counted for advertisers. Anyway, I will miss Eater Chicago far less than I would any number of blogs written by real people who really care about food as food, not as a reason to feel trendier than the next person with the in-the-know stuff you know.

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Thanks to Helen at Menu Pages, my latest double linker. Who knew that posting about Wauconda was one of the secrets of blog success?

Elsewhere in the journalismosphere, Slate has a piece about cooking from a mid-60s Vincent Price cookbook, full of funny ha-ha surprise that Price’s recipes don’t contain human brains and the like. Apparently no one but me remembers any more that in addition to being a horror movie ham, Price was quite the culture vulture*, so renowned for his educated good taste that Sears put him to work picking art for them to sell next to the Kenmore washing machines:

A strange but true moment in American cultural aspirations, back when the middle class wanted to seem well-educated. Anyway, my point in bringing this up is to point out that hey, they’re not the first ones to cook from old cookbooks in search of sociological lessons.

* They also apparently don’t remember that he was in lots of non-horror movies like The Ten Commandments, Laura, Dragonwyck, His Kind of Woman, etc. He’s especially fun playing a sendup of his own hammy self in the latter.

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