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Food Writing


sammy
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To make another example, it should be quite clear to most of us by now that Steven is an admirer of Alain Ducasse and his restaurants. This is not to say that he is dishonest when writing about his experiences of Ducasse's food or in his restaurants, and I am sure he would point out things he didn't like. But we already know that Ducasse's overall style of cooking, approach to food and ideas about how to run a restaurant are admired by Steven.

All very true and he had always been upfront with that. He was also up front about working with Colicchio on a story while he was at GT. He always speaks highly of GT and I have been to GT several times and have always had a positive experience, very much in line with my expectations after reading FG's reviews. I have never been to ADNY but have no reason to believe his reviews are anything but credible.

Whether intentional or not, his relationships in those instances and I'm sure countless others, were disclosed and his credibility was enhanced by doing so.

The only reason this thread even exists is because after several FG posts raving about the restaurant and denigrating other NY Restaurant critics for not liking it, we find out that in addition to his liking of Ducasse food, he's signed a new book contract with the chef's brother as his agent.

The fact that we were aware him disclosing relationships in the past but for whatever reason him deciding not to in this case, definitely causes people to ask "Why?"

Another question would be, and this is not related to a reviewer's bias at all, did FG eat the same food as everyone else at the restaurant or did he eat better because of his relationship? That's still another reason why disclosure is important.

"These pretzels are making me thirsty." --Kramer

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I hope it is readily apparent to anyone reading this thread that the harangues we're hearing demonstrate resoundingly the nonsensical nature of the religion of disclosure. No matter what you disclose, someone else can come along and say you should have disclosed one more thing, or disclosed it in a different way, and that your failure to do so casts a long, dark shadow over your credibility.

For example, I have made public on eGullet that I have relationships with both Alain Ducasse (owner of Mix) and Doug Psaltis (chef at Mix). One would think this disclosure would be sufficient to satisfy even the die-hard disclosurists. But no, for sammy it is insufficient. Although I disclosed that I've worked in Ducasse's kitchen during which time I spent a week in close quarters with Doug Psaltis apparently the important issue now is that Doug Psaltis's brother and I have an agent-author relationship. Had I disclosed that, perhaps the next revelation would have been that I once accepted an invitation to a party thrown at ADNY where I ate free food.

Of course, had I mentioned the agent-author relationship prior to writing about Mix, it still would not have been enough for Bruce (Schneier). For him, even my disclosures of my relationships with Alain Ducasse and Doug Psaltis are insufficient because they did not occur directly in the piece about Mix. So by this standard, every time I write anything about Ducasse or any of his restaurants, even on eGullet where my entire body of work is a mouse-click away, I must repeat all these disclosures.

Now sammy has an ancillary theory: he also wants to know "did FG eat the same food as everyone else at the restaurant"? Of course there are many reasons why a critic, a VIP customer, or any number of other types of people might not eat the same food as everyone at the restaurant. So apparently I need to provide all this information as well. What I wrote about my meals at Mix, where I tried to indicate clearly what was on the regular menu and what came by request as part of a tasting menu, etc., is not enough to make all this clear, it seems.

As Sam, Dave, and others have demonstrated, this reduction ad absurdum goes on . . . well . . . it goes on ad absurdum.

And lost in all of this is the simple reality that my evaluation of Mix has nothing to do with any of the above. So the sum total of disclosure upon disclosure is simply to introduce red herring upon red herring into a review that's supposed to be about food.

When I first dined at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in the Essex House, I had never met him. I had never dined at any of his restaurants anywhere in the world. I didn't even know very much about him, save for the general knowledge of his many Michelin stars and the usual pre-opening information one hears about any major restaurant venture in New York. I ate there, I thought it was great, and most other critics didn't. So I took a strong position on the restaurant, and on the other critics who I felt had made a poor showing in their reviews.

It would seem only natural, given that set of circumstances, that Ducasse would want to have a conversation with me, and that I would want to learn more about him. We haven't spoken all that much -- I think we've met on three or four occasions -- but he has always been very nice to me. Maybe that's just him buttering me up for good press, or maybe it's that he appreciates being appreciated; I don't know. We're friendly acquaintances; not dear friends (you'd be surprised how many food writers think every chef is "my dear friend"; it's kind of sad). But as with any long-term journalist-subject relationship, I've gotten to know him, Didier Elena (chef at ADNY), Doug Psaltis (chef at Mix), and various other staff members. This, for anyone who is wondering, is quite typical for food writers. One side benefit of getting to know Doug was that his brother Michael turned out to be a literary agent with strong knowledge of food and with whom I felt I was personally compatible (Michael is my third agent).

I certainly do have a financial relationship with Michael Psaltis: I pay him to perform a job for me. I do not work for Michael Psaltis. Michael Psaltis works for me. Michael understands that as a food writer I may someday write heavily critical things about his brother Doug. That's not a problem for him, and were it a problem for him he wouldn't be my agent. Likewise, if he ever changed his position on that issue and tried to exert pressure on me to pull punches against Doug, I would find a new agent that day -- it's easily accomplished. Not that it would ever happen; I'm very happy with the job Michael does for me and don't think he would ever behave in such an unprofessional manner even where family is concerned. But as much as I admire and respect Michael, his name is Psaltis not Ovitz; he is not some godlike super-agent who is going to make me the next David Letterman. I would never be tempted to do him a favor of an unprofessional nature, in order to advance my career, as I might be with someone like Ovitz and a billion dollars at stake. Also, my book proposal was out and sold before I ever ate at Mix, or perhaps it all happened sometime within a few days of then, but certainly before I ever wrote anything. Of course, it was I who posted the Publishers Marketplace blurb naming Michael Psaltis as my agent -- it never occurred to me to conceal that piece of information when it was relevant to something being spoken about on eGullet, just as it never occurred to me to disclose it when it wasn't relevant.

I have relationships with hundreds -- yes, hundreds -- of restaurant-industry people in the city. This is the reality of what I do; I couldn't perform my job to my satisfaction without industry relationships. And I'm not going to clutter up my writings with bullshit disclosure statements just to assuage those who believe they have a right to know every point of contact I've ever had with a restaurant. I'll disclose this once: I know lots and lots of people in the restaurant business in New York, and I write about their restaurants. If you want to read food-writing by someone who doesn't have these sorts of relationships, you can skip right over mine. I'm not the writer for you. If, however, you believe that someone's writing and knowledge might possibly be improved by working in top restaurant kitchens, getting to know the top chefs, and otherwise interfacing with the industry, and that it's possible to do that yet still maintain critical distance from the subject-matter, then I think you will prefer my kind of analysis to that of someone like William Grimes who tries to impose separation on himself and maintain outsider/hermit status.

I happen to think Mix is an outstanding restaurant, and it was no surprise to me that many critics once again rose up in protest against Ducasse. Once again, I hauled out the pen and took a shot at explaining why they're all wrong. This time I wasn't a Ducasse virgin; but I wrote pretty much what I wrote, in a different context, way back before I had any of these relationships. My relationships have changed; my tastes haven't.

To summarize, I'll restate what I said awhile back on this thread, which arose when Katie Loeb (at that time a banned Chowhound user, and now an eGullet forum host) was accused by Jim Leff of shilling based on a failure to disclose a relationship to a restaurateur she discussed in a post. At that time, I wrote:

the whole premise is ridiculous, the notion that this is somehow the line in the sand on bias. The implication that those who don't have such relationships with restaurants are free of bias is false. The important thing is what people say, not their motives. We all have motives.

I would sit down in a room with Jason and delete all of eGullet before we ever let anything like this happen here.

Later on that thread, further elaborating my position on disclosure, I commented as follows, and I believe this summarizes the arguments I've been making on this thread as well:

- The standard for what is and isn't a relationship or affiliation is susceptible to abuse, is apparently abused, and is based on underlying premises so uncertain as to make a meaningful system impossible to engineer

- The notion that bias can be eliminated, ever, and especially by such disclosures, is incorrect, and it is also incorrect that those without affiliations are any less susceptible to bias

- The important thing is what people say; motivations are not a worthy subject of investigation, and trying to ascertain them -- or, worse, believing you have ascertained them -- is futile and counterproductive

- It is tedious and borderline unworkable to require a disclosure statement in every post

Finally, Chad, with all due respect I think you're waffling. Disclosure either makes sense or it doesn't. Which do you believe? If you believe it makes sense, I refer you to my answers to all those arguments. If you believe it doesn't make sense, you should oppose it. I'm no publicist, but I know two things: 1) you can't earn people's trust by lying to them, and 2) if you ask people who they trust more, a publicist, a politician, or a journalist, I think you'll find that journalists come out on top every time, which is ironic since journalists don't typically have publicists and aren't elected.

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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Are food writers "writers," "critics" or "journalists."

None of these categories would necessarily lead me to expect honesty, objectivity or even a modicum of integrity. May I recommend a recent book by John L. Hess, who was the NY Times restaurant critic for less than a year in 1974. This was only a part of his journalistic career; he covered many aspects of politics and economics in various parts of the world and came within an ace of a Pulitzer. _My Times: A Memoir of Dissent_ is a carefully detailed and documented account of the shenanegans that went on inside the Times, from the top down, and how many of its greatest moments were achieved by a small rotating minority of idealistic reporters who outwitted their superiors.

I've experienced some heavy moments in eGullet over the last couple of years, but compared with the world of journalism out there, it's a Quaker prayer meeting.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Whether intentional or not, his relationships in those instances and I'm sure countless others, were disclosed and his credibility was enhanced by doing so.

The only reason this thread even exists is because after several FG posts raving about the restaurant and denigrating other NY Restaurant critics for not liking it, we find out that in addition to his liking of Ducasse food, he's signed a new book contract with the chef's brother as his agent.

The fact that we were aware him disclosing relationships in the past but for whatever reason him deciding not to in this case, definitely causes people to ask "Why?"

Another question would be, and this is not related to a reviewer's bias at all, did FG eat the same food as everyone else at the restaurant or did he eat better because of his relationship? That's still another reason why disclosure is important.

The discussion of Mix occcured over the course of several weeks and several meals. Disclosing that some of those meals were taken with the chef's brother is meaningful in making an informed evaluation of the several posts. Mentioning that fact weeks later doesn't make it right.

An analogous situation happened last year on the eG NJ boards. After several posts blasted Sonoma Grill, a group of adventuresome eGulleteers visited the place anonymously. The restaurant knew all about our us coming, comp'd us on half the menu, passed a very generous gift bottle of wine from Nick Gatti (a former eG member), and served us a fabulous meal. The posts describing that meal very clearly stated this wasn't typical, and the average schmo wasn't likely to have the same experience. If eG is to remain credible, material facts need to be visible for the informed reader to decide for herself or himself. That wasn't done in the Mix series.

The original, unedited OTTO threads had the same problem. Being known to the house prior to the opening gives you a different experience. Many eGulleteers (Nina, Plotnicki, Wilfrid, Yvonne Johnson, etc) didn't have that same good experience, and posted about it. A good fight ensued, with the focus on specific preparations, ingredients, etc.

eG should be interested in setting the bar as high as possible, to attract informed and accurate posts, representing different points of view. The fact that Mr Shaw had disclosed relationships in certain other situations is a credit to him, but would lead a reasonable reader to assume he had none in this situation other than an appreciation of the Ducasse style. They would have been wrong.

Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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It's all a matter of credibility. If the disclosure had been made at the time of the reviews, readers would have been able to take the relationship into account and judge for themselves, accordingly. F-G should be on notice that his "reviews" from now on -- as well as his claims for restauants in the past -- will be taken with a very large grain of salt. :raz:

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It would be interesting to apply this standard to Rail Paul and Sandra Levine. Would either of you care to disclose anything that may be motivating your posts?

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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If the relationship doesn't affect the review, disclosing it is a red herring. If the relationship does affect the review, the review should not be written.

I think that statement, on its face, is illogical.

It makes perfect sense to me. If you can write an honest review, then whatever you have to disclose is irrelevant. Conversely, if you can't write without letting personal relationships affect what you say, then you should find something else to do.

So if a reviewer who likes his job allows relationships to affect his work, but he doesn't want to do anything else, concealing those relationships would be in his best interest, right?

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So if a reviewer who likes his job allows relationships to affect his work, but he doesn't want to do anything else, concealing those relationships would be in his best interest, right?

If he can get away with it, definitely! Otherwise, he should disclose the relationships and try to dupe everybody into thinking the disclosure makes him honest, and then he should do the Trojan shill thing and do favors for as many of his friends as possible.

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:

Although I disclosed that I've worked in Ducasse's kitchen during which time I spent a week in close quarters with Doug Psaltis apparently the important issue now is that Doug Psaltis's brother and I have an agent-author relationship.

In context, this is a tangent, I guess, but I think it's more important that you worked in Ducasse's kitchen. Working in Ducasse's kitchen undoubtedly enabled you to understand his cuisine better than most anything else you could have done. Would you agree?

Oh, and while disclosing that Doug Psaltis' brother is your agent may not be important, you should have disclosed that you were having dinner with him in a restaurant in which that fact would be likely to positively affect your reception - because his brother is the sous chef or whatever. I fail to accept your seeming reductio ad absurdum of this issue, as meaning that because you can't "satisfy all of the people all of the time," it's always absurd to disclose any fact.

[edit to eliminate stray comma]

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I have been lurking in this thread and just feel I should post a little something to bring us back to the basics....People...ITS ABOUT FOOD!....If I read a write up about a great place that makes good burritos, I want to know about the burrito...not the fact that the guy making drove past you once on main street and you shop at the same market. I just want to know why the burrito is good and how I can go about eating one. I am aware of the power of the media and food press with regards to reviews but the bottom line is I want to read a review about the food and maybe the ambiance of the place......nothing else, if you have been to places the food writer recommended and did not like them for yourself....Maybe you dont have the same taste as that writer and should stop going to those places!

Thank you, you may now resume your "debates"

Moo, Cluck, Oink.....they all taste good!

The Hungry Detective

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Although I disclosed that I've worked in Ducasse's kitchen during which time I spent a week in close quarters with Doug Psaltis apparently the important issue now is that Doug Psaltis's brother and I have an agent-author relationship. Had I disclosed that, perhaps the next revelation would have been that I once accepted an invitation to a party thrown at ADNY where I ate free food.

Of course, had I mentioned the agent-author relationship prior to writing about Mix, it still would not have been enough for Bruce (Schneier). For him, even my disclosures of my relationships with Alain Ducasse and Doug Psaltis are insufficient because they did not occur directly in the piece about Mix. So by this standard, every time I write anything about Ducasse or any of his restaurants, even on eGullet where my entire body of work is a mouse-click away, I must repeat all these disclosures.

Now sammy has an ancillary theory: he also wants to know "did FG eat the same food as everyone else at the restaurant"? Of course there are many reasons why a critic, a VIP customer, or any number of other types of people might not eat the same food as everyone at the restaurant. So apparently I need to provide all this information as well.

yes. it can be done in very few lines. less trouble than writing the post i quoted from. and relevant to those who do not know you very well, or don't read all your reviews. there might, after all, be a few such people on egullet.

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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Of course, had I mentioned the agent-author relationship prior to writing about Mix, it still would not have been enough for Bruce (Schneier). For him, even my disclosures of my relationships with Alain Ducasse and Doug Psaltis are insufficient because they did not occur directly in the piece about Mix. So by this standard, every time I write anything about Ducasse or any of his restaurants, even on eGullet where my entire body of work is a mouse-click away, I must repeat all these disclosures.

Well, let's leave what I want out of this. I have no idea what I want you to do; I was just using that as an example.

But your post is correct: it is impossible to disclose properly. In my field I have more conflicts of interest than you do, and I have received more accusations (and worse) of bias. All you can do is be honest and honorable, disclose to the point that you feel good about, and damn the rest. In the end you'll live and die by your karma.

Bruce

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yes. it can be done in very few lines. less trouble than writing the post i quoted from. and relevant to those who do not know you very well, or don't read all your reviews. there might, after all, be a few such people on egullet.

And on eGullet, lines are free. There's no word limit to worry about. When I write 600-word restaurant reviews for the newspaper, words are precious. Here, I can use as many as I want.

Bruce

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Chris, if my cousin is the chef/owner of the taqueria, how do you know he'd make a good burrito for you?

If I went there and it sucked, I would say that I did not agree with your tastes. People bitch about my reviews all the time...even to the point of calling my editor because they don't like the food I wrote about. But the fact remained that I liked it, they did not. Its a simple difference of opinion....and that reminds me of a saying we have at the police dept...opinions are like assholes, everyones got one!

Moo, Cluck, Oink.....they all taste good!

The Hungry Detective

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you should have disclosed that you were having dinner with him in a restaurant in which that fact would be likely to positively affect your reception - because his brother is the sous chef or whatever

Pan, I respect your position, even though I don't agree with it. Let me make a few quick points here, though. First of all, I've been to Mix with Michael Psaltis exactly one time out of a total of, I believe, eight visits. Second, while one might think Michael's presence would "positively affect [my] reception," the reality is that I had very little good to say about the service at Mix in what I wrote. Third, I don't believe we were served a single item that wasn't on the menu; at that point I was still just trying to sample items from the menu. I hadn't asked Doug to do any tastings yet. But most importantly, I think it's hard to sustain the claim that a food writer needs to disclose every dining companion who might have a relationship with a restaurant. For example, what if I've dined at Gramercy Tavern with Tom Colicchio's brother? Do I now have to disclose that every time I write about Gramercy Tavern? I think it's pretty clear I have a damn friendly relationship with the place; at some point it becomes gratuitous to keep saying that in different ways.

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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It would be interesting to apply this standard to Rail Paul and Sandra Levine. Would either of you care to disclose anything that may be motivating your posts?

Discussion with friends about trust and professional ethics.

With this example to guide me, I feel I am now prepared to meet high standards of disclosure going forward.

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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you should have disclosed that you were having dinner with him in a restaurant in which that fact would be likely to positively affect your reception - because his brother is the sous chef or whatever

Pan, I respect your position, even though I don't agree with it. Let me make a few quick points here, though. First of all, I've been to Mix with Michael Psaltis exactly one time out of a total of, I believe, eight visits. Second, while one might think Michael's presence would "positively affect [my] reception," the reality is that I had very little good to say about the service at Mix in what I wrote. Third, I don't believe we were served a single item that wasn't on the menu; at that point I was still just trying to sample items from the menu. I hadn't asked Doug to do any tastings yet. But most importantly, I think it's hard to sustain the claim that a food writer needs to disclose every dining companion who might have a relationship with a restaurant. For example, what if I've dined at Gramercy Tavern with Tom Colicchio's brother? Do I now have to disclose that every time I write about Gramercy Tavern? I think it's pretty clear I have a damn friendly relationship with the place; at some point it becomes gratuitous to keep saying that in different ways.

Your point is taken, in that it would be like Bux disclosing the precise nature of his relationship with a former sous chef at Daniel every time he mentions the restaurant.

However, I do think that the fact that you are eating at a restaurant with a sibling/child/parent/spouse, etc. of the owner/chef/sous chef, etc. of a restaurant is worth mentioning when discussing that particular meal, at any rate. My point isn't that it should be mentioned every time you mention the restaurant, but that it should probably be mentioned at least once.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Somehow we've gone from this

Chad, you're right this isn't a referendum on anyone
I might be useful, however, as an example of a working food writer who has various relationships with people in the restaurant business
.

to this

The only reason this thread even exists is because after several FG posts raving about the restaurant and denigrating other NY Restaurant critics for not liking it, we find out that in addition to his liking of Ducasse food, he's signed a new book contract with the chef's brother as his agent.

The latter completely dismisses the original intent of this thread which was to discuss whether writers/food critics etc in general, have an obligation to disclose.

This whole argument is nothing but a perception issue. If you perceive Steven or anyone else has not made a full and proper disclosure then that perception is your reality and no one else's. Don't read their reviews then. I read plenty of food reviews I don't agree with.

Sammy is trying "catch" Steven out by suggesting he didn't disclose something he felt he should have. Sammy is certainly entitled to feel that way, but I just don't think a whole thread on whether Steven did or did not is relevant. As an example yes, but really, Steven is the only one being put on the hot seat here.

As far as I can tell, Jason asked the question, Steven answered it. He did not try to hide the fact.

I eat at Ruth's Chris probably 4 or 5 times a month. The General Manager is a good friend of mine as is her husband who owns his own restaurant and the Chef at Ruth's. If I'm paid to write a review about it, that then becomes my job and I take a step away from the relationship. No different than my relationships with my co workers or staff in and out of the office. One is a business relationship, but if we go out to socialize, it becomes a different relationship. I can keep the two separate.

I suggest to you that food writers/critics whatever have the ability to keep that separation. If they can't, they shouldn't be in the job.

Maybe Steven should have just said, "Yes the guy's my agent, I didn't think it was relevant. My apologies if you think it is".

This was a great debate until it became personal.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Pan, what if a meal is taken with:

- A repeat-customer of the restaurant who typically gets excellent treatment

- A chef from another restaurant of a high caliber

- A fellow food journalist who is known to the restaurant

- An editor from an important magazine (this one is actually true)

- A dining companion who orders really, really expensive wine

- A famous Bordeaux producer

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 Steven should have just said, "Yes the guy's my agent, I didn't think it was relevant. My apologies if you think it is".

That's what I've been saying all along.

"These pretzels are making me thirsty." --Kramer

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The feeling I get from this debate is the same that I got as a rookie policeman at a domestic dispute.....some people are never going to agree on things and its much easier for all if they just move on and dont let it bother them. I have noticed Steven on the defensive a bit and it does seem as he is being hammered a bit.....Let just move on.....I had Korean BBQ today for the first time and really liked the BBQ Pork, do you guys like Korean BBQ pork?

Moo, Cluck, Oink.....they all taste good!

The Hungry Detective

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