Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Don't call me a food critic

There is an aphorism: if you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Would that every restaurant owner paid heed to this advice.

I am not a food critic. Anyone who calls me a food critic is terribly mistaken as to what the term "food critic" actually means. I write for multiple publications about the food and restaurant industry; yes. I also have this blog for funsies, in which I get to indulge my love of story-telling and rabble-rousing. I do not, however, critique food. Which is probably for the best as I feel that that's probably the least interesting part of what I do and I usually find myself acutely bored when having to give detailed descriptions of dishes, but that is neither here nor there. I am a food writer; not a food critic. It is a distinction that needs to be made. Here's why.

I'll let you in on a little secret: I don't actually love everything. I know. It's, like, you'd think with how much I try to support all these many, many different businesses through my various media (traditional, social and web) channels that I must think that every last one of them is the cat's ass. They're not. Most aren't. Hell, here in metro Detroit the bar is set so excruciatingly low that places that rank among THE BEST is a purely relative positioning: the best of what we have is far more accurate. That being said, readers probably wouldn't be keen to read every post here and on Facebook bookended with, "It's really only just okay, but it's the best we got so whad'rya gonna do?"

But readers aren't the only ones who wouldn't appreciate that. No no no no no Jesus on a mother-ing pterodactyl no. I can't tell you if this is a phenomenon entirely unique to Detroit (we do like to think everything is unique to us; it's not, but in this case where every association is a matter of the two degrees of Detroit there could be some of that small town self-policing mentality at play), or if the pandering to advertisers and business owners' egos is more pandemic, but I can tell you this: you can't say anything remotely critical without being A BIG MEAN MEANIE WHO DOESN'T SUPPORT SMALL BUSINESSES.

It's true. The three times a year that I'm not blowing rainbow-colored, candy-scented smoke about some local restaurant I have to deal with a business owner with a butt-hurt getting all pissy-pants on Facebook.* Owning a business is hard. I get it. But this pitiful expectation that all people absolutely must be blindly, unquestioningly supportive of your business in perpetuity solely by virtue of the fact that you exist isn't just ridiculous; it's insulting. Then there's always the old go-to: "We do some much for the community!!!" Oh, well, in that case, your product and service can suck (or your business ethics be downright criminal) so long as you donate food to fundraisers. And the violins played on.

Yes, I see the logic there. Look, I do a lot for the community too: I put asses in the seats of your businesses and get people to spend money at your establishments which ultimately enables you to stay open for all of your community-supporting martyrdom. And I do all of this for free. YOU'RE WELCOME. But let's not argue the color of red herrings.

In addition to business owners with butt-hurts, there is also the almighty ad dollar to contend with. I'm going to let you in on another little secret: everyone caters to their advertisers. Everyone. Without exception. EVERYONE. Some publications just happen to be more forthright about it, and that might just be the only real honesty left. The death knell of undiluted critique in the media** rang a long, long time ago; we just forgot to have a funeral. There may have once been a time when the sanctity of critique was valued over the necessity of ad revenue, when advertisers were easily replaced but reputations weren't (and actually mattered), when the editorial department actually dictated content. Those days are dunzo.

In a compulsively litigious society in which all egos are precious and value is measured in ad dollars, there simply is no room left for criticism. Traditional media outlets (I'm specifically referring to print pubs here) have been downsizing en masse over the last decade. Circulation is down, advertising is down, therefore employment is down. As the old guard struggles to adapt to new media (IT'S CALLED THE INTERNET), there really isn't an effective money-making model currently in play. Print pubs hemorrhage money and the best thing we've come up with for online revenue generation is click-through advertising, which is kind of like trying to move a car by pushing it WITH YOUR MIND even though the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. In their panic, publishers cater to the advertisers they can keep. And so much of journalism has become mere PR.

At the end of the day, I'd rather dazzle with prose than with my knowledge of quinoa; the New York Times, that one-time monolith of journalistic integrity, would rather wax poetic on pesto. Maybe the death of critique doesn't really matter; maybe it's fallacious to believe it ever really existed in any kind of pure form in the first place. (After all, the only reason newspapers and broadcast media exist is for advertising, and that isn't so much a sweeping statement as it is the subject of countless volumes of critical media theory.) But whatever you do, do not make the mistake of confusing food PR with food criticism. Print might not (yet) be dead, but the role of the critic is.

*Some will assume this comment is referencing a specific business in light of recent events and is therefore a personal attack. It is not. While this post is inspired by a recent encounter, it has more to do with a culmination of experiences and observations over time, and something I've been wanting to say for a long, long while. If anything, said recent encounter was of the most pleasant sort possible given the circumstances.

**For the purposes of this post I am specifically speaking of traditional restaurant criticism when speaking of "media" and "journalism," though one could certainly make a case for this "journalism as PR" motif being much more rampant and wide-spread across the whole of journalism, though sometimes the word "advertisers" would need to be replaced with "political parties," "special interest groups" and "lobbyists." But that's a different rant entirely.