I'm proud to be a member of a community of food writers that care about working conditions in food processing factories, the availability of fruits and vegetables in impoverished neighborhoods and the ethics of eating meat. But I'm ashamed of my profession when my so-called colleagues sink to reporting on my choice to wear a name tag.
Eater yesterday decided my wearing a name tag at a private fundraiser qualified as national news, and outlets including The Baltimore Sun agreed, directing their readers to the story. On the surface, it's a great "man bites dog" moment: A critic who works anonymously is parading around with her name pinned to her chest! Ha!
But what's lost in the glee of gotcha journalism is any serious discussion of the function of anonymity. Anonymity is a means, not an ends. I'm a food critic, not a fugitive from the law: My goal is to chronicle our region's evolving food scene, not evade the prying eyes of critic-spotters. Between eating, writing, reading food blogs and calling up chefs, farmers, bakers, pit masters and policy makers, I don't usually find much time to secret myself in the Observer basement, counterfeiting passports and scrubbing down my fingerprints.
The grand critic hunt is an incredibly vindictive enterprise, rooted in the misconception that reviewers are out to get restaurants -- and the everyman's doing the world a favor by getting him or her back good. Just as there are doctors who saw off the wrong arm and elementary school teachers who misplace commas, there are surely bad critics who believe their primary responsibility is to excoriate restaurants. Such a perspective would make this gig pretty miserable. I firmly believe my role is to serve as a curator, seeking out the most interesting edible achievements around Dallas and championing those who are making significant contributions to our collective feast.
I review restaurants anonymously because I want to have the same restaurant experience as every other customer. And although my photo was posted prominently on the Internet before I even arrived in Dallas, my fake names and credit cards seem to be working: I'm routinely seated alongside drafty windows, ignored for long stretches and served dishes that have been tanning in the glow of a heat lamp for so long that they're delivered by busboys wearing oven mitts. I love that. There's no way I could fairly assess a restaurant if I was granted special treatment.
For me, anonymity is a matter of humility. My job is about food, and the people who make and eat it, not about me. There are many reasons why I don't often attend press and public events: In addition to not wanting to compromise my objectivity by socializing with publicists and chefs, and an ethical code that prevents me from accepting free food, I don't think anything's gained by palling around with the elite or establishing myself as a known character. Anonymity is one way of us critics reminding ourselves that we're nothing special -- although Eater and nasty comment writers also tend to be helpful in that regard.
I attended and helped coordinate the dinner for Foodways Texas because I believe the organization's mission is perfectly compatible with my own. The nonprofit group is embarking on a few terrifically exciting projects, including the reintroduction of Gulf Coast oyster appellations, a project which will boost profits for our state's oystermen and heighten awareness of Texas food culture nationwide. I could support that effort -- or I could hide in my office, shielding my Google-able face. When anonymity imperils my ability to celebrate our local food or suss out important news, it's no longer serving a useful purpose.
So why not show up in costume? Why wear a name tag? Even if the Observer had a masquerade budget, dressing up strikes me as far too egotistical. The point of anonymity is not to make a spectacle of oneself. The same goes for wearing a name tag. Perhaps I spent too much time in the Midwest, where children are trained to believe they're not better than anybody else, or in the South, where hospitality's prized above all, but it never occurred to me to refuse to wear a name tag like everybody else. Considering how many people in the room already knew me, it would have amounted to a charade anyhow.
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To be clear, I'm not in the habit of attending events where name tags are required. Despite what Eater readers think, I am not a complete fool. But as I explained over at Sidedish, there are limits to anonymity. I don't use aliases when I leave messages for my friends, or wear dark glasses to the gym. I believed anyone who cared enough about celebrating Texas food to pay $75 for a family-style dinner could be counted as a friend.
And I'm not sure this incident proves me wrong. I don't know who sent the photo to Eater, but it wasn't the man who took it. The very lovely Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods, who donated a gazillion oysters for the event and patiently taught attendees how to shuck them, shot the photo with a pocket camera. He posted it along with dozens of others to his public Picasa album to share his enthusiasm for Foodways Texas -- an impulse I thoroughly endorse.
Interestingly, I didn't know Jim had taken the picture, as I was locked in conversation with Tim Byres. I consider Tim a friend, and would never, ever review his restaurant: When I decided to move to Dallas, I raided the Rolodexes of friends with Dallas contacts who could help orient me to the area. John T. Edge steered me to Tim, who's been welcoming from the start.
And here's the payoff for reading to the end: Tim and I were discussing the surprise arrival of his chef friends. I purchased my ticket with the understanding that every other attendee would do the same. I'd scanned the guest list, but wasn't prepared for Matt McCallister and John Tesar to just "drop by." But, as everyone who works in food and beverage knows, things happen. Rather than tear off my name tag and run screaming from the property, I opted to avoid the chefs whose restaurants I might one day review. It's not as dramatic a solution as fashioning an on-the-fly disguise from tablecloths, but it allowed me to focus fully on helping the crowd appreciate the glories of Texas food -- which matters far more than my protecting any pretense of anonymity.