A Dog-Eat-Dog World

The first thing Jim Leff did on September 11, after he woke up and heard what had happened in lower Manhattan, was ask his regulars to check in. Leff runs Chowhound.com, a Web site dedicated to the quest for what he calls "hyperdelicious" food, and he wanted to make sure that the obsessed eaters who post frequently--the hounds--were unscathed.

If Leff's roll call brought his online community together, his next move would nearly drive it apart. In an impassioned response to the acts of violence against Arab-Americans being reported around the United States, Leff dispatched what came to be known as the Chowhound Call to Eat: "If I had a minute of spare time," he wrote, "I'd try to set up teams of hounds to hang around our favorite Arabic spots and help defend them against senseless bigots. But maybe everyone could just agree to try to eat exclusively Middle Eastern for a few weeks (or months) and be ready to defend." Contributors began posting accounts of trips to cherished Egyptian cafés, Lebanese grocers and Afghan kabob stands around the country. But others dissented.

"I completely disagree with Jim Leff and this crusade," someone named Walter wrote. "I intend to boycott all Afghan and Middle East restaurants...I hope they all go out of business." Under the alias Voice of Caution, someone else noted that some Afghans living in the United States support Osama bin Laden and suggested that "those of us rushing to spend money in Afghan establishments might want to try first to determine which faction a particular purchase will benefit." In Boston, Patriot Paul wrote, less articulately, "I rather support an American cuisine restaurant."

The hounds howled. A whole thread sprang up under the heading "Dumb thing to say, Patriot." Leff excoriated the idea of a litmus test that would make Arab-Americans prove their loyalty. The discussion mushroomed, with people trying to stake out positions that made sense in a political landscape that had changed shape in a single day. The legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization was debated, as was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Inevitably, the debate took on an ad hominem tone—and its connection to the quest for hyperdeliciousness became hard to discern.

Two days after posting his Call to Eat, Leff banned all further political talk on the site. But the hounds wouldn't go back in their kennels so easily. Two of them signed off in protest to what they saw as Leff's censorship, setting off another round of fighting. Within a week, though, Chowhound was back to its routine discussions of congee recipes and drive-in burger shacks. The site's foray into politics may not have been pleasant to witness, but while it lasted, it offered a fascinating glimpse at what happens when people with a common interest suddenly have to confront things they don't have in common.

- Pete Wells

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