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Fat Guy

I'm self-appointed, you're self-appointed

97 posts in this topic

I know one critic, a woman who was considered the Grande Dame of Montreal restaurant reviewing -- very influential and very feared -- who told me she was given the restaurant reviewing assignment back in the sixites for two reasons: she was a woman and she was from France.

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That reminds me of an old New Yorker profile of Donald Lau of Wonton Food Inc., the most influential writer of fortunes for fortune cookies. In the 1980s, when Wonton Food Inc. bought the factory that is now the global epicenter of fortune cookie production, Lau -- the accounts payable manager -- was drafted to write the fortunes. He told the New Yorker magazine: “I was chosen because my English was the best of the group."


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Some very thoughtful comments here the last couple of days.

So far, I've not seen mentioned an issue that's implicit in many such discussions. Jon Carroll (now columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle) remarked a quarter-century ago, after tenure as a magazine editor, his professional estimation (after innumerable unsolicited applications) that everyone alive considers themselves qualified as a restaurant critic (Carroll's Law). Yet presumably, readers have other criteria. That's a built-in difference of values, much as voters prefer candidates for reasons other than how much they want the job. (The contrast isn't limited to restaurant criticism of course; many potential popular, even scholarly, authors dwell on publication's benefit to themselves, not their readers.)

Yet readers outnumber writers (I hope).* It'd be interesting to see more views on this subject from people reading, and not writing, restaurant commentary.

--

*There are known exceptions among academically-oriented scholarly journals.

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Have there been any cases of a blog or internet writer not attached to a print publication being sued for slander or libel?


"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office

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Yes. There have been many defamation lawsuits against bloggers in the US (a USA Today article quotes one source as saying 50 of them in 2005-2006), as well as elsewhere, and last year for the first time a blogger actually lost one. I don't recall one involving a food blog, but I don't know the details of every action. Certainly, people threaten to sue us all the time, which is why we carry liability insurance.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In at least one critical aspect, online reviewers are usually more accountable than newspaper critics. Online, there is typically the ability to respond.

Newspapers tightly control their letters to the editor sections, and generally decide unilaterally who will be able to disagree on equal footing with the critic. Meanwhile, if someone posts comments about a restaurant in a discussion forum, like this one, other people can respond. As long as the response is on topic and doesn't go off the deep end, it stands with equal prominence to the original. Most responsible bloggers allow comments to appear immediately after their blog entries. So online writers are not only accountable to their readers, but also their readers have the opportunity to respond. Newspapers just don't do that. They rally around their writers in a closed-off system and only bring their accountability mechanisms into play in the most extreme instances.

As I always point out, I'm not a restaurant reviewer, I'm a food journalist. As such, I'm reluctant to wade into debates such as these. But Steven, I have to disagree with you here.

First, to say that "online, there is typically the ability to respond" isn't completely accurate. On some sites, such as Egullet, response might be tolerated. But on others, it isn't.

We recently had an experience with a competing site in which The Observer's restaurant reviewer came under criticism. She acknowledged the criticism gracefully and replied with feedback of her own, including inviting people to contact her to share thoughts on our paper's restaurant coverage. Her post was removed as if it never existed. When we protested, our protest was denied on the basis that mentioning the newspaper amounted to marketing. (I no longer participate on that site, and have declared so publicly. But beyond that, there wasn't much I could do.)

I realize the site in question isn't Egullet, and I appreciate your work in allowing an open forum. But to say that the freedom to respond is widespread throughout the blogosphere isn't completely accurate.

By the same token, printed newspapers have corrections policies. If someone brings a correction to my attention, I have to respond to it and notify my editors of it. That policy is printed every day in the same space in our newspaper. On a blog or a web board, if a mistake is made, it usually isn't corrected. (And yes, sorry to say, I once brought a mistake to the attention of an administrator on this site. It wasn't acknowledged and the mistake wasn't corrected. As far as I know, it's still floating around there, ready to pop up again with the ease of a Google search.)

And finally, Steven, your description of how newspapers respond to challengers doesn't match my experience. I have spent more than 30 years in five newsrooms. From that experience, I can promise you that challenges to my reliability are taken very, very seriously, both by me and by my editors. Letters to the editor are edited, but mainly for length, to keep them focused on the main point. (Editing and writing to fit the space also isn't something most bloggers have experienced. Pity.)

Now, I realize that you will take apart my reply and parse it sentence by sentence, eventually taking more time than I can match. And that also is the power of the blogger: By making the discussion contentious, anyone who disagrees ends up avoiding involvement, because of the time it takes to respond.


Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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It strikes me as odd that it is the bloggers who seem most defensive about their abilities and have Fat Guy rather firmly on their side.

I have been an in-print wine and restaurant critic for more years than I will admit in public. My internet presence is only about 10 years old and that largely in the form of articles and a forum. And I have a terrible secret to share - I am not the least bit in fear of bloggers stealing my readers or my job. Oh sure, one day I will go the way of all flesh and all I can do is hope that my replacement will be one I enjoy reading and can learn from. But worried - hell no. I, and a good many senior journalists I know and respect devote a fair amount of time to actively encouraging the young to enter the field, in encouraging them further once they have entered and then serving at some level as shall we say fair godmothers or god fathers to them. What do they call that in the police - their "rabbis".

I cannot help but think that Stephen would have the major factor involved in accreditation as how many times people dine out. I know lots of people who dine out seven times a week in places ranging in quality from Wendy's to Alice Waters, from Hooters to Guy Savoy. And the sad part, to the true lover of dining is that they many of them can far better describe the fare at Hooters than they can t Guy Savoy's.

two final notes: (a) Professionalism is not a dirty word. (b) Striivng for an intellectual, philosophical point of view in anything, including restaurant criticism is not a sin.


Edited by Daniel Rogov (log)

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Kathi, there are a few websites that are notoriously exclusionary about the content they'll allow, however there are also print journals that don't even publish letters to the editor (most famously, the New Yorker was like that for most of its history). The reality is, however, that the blogs and discussion forums that would have limited a reply such as yours number approximately one. The other 20,000 or so food blogs and food sites out there would surely have allowed it as entirely routine and matter of course.

Corrections policies are mostly a print media thing, because the format of a threaded discussion like this allows for corrections to be appended on topic. If you noticed something inaccurate on an eG Forums topic, you could have (and still can) just add a post clarifying. I'm not familiar with the specifics of the instance you're citing, but that's the easiest way to do it. I should add, I send corrections to the New York Times on occasion and they're usually ignored. The claim that print newspapers correct every error of fact is simply not right. Editors are pretty clever about explaining -- wrongly -- why a given error is not an error, and there's no appeals process (no, the public editor won't usually bother with such minutiae) so those decisions are final even when wrong.

Finally, of all the rhetorical dirty tricks, I'm shocked, amazed and disappointed that you'd attempt to preempt meaningful argument by claiming:

Now, I realize that you will take apart my reply and parse it sentence by sentence, eventually taking more time than I can match. And that also is the power of the blogger: By making the discussion contentious, anyone who disagrees ends up avoiding involvement, because of the time it takes to respond.

Nonsense.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Finally, of all the rhetorical dirty tricks, I'm shocked, amazed and disappointed that you'd attempt to preempt meaningful argument by claiming:
Now, I realize that you will take apart my reply and parse it sentence by sentence, eventually taking more time than I can match. And that also is the power of the blogger: By making the discussion contentious, anyone who disagrees ends up avoiding involvement, because of the time it takes to respond.

Nonsense.

Dirty trick? She's right. It's kept me from contributing more often than not.


"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office

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You're wrong, but since I perceive my own time to be so much more valuable than yours I won't be offering you the courtesy of a reply. It might take me too much time to answer your follow-up arguments, which would also be wrong, but I can't possibly be bothered to dignify them with a response. I'm just too busy. So I'll just say you're wrong, and you'll just have to live with that. Sorry.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Meanwhile, I've had many letters to the editor published in newspapers, including the New York Times. Every single one of them has been edited. I've never heard of a letter to the editor being published in a newspaper without some edits. In many cases I've felt that the edits made to my letters have weakened them substantially.

Gosh. I have to note parenthetically that I once had a letter to the Times published absolutely verbatim. I very was proud of that at the time, since I'd worked hard to make sure that it didn't have a single wasted word and I apparently achieved that goal, if only once.

Of course it didn't happen that way with my next letter to them, so I'm batting .500 there.


Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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When I write about a restaurant I have been to, I have paid for the meal in full. I don't want to be appointed, that might open doors I don't want opened.


It is good to be a BBQ Judge.

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Now, I realize that you will take apart my reply and parse it sentence by sentence, eventually taking more time than I can match. And that also is the power of the blogger: By making the discussion contentious, anyone who disagrees ends up avoiding involvement, because of the time it takes to respond.

In other words, last post wins.

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Great, lively discussion.

I am curious, for those of you who have both a blog and a paid gig, do you feel more responsibility when writing for pay than you do when you are throwing a freebie out there on a blog or message board?

I am thinking particularly of you Miami Danny - :wink:. I have read your blog, reviews on message boards, and the stuff that allows you to cash a check. I find no discernible difference in the quality of writing. I also find all objective, and responsible, although you can be grumpy sometimes.

Does the writer feel more responsibility when an actual deposit in the bank is involved?

Regards,

Constant Reader

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I have noticed that the discussion here applies almost exclusively to eaters, readers, bloggers, and critics living in large cities. And that's not at all inappropriate.

However for those of us living in smaller cities -- what's called the "metro" area here is about 400,000 -- another issue enters this discussion, that of the advertising dollar.

Several years ago, the local newspaper had to pull a local story at the last minute, and plugged some wire copy into the hole in order to get the paper out on time. No one noticed, until the outrage swelled the next day, that the wire copy was a story highly critical of car dealers. The result was that the local car dealers pulled all of their advertising and started their own car-advertising-only publication, and it nearly bankrupted the newspaper.

Since then, newspaper copy in this city has been bland, bland, bland. While I can appreciate that a restaurant critic must keep in mind that harsh criticism can sink a restaurant, I think it's also true that the lack of it does an enormous disservice to readers. Because of an intense fear of losing any of its advertising dollars, the local newspaper never prints anything critical of anyone. That's one of the reasons why Wichita and other medium-sized Midwest cities are doomed to be overrun by chain restaurants. I have a lot of respect for the local restaurant reviewer, but sometimes it's painfully obvious she's working hard to find SOMETHING good to say about a new restaurant that has nothing much to offer. While I might envy a reviewer in a larger city, sometimes I pity her; I also know how she manages to stay so slender. When faced with eating absolute crap as often as it takes to do her columns, she probably has no problem keeping her calorie intake down.

My point, then, is that "other-appointed" critics are not only appointed by editors who know nothing about good food, but also indirectly by the very people whose restaurants they're reviewing, since those people are often also advertisers. Their built-in lack of objectivity has nothing to do with personal compromises when it comes to accepting freebies, but instead with the realities of working for publications in which every advertising dollar makes a difference.

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Great, lively discussion.

I am curious, for those of you who have both a blog and a paid gig, do you feel more responsibility when writing for pay than you do when you are throwing a freebie out there on a blog or message board?

I am thinking particularly of you Miami Danny -  :wink:. I have read your blog, reviews on message boards, and the stuff that allows you to cash a check. I find no discernible difference in the quality of writing. I also find all objective, and responsible, although you can be grumpy sometimes.

Does the writer feel more responsibility when an actual deposit in the bank is involved?

Regards,

Constant Reader

Grumpy sometimes ? You're too kind. I find the hardest thing to deal with is editing. On my blog, I try to tone myself down sometimes, although I rarely edit for length. If you're not a seasoned pro (and I'm nowhere near that), it's very difficult to edit yourself. I have taken 1400 word pieces and had to edit them down to 5-600 words for print publication. It's really like trying to figure out which limb to cut off, especially if I really love the people and the subject I'm writing about. Then the print editor has their more or less final say at deadline, as well. I try to get my pieces in a little early, so the editor and I have time to talk about changes, too.

Anne-Honestly, I have the luxury of choosing what to write about at the moment. I pick my subjects for my food columns, as well as design , theater, and anything else I may get paid for. It's stuff I know a lot about, research a lot (and I don't just mean going to wikipedia or trolling the internet-real shoe leather stuff), love interviewing the people involved, and enjoy. Maybe that would change if I were getting paid to review restaurants I can't stand, or subjects that bore me.

But the bottom line is always integrity. Paid or free, print or blog, I feel I have to establish and maintain what I consider high standards. If you read my last blog post, you'll know that I take this stuff very seriously, even though sometimes it's just a really great taco truck. I visited this truck a dozen times before I wrote about it (both 1400 words on a blog, and 550 words in print)-this guy in print sounded like he may have eaten at the truck once, if at all.

My responsibilty then, at all times, is to the standards I set for myself.

Additionally, you have to be pretty broke, or pretty desperate, or both, to give up your integrity for a couple of dollars, because that's all it is. Well that, and, of course, all the glory.


Edited by Miami Danny (log)

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I just skimmed this entire thread, and am surprised to see no mention of "self-paying" versus "other-paying."

1) "Self-paying" means you pay for your own meals, accept no compensation from anyone, and refuse to accept free meals from restaurants.

"Other-paying" can be divided into two categories:

2a) "Other-appointed Other-paying," whose work is generally paid for by a publication, such as the major food critics.

2b) "Self-appointed Other-paying," whose work is subsidized by accepting freebies and comps from restaurants.

I know which category I fall under, and I rest comfortably.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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Jay Rayner, the Observer (London) critic, noticed the Gazette story and this eG Forums topic and discussed them recently in his blog. A few of his comments:

Regularly the article mentions that food bloggers have no credentials and no track record. They just like eating in restaurants.

Well, as one of the so-called professionals on the other side of the fence let me confess: very few of us do either.

The egullet crew have a point, though. The fact is that newspaper restaurant critics are not employed to sell restaurants. They are employed to sell newspapers, and what editors therefore need from us is the ability to write a readable, entertaining column week in week out. Food knowledge or an understanding of restaurants comes a distant second.

Worth having a look at the full piece.


Edited by Fat Guy (log)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I just skimmed this entire thread, and am surprised to see no mention of "self-paying" versus "other-paying."

1) "Self-paying" means you pay for your own meals, accept no compensation from anyone, and refuse to accept free meals from restaurants.

"Other-paying" can be divided into two categories: 

2a) "Other-appointed Other-paying," whose work is generally paid for by a publication, such as the major food critics.

2b) "Self-appointed Other-paying," whose work is subsidized by accepting freebies and comps from restaurants.

I know which category I fall under, and I rest comfortably.

Cheers,

Rocks.

Rocks, you brought up an interesting point. Also, what happens when a self-appointed becomes an other-appointed? Or an amateur becomes a professional? Do they automatically become better? Or, something else? And exactly how does one 'rest comfortably'?

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I am growing weary of the need, both by critics and the critics of the critics, to find it necessary to either apologize or accuse. As I have stated before, not all critics are competent or honest but those of us who are have no need for such apologetica. I could comfortably name a host of professional critics whose reputations are beyond tarnish, whose knowledge is encyclopaedic, and whose palates are well past reproach. That is not to say that we have to agree with those people on all of their judgements. It is to say however that we do have to weigh what they say in order to determine whether they can serve as benchmarks for our own desires and palates.

I wonder if much of this need is (a) on the part of critics in the name of political correctness (i.e. "we are not better than them") and (b) on the part of others as a reflection of "down the establishment"

Indeed the critic should be open to criticism. Indeed as well, however, let us not let the baby go down the drain along with the dirty bathwater.

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I'm a farmer who likes to eat. I love to cook. I'm comfortable enough that I don't mind paying for quality and redneck enough that I don't turn my nose up at a good hot dog once in a while.

Paid restaurant reviews are, for the most part, a waste of my time. They are formal, suspect, and address issues which I am probably never going to be able to discern or appreciate. A slight nutmeginess in the foamy aspic of jellied rutabaga is just not something I'm going to notice.

A blogger, on the other hand, once I have developed some affinity for him, is someone whose opinion I would seek. They are the common man, and I have more faith in their ability to speak my language.


“Don't kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!”

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Actually I would think it's often the opposite.

As a newspaper restaurant critic I feel I have to limit the "foodie talk" (or my editors tell me to) because my audience comprises both seasoned restaurant goers who understand words like brunoise and brandade, and people who think of Shake & Bake as a celebratory dinner. You're also writing for readers who may glance at the restaurant review only in passing.

The blogger, however, is someone you seek out. And if you're doing that seeking, chances are food is your focus.

Also, as is the case with the paper I write for, we have two critics: one for fine-dining and one for casual. So there's something for both taco lovers and sea-urchin-foam aficinados.

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I am growing weary of the need, both by critics and the critics of the critics, to find it necessary to either apologize or accuse.  As I have stated before, not all critics are competent or honest but those of us who are have no need for such apologetica.  I could comfortably name a host of professional critics whose reputations are beyond tarnish, whose knowledge is encyclopaedic, and whose palates are well past reproach.  That is not to say that we have to agree with those people on all of their judgements.  It is to say however that we do have to weigh what they say in order to determine whether they can serve as benchmarks for our own desires and palates.

I wonder if much of this need is (a) on the part of critics in the name of political correctness (i.e. "we are not better than them") and (b) on the part of others as a reflection of "down the establishment"

Indeed the critic should be open to criticism.  Indeed as well, however, let us not let the baby go down the drain along with the dirty bathwater.

Mr. Rogov-Perhaps you do not feel the need to apologize or accuse, but obviously there is enough controversy here that many do, suggesting that this is a real issue. Perhaps these are not ad hominem attacks or accusations, but real, honest disagreements among those who get paid and those who don't, those who submit their work for publication, and those who publish their own work from their laptop while in their underwear. And please tell me that the 'host of professional critics whose reputations are beyond tarnish...etc.' includes you and me.

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I'm a farmer who likes to eat. I love to cook. I'm comfortable enough that I don't mind paying for quality and redneck enough that I don't turn my nose up at a good hot dog once in a while.

Paid restaurant reviews are, for the most part, a waste of my time. They are formal, suspect, and address issues which I am probably never going to be able to discern or appreciate. A slight nutmeginess in the foamy aspic of jellied rutabaga is just not something I'm going to notice.

A blogger, on the other hand, once I have developed some affinity for him, is someone whose opinion I would seek. They are the common man, and I have more faith in their ability to speak my language.

Maybe it's because because of the loathsome wasteland that "the common man" has fashioned of our popular culture, but I have a deep and abiding distrust of the people whose dollars and "taste" have given us Thomas Kincaid, Brittney Spears, TGI Friday's and most prime time television. Whether or not they speak one's language, what they're saying tends to to be -- at best -- suspect.

On the larger issue, I stand more with Daniel than his critics. I know Miami Danny has a deep dislike of one of our more prominent food critics, but I'd argue that any of the Three T's who run the regions most influential food pages stands head and shoulders above any of the local bloggers, whose scope is (necessarily -- they have other jobs and limited funds) limited and who tend to be dramatically uncritical in their reviews.

The fact is that the decision by a larger institution to cut a check for you based on your writing is a significant "credential" and useful benchmark for separating the cream from the skim. If you meet to people in the bar and know nothing about them other than that one is blogging their novel and the other one has a contract with Knopf, who would suspect the is the better writer: the one who has appointed their self, or the one whose persuaded at least one other person with interest and experience in the field of their abilities?

Sure, there are talented bloggers out there, men and women who bring as much to the table -- or almost as much -- as those earning their living in the crit biz. And it would be as absurd to dismiss a "self-appointed" authority merely because they don't punch a clock at a Major Daily as it would be to ascribe God-like powers of perception merely because someone has a byline.

The democratization of the internet is a great thing, and we all benefit from having a diversity of opinions to choose from. As The Great Helmsman said, "let a thousand flowers bloom." But, in the long run, the people with a) the commitment to making criticism their life, b) the experience that comes with full-time dedication to a task and c) the talent to attract employers and a large-scale readership, are the way to bet.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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The fact is that the decision by a larger institution to cut a check for you based on your writing is a significant "credential" and useful benchmark for separating the cream from the skim.  If you meet to people in the bar and know nothing about them other than that one is blogging their novel and the other one has a contract with Knopf, who would suspect the is the better writer: the one who has appointed their self, or the one whose persuaded at least one other person with interest and experience in the field of their abilities?

That strikes me as a huge leap of faith based on outdated notions of what happens in the publishing business (not that those notions were ever true). Perhaps the person with the contract from Knopf is a better writer, though more likely he's a celebrity using a ghost writer, but when it comes to something like culinary judgment the imprimatur of an institution -- especially a newspaper -- means next to nothing. Who gave the imprimatur? It wasn't an institutional committee of food experts. We've already established that in many cases it's a business decision meant to sell papers, with not a care for the quality of food writing. Empirically, we know that many newspaper critics are complete duds. At least bloggers need to convince food-knowledgeable people of their relevance, otherwise they have no relevance. Professional writers only have to convince editors -- editors who don't necessarily know anything about the subject matter.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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