Features editor Teresa Taylor was kind enough to conduct a very comprehensive Q-and-A session with me, so you’ll find more than you ever needed to know about me in today’s food section: I’d wager I’ve taken road trips with folks who couldn’t tell you what my mother served for Thursday suppers (taco salad) or my primary form of transportation (a 2009 Trek Soho.) What the column doesn’t include, though, is a picture of me.
Via Twitter, we immediately heard back from a reader who wondered why. Since I made a point of stressing openness and transparency in my responses, he wrote, why not put my picture out for all to see? It’s a legitimate question, and one which deserves more than a 140-character answer.
It’s a truism today that there’s no such thing as anonymity. Eater’s published my photo so many times that when I’m meeting someone for the first time, I spare them the descriptions of my hair color and height, suggesting they just pull up my picture on Google beforehand. If anonymous means nobody knows what I look like, I haven’t been anonymous for years – and neither has any other critic of note.
But equating anonymity with invisibility is a very narrow definition of anonymity indeed. Anonymity has much more to do with actions than appearance: It demands a kind of wallflower mindset. When critics practice anonymity, it doesn’t mean they live in a guarded turret and run errands in disguise. Rather, it means they dine under assumed names; avoid fraternizing with industry types; rarely attend organized dinners and never make a spectacle of themselves. “Anonymous” isn’t the perfect word for such behavior: Maybe it’s better to think of serious critics as “aloof.” The internet may threaten anonymity, but it can’t do much to overpower aloofness.
In Judaism, there’s a teaching which says you should carry a note in your right pocket reading “The world was created for my sake” and a note in your left pocket reading “I am but dust and ashes.” Although the rabbis didn’t specifically comment on food criticism, I’m pretty sure the pocket lesson’s applicable here. There’s no shortage of glitz and gifts in the food world, as many bloggers have discovered: It’s frighteningly easy for writers to skate from one lavish dinner to another, and to believe they’re the center of the dining universe. Anonymity — or whatever we choose to call it — is a constant nudge toward the humility needed to properly cover restaurants.
As for my anonymity, I don’t foresee any difficulties in shunning free food and drink or using aliases, but imagine I’ll end up interacting with chefs and bartenders far more than I ever did in Seattle. I think that’s OK: The goal of dining incognito is to replicate the experience of the average customer, and I can’t imagine there are too many customers in Charleston who don’t know somebody in the restaurant when they go out to eat. Still, I plan to maintain my professional distance and to refrain from publishing my photo. I will occasionally participate in public events – a critic’s goal is to stimulate conversation, so I don’t have any quarrel with critics appearing on panels, giving interviews, judging contests or attending events designed to inspire or inform – but it strikes me as unseemly to broadcast my photo, since that looks to me like a plea for preferential treatment.
I’m so glad @glitterisgone posed the photo question. One of the reasons I don’t live in a turret is I really enjoy trading tips and ideas with readers. Feel free to get in touch anytime with your questions, suggestions or other feedback; I’m at (843)937-5560, or firstname.lastname@example.org.