Is restaurant scouting an open source activity?
That's essentially the question underlying local barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn's frustration with Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner's new list of the top barbecue joints, an entry in her "The Best in DFW" series.
Vaughn, who posts barbecue reviews every other day at Full Custom Gospel BBQ, earlier this year wrote a story for D magazine naming the area's top 16 barbecue spots. Vaughn visited more than 130 barbecue restaurants in the course of reporting his story, which Brenner acknowledges served as a jumping-off point for her research. Her list consisted of eight joints mentioned in Vaughn's piece, plus one restaurant awarded "best barbecue" honors by the Observer last year.
"I consulted Daniel Vaughn's piece and blog, along with Texas Monthly's best barbecue lists from the last few years, our archives at The Dallas Morning News, stories in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, friends, acquaintances and several books, among other sources," Brenner e-mailed in response to a query.
But none of those attributions appeared in print. Although Brenner only visited about 20 restaurants to come up with her list of nine superlative smokehouses, her story gives the impression she did the sussing. As Vaughn asked me in an e-mail: "Is it still food journalism if someone else does all of your homework for you and you don't credit them?"
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Honestly, I don't know. As a food writer, I rely heavily on finds reported by bloggers; I never would have discovered Bambu, which I recently reviewed, without the help of the hard-working eaters in the Chowhound community. While I sometimes stumble upon a restaurant, I usually plot my culinary compass according to other people's experiences. By the time I reach an eatery, it's often unclear who deserves credit for its discovery (a rather relative term, since restaurants aren't like penicillin or the Loch Ness monster. They typically want to be found.)
Even when it's apparent who is responsible for popularizing a certain restaurant or a dish, it can be a tough claim to defend. Few people beyond the Mississippi Delta would ever have heard of Kool-Aid pickles if John T. Edge hadn't written about them in The New York Times back in 2007. But John T.'s name didn't surface this summer when Kool-Aid pickles became a State Fair sensation: That's because once a concept enters the culinary ether, it's pretty much impossible to control.
Since Vaughn is a respected local barbecue authority -- and because I know and like him -- I think it would have been nice if Brenner had given him a shout-out. But I'm not yet ready to categorize restaurant finds as intellectual property.
What do you think? Should food writers cite their inspirations? Is it fair for a writer to rely on a blogger's legwork?