On The Purpose of Writing

Every so often, I’ll meet someone new and mention that I have this site, and they’ll ask me what I write about. No matter how many times this happens, I always find myself awkwardly reaching for an answer, unable to encapsulate a response into a neat sound bite, and I ultimately end up rattling off a laundry list of things that I don’t write about instead. Reading this account of the demise of a food blog in Buffalo, New York made me think long and hard about how I view myself as a writer, and how I want others to view me.

Since the inception of The Best Food Blog Ever, I’ve always regarded myself as a food writer. In that singular declaration, though, are a lot of presumptions that need to be dismissed. For one thing, I’m not a food or restaurant critic. I’ve never felt that it was my place to decree that anyone that happens to find themselves reading my material should be obligated to like and dislike the same things that I do. Words have power, and words that you publish on the Internet have enduring power.

If a restaurant has a bad night, with an unfamiliar face filling in for a sick chef, or a large party that lingers, causing booked reservations to pile up in the foyer, or for any one of a million unknown factors, I’m not going to memorialize the displeasure of that evening in an entry. On the other hand, if I have a fantastic experience, one that goes beyond all of the expectations that I had when I laid my hand on the front door, sure, I’ll write about it. In the realm of restaurant cuisine, it’s far more likely that an establishment has the occasional off night than to have a consistently bad place that occasionally gets it right. Restaurant critique is best left to the professionals, whose livelihood depends on being able to weigh the quality of a dining experience in as objective a fashion as possible. For most of us on the web, without formal training, this isn’t possible. There are too many bloggers, and I’m including everyone on Yelp, who believe themselves to be the next Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni, or Craig LaBan.

I also don’t publish recipes on any regular basis, and in saying that, it’s not my intent to knock those sites that do. One of the reasons why food blogging is so popular is that, if you’re focused on recipes, you can count on being able to generate at least one new recipe per week, and likely many more. In the early days of The Best Food Blog Ever, I dabbled in recipe design, and almost immediately felt suffocated by the limitations of that writing model.

In my mind, recipe writing and food writing are different animals. There is a scientific, methodical approach to recipe writing, and while you may have endured many long hours experimenting with different ingredients in shape, form, and quantity, ultimately your end product consists of a list of components, followed by numbered steps telling folks what to do with them. Finish it up, take a good photo, then post it. This is not to say that I’ll never write another recipe ever again, but unless I have a dish that’s truly inspired, it’s just not anywhere near the top of my list. There’s got to be a story that drives the recipe in order for me to consider posting it. I was asked to submit a recipe that will be published in a compendium later this year, and, to be honest, I enjoyed writing the headnote the most.

With all of that said, sometimes writing for The Best Food Blog Ever is the hardest thing to do, and also the most rewarding. Once you’ve eliminated restaurant reviews and recipes from the regular rotation, the universe of possibilities shrinks to a small solar system of prospective topics. From time to time, a particularly inspirational story just lands in your lap.

One of the phrases that stuck with me, when I read the writer’s final entry on Buffalo Chow, was that “our system here…is too broken for me to fix it”. This, after enduring a meal at the Olive Garden and venting about the decline of the quality of restaurants in the Buffalo area, and of suspiciously biased reviews of establishments by the local papers. In the end, it seems that the blog died because, as a site focused on restaurant reviews, there was nothing left to write about.

I’ll admit it, I eat at the Olive Garden. I’ve also eaten at Taillevent. And in between the Olive Garden, with its vibrating, flashing pagers and Taillevent, where your bottle of wine is poured over a candle flame so as to avoid getting sediment in your glass, I will eat and write about an entire universe of food, if there’s a story to tell. I won’t tell you about the Olive Garden, because you and everyone else knows about the Olive Garden. Personally, I don’t find the food to be particularly epic or offensive, but the prices are decent, they have a great kid’s menu, and the atmosphere is loud enough to mask the sounds of a fussy baby. Now, if you’re going to the Olive Garden exclusively for the food, and you don’t have a baby with you, your own personal experience is going to lack two of the three important factors that appeal to me. But my experience is going to be different from yours, obviously. As a new parent, I enjoy the Olive Garden much more than I would have before the baby came along.

Is it my responsibility, as a food writer, to “rescue” people from dining experiences that don’t meet up to my own personal standards for quality, value, or foodworthiness? Did the Olive Garden suddenly become a much better restaurant once I became a parent? Of course not. Our lives, perceptions, and priorities are in a constant state of change and evolution, and it just so happens that we’ve become part of the demographic that the Olive Garden has designed its restaurants to attract. 21 months ago, we weren’t in that demographic. Today, we are.

The world of food writing is large enough to accommodate all of us, whether we choose to embrace the comforting uniformity of chain restaurants or elect to be the first reservation on opening night of the latest Farm to Table to Fork to Mouth to Gut bistro. No matter where you fall in the spectrum, it is my ambition to offer you the best writing that you can find on the web. Writing that happens to be about food, at least most of the time.