Fearful Symmetries

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01 June, 2007

The Cumulative Wisdom of the Internet

Last night The Dulcinea and I attended our first MadInteractive event which concerned food blogging in Madison. We grabbed some brews (I had a Capital Fest…mmm….) and found some seats.

The proceedings were hosted by Nichole and JM of Eating Madison A to Z. The panel consisted of this bunch:

From L to R:

Linda Falkenstein of thedailypage.com
Monnie Halberg of Nutritilicious
Christopher Robin from Christopher Robin’s Fresh Foods
Irene Cash of Madison Dining Online, Cuisine Capers
Jonathan Hunter of Underground Food Collective

While a fair amount of ground was covered, it seemed that there were two main questions which were most relevant to the MadInteractive premise and brought about the most disagreement, respectively. The first involved using the Internet to promote food and food culture. Mr. Robin remarked that L'Etoile has a very good website. It has a country ton of information and it is kept up to date. Ms. Falkenstein followed this up by saying that, at a minimum, a restaurant's website should have the correct menu including the prices. To this, the woman sitting to my right nodded her head and audibly concurred. Mr. Hunter commented that it would be ideal if food producers (i.e. – farmers) had websites to give eaters a chance to understand what is happening at the first link of the food chain.

Concomitant to this was a question asked later by an audience member about the usefulness of user-submitted reviews. Mr. Robin reiterated a point he made very early on that such forum/webpages can accumulate the "collective wisdom" of the Internet. He said that 20+ reviews taken in aggregate can essentially give you a good, if broad, picture of a particular restaurant.

By far the most contentious moments of the evening came when Nichole asked if the panelists would label themselves a "foodie". Mr. Hunter answered first in the negative by noting the foodie culture has a downside which is that it doesn't promote the political aspects of food enough, if at all.

Ms. Cash's riposte noted that the positive side of the foodie culture was that better food was more readily available and that knowledge of the political aspects of food (e.g. – labor practices) trickles down from a relatively exclusive culture into the mainstream. Mr. Hunter replied that all too often, "good" food is the province of the wealthy and that people of average means or less should still have access to qulaity, affordable food.

Ms. Cash has already written about the exchange. For my part, I had no idea that "foodie" was such a loaded term or had such negative connotations. Not being a food blogger, this should be unsurprising. I've always thought of the term in the manner that Ms. Cash describes at the page linked above. It's been almost 50 years since Harvest of Shame, so just how much do we Americans know about the food we eat and how it got to our plates?

While I found Mr. Hunter's ideas noble and agreeable, I also found some of them to be a bit quixotic, at least on a large scale. Perhaps it's my memory that's hazy, but I recall him promoting the notion of eaters having some kind of relationship with food producers and I think that this is just too much to ask of most people, especially those in an urban setting. However, he also mentioned that he'd like to see a mechanism to act as a proxy between eater and producer, one that would ensure quality, affordable food and this seems to me to be much more realistic. As the conversation steered towards the inadequacy of food labeling, it was still obvious that Mr. Hunter had a very valid point which was that we need to know more about all aspects of food. And I suspect that if food education is to be a top-down thing, then the Internet can play a large role in that. Most of the audience questions which followed the panel discussion involved the mechanics of being a restaurant reviewer and this tension between the epicurean aspect of food and the political was lost.

The Dulcinea got a question in regarding taking pictures of food and there was unanimous agreement that one shouldn't feel embarrassed about it. As Mr. Hunter said, "Don't have no shame." And she won't. Look for her camera going off at a restaurant near you. The question I posed to the panel was about what they'd like to see here in Madison that isn't already or is but only in small numbers. Ms. Falkenstein responded "Burmese" while Mr. Hunter and Ms. Cash were both keen on less chains and more locally-owned affairs. Mr. Robin longed for better service at high-end restaurants while Ms. Halberg spoke for me when she expressed her desire for a larger variety of restaurants on the east side.

Afterwards The Dulcinea and I chatted outside with JM, Nichole, and Monnie Halberg. I was pleasantly surprised to find that JM and Nichole were dorks like myself who enjoy getting wood for sheep in a nice game of Settlers of Catan. We blathered on about various meals and restaurants for some time. I wish I could have had Monnie's ear for a while as I think that talking to her would have been very interesting with all my questions about the science of food and how our bodies deal with what we eat. Perhaps I'll have the opportunity in the future.

I noted yesterday that Leinenkugel has a new brew out – Big Eddy Imperial IPA. After leaving the High Noon, we headed to The Echo Tap as it was rumored that the new beer could be found there. Sure enough it was on tap and I ordered a couple pints. "Big" is the right word because it had a very strong hop profile with grapefruit overtones being the most prominent. It was a very, very tasty beer and I hope that the Leinenkugel folks keep brewing small batches of high quality stuff such as Big Eddy. Even better, I hope that they bottle it.
|| Palmer, 10:32 AM


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