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New kid; new words
It's time to overturn longstanding notions of how food is discussed. Why? The ascent of blogs.
By Eleonora Baldwin
The professionals who reported on and wrote about food before the advent of the Internet were considered experts. For decades, food journalism was on a par with covering foreign affairs or economics, a profession for which people trained, obtaining coveted certifications before working countless hours penning heaps of unsigned articles. They started at the bottom and proudly crept their way up the magazine's masthead. These were history's acclaimed restaurant critics, seasoned journalists hired by authoritative publications to rate dining establishments. They could decide the fate of a restaurant or skew eating trends.
Then there were the cookbook writers. Like other non-fiction writers, these authors became celebrities if their books sold. Consider Auguste Escoffier and Pellegrino Artusi, both rooted the 19th-century, or the more modern M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan and James Beard. Their timeless culinary literature remains both entertaining and edifying. They used cooking to also comment on culture, history and social fabric of their day.
This brings me to the digital age, and the (literally) free-for-all opportunities afforded by the Internet. The egalitarian web swiftly set aside the notion of expertise. Web log writers, the new arbiters of instant communication, became the voice of silent readers. So-called "bloggers," colloquial, casual and soon wildly popular, grew into a community of trusted and unbiased trendsetters.
The 2009 blockbuster movie "Julie & Julia" boosted the trend. The film is based on a book inspired by the story of an early food blogger (blogging was still considered a hobby at the time) as she tried preparing all the recipes in Julia Child's massive "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." This blog-turned-book-made-into-film not only inspired amateurs to write about what was simmering on their kitchen stoves but also encouraged them to seek the kind of fame and fortune that suddenly seemed possible. Food blogging itself went viral, and out came a business machine that still crunches millions.
It's all in the numbers. Bloggers offer good ideas, strong opinions, unbiased criticism and full transparency, which can bring a select group of bloggers a worldwide following. Large and small brands now consider bloggers more reliable than journalists. They're also eager to tap into the readership of influential blogs, seeing more potential revenues opportunities in the give-and-take format than in traditional product reviews.
The explosive popularity of food blogging has led some authors to venture into videos, journalism and non-fiction writing. Networks, publishing companies and imprints can now make informed sales predictions based on a blog's online reputation and ranking. These statistics are an author's "mathematical" public pedigree. In the pre-web past, wannabe cookbook authors had to send material to literary agents with only a select few scoring appointments to pitch their manuscripts, usually thanks to original thinking, superb writing skills, animal resilience, stubborn belief and extraordinary knowledge of the subject matter. They didn't have a Facebook or Instagram following as a bargaining chip.
Nowadays, popular food bloggers with verifiably large audiences stand a good chance at getting a book deal or a writing gig with a major newspaper. Their online reputation girds their opinions and voices. Publishers know a highly visible platform guarantees readers, sales, exposure and possibly profit.
I know because I'm among those bloggers. I'm not a professionally trained journalist yet I write constantly. My blogging success had led me into serious discussion to publish a cookbook. How did it happen, I ask myself? How did I go from "Eleonora, who?" into cookbook territory? By shamelessly and informally deciding to share my recipes, my opinions on white tablecloth restaurants, gourmet delis, and filthy street food joints: me, the complete food writing nobody.
As a home cook, I hold no chef or sommelier certifications. I learned to make puttanesca, saltimbocca and vignarola in my mother's kitchen. Yet I found out that’s just what my readers love.
I already know I'll never ever come close to the prose poetry contained in the writing of illustrious food authors. But — and blame it on "Julie & Julia," my innate narcissism, or the charm exercised by my parents' reporter friends — the instant I started food-blogging half a dozen years ago I got it into my head that I ultimately wanted to write a cookbook.
Qualms and insecurities immediately arose. Who would want to know anything about what I cook? Though my blog readers encouraged me — they sought personal tidbits behind each ingredient list and cooking tip — a little voice in my head kept saying, "No one really cares what you eat."
That's when it hit me that they already did. They were my audience. Blog readers, far more than the readers of traditional periodicals, are vital, immediate and real. They weigh in constantly. They're sleepless.
Yes, The New York Times restaurant column will always carry weight, just as the philosophic musings of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin will remain rock solid. Yet my blog readers belong to an earthier breed of new readers. They enjoy vicariously sniffing around in my small Italian kitchen; they wait for my daily life stories; they respond with enthusiasm to my personal anecdotes (which still attract more interest than actual recipes).
Cooking blogs not only provide immediate access to recipes, they also build communities, create business, and attract advertisers. What began as diary-style sharing has blossomed into big business.
Can blogs replace the romantic joy of stalwart cookbooks? I'm torn. I'm grateful to the blogosphere for giving me a following, a job and an "influencer of taste" label. But my book — if and when it's printed — will still be comprised of bound leaves of paper to be dog-eared, splotched and scribbled, and read. And it's an idea I still cherish.
Originally a 17th century "cafeteria" for Papal State customs officials who worked down the street. Since contadini had to come to deliver grain to church HQ, the Vatican, they too had munching time on their hands. Later, it became a Trastevere inn based around a bocce alley. The owners now explain that the food of the period was based on subsistence eating (taking and re-inventing upper class left-overs). Fair enough, but times change. Colin Ferrell, Sean Penn, and La Loren, while no doubt famished, are not contadini. Be that as it may, the Rome food gang’s all here: mezze maniche all’amatriciana, cacio e pepe, carbonara, gricia plus stinco, salsiccia, rombo and baccala. The cantina is vast enough to have spawned an enoteca (called DILA, from Di Là) on the side. The scene is elegant (lovely fireplace in winter), so please leave the Red Sox t-shirt at the hotel. Usually closed for two weeks in early January and late April. Near Piazza Trilussa. Book ahead. — Cristina Polli
Bir & Fud
Popular, bustling pizzeria/restaurant on Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere. The foreign student crowd packs this place to the nines for a reason — the beer ("beer and food," get it?). B&F has foreign and local brews as well as microbrewery labels and malts (they have their own shop/microbrewery at Via Luca Valerio, 41).
If you want to munch, order patate come sforno comanda, bronzed, hand-cut fries. A different take on bruschetta comes in the form of Ciauscolo e Silano (sausage from Abruzzo and the Marche). Non-pizza lovers also get ricotta mousse, supplì all'amatriciana, carbonara and pasta alla gricia (bacon and pecorino).
Strange as it sounds, the pizza is good but not tops. As often happens with pizza joints, the "conventional" menu gets lost in the shuffle. Advice: Let others splurge on the pizza while you focus on appetizers and pasta. Booking essential. Expect to spend €15/20 to 40 a head, depending on alcohol. — Cristina Polli
Don Alfonso 1890
Tagged as the best restaurant in southern Italy and one of a handful in the country to have earned three Michelin stars (in 2000 and 2001; down to two in the last few years), chef Alfonso Laccarino is behind this masterpiece (he’s now executive chef at the Hotel Aldrovandi's "Baby" in Rome). Ten kilometers from Sorrento on the peninsula separating the Gulf of Naples from the Amalfi coast, the restaurant uses its own organically-grown vegetables and olives for oil. The old/nouvelle menu is inventive and fanciful, to wit: white fish in vanilla-raspberry sauce and pumpkin croquettes. Expect to spend €200 or more a head, depending on wine choices. — Monica Larner