Cleaning 93 Plates

by James Boo on February 9, 2010 · 20 comments

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Smoked Pork Chop - Hill Country NY - Flatiron, New York
A little over a week ago, I found myself in the meager barroom lobby of Hill Country Barbecue, nursing a smoked pork chop and wading through a tidal pool of chatter at the wrap dinner for 93 Plates.

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.

Ost Cafe - 441 E. 12th St. - East Village, New York
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.

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Comments

Anonymous February 9, 2010 at 1:28 pm

This article is not about food. Boo, I say, boo!

Foodie February 9, 2010 at 4:07 pm

If you weren’t pitching a book to/with (I don’t know the precise arrangement) the owners at Hill Country, would you be singing the same tune about entitlement?

James Boo February 9, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Hagan,

I suppose this comment hints that I’m hiding or at least omitting a connection I have to Hill Country, so that’s what I’ll address.

As far as my book proposal goes: There is no arrangement. I’ve never met any of the HC heads, I have yet to formally pitch to anyone, and I’m showing my work in progress to one of the founders over e-mail mainly to get his opinion on subject matter and my take on barbecue culture. HC is not a pathway to publishers or literary agents; they’re just folks whose establishment I respect and whose opinions I seek as a barbecue enthusiast.

As far as “tune about entitlement” goes: One of my main points here is that restaurants shouldn’t be criticized for not catering to “tastemakers.” I’m especially against any notion that a food blogger is within rights to post a negative review primarily because a restaurant doesn’t give him a hand in reviewing their food – especially when said hand is pushed for free amenities or consideration of a bloggers’ event over a benefit event for Haiti. In the specific of your wrap party, I think you overreacted, and it would a shame to accuse HC of “screwing up” because of some misunderstandings and bad timing. If I had no book in the works, I would be singing exactly the same tune, because the issue here is professionalism, not politics.

Joon S. February 9, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Bravo, James!

Foodie February 9, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Bravo?

For suggesting Hill Country as a venue (he didn’t mention that either) and then supporting them in ignoring the quite reasonable requests of someone who brought 60 patrons to their restaurant (who cares if they were food bloggers).

Does Hill Country cater to food bloggers? Maybe not, but after I called them, they set their PR upon the list of writers on my site to publicize their Haiti Benefit.

What’s the issue again?

James Boo February 9, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Hagan,

I don’t believe Joon’s comment had anything to do with our exchange in comments. He can correct that if he wishes to join the discussion.

I don’t know why you’re attempting to portray me as having something to hide or being beholden to or allied with Hill Country. As I stated, my material connection to Hill Country is nonexistent. As someone who’s had nothing but great meals there (none of which were disclosed to the staff, none of which I’ve blogged and none of which I’ve received for free), I carry no pretense in my words here.

The issue, again, is that you seemed really upset by the way they treated you and very determined to exercise whatever power you have as a blogger to write a negative review of Hill Country as a result. This, as well as 93 Plates in general, to me raises interesting questions on the standards of bloggers and the light in which we all see ourselves and what we do. This isn’t about Hill Country.

Foodie February 10, 2010 at 9:51 am

Then why didn’t you address the other two issues I raised in that last comment? If you want to put the focus on me being ‘irate,’ then you need to know how they treated me from start to finish. Rereading this, I feel Amy’s story is more fair to me; she restricts her opinions to the ones on which she has the whole story.

James Boo February 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

Sure thing, Hagan.

It seems obvious to me that you care that the people at the wrap party were food bloggers – that was the whole point, and in my mind the greatest success of your project. Bringing all of these people together was no small feat. You cared that you brought “the tastemakers of New York City” to a restaurant, which chose to treat them like walk-in customers.

I don’t think that a restaurant’s use of PR to email bloggers who are already used to receiving promotional emails for restaurant events is relevant to this argument so I felt no need to address that – it seemed more of a petty detail than a key one.

Since all of your comments have been more attacks on me and HC than clarification of your interactions with HC and how your negativity towards them is justified, feel free to clear that up here. I was well aware when I wrote this post that you have yet to write your own piece on Hill Country, and you have plenty of story left to tell.

It’s fair to say that I jumped the gun on what you’ll eventually say, but there’s nothing wrong with an honest prediction – I don’t see how you can deny that you seemed ticked off and still seem ticked off at HC. If my words could convince you to rethink your disappoint with them, then I would be that much happier to have written them. At this point, I feel like I’m splitting hairs on minute issues of scope, while you’re taking the whole thing way too personally.

Foodie February 10, 2010 at 12:06 pm

People who had never received an e-mail from the PR firm on my list received one for the first time. 0 attacks, 2 clarifications. It seems like you just dismissed my comments when writing your latest one.

Should anyone trust The Eaten Path’s “honest predictions” of why he thinks Hagan overreacted at Hill Country? Well, no, but isn’t this a given?

Content is king, right? I’ll be using my own forum for further clarification.

JO February 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm

This has been on my mind for a while: To his credit…. I asked Hagan how the restaurants were selected. He told me basically that he picked the ones he most wanted to go to in NYC. So this should yield mostly positive reviews by him. It’s not like he was picking out of a hat or the advertisements in the back of the village voice. He said most of the restaurants, especially in Manh, were kind to his requests.

I guess Hagan had a clear picture of what was going to happen at Hill Country and it was disrupted. Which would perturb a lot of people. In the end, it really doesn’t matter though. I would just drop it if I were him and write more useful stuff. A bashing wouldn’t help anybody because this particular experience there was pretty unique.

James Boo February 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Hagan – I’ve responded thoughtfully to each of your comments here, assuming that you wanted to have a discussion or a debate. That clearly is not the case, so I don’t have the inclination to waste any more of my time.

Jeff – I think Hagan deserves credit, just not as a food reviewer – something I think is a given in terms of common sense. To review a business and publicly give it a thumb up or thumbs down, especially if you are assuming the position of a foodie/food blogger/tastemaker carries certain responsibilities (for the record, I’ve never considered myself a tastemaker, and I think the term is abhorrent). Was 93 Plates fun and the videos entertaining? Yes. Is Hagan Food Network material? I would say certainly. Was the wrap party a success? Definitely.

Does this mean we should trust the review portion of his posts? My answer is still no.

Zach February 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

I think everyone is missing the real virtue of this post: a smoked pork chop that doubles as a study in the color Jazzberry Jam.

Seems like Hagan is an easy, highly visible mascot for many of Food-Blogging’s criticisms, if you even partly side with Robert Sietsema. According to Sietsema, no food blogger is completely innocent of food-writing unprofessionalism. The fact that this shames most of us, but doesn’t seem to shame Hagan, provides some of us with an easy target.

However, there are worse things than a predestined positive review. Even the most casual food-fan equips considerable skepticism when reading self-published opinion. That doesn’t stop any blog post from being worth reading; I still read Yelp! reviews, after all. Rose-colored glasses are easy to identify. After all, they color everything Jazzberry Jam.

Jenny Miller February 11, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I’m conflicted about having participated in Hagan’s project, mostly because I get a sticky feeling about comped meals — I’m not saying my hands are totally clean (whose are?), but they make me very uncomfortable. I happen to know, too, that Hagan was angry that nothing ended up being written by me as a result of our breakfast at Norma’s, though I had attempted to make it clear that unlike the other participants, I don’t have my own blog, and therefore no ready forum for reciprocating when I get free things (not a swipe at you, bloggers present, just a comment that reveals some of my qualms about the whole game). I did pitch a Q&A with Hagan as a story to one of my editors — because I do think he’s a character worth checking in with, especially seeing the way his antics now have a few of us in a tizzy — but that was turned down. The result: no write-up.

I had initially thought Hagan simply wanted to learn more about the New York food world, and was choosing dining partners he could chat with about that, because hey, who wants to eat alone anyway? But no, the guy is concerned with numbers: who’s driven traffic where, how many Twitter followers he has, people have, etc. It’s the ultimate case of you butter my bread, I’ll butter yours, and frankly I’m glad the whole project is over — it initially seemed like plain, good fun, but I think in the end it dragged all of us down a little.

I’m not saying I think Hagan’s a bad guy. The sheer logistics and scope of what he set up — a restaurant for every meal of the day for a whole month, a genius way to get double the exposure by getting food bloggers on board for each excursion — earns my admiration for his boundless energy and production skills. Clearly there’s a place for him out there in the world of gonzo eating, if that’s what he wants; I just don’t think that place should be mixed up with something that passes itself off with journalism or critical writing about food. And I’m also happy to have met a few of you as a result of Hagan’s project, and grateful to him for that. So let me conclude: Thanks, Hagan, but I’m glad you’re moving on.

Foodie February 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Here’s a quote from another food writer I went out with for lunch:

Some 93 Plates participants have accused Hagan of being a media whore, only being in this for the website traffic and publicity, but since he openly admits that these are his motivations, I didn’t have much of a problem with it.

Vorateus February 12, 2010 at 10:52 am

My meetings with Hagan also left me with the impression that he was doing this for notoriety — which isn’t a bad thing, per se. I grew tired of the project halfway through and only checked in when I was dining with a writer that I knew or was at a restaurant that I’d heard of.

For me, as a sometimes-writer and always-eater, the write-ups weren’t very interesting. To be fair the poor man had little time to edit. Yes, the videos were lazy on his part but it was the only thing holding each piece together.

Given the growing backlash against Hagan and the project, I wonder if the reviews from his side and his guests will be re-written. On both this and Amy’s Cho’s blog, he is incredulous that some people were not as impressed with him as he is with himself.

wasabi prime February 14, 2010 at 12:03 am

Ay caramba. What a tangled web food blogging is becoming. It’s becoming harder to navigate through it because you have some people who are doing it just for fun, and they’re 100% content with keeping it as a hobby, and there are others who hope to monetize it in some way, and make a career path out of it. Both are perfectly fine and respectable choices. I ain’t gonna lie — I’m now using my food blog as a resume and writing sample source for freelance writing gigs. I don’t really care how people choose to forge their path in the new media, just be respectable. James, I’ve always been a fan of your blog because you’ve had multiple perspectives, the voices were always honest and sincere (and funnah!), and even though I’ve never met you in person, you seem like a cool funkyfreshfellow. Keep on keepin’ on, and I applaud your maintaining a civilized dialogue when people wanna rumble. *Peace!*

Single Guy Ben February 14, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I think I had a point to post then got lost in trying to follow the comments. Ha! I don’t know all the details, but just reading this post I think raised some good points about food blogs in general and the issue of free food. I, for one, won’t pass up free food. But I do pass it up if it came with strings attached. And in all I write about on my blog, I’m transparent with my readers, being upfront with anything free or how I come about food. Most times, I try to experience food the way anyone else would, walking in and paying for it and then talking about it like I would to friends, not necessarily presenting it as a professional critical review.

Adriana February 15, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Darnit, my last comment didn’t work at all and now I can’t quite remember what I wanted to say, except:

1. James, sorry we didn’t meet! Instead of power networking I was talking urban gardening with Canarsie Mike.

2. Totally agree with you and Jenny that Hagan was pretty transparent about his project and intentions.

3. That said, I think this could have had a very different outcome under another person’s vision–given a different kind of curiosity, more interest in really connecting with a community in a deeper way (understandably difficult with 93 venues, but still), I imagine something that might not have left people reaching for antacids the morning after.

But there you go–at the least an interesting social experiment.

James Boo February 15, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Hey Adriana! The most important question is: Did you like the brisket at Hill Country? :)

I’e be totally happy to meet up with you for coffee, beer or barbecue. Just send me an email and we can figure something out – meeting other bloggers is one of the best parts of being one, and I’m always down for discussion.

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