William Skidelsky on websites for food obsessives
Thanks to the net, gastronomic junkies can now flaunt their fixations
Britain is not a country where one is supposed to be too interested in food. Despite the media attention lavished on cooking in recent years, most people are relatively reticent on the matter of what they put in their stomachs. New ingredients, restaurants and recipes are discussed extensively in the media, but in daily life many of us are unwilling to acknowledge the full intensity of our cravings. People who appear too enthusiastic about food are likely to be considered eccentric, even deranged. A passion for food, like a penchant for bondage, is best kept to oneself.
All this means that those of us who feel the urge to share our culinary cravings face a difficulty. What outlet do we have? Where can we freely debate the merits of Indian restaurants in Birmingham, or mull at length over which Cypriot cafe in Dalston, east London, serves the best lamb kebab? Until recently, the answer was simple: we had to keep quiet. But now, thanks to the internet, a solution has appeared. Chowhound.com, according to its founder, Jim Leff (aka "the Alpha Dog"), is a website for "the one in ten who live to eat". It's a place where gastronomic junkies can discuss their obsessions without feeling remotely embarrassed.
The site was launched in 1997 as an antidote to the prevailing media fixation with food. "There are no chowhoundish newspapers, magazines or TV shows," the home page reads. "Chowhounds despise hype . . . and can't be deceived by mere flash." Its outlook is unashamedly dogmatic. For instance, Leff devotes several paragraphs to the difference between chowhounds and foodies (the latter being a group he holds in contempt). "Foodies," he writes, "eat where they're told", and only get "excited about the hot new restaurant/cookbook/ ingredient". Chowhounds, by contrast, are "iconoclasts who spurn trends and established opinion and sniff out secret deliciousness on their own". Such insistence on bucking the trend might not appeal to everyone, but the site's popularity speaks for itself. It attracts a quarter-million visitors every day in the US and, while traffic on the non-US sections is slower, there is still much for the food-fixated to get their teeth into.
Chowhound.com boasts several features, but the site is essentially a message board for the food-obsessed. And here it really comes into its own. If you are going on holiday, say, to Austria and want to know where to find the most authentic Wiener schnitzel, you simply post up a message and chances are your request will receive several responses. Sometimes an entry produces a frenzy of message-posting, as did one chronicler's account of an "excremental encounter" with a sausage. Most chowhounds sound suspiciously like low-budget eaters, but visitors are happy to discuss more upmarket affairs; there are lively debates on the state of French cooking, as well as tips on how to get a table at El Bulli, on the Costa Brava, currently the world's most celebrated (and exclusive) restaurant.
Not surprisingly, chowhound.com attracts a wide range of visitors, from the irksomely pedantic to the certifiably potty. But most are serious-minded and a small number are even well-known: Anthony Bourdain is a regular, as is the Observer food critic Jay Rayner. However, one name - Simon Majumdar - intrigued me. He featured comfortably more often than anyone else. Who was this Uber-chowhound, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of London restaurants? The site gives visitors the option of posting their e-mail addresses, so I dropped Majumdar a line and he got straight back. A food book publisher, he told me that he eats out six nights a week, and until recently spent up to an hour each day on chowhound.com. But now, he said, things have moved on. Chowhound.com is no longer the website of choice for the food-obsessed; these days, you are more likely to catch Bourdain and Rayner on another site, eGullet.com. So it appears that the devotees of alternative eating respond to what's in fashion, at least in the matter of which website they visit.
Bee Wilson is away