Something that appears to be hotly discussed across the Blogasphere by both food bloggers and their readers, is the topic of printed media food reviews and city food guides.
Many online readers consult both traditional and social media for inspiration and guidance on where to dine out. The reasons
cited are because both are trusted, though those who take counsel online consider that well known reviewers get preferential service and consequently may have a significantly different experience to Jo Average in a venue.
But what actually constitutes a good review? Is it just formulaic content, in that it is pure opinion harnessed to fact and knowledge - or is it something more?
Blogger Elliot Rubinstein deconstructed the standard formula as requiring the following:
1. Introduction and history of the venue
2. Décor and Ambience
4. Presentation of food, taste and texture
5. Evaluation of the wine list
To me this is an indication of where food reviewing is plateauing. Since Terry Durack left town and Leo Schofield was sued, the face of reviewing in Australia has changed. Stephen Downes has been banned from a dozen venues, Claude Forell was also refused entry and Mietta O’Donnell has passed on. The Sydney Morning Herald is also in the midst of litigation.
We live in times where publications are sensitive to the possibility
of being sued and Editors have been charged with keeping reviews within the boundaries of what may be politically correct. To borrow from Blogger Purple Goddess’ vocabulary, I believe that reviews
are becoming increasingly ‘beige’ and that’s even amongst many of the blogs.
The best reviewers have developed ‘a voice’. Their writing carries you along giddily in a whirlwind that picks up knowledge, culinary skills, business insight, awareness of suppliers and farming of the food, literary knowledge and sharp observation. At the end of an article the lateral threads of repartee are joined together and deliver the message with a thumping righteousness. There is nothing timid in their approach. There is chutzpah and ‘joie de vivre’.
We know why the popular reviewer's hands are tied, but why are online reviews tame? Unconstrained by editing by others and the opinions of management and advertisers, you would expect forums and blogs to be full of rollickingly naughty bollocking and cheeky asides. Instead they are sweetly worded appraisals and gastroporn.
Why? They are taking their leads from the mainstream media. And given that Australia’s favourite publications as examples of gastroporn are fairly pretty to look at, easy to read and mild in content, we will not make any inroads in being able to manipulate language to stunning effect.
Underwritten into these documents is the Australian tendency to pursue the yen to be normal and to standardise things. This is a country where we are a way off from encouraging striking out from the norm, where the tall poppy is still trimmed. Here, eccentricities are neutered and words of passion are regarded as excessive, churlish or childish.
By the same token, without adequate literary skill, reviews attempting ‘cleverness’ may result in conveying bitchiness and not insight. In my heart, I feel that we should be encouraging food writers to write with a voice that conveys both knowledge and personality.
“…And no, not anyone can do it. Reviewing isn’t complicated, but most people who think they can review can’t. Expertise isn’t always a help; it can make you talk down to your readers and distances you from their experience. But over the years, you do acquire it – I now know a lot about food. Except cheese, which, like grammar, I cannot retain a single piece of useful information about. I’ve also worked in kitchens as a cook, dishwasher, waiter and a maître d’. And I can cook.
The problem and the skill is not actually in the food, or in having an eye for decor, an ear for the staff, or a nose for the wine list (which I rarely mention, because I don’t drink). It’s in the language.
English, which is so gloriously verbose about so much of life’s gay tapestry, is summarily tongue-tied when it comes to describing food and eating. The reasons are partially cultural. It has never been considered polite to talk about food, partly as there hasn’t ever been much food that you could be polite about. Food and talking about food was something the French did. It’s often pointed out that while the words for farm animals are Anglo-Saxon, their names when they’re cooked are Norman – pork for swine, beef for cattle, mutton for sheep – distinguishing who did the herding and who did the eating.
But then, many of the words that we do have are swaggered in a Pooterish bourgeois snobbery. I can’t write “moist” or “succulent” or “luxuriant” without shivering. Writing about food and the sensation of eating can be as nauseating to read as watching someone eat with their mouth open. So you have to pick your way through the verbiage with care and imagination.
You do need to be pretty omnivorous – I’ve always said that I’d eat anything anyone else ate, as long as it didn’t involve a bet, a dare or an initiation ceremony. I’m often asked what the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten is. Buried shark in Iceland, jewel beetles in the Kalahari, fertilised duck eggs in Vietnam, seal blubber with the Eskimos in Greenland and warm blood with the Masai in Tanzania all pale into wholesome yumminess compared with the fast food available on every high street after 11pm, or the chilled, dehydrated and microwaved amuse-bouches lurking in petrol stations.
My particular interest in dinner really only begins with the food. I’m constantly fascinated by why and how we eat. The movement of ingredients and the history, anthropology, mythology, manners and rituals of food. Dinner is a defining human occasion. We are the only species that ever existed that offers hospitality.
Is my opinion worth any more than anyone else’s on the bus? With a modest blush I must say yes. It’s also worth more than that of most chefs and restaurateurs – I’m a professional, this is what I do; they’re big men, but they’re out of condition. Do I ever get bored, blasé, bilious? No, hand on heart, I’m always excited about dinner. I still get that frisson with a new menu. Do I ever eat or order badly on purpose, look for awful food to make good copy? Of course not. Despite what you think, it’s no easier to write a bad review than a good one; it’s just that you prefer reading the bad ones.”