Deactivating almonds: foodie backlash and the commitment to food

Overcommitted.

If you’ve been on Twitter over the past week in Australia, the slightly bewildering hashtag #activatedalmonds has been in ascendency. Pete Evans, chef, reality television judge and corporate spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Sumo Salad was eviscerated 140 characters at a time over a weekend newspaper fluff piece that documented his day of eating:

7am: Two glasses of alkalised water with apple cider vinegar, then a smoothie of alkalised water, organic spirulina, activated almonds, maca, blueberries, stevia, coconut keffir and two organic, free-range eggs.

8.30am: Sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread with liver pate, avocado, cultured vegetables plus ginger and liquorice root tea.

12.30pm: Fresh fish, sauteed kale and broccoli, spinach and avocado salad, cultured vegies.

3pm: Activated almonds, coconut chips, cacao nibs, plus green tea.

6.30pm: Emu meatballs, sauteed vegetables, cultured vegetables plus a cup of ginger and liquorice root tea.

It’s the sort of empty listicle that a PR rep answers on behalf of the talent by email; a gaily-colored box of text to further brighten the weekend’s non-news. Something a bot might write on your behalf. They’re hardly the most hard-hitting or meme-worthy pieces of newsprint. Collective schadenfreude is Twitter’s raison d’etre and on this occasion, it could taste the slight alkalinity of blood. Why did this article in particular spawn a virulent response?

Search any newspaper website for the word “superfood” and you’ll get a similar bucket of nutritionism snakeoil. Pete alone is not spearheading an unforeseen interest in spirulina or the weird hubris of passing off food as nothing more than a nutrient delivery system.

Evan’s sample menu is aimed at any number of masters: his corporate sponsors, his reality television employers or the subscribers of the Sunday Age. It plays to the obsessions of desperate, rich dieters and smacks of a strange corporate fealty. It’s not the daily diet of a man who eats for the unambiguous pleasure of doing so which is what the public is lead to believe about chefs.

Celebrity chefs are strange advocates for good eating. When commercial imperative clashes with chef’s previous personal tastes and ethics, commerce wins every time. Here’s an ad for a cheap pilsener starring Ferran Adria. Here’s organic chicken aficionado Jamie Oliver making industrial chicken sandwiches for fun and profit. Pete’s transgressions aren’t noteworthy alongside his international counterparts.

There is something about the deep commitment to his routine that is unnerving. He didn’t crack at 3:00pm and eat a pastry from the catering table. No midnight drive-thru at KFC, eating powdered mash and gravy one-handed on the drive home, crying into the empty “Family” sized bucket on the couch. This was the first image that came into my head when I thought of Pete Evans’ diet. I barely know who the man is and expected the worst.

When we see the growing “backlash” against foodies, it seems to be against this deep commitment. I hate the term “foodie” because it has no real definition and seems to encapsulate any particular interest in food from haute cuisine to ethical eating. You can as easily be labelled a foodie if you can comfortably follow a cupcake recipe or you’ve taken a decade to write the world’s definitive history of cupcakes. There’s no shortage of nuanced nouns to pigeonhole people who eat. But foodie backlash it is, not gourmet backlash or glutton backlash; an all-encompassing counterattack on the commitment to food.

Instagramming your meal to death.

Steve Cumper, Australia’s best food blogging chef, recently noted the new zealotry for “real food”, the modern hipness for home-growing everything and being the person who shoots, skins (and photographs) the rabbit pre-terrine.

This real food is apparently unencumbered by status, it is home grown, it is foraged, its is hunted, it is gleaned, it is not, as Lance Armstrong put it, about the bike, or in this case, not about the Kodak moment.

This is honest, unprocessed, un-wanky, un-restauranty, un-gather your photographer mates around you to capture the ad hoc picnic in the dis-used cannery on the wharf kinda food. This is the kinda food that doesn’t need embellishments, is SO un-gourmet, shrugs off pretensions and artifice and reveals itself to a few hip but grounded uber-cools who operate high in the coolosphere where the air, I’m told, is crisper.

The trouble is: Why are people like me hearing about it all the time?

I feel smug when I publish what I grow in my garden, mostly because growing up outside the city, planting a vegetable garden was unremarkable and the least noteworthy of domestic pursuits. Hopping the back fence with a .22 to shoot dinner was just something that I thought most kids did even if it wasn’t the case. It didn’t seem to mark any deep commitment to food because it was common amongst neighbours.

And the Internet didn’t exist.

The backlash isn’t so much about the commitment but the conspicuousness of people’s commitment to food whether it is Pete Evan’s voluntary deprivation or hearing about real food all the time from Facebook updates and blow-by-blow degustations captured on Instagram. When I hear that people want out of Facebook, I wonder how boring their collected acquaintances are and I’m certain what they had for dinner is a large part of it. Where previous backlashes against foodies was more about the excesses of gourmets, it is now all-encompassing because our friends don’t know when to stop; to leave the unremarkable experiences unremarked and save the best for conversation.

Australian food blogging list updated; no longer tracking freebies

I’ve updated my Australian Food Blog list: it will forever be incomplete but the best that I can do. I’ve decided to stop tracking bloggers who receive free meals, cash or other incentives in exchange for writing posts because I can’t keep up with them and for the most part don’t ever read them.

It’s safer to assume that all do or will unless they categorically state otherwise.

Bloggers that aren’t open to free things are incredibly rare; probably numbering less than a dozen amongst the entirety of Australia’s hundreds of food blogs. Australia doesn’t have an independent food writing community, we have one that is increasingly bonded to the restaurant industry, corporate PR and advertisers. Some of this is positive: more insider views from the food industry; fascinating feedback loops between diners and chefs; blogger-led events; deeper criticism of marketing tactics.

[pullquote position=”right”]Just as an aside on the probiotic juice: I can’t imagine the scale of the legal risk when a company is not correcting false health claims made by bloggers that it has sponsored to post about it. Probiotics probably don’t do anything. [/pullquote]

Most just adds to the Internet’s neverending pile of detritus like another few hundred gushing reviews of probiotic juice and dim paragraphs for Urbanspoon.

Recompiling the list made me realise is that how little diversity there is amongst the Australian food blogs. Almost all either contain unfocused restaurant reviews or random recipes but it makes the ones that don’t stand out gloriously: local blogs like Fitzroyalty or Footscray Food Blog, the callous wit of cooksuck, or the short-lived noodle illustration blog.

When most people are inspired to write a food blog, they’re more inspired to clone a food blog that already exists. Part of this is natural. It is much easier to sate the urge to start a personal online food diary rather than it is to plan for the future of a blog or pick a particular, sustainable niche that won’t bore you to death. Part of it is slavishly following convention. I own the same f1.4 lens that everyone else does and that influences the terrible short depth of field cliché shots that I take.

A good deal of the blogs on the list are no longer updated, but I don’t want to remove them. I’m trying to work on a solution to auto-update the list by frequency of posts.

Blogger entitlement: Not making money with your food blog.

For quite a while I’ve been meaning to update the “making money with your food blog” post that has drifted out of relevance over the past few years. I’m no longer certain that you can make money with food blogs, reliably, through advertising or affiliate links.

By reliably, I mean a predictable minimum wage, $589.30 a week in Australia, paid on a regular basis. If you’re willing to put in the hard work of conning advertisers out of their money, I think you’d need to pull in around 20K visitors to your blog each week, who look relatively homogenous (e.g. are all Australian). The best way to make money from your blog is by getting a related job with a wage or building something to sell.

Amanda Hesser recently wrote a great piece on her advice for future food writers, which is do something that pays and write on the side. It’s what writers have always done and it has never been a better time to be a writer. Publishing isn’t an industry, it’s a button that you press. You can break into what’s left of the industry by owning a smartphone.

There seems to be a sense that bloggers are somehow entitled to make money from their work; that by posting a slice of your personal creativity is in itself worth cash.

In a purely economic sense, creativity is worthless. If you can’t find a way to make money from it, it isn’t worth money. The great thing about working in a creative industry is that you realise early on that the ability to convince people to pay for creativity is worth more than the creativity itself. The realisation that making beautiful objects and ethereal writing doesn’t pay for itself is overwhelmingly awful but good ideas don’t sell themselves.

The three decade span where you could aspire to be a professional food writer is over, so you should probably get back to creating something which is useful.

2012 Food Trend Generator

Once again, it is the time of the year when food journalists wheel out the world’s worst portmanteau, the listicle, and predict where food trends will head in 2012. For a writer, they’re brilliant content. No editor is going to sack you if Cambodian does not become the new Thai or the world’s predicted hottest restaurant closes. Your audience does not hold you accountable if the hot food destination that you suggest collapses into civil war. So why not let a machine do the work?

Here’s my automatically generated predictions for the hot food trends of 2012. If they come true, you owe me money.

  1. Chicken-fried Vineyards
  2. Cheeseburgers are the new Caviar
  3. Hot Kitchen Tool: The Double beam spectrophotometer
  4. New Habit: Emetic Sunday
  5. Game of Thrones-inspired Vegetarianism
  6. Food Destination: Syria

Press Reload for increasingly accurate 2012 food trends.

Do online consumer reviews affect restaurant demand?

One of the more difficult questions in social media is the degree to which online reviews impact upon the bottom line of businesses; and whether bad online reviews cause declining patronage. Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca says yes, and very much so [PDF]. There is not only an impact, but that impact is causal:

Do online consumer reviews affect restaurant demand? I investigate this question using a novel dataset combining reviews from the website Yelp.com and restaurant data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Because Yelp prominently displays a restaurant’s rounded average rating, I can identify the causal impact of Yelp ratings on demand with a regression discontinuity framework that exploits Yelp’s rounding thresholds. I present three findings about the impact of consumer reviews on the restaurant industry: (1) a one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue, (2) this effect is driven by independent restaurants; ratings do not affect restaurants with chain affiliation, and (3) chain restaurants have declined in market share as Yelp penetration has increased. This suggests that online consumer reviews substitute for more traditional forms of reputation. I then test whether consumers use these reviews in a way that is consistent with standard learning models. I present two additional findings: (4) consumers do not use all available information and are more responsive to quality changes that are more visible and (5) consumers respond more strongly when a rating contains more information. Consumer response to a restaurant’s average rating is affected by the number of reviews and whether the reviewers are certified as “elite” by Yelp, but is unaffected by the size of the reviewers’ Yelp friends network.

It is pretty grim news, if you’ve spent the last hundred or so years building up the strength of a chain restaurant’s brand, only to find that increased reviewing is replacing your hard-earned equity. The recognition that certified reviewers actually do have a greater impact in systems like Yelp raises further questions whether these “elite” users follow the crowd or lead it. Duncan Watts and Matthew J. Salganik have done some great research into this, in which perceived success of cultural products online translates into actual success regardless of content, so it is altogether possible that people who contribute online reviews continually reinforce each others reviews for the good or ill of businesses.

Hat tip to Adam Ozimek from Modeled Behavior for the article.

Talk amongst yourselves

Just for interest’s sake, I extracted the comments table from my blog to see if I could come to any conclusions about the nature of blog commenting. My theory is that comments from non-bloggers have moved elsewhere: to Facebook and Twitter; to the recesses of the web that are difficult to plumb with any accuracy.

Of the past 1220 comments on this blog:

  • 71% of the comments came from other bloggers, excluding myself.
  • There’s been comments from 670 different people
  • I’ve met every single one of the top twenty commenters in person, who account for about a quarter of all the comments.

So these days, while the readership is more diverse than ever, a large proportion of the conversation on this blog is taking place amongst a small group of people who know each other, which reaffirms the old adage about blogs being about community.

My theory about Facebook doesn’t however seem to come to much. Facebook lets you track the number of conversations on your shared items through Facebook Insights. While a huge number of people share or like my words on Facebook, there isn’t any notable conversation about them there, just a steady stream of more likes.

Long tail! Half of the commenters leave but a single comment.

Comments are in decline! Although this doesn’t take into account the frequency with which I post updates to the blog, so is meaningless.

Word cloud of every word in the comments. You people say “just like” quite often. Interpret as you will.

Food Blog Name Generator

So you’ve decided to start a food blog and broadcast your eating life to the world, but you can’t find the perfect moniker under which to write. So here’s a food blog name generator to fill in your blank.

You should name that blog:

Crapulent God

Apologies if it comes up with the name of a real food blog, sexual innuendo or Michael Pollan book. That only happens if you wish hard enough. Press reload for more deliciously random food blog names.