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Molly O'Neill's new article "Food Porn"


Andrew&Karen
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We suspect other fellow eGulleteers might also find Molly O'Neill's new article "Food Porn" in the Sept/Oct 2003 issue of the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW of interest:

http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/5/foodporn-oneill.asp

(Credit goes to Jenifer Lang for mentioning it to Karen at dinner the other night at Le Cirque.)

Karen & Andrew

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Not to say I agree with everything she says, but if this article doesn't win a Beard Award they should shut down the whole Beard operation. Very interesting observations, and you can't get deeper inside the profession than this.

"But even as the profession came to be seen as a sexy life-style arbiter, food writers had, by the early 1980s, begun to respond to public taste rather than lead it. In part, this was because food became news during the decade and covering news is, by its nature, reactive."

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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Very interesting. Thanks for posting it KarenandAndrew.

Food writers have always walked the dangerous lines between journalism, art, and their role as handmaiden to advertising. But we have not wobbled quite so regularly in nearly a half century as we do today. Food has carried us into the vortex of cool. There, the urge to become part of the story is stronger than the duty to detach and observe and report the story.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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We suspect other fellow eGulleteers might also find Molly O'Neill's new article "Food Porn" in the Sept/Oct 2003 issue of the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW of interest:

http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/5/foodporn-oneill.asp

I should hope so. It's a "must read" for anyone who writes or reads about food. Thank you very much for sharing this with us. It was a thoughtful gesture and a sign of respect for our membership.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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We suspect other fellow eGulleteers might also find Molly O'Neill's new article "Food Porn" in the Sept/Oct 2003 issue of the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW of interest:

http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/5/foodporn-oneill.asp

I should hope so. It's a "must read" for anyone who writes or reads about food. Thank you very much for sharing this with us. It was a thoughtful gesture and a sign of respect for our membership.

Not only for those who writes or reads food,also for the industry people cooking the food.

Fantastic piece of writting,thanks for the lead.

Turnip Greens are Better than Nothing. Ask the people who have tried both.

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Does anybody know how to contact Ms. O'Neill? I'd love to get her over here nor only for a standing ovation, but also for some real discussion of the issues raised in her piece. It's going to take me a couple of days to digest everything in this opus, but I wanted to point to a couple of previous discussions on eGullet that mesh well with the issues raised here. In particular, Jonathan Day's "The Choices of a Food Writer," resonates with relevant themes, as does the follow-up discussion (including comments from John Thorne).

One thing I found somewhat ironic is that, after reading and marveling at all the interesting points made in the article, the farthest issue from my mind was the red-herring of "food porn," which is the chosen title and advertised theme. That theme seems almost entirely irrelevant to the thesis. I wonder if it was, early on, the mission, but perhaps the piece grew into something unexpected?

What I think makes the article so powerful is not just O'Neill's knowledge, and not just her honesty, but the fact that, from a psychological standpoint, these are clearly the words of a battle-hardened and battle-scarred veteran who has taken a step back in order to perform the kind of detached and frank analysis that few insiders ever attempt (especially not in public). I can't help but think that the One Big Table fiasco and O'Neill's fall from grace at the Times have turned out to be, in the end, great gifts to the larger dialog about food journalism's past, present, and future.

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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That theme seems almost entirely irrelevant to the thesis. I wonder if it was, early on, the mission, but perhaps the piece grew into something unexpected?

I noticed this too; I suspect her piece started to lead a whole new life of its own. And I'm glad it did.

I printed the story out and read it twice; I'll need a couple more go-throughs to absorb everything. Among other of its virtues, it is a fascinating history piece on its own. I don't know the story of Ms. O'Neill's break with The Times; I only know that I've dearly missed her. This article reminded me why.

Yes, please:Let's try to bring her here to eGullet.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I don't know the story of Ms. O'Neill's break with The Times; I only know that I've dearly  missed her.

I don't know the full story, and I'm not sure who does other than Ms. O'Neill herself. It's definitely something we could clear up if we could reach out to her and get some comments from her here. I'll tell you what I do know, though. As I mentioned in the thread on the state of food writing at the Times Magazine, a few years ago, when so many people were making grand sweeping statements about the inevitable and impending death of print and the rise of new media, Ms. O'Neill got involved in what was to be the most ambitious food Web site in the history of the universe. It was a bold and ambitious plan and also a heart-wrenching failure. You can read the whole onebigtable.com story here. It's hard to convey just how seriously people took this venture at the time. This was back in the era of the amazing Microsoft "Mungo Park" venture, it was during the ascendancy of Salon.com, and it was before people became jaded and condescending about the Internet. I remember sitting down with Tom Colicchio and talking in hushed tones (at that time the onebigtable project was in its allegedly top-secret development phase and only insiders and those to whom they had leaked information knew much about it) about how onebigtable.com could become the biggest thing in the history of food journalism. And of course I think the death of print still is inevitable. What was foolish was the belief the the timetable could be so short, as well as the naive belief that print could be replaced simply with an online facsimile of print journalism.

Anyway . . . as I understand it there was some sort of connection between the whole onebigtable.com episode and Ms. O'Neill's decoupling from the Times magazine. I hope someone else has more complete information on this, but what I kept hearing was that she went to an every-other-week schedule at the Times magazine in order to accommodate her work on onebigtable.com and that she just didn't have her heart in it anymore. Eventually, she was either replaced or resigned or a combination of the two. That's all I know.

I do think it is noteworthy, given O'Neill's personal history as well as the fact that she surely must know how important the Internet now is to the dissemination of food information, that mention of Internet is completely absent from her article. Unless I missed it.

Edit: Just re-read for Internet mentions and double-checked looking for the words "online" "web" "new media" and "internet." Nothing.

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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The other major issue that strikes me as lacking from this article -- and it's not surprising given that the piece is somewhat autobiographical and O'Neill has long operated at the most rarefied levels of the profession -- is the devaluation of editorial content across the entire field of journalism. O'Neill sees food writers as, perhaps, well situated to make a step forward in importance. But where are the outlets? What publications are willing to pay for high-quality, thoughtful, journalistically oriented food writing? Budgets are being slashed everywhere. Content is an afterthought in more and more magazines. Syndication and duplication are reducing the number of effective outlets even as the number of periodicals increases. The freelance business is gasping for air. So how can the vision be realized, unless it is realized by independently wealthy volunteers? Or online.

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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Fat Guy, how much is the bounty on her head? Have your agent put you in touch with Schocken Books. Last I knew she married the head of it. If this works, I get to ask her the first question. Sorry.

I don't want just a Q&A with Molly O'Neill. I'm thinking bigger than that. I want her as a regular addicted contributing eGullet member because we have way too much to discuss for just a Q&A. I'll see what I can do to obtain an e-mail address through publishing and PR channels.

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 do think it is noteworthy, given O'Neill's personal history as well as the fact that she surely must know how important the Internet now is to the dissemination of food information, that mention of Internet is completely absent from her article. Unless I missed it.

Especially curious given that theme of this issue of CJR (see contents page) is "The New Age of Alternative Media", and the issue includes two pieces on the "blogging" movement.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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The other major issue that strikes me as lacking from this article -- and it's not surprising given that the piece is somewhat autobiographical and O'Neill has long operated at the most rarefied levels of the profession -- is the devaluation of editorial content across the entire field of journalism. O'Neill sees food writers as, perhaps, well situated to make a step forward in importance. But where are the outlets? What publications are willing to pay for high-quality, thoughtful, journalistically oriented food writing? Budgets are being slashed everywhere. Content is an afterthought in more and more magazines. Syndication and duplication are reducing the number of effective outlets even as the number of periodicals increases. The freelance business is gasping for air. So how can the vision be realized, unless it is realized by independently wealthy volunteers? Or online.

Fatguy,

I think that you are right on the money with your premise that editorial content is being devalued across the entire field of Journalism.

What about this theory?

The devaluation is occurring because of our need for instant access and the ability for someone, however underinformed or misinformed, to provide it instantly. This problem began with television (and I think can be traced directly to the Viet Nam War, although I am not sure it was technological advances or the network's need for daily 5:30 p.m. soundbites). Very few people take the time to do the research anymore. They just start typing and see what pops up on the screen (further defining the problem, I think you are just a tad young to have done it yourself, but I know that I spent alot more time composing when I had to use a typewriter, the words are much more valuable when you can't cut and paste and delete and carbon paper is involved). Everyone seems to want to know what is happening now, they can't wait on someone to gather all of the facts and put them together in coherant form.

For example, Woodward and Bernstein would have had a great deal of trouble keeping their story in the Post if they had been writing it in 2003. Every half baked journalistic investigator in the country with a computer and a web site would have been opining many times daily on every minute (and often incorrect) detail and, as a result, possibly have had the effect of changing or altering what became one of the best investigative stories of the twentieth century. Imagine Matt Drudge headlining "Hey, I heard a rumor about the President and I can point you to the website proving these lefty journalists are commies and should be investigated under the Patriot Act!"

The other real problem I see is referenced in the article. Using food as an example, O"Neill points out how many more publications there are today than there were ten years ago. This has happened with many other subjects and mass media outlets. The result, in my opinion, is that there is such a need for content that publishers and editors are willing to consider damn near anything submitted. And publications (once again across all mediums) do much less editorial research and fact checking on what they do print simply because there is so much of it and they have neither the resources nor the time to do it (witness recent scandals at the New York Times). The Web has turned anyone who can type and hit send into a writer. This has good and bad sides, much like anything else. It gives me alot more to read, but it also gives me alot more crapola to sift through. I much prefer reading to sifting and often find it difficult to figure out which one I am actually doing at any given moment.

This was a really interesting piece and I hope that you are able to get her here for all of us to hound. I have a need for instant information and it is not being filled :wacko:

Edited by Mayhaw Man (log)

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Mayhaw, I think there are a few distinctions that need to be drawn. The first is between two debates: old media v. new media, and old journalism v. new journalism. They are not the same, though they may be somewhat related. The second distinction is between food journalism and news journalism.

On the old media v. new media aspect of the argument, I think as you say there are pros and cons. However, I think you understate the pros. I for one am extremely happy that the new media have broken the old media's stranglehold on information. If that means a latter day Woodward & Bernstein can't have their exclusive, too bad. Exclusives are a bad thing. They allow those with agendas to control what you can know. Gone are the days when the big newspapers and TV networks could collude amongst themselves to conceal presidential indiscretions or corporate misdeeds. New media filled a vacuum -- a vacuum created by old media's chronic failure to provide the whole truth or any diversity of opinion.

Maybe there is an extent to which "The Web has turned anyone who can type and hit send into a writer." But isn't it the case that anybody who could type could always be a writer, for as long as there have been typewriters, and before that for as long as there has been paper, papyrus, and stone? It's not a question of who can be a writer. It's a question of who will read. If a tree falls, and all that. So yes, the Internet allows anybody to write about food, or about foreign affairs. But a writer still has to rise above the pack in order to attract more than his mother as a reader. The difference is that in new media writers are chosen by readers, whereas in old media writers are chosen by editors who decide what's best for readers. I'd like to see William Grimes compete in the online marketplace of ideas -- do you think he'd be a major food writer without the fiat of the New York Times? There are advantages to each approach, but the big advantage comes from having a choice between many examples of each.

In terms of old journalism v. new journalism (or, rather, lack of journalism), I don't think new media can be blamed for the decline of journalism. You can blame the New York Times, the networks, and the glossy magazines -- the most traditional of old media -- for that, and it started long before New Media became a serious force in the late 1990s. I also don't think it has so much to do with the immediacy of television. You can have real journalism on television. But the journalistic content of television has declined and dumbed itself down just as it has in print.

Most importantly, if you look at food journalism specifically, the Internet has been the best and most important improvement since Craig Claiborne created food journalism in the first place. Anybody who has spent an hour reading eGullet can tell you that: print and television totally lack the depth and interactivity that we can provide here. And to the extent new media are great at leveling hierarchies, we do more of that on eGullet than almost anywhere else because we put the Tony Bourdains and the Molly O'Neills in direct contact with their readers and, if they're smart, they accept the two-way exchange and it informs them and their writing (not to mention their readers benefit greatly from the interaction, and non-readers get converted into readers as a result of the dialog). And look at the eGullet Culinary Institute. What have the old media ever done to serve the community in such an ambitious manner? Nothing. While they're busy dumbing down we're trying to elevate -- plus, don't even get me started on the idiocy of traditional food television programming. And that's just here on eGullet. Look at a site like Chowhound as well: a different orientation, but also superior to old media in its "cheap ethnic eats" niche. If you wanted to have Teochew cuisine in Flushing, you'd have to be insane to consult a guidebook or a newspaper rather than Chowhound and other Web sources. Gone are the days when Chowhound and Web sources were supplements to newspaper and magazine and guidebook reviews. Now, the print sources are the supplements. What about recipes? I can't imagine recipe books having much of a future given the superiority of the online medium for searching, sorting, and conveyance of that kind of information. Look at the various writing awards and the submissions in the Internet categories; they are every bit as good journalistically as those in the traditional print categories -- some would suggest that the awards organizations are afraid to let the Internet submissions compete in the print categories because then they'd have to face up to the likelihood of Internet writing beating out the submissions from Food & Wine, Saveur, Gourmet, and Bon Appetit.

To quote Molly O'Neill (from the above-mentioned Business Week story):

There was a sliver in time in which small, highly imaginative, and highly creative startups could do things in the media that larger, more established media companies just couldn't do.

Food is something basic and held in common by everybody who eats. And because I get tons of mail every week, I felt for a number of years that what readers want most is interaction. The subject lends itself to that, and conventional media can't provide it.

and

the impetus for One Big Table is the community. In addition, the greatest thing that technology allows is the use of databases. And in terms of food writing, that is a gigantic step forward. We have thousands and thousands of cookbooks and hundreds of thousands of wonderful pieces about food that are published every single year. What we don't have is a place where all that information can rest and be built upon.

So every time you go to write a story about parsley, you go back and reinvent parsley. And the idea behind the way we are built -- which is an editorial interface laying over some very sophisticated databases -- was to allow for the accumulation of, and progression of, knowledge.

I respectfully suggest that the "sliver in time" O'Neill refers to is actually the foreseeable future. Funding problems may have prevented it from happening on onebigtable.com, but it's happening elsewhere, including right here.

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 think one of Molly O' Neill's singular strengths--and a constant advantage over her peers--is that she used to be a line cook. In Provincetown . At the "Dreadnaught" ( aka The Flagship) no less. (as opposed to dabbling around Cordon Bleu). She's the real thing.

I particularly enjoyed her account of her fast rise in the kitchen--due to the fact that she was often the only one sober enough to keep slinging food. I just read the Peter Manso book "Ptown" and its got a fairly concise account of those days--including extensive account of Flagship (and Ciro and Sal's) owner Ciro Cozzi's rise and fall.

Anyone who suspected that the Ptown stuff in KC was exaggerated will find plenty of evidence to the contrary. I'd love to see a memoir of those years from O Neill. In fact, I'd like to see a whole helluva lot more from O Neill in general. She's terrific. She makes her successors at the mag --and much of the food press look like chum by comparison.

abourdain

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Fatguy,

Oh boy, I think maybe I should have continued typing before I hit send :blink: .

I should have pointed out that while I do, in fact, sometimes get a bit tired of slogging through a mountain of information, I never tire of the fact that it is there for me to slog through.

And I do have a true and high appreciation for this website and others like it (involving other subject matter). I like the fact that, with a minor amount of effort, I can converse with Mr. Bourdain about laundry and drinking facilities in New Orleans (Mr Bourdain has been to both the French Laundry in Napa and Checkpoint Charlie's Laundry in N.O., he is very well traveled) , Joyce White about the finer qualities and uses of okra, or spend valuable (at least to my employer) amounts of worktime discussing the finer points of New Journalism with the Fat Guy. You are absolutely correct in your assertion that it is very likely I would have had no chance to do this twenty years ago (I would tell you the long and terrible saga of my attempts, years ago, at correspondence with Hunter Thompson, but it would take a new website to hold the details).

As far as exclusives being a bad thing, I agree. The point I was trying to make (admittedly I did a poor job) was that as more and more publications appear, the subject matter gets more and more linear. It is extremely difficult to get all sides of a story (or more than ONE side of a story) from the average media source these days. Everybody is so busy grinding their own axe that they don't take the time to look and see how sharp the other guy's is. From the largest to the smallest, everybody has a specialized point of view. My reference to W and B had more to do with thorough research than it did with the story itself or the fact that it was an exclusive. While I end up being much better informed on a subject than I would have been twenty years ago, it takes alot more work to feel like I have covered most of the bases (and I am not lazy, I like doing the work, so what the hell am I complaining about?)

The beauty of this site is that on any subject (this one included) all interested parties can jump right in. These opinions (generally) come as well thought out, well humored notes that are not only informative, but for the most part well said. I am constantly learning things and am grateful for it. My food knowledge base is fairly extensive (admittedly heavy, by choice, in the cooking of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf Coast) and I am interested in learning more about what I already know a little bit about and excited about learning completely new things. Egullet is perfect to help me meet those wishes.

O.K., I stand corrected, sort of. But I still stand with my assertion that more people (probably including me) should spend a bit more time editing before they punch send.

Edited by Mayhaw Man (log)

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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more people (probably including me) should spend a bit more time editing before they punch send.

With this I totally agree, especially as it applies to the New York Times. :laugh:

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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Maybe there is an extent to which "The Web has turned anyone who can type and hit send into a writer." But isn't it the case that anybody who could type could always be a writer, for as long as there have been typewriters, and before that for as long as there has been paper, papyrus, and stone? It's not a question of who can be a writer. It's a question of who will read. If a tree falls, and all that. So yes, the Internet allows anybody to write about food, or about foreign affairs. But a writer still has to rise above the pack in order to attract more than his mother as a reader. The difference is that in new media writers are chosen by readers, whereas in old media writers are chosen by editors who decide what's best for readers. I'd like to see William Grimes compete in the online marketplace of ideas -- do you think he'd be a major food writer without the fiat of the New York Times? There are advantages to each approach, but the big advantage comes from having a choice between many examples of each.

Very good point, Steve.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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