Some Pictures Aren't Worth 1,000 Words, But Go Ahead and Comment Anyway

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Editor's note: We tried to get Hanna to wear former critic Dave Faries' dining disguise, but she just wouldn't do it.
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.

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.


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16 comments
gprgestolen
gprgestolen

It is a good to be a member of a community of food writers. The fruits and vegetables has so many health benefits. This community take care of working conditions in food processing factories.

Tablecloth

Ted
Ted

This is incredibly funny! Hannah is obviously enjoying the attention.

Jon Daniel
Jon Daniel

I would like all the hard asses on here to show where they bitched about Leslie Brenner's plagiarism or Nancy Nichols dating people in the business

Jon Daniel
Jon Daniel

I always pictures Faries as more Julie Newmar as catwoman

John Shuester
John Shuester

Bigtex, sorry but people expect integrity. Hannah has none.

bigtex
bigtex

geez you guys are a bunch of dicks...i have just lost alot of respect for scott_dfw, You are insufferable. Suck it haters.

Dr Robert
Dr Robert

Does Observer have a dental plan?

matt
matt

All I know is that you didnt bring enough oysters to my table or fill my wine enough that night!

Chuck
Chuck

I was at the dinner Monday and wondered why you were galavanting about like a fairy. Seems for you the event was a means to promote yourself and Foodways was secondary on your list. If you had an ounce of grace you would bow out of any further dealings with this cause or any other event in the area. You have jeopardized the the performance for Foodways to be taken serious in North Texas.

Katherine
Katherine

I'd like to point out that you didn't just buy a ticket and conduct yourself "like every other attendee." But you were introduced at the cocktail reception, served guests and spoke in front of the room to the crowd, albeit briefly. I don't think any reasonable person expects you to hide out, and I can certainly understand you wanting to support this event, even helping to coordinate prior to the actual event. But I think the way you presented yourself almost as if you were working w/the restaurant/chefs and to let yourself be singled out and publicly addressed DURING the event is what caused me to question your motivations and position as a critic.

Oh, and your claim that it was a private event because people had to pay $75 for a seat would be like Pete Freedman claiming the Best Coast concert at the Granada was a private event because people had to pay $X to get in. Any member of the public could have purchased a ticket...it was, by and large, a public event.

Darren Tidwell
Darren Tidwell

Seems to me you are trying to muddle the fact that you were hired as a critic with the idea of anonymity. I would be more concerned about a backlash of breaking trust with your employer and your few readers than the lame attempt at a few more page hits. Not that the Observer is high on the credibility ladder.

This photo sums up your behaviour Monday:http://picasaweb.google.com/ji...

Scott DFW
Scott DFW

I can only speak as a consumer of food media, Hanna. But I look to restaurant reviewers to write about restaurants impartially, a goal that's enhanced by anonymity and avoidance of familiarity with food industry types. While I appreciate your enthusiasm for the budding Foodways Texas organization, you could have supported this local fundraising dinner in a dozen ways that would not have sacrificed your anonymity and independence. Instead, you chose to openly attend the event.

It's also a little surprising to hear that you are friends with Chef Tim Byres. In your critical assessment of the Dallas restaurant scene, "Homesick Restaurants," you had some harsh words for this city's food culture. Yet you praised Byres, calling Smoke "currently the city's most interesting restaurant," without disclosing any personal connection you had with the chef. Your friendship with Byres also potentially casts your repeated promotion (and open attendance) of the Foodways Texas event at his restaurant in a different light. Now, maybe you'd think Smoke is the most fascinating restaurant in Dallas even if you didn't know Byres from Adam. But the fact that you do have a personal connection with him gives readers a reason to wonder, justifiably or not, about your objectivity in the matter.

This isn't a problem created by Eater, The Baltimore Sun, or SideDish.

mark zero (Jason)
mark zero (Jason)

"You have jeopardized the the performance for Foodways to be taken serious in North Texas. "

Uh... what? You're suggesting they're not to be taken seriously because of someone at a fundraiser (and how you think that person behaved), instead of on what the organization actually does, itself?

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