In the Belly of the Blog
Columnist Pete Wells looks beyond the boring "cheese-sandwich" genre of blog to celebrate the idiosyncratic ones that make him say Wow.
Back in 2001, when the entire blogosphere was powered by kittens on treadmills, a couple of smart-asses began handing out awards for atrocious blogs. One founder of these Anti-Bloggies confessed to a particular dislike of sites where "someone says something like, 'Today I had a cheese sandwich.'" The term "cheese-sandwich blog" quickly became Webspeak for all the dear-diary scribblings that don't acknowledge, let alone describe, life outside the author's dorm room.
At the time, almost no one blogged about food. Today, eating a cheese sandwich qualifies as a hot scoop for legions of bloggers. Just go to Food Porn Watch, a site that scans hundreds of gastronomic blogs for new content every hour on the hour, and click away. A few samples served up today: "I am guessing that there are at least a few other regular herb bloggers who are also hating winter and wondering what to post about." And "Remember my headache with the cakey pumpkin cookies? Well apparently, pumpkin cookies are supposed to be cakey." And "I've seen dates in the store for quite some time and I've wondered what they were like. As far as I know, I have never tasted one before."
Food porn? No pornographer worth his gold chains would touch this stuff with a 10-foot boom mike.
Still, I love the idea of food blogs, and in a few cases, I love the reality, too. Blogging is cheap and easy. Anyone can do it. And there's no filter, no overworked editor wondering if it's going to be worth the expense and bother of shepherding this unproven talent into print. While this does permit hundreds of pointless cheese-sandwich meanderings, it also allows a few smart writers to gallop away with ideas nobody's ever tried before. So I keep sifting through Food Porn Watch until I come across a blog with an utterly original point of view and think, Wow, there was nowhere to read that five years ago.
Nothing on the newsstands resembles Deep End Dining, a site about the pleasures of white sea worms, squirming octopus tentacles and other things that make you go Eww. One day last year, chief Deep Ender Eddie Lin took us along as he ate blood all across Los Angeles County. In a deli in Van Nuys, he found a menu board "with my name practically written on it" advertising a German Blood Tongue Sandwich. His descriptions are pleasingly rough-edged and concrete: Blood tongue, we learn, has "a meat mosaic appearance with an almost transparent cross section of tongue locked in position within the canvas of coagulated blood, punctuated by chunks of gelatin." Later, he's off to San Gabriel for an Asian delicacy known, variously, as Pork Red Cake, Chocolate Pork, Pork Blood Jello, or, cutting right to the chase, Pig Blood Cubes.
What separates Deep End Dining from mere stunt journalism is that Lin genuinely enjoys chowing down on dishes that look like props from a David Cronenberg movie. Apparently, it all goes back to his childhood. When one of his posts was selected for a food-writing anthology, he tipped his hat to his supporters, including his mother: "And Ma, thanks for force-feeding me boiled cow's brain when I was six."
I also snuffle around what I think of as anthropological blogs, in which a person of boundless curiosity settles into some faraway land, eats everything in sight, and writes it all down in the kind of crazy detail no travel magazine would care to match. The Margaret Mead of food bloggers is Graham Holliday, an Englishman who chronicles his run-ins with Saigon's "scoff and swill" on a site called Noodlepie. A pull-down menu marked Categories lets you look up one of about 60 Vietnamese dishes, read a description, see a picture, and then learn how Holliday rates every shed and stall where he has scoffed it. You also get scoffing advice; in a review of a savory crêpe called banh xeo, he instructs the reader to "devour this prime pancake as soon as it hits the plate. Don't hang around for any late dinner arrivals and leave the civilities at home. 'Oh no, please, you start.' 'Oh no, please, you should try it first.' Stop it right there. Dive in." Very occasionally, Holliday looks up from his lunch long enough to observe some local news like, say, the miraculously weeping concrete statue of the Virgin Mary across from the HSBC cash machine, but then he'll go on to imply that the Virgin's chief miracle has been her salutary effect on the business of one of his favorite chuoi nep nuong vendors.
Noodlepie and Deep End Dining are so entertaining I can't help wondering why so many other food blogs turn into tiny empires of boredom. I waste far more hours on the political blogs, which makes no sense because I would much rather eat pumpkin cookies than see Tom DeLay's mug shot (although that has its pleasures as well). So, after studying both the edible and the nonedible halves of the blogosphere, I came to some conclusions about the qualities shared by blogs that work.
First, a good blog needs to communicate passion, and a really good blog will make the reader feel passionate as well. This should be easy when the subject is food, but it does rule out cheese sandwiches. Listen up, bloggers: Nobody cares what you had for lunch today!
Second, there ought to be consequences—something should be at stake. The political bloggers have this part down; most of them write as if the fate of the republic hinged on what Arlen Specter said on Meet the Press. The stakes are not always as obvious in gastronomy, but they do exist. Will Lin ever meet a culinary oddity that makes him skittish? (Yes: duck fetus.) Third, the blog should be timely, keeping current with news of the world it covers.
Finally, like any good piece of writing, a blog needs a sense of purpose. The author can't just curl up on the sofa like an overfed retriever and recollect his last bowl of kibble; he should strain forward like a terrier who's late for an appointment with a ham bone. Above all, the author should know how to complete the sentence "This blog is about___." That's why I admire Adam Kuban, whose blog Slice is about pizza and nothing but pizza. Kuban is always on guard against mission creep. "Sure, I'd love to rhapsodize about how great the new Battlestar Galactica is," he writes. "But I can't. I've gotta stay on message here. So until I see Admiral Adama chowing down on a slice between Cylon attacks...I can't go there." If you're concerned that Kuban is not eating a well-balanced diet, relax. He also edits the blog A Hamburger Today, which is even more exuberant, perhaps on account of the extra protein.
When a blogger settles on a purpose, he needs to make sure no one else already has it covered. This is the problem with reviewing restaurants on a blog. Does anyone out there believe that America desperately needs more restaurant reviews? (Better reviews, sure, but more?) As a longtime cheapskate, what I want from a critic is advice on when to take a ball-peen hammer to my piggy bank and when to stay home and open a can of Dinty Moore. What I don't need is the kind of heavy breathing delivered by one blogger and her pals: "I was enchanted with the room as much as the innovative yet approachable menu. Jamie was still raving about the beef and was loving the magnificently flattering lighting. And Susie was just over the moon in love with it all. She declared, 'This is now my favorite restaurant on Planet Earth.'" I'm not convinced I should spend my own money there, but I'd pay a lot to know what was in Jamie's beef.
Insiders say that the New York Times gives its chief critic an expense account in the low six figures. Blogs, typically shoestring affairs, can't compete and shouldn't even try. What they can do is critique or elaborate on work done by the big-budget media. A blogger following the Iraq war might not have the resources to open a Baghdad bureau, but she can analyze the dispatches of every journalist stationed there, bundle them together and make them available to equally obsessed readers. That's a valuable service.
Saute Wednesday and the Food Section are two sites that do a great job of bundling worthwhile food writing. But for critique, I go to Regina Schrambling, whose blog Gastropoda charts what she sees as the descent of the food world into ever murkier lagoons of idiocy. After hearing about a cutesy wine list that touts one bottle as "four promiscuous Sicilian grapes fornicate for your pleasure," Schrambling snaps back, "Call me old-fashioned, but I would go for the South African pinotage simply described as 'complex and witty' if I wanted to respect myself in the morning."
All too often, though, you can't tell who is being spanked. Gastropoda is one long blind item, withholding helpful links, dates and even names. I myself may have come in for a few whacks of Schrambling's wire-bristled brush last year, but since she had encased her prose in the usual peekaboo swaddling, I can't say for sure.
The funniest food-media criticism, though, comes from the Bruni Digest, which parses Frank Bruni's weekly restaurant reviews in the New York Times with intense, almost Talmudic attention. It is not the only site to do so—on eGullet, Chowhound, Mouthfuls and other discussion boards, the threads on Bruni's qualifications, palate, standards and critical acumen spool out into infinity. But it took the Bruni Digest's Julia Langbein to show that the real fun is in sampling the ripe fruit basket of Bruni's prose.
Langbein claims her satire is affectionate, and certainly her delight at the zany arabesques of language she calls "Brunisms" feels genuine. His assertion that a maki roll was "held hostage by a ruthlessly unctuous mayonnaise" sends Langbein into a joyous Snoopy dance while she pictures Bruni as a correspondent for the six o'clock news reporting from the scene of this debased crime. Once, when an entire review threatened to vanish behind a hallucinatory haze of metaphor, Langbein waved away the smoke to observe, "It seems as though the question 'What is this restaurant like?' is not as important as the question 'Exactly how sick will peyote make you if you melt it in a spoon and take it nasally?'"
The Bruni Digest isn't about food, precisely, but it has all the qualities of good food blogs, plus a bonus: Langbein can get a laugh out of anything. I wonder if she likes cheese sandwiches.
Pete Wells is a contributing editor to F&W.