Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Changing Food Writing Scene in Sacramento

I have been debating writing this post. The last thing I want to do is deride my fellow food writers in Sac. Still, I want to address it.

The food writing scene has changed here in Sacramento. If for the better or for the worse, I can't quite say yet. Recently the effervescent and thorough Kate Washington left the Sacramento News and Review to go to SacTown magazine where she should be able to revive from the dead what has in the past been the worst food writing and coverage a magazine has ever conceived. On the opposite end of the publishing spectrum our wine and food guru Mike Dunne, a pillar of the Sac food world who opted for the paper's voluntary buyout offer, has recently left the scene. A sad shame as Mike was one of few wine writers who people could trust implicitly due to his vast knowledge on the subject of wine though he's very humble about it.

Over at SN&R my friend and co-worker at Edible Sac, Ann Rolke was hired to do the by-columns and interviews. She's a great writer and a talented chef who has her own blog and cookbook. Already her pieces are pithy and informative; a pleasure to read.

Second at our weekly Sac rag is Greg Lucas, a SF political reporter now turned restaurant reviewer. His stories leading into the reviews are often thoroughly engaging and pull me into his world. Often I feel I'm sitting right there with him tasting each dish. The review of Samosa Garden was particularly artful and quite vibrant.

Now, Greg, I want to tell you what every foodie, food blogger, and food writer is saying: stop name-dropping. It's not giving you street cred, it's making us roll our eyes and not take the review seriously. It ends up sounding more like "Well I was dining with THIS PERSON and THIS PERSON, and THIS PERSON said the salsa was etc. etc. etc." Insert joke or comment. Supposed big laugh. I say this with love and a bit of ribbing mockery, but stop it. I don't care if you know Rosario Marin or Taka Watanabe. Also, the one-liners must go, but that's me as I personally can't stand them.

Furthermore, from what I gather you aren't primarily a food writer, but then who amongst us starts that way? I know I had no fucking clue what a Meyer lemon was at one time. Pick up a copy of Harold McGee's book and anything food related by Michael Rhulman and read it cover to cover. Not trying to be a bitch, but just trust me, you will find these to be valuable resources that you will turn to again and again (especially McGee's). I found that these helped me understand food on a new level and most others who have read them would agree.

The Bee hired as their new restaurant reviewer Blair Anthony Robertson, a staff writer who covered other stories for the Bee before applying to the position. His writing is smart and witty and it shows he's willing to put in the time and research in order to get the full story. At Tre he noticed the constant menu typos like Hank and I did and played well with it noting, "The best might have been the $6.95 'mocha moose terrine cake.' There were no large mammals harmed in the making of this dish." Point for Blair. I admire a man who can efficiently utilize dry humor.

What annoys me is he's been writing in his column and going into detail on NPR about playing undercover spy in the restaurant review biz. Let's be honest, in Sac you don't need to go undercover. You are not Ruth Reichl, you do not work at the New York Times. I've learned that if I simply put the reservation under a different name, that works just fine. After talking to a few restaurant owners, I've discovered only a scant few ever put up pictures of Kate or Mike and those were only the elite n' trendy places (one place I know did of me, I was shocked and honored but it made me wish I had uploaded better photos to my MySpace). Only one other time when I put a reservation under my name when I wasn't paying attention over the phone did me and my dining companions notice waiters pirouetting around the table. After conversations with other big paper reviewers they can all attest that it's only the LA, SF, Chicago, and NY papers' reviewers that need to really go undercover where the business is a bit more fast paced and epic.

The Bee also hired from in staff Gina Kim whose succinct style is fresh and poignant. Discussing food in a manner that is clear and to the point, she broaches stories where I feel I've learned something after reading. The main wine writer now is Chris Macias, his column Liquid Assets is digestible and I find I usually agree with his wine selections. His more investigative wine reporting isn't anything breakthrough but for the casual Food Section reader it's insightful and informative.

I would consider some of these writers par-baked. Feeling out their new diggs. At the moment among the food community it's become sort of in-trend to knock the new guys. How can we not when the people who have taught and talked with us for so many years have suddenly gone away or moved on? We feel slightly awkward in our new relationship so we test them and tease them as a way to get comfortable.

We need to give them more time in the oven before deciding one way or the other. This blog rarely does restaurant reviews anymore and only do them every blue moon (in fact look for one soon). Lord knows my own reviews and food writing has seen some bad prose. I can think of a few articles in Edible Sac and Sierra Style I wish I could take back, and more than a few posts I have to stop myself from deleting from existence every now and again. I rarely ever approach wine simply because I have little knowledge about it and less interest in writing about it.

I'm just a boy with a blog. I work at Edible Sac and take food writing and recipe development jobs where I can get them. I'm the last person to pass judgment and I know a few stones have been thrown my way (by few I mean weekly). It takes time to grow into a new position so I'll keep reading their work and looking forward to how they develop their space and hope to meet them all soon over dinner and drinks.


  1. Do you know what the word eponymous means? If you do, I am truly curious how the wine and food guru is eponymous. I am not from Sacramento, so maybe I don't know about the famous Mike Dunne wine magazine or something. If you don't, then maybe you should replace that word.

    I mean the following in the kindest possible way. Sometimes it seems like you find adjectives by going to a Thesaurus, finding a three-syllable synonym for the word you mean, and then inserting a different three-syllable word that's near it in the dictionary. I am not trying to troll here or anything. I am just suggesting that you look up less familiar words to make sure you really know what they mean before using them and sounding a bit daft.

  2. Hey Eveyln. Well, I'm going to approach this a piece at a time. One, thanks for catching my little fluke there. I wrote this at 1 am and must have mucked up the word I wanted to use. Still, for grammar or spelling flukes, you should e-mail me.

    As for the thesaurus? Wow. No. I'll be honest, I take huge insult to that. When I teach comp. courses and high school classes I advise them not to do that.

    Again, please e-mail me. Normally I wouldn't allow comments like this to post, but you left no other way for me to contact you. It's something I have addressed on this blog before.

    Furthermore, I let this post because who am I to critique if I can't take it myself? I don't have to agree with you. Honestly, I don't agree with you in the second paragraph in the slightest.

    Really, this blog is my own space to write as I feel. I always appreciate feedback, positive or negative. I will go back and scratch the flubbed word you caught. I do appreciate your taking the time to write to me. =)

  3. Ev, please read this post: http://vanillagarlic.blogspot.com/2007/08/on-comments.html

  4. You're right. I'm sorry. Here is an appropriate comic to apologize:


  5. I so admire your honesty! Because I write about food for a living I tend to stay positive, even when I am in the mood to rant. While I don't read the Sacto papers, I found your post enthralling nonetheless. (p.s. no thesauri were harmed in the writing of this comment)

  6. Evelyn, perhaps you should note that the phrase "kindest possible way" means nothing when there is no possibility of kindness.

    Just a thought.

  7. You're a pretty awful writer yourself. Worse than they are so you probably shouldn't speak up about it. Glass houses anyone?

  8. Garrett-

    Wow, some catty comments so far.
    Seeing as it's Chinese NY I'll leave cat endangerment to another crowd.

    I'm glad the Bee is making changes. The Food Section is fairly useless in my opinion. I'll be happy to give the writers time to develop, but not long. The local area has too many restaurants, farmers, and foodies (hate that term) for a good reporter not to find interesting stories to tell.

  9. Garrett! How DARE you be honest in your assessment of others? If you're going to try, you must be 100% word perfect or else horse of anonymous trolls will have your neck in no time!

    It is funny how quickly anonymous people jump down your throats. What are you going to do if you know their name, leave a flaming sack of poop on their doorstep?

    I don't necessarily agree with everything you say, but I think you (and your writing) are pretty damned good.

  10. I was actually really sad when I read SNR was losing their reviewer. The replacements, in my humble opinion, have been lackluster. It seems every restaurant gets three stars, even if details in the review convince me not to waste my money there. As for name dropping, Alice Waters and I were just ribbing Emeril about that over lunch with Bobby Flay. BAM!!

  11. the new SNR reviewers completely flubbed the review of New Canton.

    Midtown Magazine has some great food writing.

  12. I really enjoy your writings. Always honest, imformative, & funny. I am my own critic. I have to taste, see, feel the "product" myself. I don't buy into what "paid professionals" critique. It all comes down to personal taste on food, movies, authors, reporters etc...for me.

    I view Critics as guides & a lot of times not such great ones.

    Decide for yourselves.

  13. I like this blog and read it frequently, but this post comes off a bit condescending. I don't think it was intended to be, but that is the impression I get. Anyway, no worries, the more food writers we can get in Sacramento, the better!


  14. I have to say I feel the exact opposite. The writers you praise I feel aren't up to snuff. I agree with you in that I enjoy Greg's posts as you do but he only mentioned names in a two articles.


  15. You know, it always amazes me when I come across one of "these posts" online - the kind that stir up heated debates and bitchery in the comments. Mostly because I believe in keeping things in your own corner. In my not-always-quite-so-humble opinion, blogs are really an outlet and a venue for people to express their opinions and feelings. Forums are for debate. So keep your bitchery to your own blog.

    If you don't like what Garret has to say, make your own post in your own corner castigating him. God knows I don't know the SF food writing scene. I live in the Midwest for crying out loud, so it's not that I have an opinion on the issue, I just have an opinion on the behavior.

    See, and now I've gone and broken my own rule :)

  16. I have to agree with you, particularly about the SNR reviews. I don't know the people he is mentioning and I don't get the oneliners (very often), but I do like to read about food and restaurants, like everyone else.
    I am sorry the Bee went from poor to not worth reading when all the experienced writers took the bailout.


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