New Food Media vs. Old Food Media (or Julie vs. Julia)

The upcoming movie Julie & Julia is bringing up some interesting discussions in the food world about old-school food journal vs. new-school food journalism. Or in other words, professional food writers who work at newspapers and have had cookbooks published by mainstream publishing houses are discussing the validity of those food writers who are cutting their teeth in the blog world, and then moving on to bigger and better things.

It makes sense that this movie would initiate such a discussion, for it details the life of two women who best represent each school. In one corner, you have Julia Child, whose legacy is nearly larger than life, an icon of the food movement. In the other you have Julie Powell, an ex-food blogger whose web site hit the big time when she parleyed her exploration of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking into a book deal and then subsequently a movie deal. Both women are quite representative of their eras, as well as the technologies of their eras, Julia Child’s popularity wouldn’t have been so great without television. Ms. Powell’s popularity would be non-existent without blog technology, even if she strongly feels the need to disassociate herself with the blogging generation.

The old-school/new-school debate was put forth once again by Virginia Willis, a food writer and photographer who was brought in old school traditions, even as she embraces new school technologies. She had an in-depth exploration of her feelings a week or so back. The entire thing is worth a read, but this is the part that took me in:

I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse?

(snip)

People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!

Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.

I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.

There’s so much I want to talk about with her perspective, I don’t know where to necessarily start.

For the most part, i don’t think that many individual food bloggers count themselves as food journalists. Granted my sampling is based off of those sites I happen to consume on a regular basis, but those I read come more from a personal memoir/diary perspective, with a tad bit of research thrown in to provide context. Not all food writers are food journalists, and to equate the two is doing a disservice to those who explicitly do not do food journalism.

But let’s talk about expertise for a moment. Can people who simply consume food without knowing its context be considered experts? If not, does this lack of expertise diminish their experience, or make that experience less important?

First and foremost, food is a reflection of any given culture, regardless of the era in which they live. Each culture has its own ignorance of items relating to their culture. Is Pliny the Elder’s position on beer to be dismissed because he didn’t know of yeast, nor of beer’s importance to the tribes of his enemies? Are the cooks of the Renaissance less important to food culture because they didn’t know the etymology and evolution of the recipes they were using? Of course not. The same can be said of those who simply mimic recipes and discuss their value on food blogs or other similar mediums. Their input has inherent value. Just because one knows the importance of Poulet au Bresse does not mean that their insight has more cultural value from one who does not.

So if cultural currency isn’t the issue, then what is? My guess is something I call “Institutional Relevancy”, or how important one person is to the institution they serve, in this case: food media.

Here’s an observation I have that most American food writers don’t want to hear – the majority of Americans don’t care about food, or at least not in the way the experts would like them to. There are many anecdotal statistics I could throw out there to support my position – the popularity of fast food restaurants, the ratio of sales of prepared food versus fresh produce, the number of people who call Kraft Singles “cheese”.

“But Kate!”, one might exclaim. “What about the popularity of The Food Network?”

Granted, The Food Networks growth over the past ten years or so have been impressive, but let’s take a look at the shows they have on. Some of them a pure entertainment, (Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef, The Search for the Next Food Network Star), others are recipe shows that have approach cooking from a very simplistic point of view (Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and others), and still others are simply border line food porn (Paula Deen). My point here is that the largest food media institution has succeeded because it either treats food as entertainment, or as a dumbed-down commodity. There are exceptions on the network, to be sure, but these tend to be the exceptions, and not the rule. On the Food Network, Poulet au Bresse is afforded the same respect as any other chicken.

The proliferation of food blogs that take this simplistic approach reflect the current standard of American food knowledge. That is to say, we are how we eat – kind of mindlessly.

But this is changing. I doubt the local food movement would be as successful today without blogs, the same could be said for the organic movement five years ago. And each of these movements have entered our culinary vernacular, and have made us smarter when it comes to food.

I will admit to one trend that I find disturbing – the proliferation of food blogs who do little more than regurgitate press releases and video links. I am not a fan of Slashfood or Eat Me Daily, who seem to believe that recapping Top Chef or providing obituaries about the Taco Bell Chihuahua are relevant to cooking or restaurant going. But this is a personal bias. I’m of the belief that the more we take these sites seriously, the more likely we’ll regress in our collective food knowledge.

Let me end on this – I’m a fan of Julia Child, and I believe her place in American food history is deserved. Her French Cooking cookbooks are near required for anyone’s cookbook library. But how effective was the method of her message when a mere generation later, someone following her cookbook didn’t understand the relevance of poulet au Bresse?


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