Friday, August 31, 2007

Not About Food: Ethical Guidelines

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Sorry for all these housekeeping posts. Regular food and wine programming will resume shortly. Meanwhile, take the OWF 5-Year Anniversary Reader Survey.

I get a number of press opportunities as the publisher of OWF, and I wanted to spell out my policies about freebies. Everyone sets their own rules for this kind of thing, but few disclose them. Some basic rules I follow: When I take samples, I don’t promise to review them, and I don’t promise to only post a good review; I flat out reject press junkets, which are both useless and pricey; and I will always disclose if the item was a freebie.

As a blogger, I decide whether I’ll take samples based on their relevance and educational opportunity for you. I don’t set explicit price caps, but the more expensive the item the more relevant it has to be: Few items pass the test. Recently, Visa offered me dinner at Quince’s chef's table. They wanted to demonstrate the benefits of the Visa Signatures Rewards program. But how relevant would that have been for you? This is not a lifestyle blog. Last year, a company offered me a lobe of fresh foie gras. This is relevant to you — some of you eat it and cook it when possible — but the company had repackaged Hudson Valley Foie Gras lobes. I’ve not only used that foie gras, I’ve done extensive research on their production methods. I already recommend it, and a new sample wouldn’t have added to my knowledge. On the other hand, I did take grass-fed steak samples, because I wanted to test the claims of meat terroir that grass-fed-beef producers often tout. I tend to take books and bottles of wine, because these are relevant and, for the producers, relatively inexpensive.

But I’m not just a blogger: I’m a professional writer. I decide whether or not to take samples based on a potential client’s impression of me. I never want an editor to look at this site and say, “Send him our ethical guidelines so he knows how strict we are.” I want him or her to say, “Wow, look how strict he is.” Freelance writers don’t have staff guidelines to shape our decisions. We are responsible for our own integrity. I take this to ludicrous extremes — I don’t participate in affiliate programs because they amount to kickbacks for reviews, and after I did work for Wilson Daniels, I told my other clients so they would be aware of any conflicts of interest — but who else will keep tabs on me? (All that said, when I’m on assignment for a publication, I follow their guidelines. I didn’t bat an eye when I received several $100/bottle samples for my heritage cabernet piece, because that was in line with The Wine News’ policies.)

In reality, I make my decision based on the WWJBD rule. What would Jon Bonné do? (Sometimes I just ask him.) Many writers are ethical, but the Chronicle's wine editor, along with Tish and maybe two other writers I know, actually thinks about ethics and integrity in a careful way.

So I don’t have explicit rules, but I do have guidelines that inform my decisions.

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Not About Food: BlogDay 2007

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Take the OWF 5-year anniversary reader survey.

Today is BlogDay, an annual event where bloggers point the way to five “new” blogs. I interpret that phrase to mean “new, perhaps, to you” rather than “less than one year old.” So I looked in my RSS reader for blogs you might like. (Of course I call out specific sites throughout the year as well).

Comics Curmudgeon - Nothing gets me giggling like Josh's sarcastic rundown of the morning comics page. (I’m less fond of his occasional guest blogger UncleLumpy.) Who knew there was so much humor in Mary Worth, Mark Trail, and Family Circus?

Terroir at Wine Library - I have a love affair with off-the-map grapes, and so does Tom, who uses his blog to write about oddball varieties and the wines they produce. He gives out lots of information and writes with a distinct voice.

The Wine Importer - Joe Dressner — like Terry Theise, Kermit Lynch, and Jorge Ordonas — is one of those wine importers whose name on a bottle is sufficient reason to buy it. He champions biodynamic wines here in the U.S., and his sporadically updated blog injects humor into the so-often-self-important wine industry.

Lexicographer's Rules - Grant Barrett is the co-host of A Way With Words, and his personal blog lights up the cave of language and dictionaries.

Violent Acres - She's often blunt; she's often caustic. She often paints in broad strokes of black and white. But she's also funny, introspective, and thought-provoking. If you don't like strong language, or if you love the mommy bloggers she so often attacks, stay clear of this site.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

R.I.P. Michael Jackson

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I just noticed a note on A Good Beer Blog that Michael Jackson, the great beer writer, has passed away. No one else has done as much to educate people about the fantastic traditional beers that exist around the world, and his wisdom will be sorely missed. I've used a number of his books as reference material for my own research.

See the tribute to him, and his final article, at the All About Beer site

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Obsession's 5th

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Take the OWF 5-year Anniversary Reader Survey

Five years ago today the word blog had barely escaped the jargon of the tech savvy. Most examples were technical discussions or chatty online journals. Only a few focused exclusively on food. Julie Powell had made one post but had not yet entered the stratosphere of Internet celebrity. Hillel Cooperman had been publishing detailed posts and stunning pictures of restaurant meals for just about a month. The only established and well-read food blog was Bruce Cole's Saute Wednesday, now retired in favor of Edible Nation.

Five years ago today I made my first post, setting up a blog at the urging of friends who wanted my rambling emails out of their inboxes. Other friends pushed me to blog so that I could practice writing; at the time, I only aspired to the role of food and wine writer. (I used a cleaned-up version of an early post to get my first writing assignment, though I didn’t mention my blog in pitches until a couple of years ago.)

Five years ago today there was no food blog community, just a handful of food blogs. I’m not even sure we called ourselves food blogs yet. No Heidi, no Clotilde, no Adam, no Josh. Weird, huh? Today, of course, there are thousands of us.

I remember the first time my daily count of visitors went over 100. And I remember when it went over 1000. The numbers have kept climbing over the years, but Melissa and I ask the same question now that we did then: Who are all you people?

Now I’d like to find out. For OWF’s fifth anniversary, I’ve put together a survey. I want to hear what you do and don’t like, and I want to know a little about you. The survey’s anonymous, and I'm not planning to use the information for marketing purposes—I will raise my sword against the visual onslaught of ads for as long as I can. This is just a way to peer through the Internet's ducts and learn a bit more about my readers. Please take a moment to fill it out.

And as always, thanks for reading. Really. I never miss an opportunity to brag to friends about what a smart readership I’ve got.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crappyjack

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While listening to a podcast from the New Word Open Mic event at the Dictionary Society of North America meeting, I heard the neologism crappyjack as a synonym for junk food. Anything you snack on that leaves you with a hollow feeling could be crappyjack, which comes from crap plus Cracker Jack (an American snack food of peanuts and caramel-coated popcorn, for those outside of its reach).

This seems like a fine word to use for the low-nutrition, high-calorie junk food that transports high-fructose corn syrup to our bodies, so I post it here for all of you to spread to the masses.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Plant Vines In Sweden!

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It’s time for another article about the effect of global warming on wine regions. Next they’ll tell us that rosés aren’t all sweet fruit punch drinks. This time Salon is sounding the alarm. Unfortunately, the interesting news angle appears only briefly at the end of the article: “But he refuses to grow complacent or forget that his good fortune is an omen. That's why he and many of his colleagues in the Oregon hills have joined to make their wine industry the first ‘carbon neutral’ one in the country.” Wait. What was that again?

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Weekly Wine Wrap-Up

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A smattering of wine and beer notes from the last week or so. * denotes a sample. Remember there’s still time to sign up for my 8-week UC Berkeley Extension Wine Studies class: Fundamentals I.

* 2005 Riboli Family Vineyard “San Simeon” Pinot Noir, Monterey, $18
This lightweight Central Coast Pinot has a rare-for-California wild, gamey, mushroomy aroma that would be even more delightful without an out-of-balance booziness, but the intense acidity steamrollers over any flavors, leaving just a wee bit of wild cherry cough syrup on the finish. Drink with delicate, light foods such as mousse patés, lemony fish, or herb chicken.

* 2006 (oops) Sauvignon Blanc/Carmenere, Chile, $12
I was intrigued by this white blend, since Carmenere is normally a red grape (the name—not my first choice for a good brand—comes from vineyards full of “Merlot” that were actually the more rare Carmenere grape). The wine lacks Sauvignon Blanc’s intense grassiness, instead offering lemon zest and minerals with a pleasant peppery spiciness. The Carmenere softens the searing acidity and adds a bit of weight to the wine. Drink with shellfish or white fish sauced with an herb vinaigrette.

* 2004 Chateau Pradeaux Rosé Bandol, France, ~$18
You won't find many rosés better than this bottle from a top-tier producer in a wine region known for its pink wines. Earthy aromas laced with nutmeg and red apple skin translate to bright cherry flavor and a thrumming acidity. It enhanced the tomato flavor in our caprese salad.

N/V “Sanctification”, Russian River Brewing, ~$10/750 ml
This homage to Cantillon gueuze lacks the full spine-tingling acidity of its role model, but it’s more than tart enough for sour beer fans. Aromas and flavors of flowers and grapefruit pith fade to a hoppy finish.

2004 “Home” Chardonnay, Shinn Estate Vineyards, North Fork, Long Island
Green apples sprinkled with lemon juice, with maybe just a hint of petrol, dominate this wine, and the medium weight, modest creamy character, and bright acidity made it a nice match for a homemade pâté de campagne with radishes, olives, cornichons, and goat cheese.

2004 Godello, Val de Sil, Valdeorras, Spain, $20 (for the 2005)
There’s a hint of "old white wine" aromas—wax and lanolin—but smoke and bacon take center stage. There's a really fascinating flavor in this wine, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Black licorice jelly bean was the closest I could get. Flowers and wax also show up in this crisp wine's flavor profile. Eat it with weighty fish or heavier appetizers.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

New Yorker's Food Issue

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The New Yorker’s annual food issue will be on shelves this week, according to a press release they sent me. Check your newsstand or independent bookstore for copies: The food issue always has interesting content.

This year’s topics:

  • How Could One Collector Find So Much Rare Fine Wine? - a story of fine-wine fraud
  • Does Street Food Make the Best Cuisine? - Calvin Trillin on Singapore’s street food
  • Eating the Fruits of the Five Boroughs - Adam Gopnik tries an extreme Eat Local Challenge: Food from New York City's boroughts.
  • Claudia Roden’s Culinary Diaspora - profile of the prolific cookbook author
  • You Are What You Don’t Eat - Judith Thurman goes to a spa

And more, from the press release:
The Food Issue also includes seven sidebars about memorable family dinners, including: David Sedaris on meals without flavor (p. 98); Anthony Lane on eating artichokes (p. 104); Alexsandar Hemon on yearning for home-cooked meals from the war front (p. 58); Gary Shteyngart on assimilation by way of McDonald’s (p. 70); Donald Antrim on his father’s gourmet ambitions (p. 112); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the quintessential Nigerian dish (p. 92); and Nell Freudenberger on a welcoming feast in Bangladesh (p. 80).

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

La Bonne Table

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Most people hearing the name Ludwig Bemelmans think of a little red-haired girl who lives in an old house in Paris all covered with vines. But the man behind Madeline spent his life in restaurants—behind the doors as a cynical waiter, at the table as a passionate eater and drinker, and in the office as an owner—and often wrote about that world.

La Bonne Table collects many of his food-centric pieces as well as the sketches he made to go with them. From “…sausages the size of a small finger…served on a bed of sauerkraut, with the same brown beer my grandfather brewed” to “Caviar aux Blinis, Borsch, Homard Sole Mio, Faisan Miami,Purée de Marrons, Pommes Soufflées, Salade Georges at Marthe, Bombe Washington,” just one part of the extravagant meal planned by a wealthy Miami resident for her birthday, Bemelmans detailed the best and the worst of the food he enjoyed so much. Even some of the menus he collected over the years, convenient doodle pads for him, appear in the book.

But forget the food. The best bits of this book come when Bemelmans writes of the people in the restaurant world. Some portraits may be David Sedaris-esque exaggerations, but even as approximate nonfiction they delight. Gabriel, the maître d'hôtel who staves off disaster at the Miami birthday, moves placidly and confidently through his daily tasks, master of his craft: You don't need Bemelmans’ sketch atop “No Problem At All” to picture him with a thin mustache and an imperious air. There is Herr Otto Brauhaus, who flusters and yells and fires his employees on a whim, only to hire them back the moment they spin even an implausible sob story. There is Mr. Sigsag, a twitchy waiter—I picture him as small and wiry—who is eager to please rich clients and quick to chastise workers at other restaurants. His characters only fall flat in the “Fancies” section, a collection of short stories that often draw on his experience around Hollywood’s elite. I didn't care about any of the characters, and the stories seem to have been dropped in without regard to order or plot. I was tired of these even before I boarded a 16-hour flight. (Perhaps there's no real way to capture that narcissistic world—Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration was the least funny of his mockumentaries.)

The characters in Bemelmans’ vignettes move against a window looking in at the 1930s. Even his disdainful descriptions of the wealthy can’t hide the splendor of a coming-out party or a Jewish wedding (he doesn't mention any other kind) held in the Ritz where he worked. I imagine galas of this form still happen, but Bemelmans’ descriptions make me wistful for such extravagance, even though I probably wouldn&rsqo;t have gone to any of these events. On the other hand, there are reminders of the less glamorous facets of that time: rich people with “blackie” servants and German generals.

But one thing about Bemelmans is timeless. Good food and drink should never be taken for granted.

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Financial Times On The Alice Waters Culinary School

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The Financial Times has an article about the many Chez Panisse alumni who have opened up their own Bay Area businesses. It doesn't add a lot of new material, but Melissa and I were pleased to see Mary Jo Thorensen, co-owner and pastry chef at our beloved Jojo, get a prominent mention.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

City Farmer Blog

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As Melissa caught up on her blog posts, she noticed that her acquaintance Novella has started a blog. Novella has written for Salon about her experiences as a hard core urban farmer in Oakland, and she's working on a memoir about it as well. Check it out.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Boat Shed, Nelson, New Zealand

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Note: We're trying out one of those slide show widgets that are all the rage. If you're reading this through RSS, you'll probably need to click through to see the slide show. Let me know what you think.

“Are you having a moment over there?”

My eyes rolled back in my head as Melissa talked. She told people later that I had tears in my eyes as I bit into a jelly-like slice of purple-red yellowfin tuna. The edge had a hairline of sear and a band of black and white sesame seeds; everthing else on the fat slice was raw but warm. “It's what seared ahi tuna should be,” I wrote in my notebook, “but never is.”

It's the best fish dish I've ever eaten. It grabbed the title from the tender, meaty salmon fillet stuffed with mozzarella that I ate at the same restaurant on the previous night.

Tell Kiwi foodies that you're going to Nelson, New Zealand, and they'll insist that you make a reservation at the Boat Shed Cafe. The cozy, white building perched over the water is a city landmark: The apartment we rented advertises its nearness to the restaurant and mentions it in the driving directions.

It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside you find an upscale casual look. Paintings and metal sculptures deck the walls, and light wood soothes the eye as you walk to your table.

The decor mirrors the food, which is elegant but not showy. The raw, or “natural”, oysters I ordered the first night came with caviar and shoestrings of brined cucumber; Melissa's abalone-like mollusc, paua, plucked from the restaurant's own tanks, came in its shimmery shell with marinated vegetables and lemon aioli.

The Boat Shed focuses on fish, but the chef's love of New Zealand food opens other doors. I liked the dark, gamy flavor of its mutton bird wontons and the tableau of tastes paired with different breads.

Given the restaurant's focus on the best New Zealand has to offer, you won't be surprised to see many wines from the country on the two long pages of the wine list. But order by the bottle if you want a good one: The by-the-glass program limits you to just one or two local wineries.

And if you've got a full bottle, you might as well skip dessert. The Boat Shed's are big, not very inspired, and not very tasty. You've got the wine handy, so order another course of fish. Seafood this good is sweeter than any dessert.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Clips, Clips, Everywhere Clips

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Melissa and I are still traveling, enjoying New Zealand wine and food before heading to Australia, but we're in a hotel with a wireless Internet connection; I've caught up on the Internet. The whole thing.

I've had some articles appear like magic while we've been away. First, my Txakoli article appeared in last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle. I researched how various wine regions are coping with urban sprawl for the current issue of The Wine News. And in the current issue of Edible East Bay, I responded to readers' concerns about the way I glossed over sustainability issues in my Chinatown article from the last issue.

I can't wait to share our gourmet adventures with you, but you'll have to be a bit more patient.

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