May 25, 2011

Craig LaBan is the food critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He started writing about food professionally in Boston in 1992 and won the James Beard award for restaurant criticism in 2000.

In his own words, LaBan talks about food writing’s past and future.

On the evolution of food writing:

I see a strong evolution in food writing. … It’s moved from the “Ladies Home Journal” “fluffy Jello mold” and recipe card mentality to food as a way to look at the world. It’s been going on for decades, but people didn’t really pay attention to it until Food Network made it cool.

In terms of my approach to food writing, I’ve always just tried to be a good journalist and be curious. I’m open to learning. …

The whole demise of fine dining and the rise of small plates, that’s been an exciting part of the evolution of the food scene but it’s a challenge to writers.

My rating scale was based on the old-school notion of the top of the heap, the fine dining places. But that needs to change and it’s hard to find a way to evolve it gracefully.

On writing about food in an online world:

We have to fight against promotionalism; there are a lot of people eating free food and writing a review and saying “I’m a blogger!”

That kind of knee-jerk shallow criticism has numbed people to the power of the critical word, and they don’t think about the impact of the negative things they write. And they write without reporting, without fleshing it out.

Just recently, we wrote about a new bagel place that opened up. … It’s a great place with a wood burning oven. Then there was a fire and everyone is reporting it on Twitter, on Foobooz.

But this one guy starts writing anonymously in the dreaded comments’ section about how the prices are going to go up to cover the damage and how it’s too expensive and “f*ck this place.” This is one guy and he has a gripe and this is how he expresses it. When that kind of reply is part of the public dialogue, it pollutes the discussion and makes it harder for the genuine, serious voices to resonate.

You can’t underestimate how the change in technology has changed food writing. We got these new iPhones and I feel the power. I’m at a table I can snap pix and write a few funny words and post it and there you are.

Of course, that isn’t the end of it. We still have to go back and write the larger story, but technology has made everyday things like eating — and writing about it — so accessible to everybody. And it’s changed the game and challenged the traditional journalists to be relevant.

On the audience shift:

If you do this long enough, you see the cycles and the fresh faces. Now it’s food trucks, and each restaurant has a farm and they’re making bitters for their own cocktails. More people want to make things for themselves and that makes life a lot more interesting for us. They’re making their own bread and charcuterie and bitters and taking whole animals and breaking them down.

We’re constantly moving forward forward forward, but we still need people who can remember the traditions and remember the food ways that tie us to our history. You don’t want all that to get lost in youthful energy.

Here’s what other food writers have to say:

Food prices are one of many food-related topics in the news these days. Participate in a NewsU webinar on Thursday at 2 p.m. ET to learn how you can go beyond regurgitating numbers by explaining what they mean and how they affect local wallets.

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