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It was a technology that promised a new way for ordinary people to be heard without having to go through old media gatekeepers. Or at least to warn each other that there was a smokey on Highway 47, good buddy. Unfortunately, that was all anybody had to say on CB radio, and the fad ended as quickly as it had sprouted up.
On overcast days I feel that way about restaurant blogging, which boomed in an explosion of populist Internet enthusiasm a few years ago. But the reality was that much of it was done with at least one eye on a career, and many of Chicago’s restaurant bloggers—like Michael Nagrant of Hungry Magazine, Carly Fisher of Chicago Brunch Blog, and, uh, me—have mostly had professional gigs since, while others just faded away after a season, like the subjects of this Reader piece two years ago. The blog moment passed; genuinely amateur commentary moved to social media, where it was easier to find an audience and get instant gratification for one’s (much shorter) wit or insight.
Or so it’s seemed. But in recent times several foodies I’ve gotten to know through the Internet, all professionals in fields besides food, have launched restaurant-review blogs, with no illusions that they’re ever going to replace Phil Vettel as a filler of restaurant reservation books—and no real intention of trying to. Statistically reliable sample or not, it seemed worth asking them: Why now?
“When sites like Chowhound, eGullet, LTHForum, etc, started there really weren’t many places to make your voice heard about food,” says Josh Steinfeld, a compensation consultant whose blog is Stuff I Eat. He participated on all of them, but in time came to feel that an open platform like Twitter was “far more democratic—with Yelp and sites like that there are a lot of sacred cows, politics, etc, that I think get in the way of productive discussion.
“Most of the time 140 characters was enough to get across what I wanted to say about a given place. But there were situations that kept coming up where it would be helpful to expand on a point I was trying to make,” says Steinfeld.”So, it was either start sending out ten-tweet sequences, which sort of defeats the whole point, or give myself a venue to write more words.”
Steinfeld’s blog is often about being on the outside as a consumer of food media, which he sees as frequently boosterish and driven by a PR agenda—as he summed it up in one case, “non-critical coverage of the latest PR driven opening, and non-existent coverage of the closing of a venerable neighborhood restaurant.” For both Steinfeld and Kenny Zuckerberg, who works in corporate e-learning, not being someone trying to break into the mainstream food media or who needs to worry about offending industry sources is essential to the freedom to comment frankly.
Zuckerberg, whose blog Fuckerberg on Food earned its name from a well-known chef’s angry tweet in response to Zuckerberg’s criticism, says “I think a lot of people write blogs because of some semiprofessional ambition or because they hope to get free food, or something else of tangible value out of the experience. I’m not interested in any of that. I just want people I like to read it, and people I don’t like to stay away from it.”
Ultimately, for all of these bloggers, blogging what you eat is a personal endeavor for which readership, influence, or anything else is very much a secondary issue. Wendy Aeschlimann, an attorney, launched her blog, Travels & Tables, after a trip to Lima to check out its much-vaunted dining scene. “I feel like I lost the opportunity to capture some of my travel or eating experiences when I wasn’t blogging. After going to Spain last year and eating at some great restaurants and touring some awesome wineries, and later talking with people about it, I thought that this is kind of exactly what a blog is for—to place your pictures and capture your thoughts.”
Will anyone read those thoughts? Aeschlimann admits that “anyone who takes the leap to blogging, I think, understands that you’re doing it first and foremost for yourself, and you won’t necessarily have the instant feedback that posting on review sites may have.” But she sees it becoming another online accessory: “Soon, I think everyone with a functioning brain and pulse will have a blog. It will be like having a smartphone or an e-mail address.”