photo courtesy liQcity
-Last Sunday afternoon the magazine had its first event. I thought it would be like a science fair, with a sea of posterboards on card tables, surrounded by small groups of people asking polite questions. I was so wrong- the event was raucous! Hundreds of people, tons of free food, live jazz and a panel discussion on the food scene in Queens. (When a dude on the panel admitted he lives in Brooklyn, the crowd booed. We’re a defensive borough.)
-Sunday night was decadent date night.
-Tuesday morning I went in late to my day job so I could visit the chocolate factory. Situated way out where Queens falls into the ocean, it took an hour and a half to get there. What an amazing story. The owner/CEO is an old-school New York Jew who treats his 450 multi-ethnic workers like a family. The guy speaks 5 languages so he can talk to his employees in their native tongues. His mother died the week of the earthquake but he still stepped up to the plate for his Haitian workers, helping get their family members flown to the States, giving thousands of dollars to relief efforts, etc. I walked away feeling less terrible than I thought I would.
-Thursday night we had dinner with PR agent/femme fatale Muriel Goldberg at one of the restaurants she reps. It was cozy- me, Muriel, SK and Ornella (the owner). I wasn’t expecting much, as the restaurant looks nondescript and has zero hype. But! The food was excellent, especially the made-by-hand fresh pasta, in many unusual varieties- chestnut, buckwheat, rice, etc. We went home well-fed and glowing. Tipsy on vino, SK hugged everyone goodbye.
– She called black people “savages.”
– She got angry I didn’t have business cards.
– She made the waiter wrap up two pieces of cheese from her appetizer.
To conclude, I have been torn. My natural love of free food conflicts with my professional ethics, drilled into me at four years of journalism school. So I posted this dilemma in my food writing class chatroom. Wilma, a former NPR reporter, said she would rather starve than eat a free biscuit. Molly, the class instructor and a veteran food writer, responded:
In principle I agree with Wilma 100%. But as an on-the-ground food writer who has worked on-staff and as a freelancer I can say that those standards are unrealistic for all but a very few.
Some news outlets still have budgets for their food staff to expense everything – restaurant meals, new products, etc. But even at Sunset we took free meals (and more) and were encouraged to find ways to get them to save money. I would never review a restaurant that had comped me, but I have written up plenty of them (and also not written up ones that didn’t work for a story or weren’t good, etc.).
When you’re already writing a story about someone, it isn’t uncommon for them to feed you (for free) in the process. The food world is full of generous, hospitable people – the line between a comped meal and someone feeding you as part of getting to know them is sometimes difficult to discern (especially since they are often the same thing).
Okay then. I can live with that. In an era where publications have no budgets, in a warm and fuzzy medium like food writing, the industry standard is comped meals. And if it is a common practice, I won’t feel like I’m selling out for a free hoagie. With that, I am off to meet Muriel Goldberg for a gratis Italian dinner. (SK is joining, for backup.)
Credit- Reni Papananias
From my upcoming story on BBQ pitmaster/bluegrass impresario Trainwreck Washington
Last week I visited this new restaurant for an hour, interviewing Chef Chris and the house manager. My mouth watered when Chris told me about his two favorite dishes on the menu – stuffed pork loin and caramelized apples with pressed pork belly (takes over 24 hours to prepare) and wild mushroom and cream agnolotti (type of ravioli). He was like, “You gotta try it right now!”
Instead of succumbing to my momentary hunger, I waited until I could bring SK. I anticipated a hot date for my foodie lady.
Last night we headed out in the cold drizzle. For our entrees, we shared the pork and the agnolotti. For these dishes we paid $38, plus an $11 tip. But over the course of the evening, we were also given:
-beancakes with chipotle mayo
-tequila-grilled jumbo shrimp
-warm chocolate bourbon pecan pie with vanilla bean ice cream
-Uruguayan dessert wine
Pretty good date right?
Oh but hey! Doesn’t free food compromise journalistic integrity? To quote Wilma, an NPR reporter in my food writing class:
“I know it’s tough to not take free food these econ. days…at least for me. But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I took a free meal in exchange for a write up, good or bad.”
Isn’t she right?
As a news reporter working in Wisconsin, I liked to fight for the underdog. One week, I profiled a bureaucrat named Bill, under fire for his rigid zoning policies. I showed he was not a jerk, not a proponent of Big Government, just a duty-bound civil servant, constricted by his character to always follow the letter of the law. I don’t know if I changed any hearts and minds, but Bill was pleased as punch with the profile.
Friday after the story broke, I went to my favorite watering hole, The Dry Gulch, for their weekly fish fry. Bill was sitting by himself at the bar, pounding beers. We made small talk, he boozily thanked me for the story, and I went and had my meal.
After dinner, when I asked for the check, the barkeep told me my tab had been picked up. She pointed to Bill who nodded and hoisted his beer in the air. I got very upset and refused the gift. The barkeep shot me an arch look and said, “It’s too late. He already paid.”
Man! So much for professional objectivity. It had been drilled into my head all through journalism school that free stuff was never acceptable and would leave a blemish on my career and my entire profession. This wouldn’t be the last story I would write on Bill, and now my ethical purity was besmirched.
Flash forward- if I could be such a white knight four years ago, outraged over $25 in fish and beer, what has changed now? Why have I grown comfortable eating my weight in free food? To be continued…
I have long suspected my all-girl food writing class resents me. They act all nice and everything but I can read their venomous thoughts. After all, I am the guy without ANY food writing experience who wandered into a side job most of them would die for. Especially since most of these women have been food blogging for years without pay. It plays right into the statistics about dudes having better luck attaining plum gigs.
I’m sure gender bias has nothing to do with me though. I didn’t get here through any means other than raw unadulterated talent. Right, guys? Guys?
I feel I’m in a time and place where things are happening. Queens is on the verge of bursting into people’s consciousness as more than a backdrop for dumb working-class comedies and a breeding ground for Jersey Shore Lite. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen a slow and steady influx of interesting people tiptoeing into the multi-culti stew. Hip things have started threading their way into the borough, enhancing quality of life without overpowering local character. Astoria will never become Williamsburg, nor should it want to. I have my eyes on a dream borough, merging sophistication with a lack of pretense to create something new and beautiful.
Evidence of the Coming Golden Age of Queens
–Crazy cool ventures that capitalize on the huge borough film and TV industry.
-A large urban farm that supplies locally sourced meat and vegetables to trendy Brooklyn restaurants.
-Arthouse movies shown on a big screen by the river, with ethnic snacks.
-Old industrial buildings turned into speakeasies.
–Sweaty hipster dance parties.