Hagan, our host, was growing irate. Something like 40 bloggers had gathered to help close out his month-long carousel of comped meals at 93 New York restaurants, cafes and bars, but due to the fact that Hill Country was throwing a flat-fee benefit meal for Haiti and wouldn’t accept group reservations without some form of advanced payment, he had to settle for six tiny tables and a shortage of standing room on his big night out.
This didn’t stop everyone from having a good time, but it was more or less a clusterfuck. At the end of the evening, Hagan pointed the finger at Hill Country, seemingly in disbelief that they would pass up an opportunity to entertain “the tastemakers of the city” and make some decent scratch in the process. Wanderingfoodie.com underscores his disappointment, declaring that “this place really screwed up.”
If I were to sum 93 Plates and Hagan Blount from the scenes of that meal, this story wouldn’t be pretty. Some have already gone down that road, singling out 93 Plates as unscrupulous or uninspired and Hagan’s self-branding as obnoxious. There is truth in the vitriol, but whenever someone gets pissed enough to drag a name through the mud, “Well, what did you expect?” becomes a very relevant question.
Stumbling through the comments in Amy Cao’s takedown of the man days after reading Robert Sietsema’s breakdown of food writing ethics certainly made me re-examine my own expectations as a food blogger. When I created The Eaten Path in 2007, I had no expertise to offer. I designed the site in a fit of curmudgeonly disdain for three-column efficiency, preempting ambition and placing all my focus on what I hoped would be a series of interesting stories about food. If there is such a thing as an old fashioned food blog, I’d like to think that this is it.
The wrap party showed me just how varied a food blog’s intent and execution can be. While I’m happy with my storytelling corner, many bloggers do fancy themselves critics, aiming to provide a service to readers in their judgment of bites around town – concurrently, many readers expect just as much. Others are more concerned with the idioms of eating out, the cult of the chef and the news cycle of dining gossip, plugging themselves into all things food and doing their best to keep their fingers on an increasingly glamorous – and publicly so – part of New York’s pulse. The fact that this is at once the food capital and the Iphone capital of the United States raises the bar for anyone trying to make his name, and this is where 93 Plates starts spinning.
The free meal I shared with Hagan at Ost Cafe gave me a clear understanding of the man, whose antics I think are worth this story. Our conversation circled around his fascination with what makes food blogs “successful”; by this point he had stopped thinking so much about words, ordering his meals to maximize image content and relying on video to boost traffic to his site. He told me that he’d once sent an audition tape to the Food Network, updated me on his quest to be the #1 search result for “foodie” (he’s currently on page 4) and re-asserted his dream of being paid for the task of being an eating head. The only thing left to figure out was a clear and compelling product.
Surveying the crop at Hill Country, I sensed that a substantial chunk of food bloggers is not too far behind this train of thought. Yes, we all love food, but for some an insatiable sense of hunger – a hunger for interaction, for a constant feeling of movement, for a sense of community and empowerment, however superimposed – is just as important, if not more. In their element, these alpha bloggers are spokespersons, networking machines and adventurers, but at any point in conversation they could probably replace “food” with any other topic and land roughly on the same points. This can feel understandably grating to the people who are just trying to share a bit of themselves in a bowl of noodles or a newly minted recipe, and even insulting to those whose love of food is rooted in the physical communities from which so many wonderful meals have grown over time.
Still, while the content of 93 Plates is questionable, I can’t help but be impressed that one man got away with this much free eating. And while the crowd at the wrap dinner split sharply between those itching to get their hands on some food and those content to survive on booze and schmooze, 93 Plates really did bring a fair and diverse share of the food blogging gene pool together. Whether it was ultimately to trade business cards or trade blows is incidental; the event was a success precisely because of Hagan’s desire to be surrounded by “the blogging elite,” an achievement he shouldn’t be ashamed to claim.
But should anyone trust The Wandering Foodie’s “reviews” of free food? Well, no, but isn’t this a given? Not to slight the man too much here, but to deem anything public poison assumes that it will be invariably consumed. I can’t think of a major food blog that’s paid any attention to 93 Plates, I can’t say if Hagan even cares, and I can’t call moral betrayal when the moral of his story is, “Free food? Sign me up!”
Are food bloggers tastemakers, and if so, what does this mean for media standards and the sphere of popular taste?
This to me is the more relevant question. I’m bound to butt heads with anyone who thinks that restaurants have a responsibility to court food bloggers and bow to the oohs and aahs of new media. After all, to the curmudgeonly eater a free review is no review at all, and an uninformed community is just a few misplaced steps away from an unruly mob. I hope Hagan has learned enough from this stunt to know that a community is made of stronger stuff than status updates, and I do have faith that if he remembers to order some humble pie, his hunger will take him to a decent place – or at the very least, to a place that serves a damn good pork chop.