Food Writing: The Ethics of Eating for Free


Chris P Jobling/flickr

Julia Moskin brings up a point increasingly important in the Web world, of which Josh Ozersky is a leading member—and one whose work I enjoy and learn from: when it's relevant to declare that a meal, or food, or wine you're writing about came to you courtesy of the people who made it. In the widely discussed recent example Moskin wrote about, the freebies were, shall we say, major: a whole wedding, and a foodie's dream wedding too—only appropriate, given what a discerning foodie Ozersky is. As it happened, Ozersky's donors were also his good friends, who genuinely wished him well on his nuptials. But they, like everybody these days, live on publicity, too, and he's in a position to give it.

My position is, always say if you got something free. And feel free to write about it, if it's something you're genuinely enthusiastic about—as Clay Risen did last week with his zillion-dollar whiskey, which prompted him to decide that food criticism ain't art, and me to defend it. Food writers have written about food, and wine, sent to them in the mail for decades. The general way of defending yourself, and your probity, is simply not to write about something you don't much like or think worth drawing people's attention to.

Most people would agree that discovering something for
yourself, and paying for it, is the most honorable reason to write about it.

The slippery slope is writing about something because a company happened to have the wherewithal to know who you are and pay for a sample to be shipped to you. And the slope only starts there: what about all the other worthy products that don't happen to arrive at your doorstep, or cross your eye? Why, just the other day I wrote about a prizewinning oatcake I was proud to have discovered at the great City Feed, down the street, and one made just a couple miles away. But I did first eat it because it was on a plate—for everybody who came into the store. Does that make it more legitimate than if the owners of Effie's had sent me a box? I'll leave that to you. But I do think most people would agree that discovering something for yourself, and paying for it, is the most honorable reason to write about it, and the surest way to gain a reader's trust.

Just as Clay's post made me concentrate on restaurant criticism, so Moskin's piece leads me back to the same subject. I don't think it's legitimate to review a free meal. Write about it, yes, making absolutely clear that you didn't pay for it, that you were invited and known by the restaurant, that it was early in the restaurant's run (if it was), that you don't know how whether what you eat would coincide even remotely with the reader's experience. This is something not every paid reviewer can guarantee, either, because of the changes-nightly nature of restaurants, and because reviewers are recognized more often than not. But paid meals, and paid reviewers, are still the most reliable guides, if only for the consistency (okay, possibly grating and annoying consistency) of their taste, as I've written here and last week. That's why I still view pretty much every group-sourced restaurant site with suspicion, or rather with informed wariness.

Yesterday's piece won't change my opinion of a writer as funny, sharp, and knowledgeable as Ozersky. (Plus he's a good writer, and entertaining, good writing is the first job of any critic.) But it will remind me always to declare whatever I got free. Like Marion's and my Alaskan adventure! More on which coming soon—very soon, as in just a few hours.