Across This Line, You DO NOT
It’s just a hunch, but I’m guessing that nobody is really interested in reading a philosophical and theoretical discussion about the ethics of food writing.
However, not only has this been a recent topic of conversation here on the FLB, but it has also generated quite a bit of heat over at Wendalicious. And I think it deserves a little bit of attention, especially given a few recent events.
Not least of which is the new Chipotle that opens today on Wolf Road.
See, now you have to ask yourself, why did I mention that? Did I write it because I was invited to the pre-opening day festivities in which my family was treated to free burritos and sodas? Or did I mention it because I hope Chipotle’s increased presence will ultimately inspire our local restaurants to strive for similar thresholds of sustainably and ethically raised ingredients?
Honestly, the answer is a little of both. Is this the same as pay for play? I don’t think so.
The FLB isn’t here for just fun and games. Ultimately my goal is to improve the food in the Capital Region. Part of this is trying to raise the standards consumers expect local establishments to meet. Another part is reaching out to local food producers and praising their good works and exposing their failings.
But to do that I need to be visible. To do that I need to build relationships. On some level that occasionally involves a bit of quid pro quo.
As much as possible I try to put this front and center. I mean, it’s highlighted in the top right corner of every page of the blog. My Open Letter to Capital Region Chefs. If you are doing something good, tell me about it, and I’ll promote it.
There is not much of a difference between that and, “If you are doing something good, show me about it, and I’ll promote it.” The showing is where it can get complicated, because that can involve invitations to tastings that are not available to the public.
And I recognize it is a slippery slope. Which is why I’m glad there are people like B around to help keep me honest. He may or may not believe the things I have to say, but I think he should. Here’s why.
At the end of the day, in the context of this blog, all I have is my honest opinion. If I let my standards drop and recommend something that should not be recommended, I will lose the trust of my readers. That is not something I am willing to barter for free food.
But I also recognize it is not that simple.
Take yesterday’s post about my cake from Crisan. The woman who took my order there knows me. She knows the blog, and she knows what excites me. How can I be sure that anyone else would get a similar cake? And even if they did, would the Crisan staffer inform the customer of the provenance of their strawberries?
Being served the complementary dish of luffa at Ala Shanghai offers a similar quandary, except it goes one step further. Something like the luffa would have made a great Eat This! post for All Over Albany. But given the actual journalistic standards of the AOA editors, I’m sure that would not have been okay.
If you look back at the post, it’s not about how great Ala Shanghai is, but rather about the experience of being given this dish for free, and receiving the very useful information that the restaurant has a seasonal menu which includes this unusual and delicious dish. It’s those last two things that are special, and I would have completely overlooked them had it not been for Lanny taking the initiative.
And this has been my criticism of Steve Barnes for a long time, so I understand.
There is no reason to believe that the food he is served at 677 Prime isn’t given just a little bit of extra care and attention. And sometimes it’s the details that matter. However, for the most part what I write about aren’t executional details. I try to write about larger issues like what makes food good, and what makes a restaurant special. And I think that’s a critical difference.
That said, there are lines that I do not cross.
Recently I got a rather interesting email. I’m not even going to tell you who it was from, lest my mention give them the added publicity they were seeking. But it was from what appears to be a reputable social media / word-of-mouth marketing firm that represents a large New York State agency. And they were actually offering me cash to write a post in support of their efforts. Here’s the relevant blurb:
In exchange for your assistance in promoting this initiative, [REDACTED] is willing to advertise on your site. In order to do this, we are interested in hearing about what our options are, the cost associated with these options, and what our next steps would be.
Taking money for a post is dirty. Sampling a restaurant’s food is the cost of doing business. My opinions are my own. They cannot be bought. The promise of free food will not always get me to show up at an event. The arrival of products on my doorstep will not always result in a post.
But I write about my experiences with food. And if I eat it there’s a chance I will write about it, especially if I can craft it into some story that is consistent with the themes of the FLB. If you have any specific concerns about places I may have strayed, let’s talk about them. But I think you would be hard pressed to find one.