In Defense of Praise
I am sometimes asked: “Why don’t you ever write anything negative?” Or, “Do you like everything?”
These are good questions. Both on this site and in my articles for C-VILLE Weekly, you will find nary a negative word. It is fair to question the value of food writing that fails to discriminate between the good and the bad. Saying everything is good is just as helpful as saying nothing is. As some have argued, “readers want reporters, not fanboys.”
Yet, my focus on the positive is deliberate, and the product of much consideration. Before I began food writing, I pondered whether it is possible to be an effective food writer without criticizing. I ultimately decided that it is, and there are reasons behind my decision to do so. Here they are.
First, the primary purpose of The Charlottesville 29 is to draw attention to the wonderful food in the Charlottesville area that I believe warrants attention. Criticizing food and restaurants has nothing to do with that goal. There are times, perhaps, when my praise goes overboard, evidenced by readers who mistake my writing for marketing and who email me to try to make a reservation (which has happened more than once). But, my praise is always sincere. This site does not advertise and has never generated a penny in revenue. Nor have I ever owned or invested in any restaurant.
Second, I do in fact discriminate when I choose what to write about. Throughout my writing, I have adhered to a simple rule: If I don’t like it, I won’t write about it. The good, I write about. Everything else, I don’t. As my wife can attest, I spend an absurd amount of time brooding over which restaurants are worthy of inclusion in The Charlottesville 29. Some readers have noticed the conspicuous absence of certain popular restaurants from my selections for The Charlottesville 29 and from my food writing generally. About those restaurants, I follow the advice of Thumper: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Third, among the restaurants I do write about, I discriminate by focusing on specific dishes. Even at great restaurants, some dishes are better than others. The guides for restaurants in The Charlottesville 29 include recommendations for what to order, as do my C-VILLE articles. These recommendations may have value to a reader scanning a restaurant menu and deciding on which dish to spend his hard-earned money.
Fourth, who am I to say? If I do not like something, who cares? In drawing attention to the places I love, my hope is that others who share my tastes may grow to trust my recommendations. Praise for a restaurant a reader hasn’t tried may encourage the reader to try it. But, if I dislike something, on the other hand, what’s the value in publishing that? Surely, there will be countless readers who disagree with me, and who should see for themselves. On one recent Friday evening, I picked up my son from a birthday party at a chain restaurant on 29N. As I rarely find myself in such restaurants, I was stunned to see how packed it was. People everywhere, there was barely space to move. It reminded me of the large portion of the population whose taste differs from mine. Another reminder is when my children listen to American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest. My favorite 40 songs evidently differ from America’s. But, I am not right, and others are not wrong. One man’s Air Bud is another man’s Citizen Kane.
Fifth, I have better things to do with my leisure time than criticize others. Among the most significant things I’ve learned while covering food is the extraordinary amount of time, effort, and passion that it takes to run a food business. Food writing for me is a hobby that I squeeze into the rare moments when my career and family responsibilities do not occupy my time. What kind of psychopath uses his spare time to dump on someone’s life work?
Sixth, I am an eternal optimist.
All of this being said, I would not rule out the possibility that I might one day re-consider my exclusive focus on the positive. Chefs and restaurateurs sometimes ask me for constructive criticism, which I have slowly become more willing to provide, person-to-person. Reasonable minds can differ on the value of publishing that critique. For now, however, my focus remains positive.
Never for money, always for love.