(from Edible Austin Summer 2009)
A BYTE OF AUSTIN
By David Ansel
Photography by Jenna Noel and Logan Cooper
New technologies always change the game. One can almost imagine two medieval calligraphers drowning their sorrows in mead, lamenting the advent of the printing press. (“Now any old jester with a bucket of ink can stamp out a sonnet, Benvolio!”) This could well be the attitude of the traditional journalist currently under virtual assault by legions of bloggers. True, the blogosphere may have destroyed the last remaining entry barriers into journalism and blurred more than a few lines along the way, but it’s also ushered in new ways to unite causes and communities and democratized publishing for the masses.
Meet Addie Broyles, hip but down-to-earth, urban but with garden soil under her fingernails, around-the-town professional schmoozer but laid-back mom. Certainly not the first food blogger in Austin but universally accepted as the ringleader of the bloggers. Broyles is the food writer for the Austin American-Statesman and blogs at austin360.com. In today’s food world, much of the local beat is claimed by the Internet—bloggers and other review websites such as Yelp, Dishola and Chowhound have helped render Wednesday’s hard-copy food section less relevant. Yet competition isn’t the mindset that Broyles brings to the job.
“I like to think that we’re all doing this together,” she says.
Broyles has united Austin’s food-blogging community into a noshing, sipping, photo-snapping, keyboard-tapping, opining gaggle of gastronomic sophisticates. She began by hosting a series of “eat-ups” which has helped the disparate group coalesce into a community.
“Addie’s the reason it has become a community,” says eat-up member Jodi Bart of tastytouring.com. “She’s so open with these events, not proprietary at all.”
Food blogging isn’t new, of course—few topics escape the blog radar—but who are these local food bloggers? And what’s the motivation behind this genre of guerilla journalism? Logan Cooper of Austin’s bootsintheoven.com offers one pragmatic, purely selfish reason to blog.
“A lot of food businesses don’t make it,” says Cooper. “If you find someplace that is really special and amazing, but they don’t advertise and people don’t know about them, you get out there and try to angle people their way.”
One such push was recently directed toward far North Austin’s Chen’s Noodle House.
“They use a cleaver to cut these delicious noodles off of big blocks of homemade dough…whittle them right into bubbling Northern-style Chinese soups,” says Cooper. “The place only seats about 10 people and I’m terrified the guy won’t make it.”
Other local food bloggers are using the medium to grow their businesses and create opportunities. Food writer Beth Goulart uses her texaslocavore.com as a scratch pad for developing larger stories.
“I never would have thought I was entering a food mecca when I moved here,” she says. “I was astounded by all the great food, and I wanted an outlet. The most power we have is as consumers…I’m a writer and I can’t sell a story to a national magazine about every little thing I discover.”
Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh uses her blog to engage customers and entice them to enroll in her cooking classes, and also as a little Thai Cooking 311—some customers have made their way to Jam’s store following confusion in the kitchen.
“They say, ‘I found you on your blog.’” Jam says. “‘I was trying to cook this Thai food, but I have a question.’”
Christian Bowers of austinfoodjournal.com uses his to log culinary efforts at home, show off his food photography and inspire others. And Mando Rayo started blogging as a way to share details about a trip to South America with his friends back home. Currently he blogs at tacojournalism.com as one of the self-appointed taco czars who seek out and share with loyal readers the best tacos to be had in Austin.
“Everyone has such a different perspective on what they’re blogging about,” notes Broyles. “The voices are different, where they live in town is different…there are so many ways you can write about food.”
And for some, a blog might be the first step in a new direction. “Professionally I think it could lead to things because you’re out there and people can see another side of you,” says Bart. “I have my blog on my résumé.”
“I’m meeting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” adds Goulart. “The blog has given me a community of like-minded people.”
It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Couldn’t the same be said for writing about food? Isn’t all of this blogging about personal minutiae simply self-aggrandizing foolishness? Perhaps, but according to the bloggers we spoke with, it’s more about a means to a human end; another way to reach out and form community. And with many national food bloggers being offered book deals, blogging appears to be seen as more than just ego-journaling.
The same holds true for our local food bloggers. While they’re out rubbing elbows at restaurants and taco trucks, and twittering meetings, culinary book clubs and potlucks, chefs and restaurant owners are beginning to see the group as a marketing force. Several local restaurants have recently invited Broyles and her blog-roll buddies to exclusive tasting events.
“Members of the media are treated like royalty when it comes to marketing, but they don’t do that for bloggers,” says Broyles, who feels blogging is a burgeoning legitimate tier of the media. “Some people think I’m shooting myself in the foot by giving everyone the same access that I have,” she says. “But I ask that bloggers be invited to things like preview media parties.”
Of course such perks have the potential to harm a blogger’s objectivity and compromise integrity—risks, according to Goulart, that are especially pronounced in a realm with little-to-zero editorial control and a similar paucity of journalistic training. “A blogger could cross the line if she just gushed about everything a restaurant or chef did because of one of these marketing events,” says Broyles. But risks be damned, Broyles supports the restaurant-blogger relationship, noting that attending bloggers aren’t obligated to write about the tasting events, though many do—both promoting the meals they loved and cautioning readers about poor experiences.
Tyson Cole, head chef at Uchi, recently hosted a blogger invitational and was mightily impressed with the return on investment.
“The labor’s not much, the food is not much, the results we got from it were incredible, almost instantaneous,” says Cole. “Within a week, my PR department had 12 articles online with photographs. It’s priceless.”
As with many chefs, Cole has concerns about the “untamable beast” aspect of blogging, and says that reading unfair or unfounded blogger opinions feels like having your hands tied. But he still thinks the restaurant-blogger relationship is of value.
“You know they’re going to be in your restaurant anyway,” Cole continues. “At least instead of staring over the fence worrying about the monster, you just go around and shake hands and say hello.”
As with any community, Austin’s food bloggers are a heterogeneous bunch not only in terms of style, but also professionalism. But the best of them aren’t your mama’s bloggers, yammering on about what they had for lunch or trying to score free appetizers—they’re a not particularly amateurish group of amateurs enhancing Austin’s status as a foodie city and raising the bar for paid journalists like Broyles as well as for chefs and restaurants around town.