Wednesday, March 30, 2022

2022 Dallas Trip

I did a brief Dallas trip a couple weeks ago (every winter American Airlines drops roundtrip NY-DFW fares under $100 and I grab one, per strategies explained here). Just a quickie to escape cold and get my fix of stuff found only down there. I really, really love Texas. And Dallas is the city Austin pretends to be. Real deliciousness, not posed or hipsterred into a high frothy lather.

Previous Dallas reporting here

The town was aslumber from post-COVID exhaustion and listlessness. Lots of places out of biz or too stunned to snap back into a normal operation.

Sad note: Old West Cafe in Grapevine (strenuously raved about here and here) is way, way downhill. A less careful chef can topple critical balances. The magic evaporates, and simple salty greasy food tastes - horrors - simple, salty and greasy.

But I did make a tremendous discovery. Parry Avenue BBQ, not far from downtown but in a forlorn underdeveloped stretch that might as well be the boonies, is DYNAMITE. Infinitely more vibrant than Pecan Lodge, the Nicolas Cage of hill country barbecue, which has been phoning it in for a long time. I think it might be better than the good Mueller brother (I don't track them) I tried 15 years ago in Austin,

I'm not expert enough to know the name for the style where the meat's packed in a thick crust of peppercorn. But having eaten around more than my share, I've always found that such treatment overwhelms the meat. Here, it....doesn't. I get it now.

Place is almost completely under-radar for some reason. I'll let the photos do my work for me (sometimes food is so dead-on right that there's not much to say).

Oh...the beans were galaxies better than they need to be. Dude is not just a bbq master, he's also a rather extreme food guy. Described the bean prep method to me, and I lost track halfway through. Many hours of crazy non-corner-cutting work. Finally, I understand baked beans. Need to come back and try more stuff. Ok, here goes:

One advantage of tragically downhill Old West Cafe in Grapevine is its position just a few quick minutes from DFW airport. Well, replace it with these other Grapevine grandees:

Mrs. G's Tacos is a generic-seeming taco joint. Across street from the tragically downhill Old West Cafe. I literally cannot rave enough. This is the scion of a family of late-lamented restaurants scattered throughout "The Valley" (I'm not sure what "The Valley" means, but it's sacred here). Reduced to one humble place, still pumping out greatness, stubbornly refusing to cut a single corner, doing things the old-fashioned way, and nobody gives a damn quite enough to give them the DiFara's Pizza treatment (which it deserves) to lend some support and respect and love and the ability to charge a bit more for vastly better quality.

Last of the Mohicans. I know the menu looks simple to a fault. Don't be fooled. Fly here from anywhere, eat this, fly home, it's worth it. I did not eat these tacos. I vacuumed them with my mouth. It transported me to 1926. The tortillas are homemade. They, alas, were out of pie (see photos of it on Yelp).

Here's something every Texan understands but non-Texans seldom do: Texas is German heritage (and Mexican, of course, but Northern Mexican and German heritages are intertwined, hence lager beers, accordians, and oom-pa music). Breadhaus is a vestige. Some local treats (sweet potato bars, with beans; crazy-simple raisiny "train rolls"), some familiar ones (raspberry kisses; shortbread), but certainly no macarons or other trend-mongering, and even the most ordinary items (7 grain loaves; brownies) have a deeper vibe. Feels genuinely frontier-German.
I have no idea what this little cake was, but my body nearly fainted as the photo hit my retina, apparently inducing a forgotten ecstatic trauma of some sort:

Final Grapevine place near airport: Farmers Market of Grapevine. It's a produce market with lots of diligently sourced pre-prepared and packaged food surprises hidden everywhere you look. They sell multiple varieties of Texas tamales (nothing like them anywhere else), and they're vibrant. I bought some frozen, packed with ice (the counter guy helped) and they made it back home with me intact, and that made for a good day.

You could manage a quick run to these three Grapevine places on a DFW layover, and I suggest you do!

Two lagniappes, 'cuz Texas is generous.

Lagniappe 1: I don't drink mochachinos. I am not a mochachinos person. Honestly? I'm not totally sure what a mochachinos even is. But the iced mochachinos at Commissary, right downtown in Dallas, made me see God. And he was envious as a mo-fo. Bring a rosary.

Lagniappe 2: Las Almas Rotas is the best mezcal bar in America. I was there when they opened, and they're still killin' it.

Story Cooking

I'm a longtime fan of a little-known cooking writer. Story Cooking is written by Ellie Markovitch, a Brazilian-American mom who reminds me a bit of John Thorne. She goes extremely deep on every topic she approaches, writes thoughtfully and substantially, offering up a terse recipe distilling sustained consideration of infinite permutations.

Lately, she's all-in on baking, and currently running a marathon series of 40 daily postings titled "1/2 CUP OF SOURDOUGH". It's fantastic.

Particularly good is her recent posting on biscuits, a topic seemingly ill-suited to fresh takes. It's essential reading, and Ellie's links (to early 20th century black cooking entrepreneur Annie “Knowles” Fisher - famed in her time for a whole biscuit credo - and to a contemporary woman named Verna Laboy who keeps Fisher's memory alive by going around to schools portraying her) are primo, as well.

I've stolen her biscuit photo, below. Sorry/not sorry.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022


Couldn’t be bothered even to center-align.

Hey, they got this!

Henceforth Fist Bumps

I've gone several years without getting a cold. There's nothing like countermeasures for a global pandemic to blast minor perils off your screen.

Sunday, I reluctantly shook hands with three healthy-seeming individuals (I intended to wash quickly afterwards, but got distracted). Today, I'm starting to sniffle and sneeze.

Don't mistake me here. I'm not going all Michael Crichton on this. I'm vaccinated, so even if this were COVID (I doubt it), there are overwhelming odds that it would manifest as mildly as a cold.

So while my risk range is modest, one should consider risk/reward for even modest risks, and it occurs to me that I certainly don't love a firm handshake anywhere near as much as I dislike a cold. Other forms of physical contact may be worth risking phlegmy coughs, thermometers, and chicken soup. But handshakes just aren't that great.
By the same token, I've generally declined joints when they circled toward me (pre-COVID), but I at least considered the prospect, because cannabis offers something. A tobacco cigarrette, being all risk with no discernible reward, is beyond consideration.
So it's fist bumps for me from here on out, whenever possible (elderly female relatives or gravitas people might be tough fist bump candidates), even though I'm definitely not a fist-bump kind of guy.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Health Tip for Guys Over 40

There's no reason to read this plumbing-related posting unless you're a middle-aged guy. Seriously: everyone else, stop reading now.

Here's a Martin Short quip from Steve Martin's AFI Life Achievement Award (it's a great 5 minute video, don't miss it).
"I knew Steve when his urologist still thought it was safe for him to wear white suites in public."
That's a joke only men of a certain age will get. They've discovered that each decade added precisely one drop to their post-urination dribble. By age 50, it becomes problematic, no matter how diligently you endeavor to clear your line, so to speak. It's nothing like incontinence; just minor sloppiness that's maddeningly unavoidable. It's one of the indignations of aging, but this one's easily fixed.

Urologists do have a countermeasure, but they explain it poorly. I think I can do a better job, while staying within a PG rating.

Imagine a length of garden hose. The front half is visible, draped over a small bundle, while the other half extends downward hidden from view, retracted into some sort of housing. If you shake the visible half to clear the hose, you're neglecting the other section. That's the problem. You need to clear the entire length.

Here's what you do. When you finish peeing, reach with thumb and index finger through that euphemistic bundle (taking care not to painfully poke its sensitive contents) to access the less publicly-visible length of hose (you likely never realized it was user-accessible!). And, from there, easily coax residual liquid up into the visible part and out the end.

Expect no torrent. Just those dastardly 4 or 5 drops. Voila. Clear hose, full hearts, can't lose. Carpe diem, bro.

It takes a bit of practice, but you can learn to execute this as a swiftly discrete move in-the-fly, as it were.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Trombone is Big, Big, Big

This was in yesterday's Wall Street Journal: Who’s Sliding Into a Big Role on Broadway? Trombonists
Before we get going, let's consider that headline. It absolutely doesn't work without an exclamation mark after "Trombonists". But exclamation marks in headlines might seem effusive and tabloid-ish, so editors opted for nonsense in accordance with their august and stately image.

It reminds me of the time I described a wild ride of a dish as "an Everlasting Gobstopperish experience," and my NY Press editor changed it to "an everlasting, gobbstopperish experience."
Reading this article, I feel like a retired talented 1975 chef - who maxed out at $30,000/year in a low-status industry, and who cooked his heart out while remaining under-appreciated by all but his peers and while receiving knocks for not keeping his head down and simply grinding out the standard calamari - watching 90s chefs get elevated to superstar status.

Me playing back in the day, fwiw:

In other topsy-turvy news making me wonder whether I'm actually dreaming this entire week in a hospital bed somewhere while I slowly expire, this just opened in Jersey, recalling the beloved Hamburger Choo-Choo of my youth in Huntington, Long Island, where I ate burgers as a child - and, though enjoying the choo-choo trains which delivered the food, was much more involved with the hamburger quality, which I still haven't seen matched anywhere.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Partial Restoration

Well, we can't bring back Dom DeMarco or Chowhound, but Limster happens to have six more mugs of the type I broke, and offered me one. I just need to get to England to pick it up!

Road trip!!!

Friday, March 18, 2022

Bill Monk Nails it so We Can All Move On

Regarding the vapid kiss-off from the weasly VP mentioned in my last posting....

My friend Bill Monk (the best guitarist in Birmingham, the single-handed inventor of the modern personal computer search function - which, like Chowhound, seems inevitable from this vantage point - and the only other human being I know who largely remains Mr. Magoo-level foggy right until the point where he focuses, whereupon, on a good day, he can transform into a laser-guided archangel of wisdom and epiphany) has focused.

And he's coughed up the ideal summation of all that's happened to Chowhound since I sold it in 2005, right up to this very moment. Not in twenty four wordy essays, but in a single sentence. Ready?
The galling part is the same as it’s always been, “Yeah thanks but we got this” even as they’re literally shutting it down.
Bingo. That's precisely it. "Yeah thanks but we got this." Not even punctuation. Perfect.

I'd rather walk painful roads and infrequently have a Bill Monk pipe up than live pain-free. Not just Bill, either. I abound in riches. At the risk of overwhelming the reader with thunderbolts, I'll also disclose the pithy note I received from John Thorne (every worthwhile food writer's favorite food writer) when hordes of people were inexplicably congratulating me over Calvin Trillin's profile: "Never be interviewed by someone more famous than you."

What did I ever do to deserve such blessings?

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Memorable Day

So let's see:

The great Dominic DeMarco, proprietor of Difara Pizzeria, has died. Here's my original review, from a food guide published in 1998.

My ultra-rare and snazzy "Chowing with the Hounds" coffee cup broke.

...and some VP at Red Ventures (the company about to pull the plug on Chowhound) informed me that they won't preserve Chowhound's message board data due to "abundant caution" and a need to remain "consistent with our privacy policies."

How was your day?

I don't do omens, but it's not like someone's not trying awfully hard to omenize....

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Computers Are Now Fast Enough

I've been using Macs since 1992, and whenever I bought a new one, the speed felt exhilarating. Returning to my old computer, I couldn't understand how I ever tolerated the slowness.

In 2020 I bought a 2018 refurbished Mac Mini. The speed felt exhilarating, and I couldn't understand how I ever tolerated the slowness. But, since then, I've tried newer computers - including much faster ones - and they don't seem the least bit faster. I also added another 8gb of memory to my Mac Mini, and...nada. It's the strangest thing. It feels like I'm stuck in mud.

My first theory was that I'm no longer taxing my computer. I used to produce audio and video, processing immense log files and performing multiple search and replace macros on whopping book manuscripts. Now I'm just a-surfin' and a-bloggin'. Wussy stuff!

But a programmer friend, who uses his computer for gnarly tasks, recently bought a brand new MacBook Pro with the Apple-designed M1 chip, and pronounced it "meh". So it's dawning on me that computers are finally fast enough. After 30 years of relativism ("what once felt fast will soon feel slow"), we've hit the wall of the absolute. Pretty much everything we need to do on personal computers happens pretty much instantly. It's over. The field has finally matured.

Of course, there are still those who'd benefit from further gains in processing speed: video editors and large-scale number crunchers (scientists, game designers, etc). But that's a very narrow slice.

Unless you understand this, you will process the "meh" outcome of your expensive processor and memory upgrades as disappointing, when the reality is that there's simply no room for improvement. We no longer need computers to get better. Time to reframe!

All of this is interesting to me. But more interesting still is that no one's taken note. Have you seen this point made anywhere? Any writers pronouncing the arrival of the "maturity" stage of personal computing? Any reviews of new computers noting that "it's much faster, but 99% of users won't need, and won't even notice, the extra headroom"?

From childhood right up until I became a journalist and writer (and discovered first-hand how lazy, trendy, and timid most writers are), I assumed, like most people do, that things are efficiently noticed and reported. It's futile to try to make fresh discoveries because it's all been thoroughly covered. There are libraries full of books! Anything you could come up with is probably already in there somewhere!

If some deli were cooking amazing tacos, the newspaper food writer who makes swaggering declarations like "Best Pizza in Bushwick!", and who therefore must be all-seeing and all-knowing - would be sure to let me know. It's all covered. No need to seek.

The Chowhound community embarrassed the bejesus out of those palate potentates, finding megatons of deliciousness never previously noted in print (as the NY Times' Eric Asimov graciously noted last week, it flipped the whole process, and experts began slavishly looking to us peons).

This is true of internal as well as external phenomena. The concepts I explore here on the Slog have been brewing in my head forever, but I always assumed I was working out notions that smarter people previously covered. I never imagined I might have a fresh insight (to this date, I'm still intensely skeptical). I never imagined there could even be any fresh insights, period! Every notion - and every taco - detectable by the likes of shmucky me would surely be nothing but restatement of the obvious.

So if personal computers ever matured to the point where Moore's Law became a strictly academic observation, we'd have heard about it, right? Yet it happened! Years ago! And no one said so!

The real credo behind Chowhound was "Go out and discover for yourself! The 'experts' are lazy-asses who don't come close to covering things thoroughly!" This credo extends into every aspect of life. And, oh Jesus, take me now, I once again, whoops, find myself encouraging and amplifying America's most insidious problem. I'm stuck in a loop. Send help.

Note 1: This will hurt Apple. Their business is built upon the presumption of obsolescence. Of course, computers will still break and need to be replaced, and new features will be conjured up to entice upgrades. But the maturity of personal computers changes the dynamic fundamentally. It becomes a whole other business.

Note 2: Apple is currently discounting refurbished 2020 iMacs with 27" displays more steeply than I've ever seen them discount anything. You can buy a good one for under $1500. Meanwhile, they're selling a new 27" Studio Display for $1600-1900, way above most people's budgets. And there is exactly one other 5K 27" display on the market, made by LG, and some Mac users love it while others hate it.

So if you want a reasonably priced awesome 5K 27" screen, you can either spend crazy cash, or wait a few years for prices to drop, or buy a refurbished iMac quickly, as I just did. The computer itself doesn't use Apple's fantastic M1 chip, but that chip appears to be a red herring. We don't need it. We won't notice it. Except....

Note 3: Chowhound "Limster" points out that when machine learning becomes a useful thing that we run locally on our computers (because there's less delay that way than via cloud computing), we'll start re-appreciating greater power and faster speed. I'm betting I have at least one computer lifecycle before that starts to happen, so it'd be nuts to up-spend for an M1 machine right now.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Tradition of Dirt-Eating

I've been going through my clippings, trying to downsize, and came across a printout of this 1984 NY Times piece on the last remnants of the old practice - since largely forgotten - of dirt eating. All these years later, I recall the deep impact it originally had on me. I find it beautiful.

Click for easier readability:
This would never be published today. And that's why this practice has largely been forgotten. It's a squelched memory. And while I realize there are stupid people who'd draw nasty conclusions, to me it's very deep. I'm not ready to scarf mud, myself. But this gives me a visceral feeling of how close we still are in time to an ("earthier"?) era that's nearly unrecognizable. And the quotes even make it relatable, perhaps almost seductive to some part of me. It's wonderful all around.

White-washing (perfect term) history to obliterate cultural memory that doesn't jibe with the retconned storyline seems like the ultimate disrespect. Mrs. Glass - who understood things you and I don't and never will - is shamed by our willful looking-away from her, as if she were some awful person doing some awful thing. I want to hear more about Fannie Glass and her forebears. I reject the diversion of my attention toward higher-toned storylines better fitting the preferred narrative of superior cultural authorities.

I don't want their narrative, I want the truth. I love the truth. And I'll bet Mrs. Glass would have been right there with me on that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

An Interview With a Moderator

I'd been running online discussion for years before Chowhound launched in 1997. I was an admin, for example, on several Compuserve forums (including "Jim Leff Forum", one of my more noteworthy pranks, where I repurposed a dormant big corporate forum that Compuserve had neglected to switch off into my personal fiefdom - something every teenager enjoys online nowadays, but this was likely the first online zone dedicated to a regular person, the first home page, if you will - and it FREAKED PEOPLE OUT. They streamed in to see what was going on, and it turned into a massive party. Compuserve pulled the plug a few days later, and David Lindsay told the tale as a chapter in his first book - here is an earlier version he published in NY Press).

So I had already learned the two immutable laws:

1. Everyone Hates Unmoderated Discussion
Without firm moderation, online communities quickly devolve into arguments, commercialism, and off-topic digression. Complete suckage.

2. Everyone Hates Being Moderated
America launched with a credo of "free speech", which came with a very specific meaning that’s been misinterpreted by Americans ever since as "NOBODY CAN EVER MAKE ME SHUT UP, EVER". Even while hollering into someone else's microphone. Hell hath no fury like an American with their mic cut off.

So if you're foolish enough to run an online forum, your hands are tied and your fate is assured: You will need to moderate - expunge postings and expel users - and everyone will hate you bitterly for it. You can be loved, or you can run a useful online forum. Not both.

Chowhound was a very early web forum, before anyone understood any of this. We put up with more piqued antagonism from moderees than you'd possibly imagine, so our moderators worked anonymously. Only a special sort of good samaritan would work tremendously hard to help while being forced to cower from the specter of mass hatred and bodily harm.

The two anonymous heroes who are still working - strictly as volunteers - to this very day will never receive the widespread credit they deserve. Despite their principled hard work, they’’ve earned the social cachet of abortion doctors. In the words of Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country!"

In 2007, we went on the offensive, introducing the snarling hordes to the creep who'd been persecuting them. Behold the face of evil, chief moderator (at the time) Pat Hammond:
I interviewed Pat over drinks. Here's the audio, followed by a transcript (audio's better):


Jim: So, what’s your name again?

Pat: Pat Hammond

Jim: And what do you do for Chowhound again?

Pat: I’m a community manager

Jim: What does that mean?

Pat: I sort of ride herd on the postings just to keep things orderly

Jim: Oh my God. Are you telling it can’t be true? Are you telling me you’re’re a...

Pat: Nazi? [laughter]

Jim: A moderator?

Pat: Moderator, right

Jim: Wow, so you’re a moderator!

Pat: Yes I am!

Jim: When did you first notice this tyrannical, cruel streak in yourself?

Pat: I think I was born with it

Jim: Really?

Pat: Really!

Jim: Have you ever killed a man?

Pat: Not so you’d notice

Jim: I noticed you had to think about it

Pat: Right!

Jim: Um, this is a problem. We are not going to be able to do this interview because we have salty bar snacks sitting right in front of us. And it’s irresistible to me so I’m going to be chewing throughout this which is like a total radio faux pas. But you’re not eating them. You’re such a pro. You are SUCH a pro! I’m, like, scarfing goldfish and slurping back bourbon and you’re just...alert!

Pat: You’re too much

Jim: That’s why you’re a moderator, right?

Pat: That’s right

Jim: Because you’ve got that sort of stern ascetic quality?

Pat: Exactly!

Jim: When did you first join the back room, as it were, on Chowhound?

Pat: 2000

Jim: 2000 years ago?

Pat: It seems like it

Jim: How did you find out about Chowhound?

Pat: I read about it through John Thorne’s website, Outlaw Cook.

Jim: Can you do longer answers so I have more time to chew my bar snacks?

Pat: OK

Jim: Now 2000, if I recall, that was about the period when I was starting to completely freak out by the growth of the site.

Pat: Yep. It was scary

Jim: I was trying to do everything myself and it was like doubling in size every month

Pat: Right

Jim: And what did you do again?

Pat: Well, I had started posting to the site a little bit

Jim: Right

Pat: And one day I was sitting in my office. I worked for a doctor in St Louis and the phone rang and it was you.

Jim: I called you?

Pat: You called me.

Jim: Why did I call you?

Pat: Well, because Bob Okumura was going to be away and things were going crazy on the site and you just called to ask me if I could sort of keep an eye on things

Jim: And how did I get your number?

Pat: I didn’t know it at the time, but it was when I would email you it'd be with my signature. I mean I had no idea that my boss’s professional phone number was going out, but you had my phone number.

Jim: And thank God you said yes, because if you didn’t I probably would have closed the site the next week. I’m sorry...I have snacks in my mouth. Can you talk for another minute while I swallow?

Pat: But you didn’t have me do much in the beginning except delete duplicates or something like that.

Jim: Yeah, we had that huge problem that people would get impatient and keep hitting the post button and things would post like eight, nine, ten times.

Pat: Right. But every time I would delete a duplicate I would email you and give you all the specifics and finally you told me to lay off and don’t do that anymore! So...that’s how it started

Jim: And you were the first moderator on Chowhound, right?

Pat: That’s what you said!

Jim: How much would you say you established the pattern of sadism and censorship?

Pat: If you’re going to assign blame, it’s probably all mine!

Jim: Really? That’s wonderful. So it wasn’t me after all?

Pat: You were my teacher.

Jim: Oh God!

Jim: We have never interviewed a moderator for Chowhound. Ever. We’ve never done anything like this. And nobody really has any idea what it is all about. And really we’ve encouraged that because we want people to have the impression that everything’s happy and non-commercial and friendly on and we don’t want them to see the war that we conduct quietly in the background to keep it that way! [laughs] Do you have any notes from the front?

Pat: I think the site’s going along great guns. That’s the first thing.

Jim: Yeah, right now it’s really going well.

Pat: Yes, I’m very, very happy about that

Jim: Yeah, I mean we’re like a year now after the CNET acquisition and it’s still the same great people and a lot of new great people

Pat: Yeah, a lot of new great people. Like you always say with large numbers you have a bunch of really terrific people then you have the minority who have other issues and agendas.

Jim: Really, like what?

Pat: Probably the most benign sort of thing are people who, you know, normally want to say what they want to say and they want to put it where they want to put it on the website. And that’s a human thing

Jim: Give me an example

Pat: Oh, they’re on the Manhattan board and they’re talking about the fois gras at Jean George. And suddenly that reminds them of the trip they took to Paris and the wonderful fois gras they had there

Jim: And seventeen people want to talk about Paris

Pat: They do. They’re so excited!

Jim: As I would be! As you or I would be as well!

Pat: I’ve done it!!

Jim: Me too! I've gotten deleted!! Both of us have!

Pat: We’ve ALL been deleted

Jim: It’s human instinct, right? We want to digress. I mean sure, I'm the same exact way. People are on a Brooklyn thread talking about fried chicken and I want to talk about a place in North Carolina and I make the mistake of mentioning it...and then like 17 people want to talk about...

Pat: ...and in many ways that’s a wonderful thing. I mean, that’s a great thing

Jim: It is. The problem is if we’re talking about France on the Manhattan board and we’re talking about North Caroline on the Brooklyn board...nobody’s ever going to find those tips!

Pat: See, that’s the thing! And you have to explain that to whoever did it in the first place.

Jim: infinitum for ten years...

Pat: ...but you’ve got all these other people who probably got swept away with the initial digresser and it’s unfortunate

Jim: And you can’t really explain it to EVERYbody

Pat: Especially not now. I mean there are too many everybodys.

Jim; Too many people. And what happens if you try to explain in public?

Pat: Everything goes beserko and off topic and...

Jim: ...instead of talking about fois gras in Paris we start talking about the talking about it. We start talking about the talking!

Pat: That’s right. So you can do that off the site, you can do emails and that sort of thing or often we don’t have the time for that and we just summarily delete someone’s post but...

Jim: ...because it reaches a point in scale when you just can’t get into it with everybody...

Pat: ...and we have posters who immediately say ‘Off topic! Off topic!’ and you rush to see what’s going on, and oftentimes no matter how fast you rush there are already lots of replies! But it’s hard to remove someone’s words. I mean, I’m a wordy person, and I love writing, and we have lots of great writers, and to delete somebody’s’s hard.

Jim: You don’t enjoy it?

Pat: No, I don’t enjoy it. That’s the hard part.

Jim: You read pretty much everything, don’t you?

Pat: I used to. No, not everything now, but in the early days I read every single post

Jim: And what do you think of the community? What do you think about the people who post?

Pat: They’re terrific Lots of wonderful people who know so much. I mean, I’ve said this to my family. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something and that’s certainly still true and we have so many really, really good writers. Yeah, it’s a great community

Jim: Yeah, I feel the same way.

Pat: Save some for me!!

Jim: I love bar snacks. I’m going crazy. Sorry. My God, I’ve gone through the whole bowl!

Jim: Why don’t we put badges next to people’s names and say this is a moderator? Why do we keep it pretty anonymous?

Pat: I’ve never been anonymous. I’ve always used my real name and I’ve always signed my real name when I email as a mod

Jim: Right, you’re an exception.

Pat: But, you know, people just want to be able to be a regular poster, not to have some symbol next to their name that...

Jim: ...for better or worse...

Pat: ...for better or worse that denotes them as part of the management, in a way. And I think that’s a good thing. I started out as Pat Hammond, you know, God, 10 years ago and I’m not about to change my posting name now. But I can see the appeal

Jim: People who are like just great Chowhounds that take some time out of their day to help out, the last thing I want to do - that ANY of us want to do - is have them take flack or feel uncomfortable or have their user experience...

Pat: Right

Jim: Why do you think they take this job? Why do they do it?

Pat: I have to think the reason that you picked me...of course, there were only a handful to pick from way back then...was that I was very careful about my posting. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing half the time anyway on the computer but I was helpful and I was appreciative and so interested. I just thought it was all too exciting for words. And I think the people we have as moderators now just like the site. They care about the site. They want to see the mission of only exchanging tips. They want that to go forward. They don’t want things to deteriorate.

Jim: What do you mean by deteriorate?

Pat: Well, just a lot of chat, a lot of flames. A lot of crap, I mean, just unpleasantness

Jim: What’s wrong with chat?

Pat: That’s not what we’re about. We’re about meat & potatoes. Talk to us about food! Tell us where you’ve had something good!

Jim: What’s wrong with chatting about that?

Pat: Well, it just goes off into a long hoo-ha of more chat and more chat. And then it just dilutes the whole thing that we’re supposed to be about, which is exchanging tips.

Jim: And that way, if you want to figure out where to eat in Athens Georgia...?

Pat: You don’t have to read through post after post of “I went to the University of Georgia and isn’t it great?”

Jim: Or "Don’t you hate Rachael Ray?:

Pat: [laughing] Don’t you HATE her?

Jim: No! I don’t really hate anybody! I just want to get some chow tips!

Pat: Well, we do have some boards where a less structured conversation can go on. We have the Not About Food board. We have General Topics that runs a little looser. But the regional boards are supposed to be about discussing food in that region

Jim: You know what’s always surprised people about Chowhound - or maybe not surprised them enough - is that the information is reliable.

Pat: Well, that’s the whole point of Chowhound!

Jim: If you think about it what do we present to the world? We present many thousand avid readers. Who are like total consumers, consumer-frenzy people. And we let people message them for free!

Pat: Yep

Jim: How come there’s not more guerilla marketing and stuff? How come we never see that stuff? How come the information’s still reliable?

Pat: Well, there is a good bit of that!

Jim: *I* don’t see it...

Pat: Aha!!

Jim: Don’t hit me!!

Pat: You have the moderators to thank for that! WE see it!

Jim: Yeah, and what do you do?

Pat: We delete it

Jim: Really? I thought you did it to stifle the individual expression. That’s not the reason?

Pat: No, that’s not the reason

Jim: Really? You sound pretty censorious to me. You sound awful, Pat! If I can be honest...can I be frank with you?

Pat: No!! I’m sincere, not censorious!

Jim: What about the subject of taboo restaurants? Every once in a while we’ll have to send an email to someone and say “We deleted your post, even though we know it was an honest post about that restaurant". Why in the world would we do that? Unless we were horrible Nazi censorious people?

Pat: A restaurant doesn’t become taboo just overnight. I mean it’s a process. And we’re very good at...

Jim: A process of what?

Pat: A process of watching posts about a place that may strike us and even some of our posters as suspicious. People who sound like they are a little bit too inside or...

Jim: Ok, so you’re just saying if you get just the slightest nuance that the place is using us to guerilla market, you just wipe them off the map and stifle all expression?

Pat: No, no. I’m saying it’s a PROCESS...that we watch. And we’ll say, ok, we’ll keep an eye on this. So and so who lives in the same town says that this doesn’t sound right to him because our posters do let us know.

Jim: Ah, you mean the censorship is widespread? It’s not just the moderators?

Pat: You could put it that way.

Pat: [to bartender] We’re doing good

Jim: [to bartender] Another bourbon, please!

Pat: [to bartender] I’m fine, thank you

Jim: Throw caution to the wind, Pat! Have another seltzer, for crying out loud!!

Bartender: Go wild tonight!

Jim: Right, mods gone wild!

Pat: [laughing] Where were we?

Jim: I don’t know where we were at...we were talking about the wide spread nature of the...

Pat: Some things strike us as suspicious and people who are...

Jim: ...and you immediately ban them from the discussion?

Pat: No we DON'T! That’s what I said before! We then watch them and if anything untoward is going on, it’ll happen again. It might not happen by the same....

Jim: It’s like potato chips. You just can’t have just one

Pat: Well, yeah If you’re maybe posting about your brother-in-law’s place but you don’t identify yourself that way and somebody says “hey, yeah I went there, it’s really good”’s very hard for those people not to just jump on the train and say “Oh well, terrific...”

Jim: Here’s what I don’t understand...Mr. Himmler, can I call you Himmler? Or is it Goering?

Pat: Go AHEAD.

Jim: OK. You find a pattern of guerilla marketing and subversion...why would you prevent even good posters...oh my god, calamari! That looks GREAT! Holy...what are they doing with such good calamari at a Hilton?

Pat: Smells good, too, doesn’t it?

Jim: It smells good!

Pat: We’ve got plenty to eat...

Jim: Ok, we find a pattern of subversion. Why would we also delete even good posters when posting about this place?

Pat: We do that because once enough stuff has happened, then any mention by anyone can draw out those people again. Because they’re not seeing their place mentioned anymore because we get them really fast and so if there is a mention that sneaks in from an innocent...those people are out there watching. We reach a point where we can’t tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and we just can’t take that chance.

Jim: Don’t you have encyclopedic knowledge of every single user on Chowhound and how good they are or not?

Pat: No

Jim: OK. So you’re saying you spot the patterns of subversion and you can’t tell the good from bad...

Pat: ...At a certain point you can’t, right...

Jim: ...but if you let some of the known good posters, the known good posters post, then what happens?

Pat: Well, then people will respond to her and you don’t know whether they’re good guys or not.

Jim: Let me ask you this. Does it give you joy when you delete a good poster posting about a taboo place? Does it make you think “I have power”?

Pat: No you feel terrible because this is a good guy! I mean, you know this person to be a good guy. You know they are not doing anything devious and, again, it’s hard to take away someone’s words. Something that they’ve worked on.

Jim: Tell me about the rest of the crew

Pat: We have a terrific bunch of people. Even if they weren’t mods, these are all people that I would be happy to have in my home. We have a doctor. We have a lawyer. We have a college professor. We have me, a retired grandma. We have a young mother. We have just, you know, a very wide ranging bunch of people and we work really well together and we don’t just willy-nilly go out there chopping posts off the board!

Jim: You don’t?

Pat: We don’t...not willy-nilly!

Jim: I read in the newspaper that you did...?

Pat: We confer. There are very few instances, you know, if they’re really clear cut, I mean someone cursing somebody out or attacking someone, those we just lop off. But anything out of the ordinary, we confer.

Jim: Is there like a certain moderator for each board?

Pat: Nope. We pitch in all over the place.

Jim: Let me ask you this, how often do the moderators delete stuff just 'cuz they disagree with a food opinion?

Pat: Never

Jim: Never?

Pat: Never!

Jim: Why are you laughing? Are you laughing in censorious glee?

Pat: We disagree with posters all the time! We disagree with some of the things they say but...

Jim: ...and then you delete them, right?

Pat: No we don’t!!

Jim: Really? Why not? You have the power.

Pat: Well, they have the right to their opinion! Like we have the right to disagree with them! But it doesn’t mean we’re going to throw our weight around!

Jim: If I wrote an email to the moderators and I said “This poster's an idiot, delete them as they post”, what would you probably do?

Pat: If you as a poster...

Jim: No, if I as ME said “Hey guys. I disagree with this poster”, what would you do?

Pat: We’d laugh at you!

Jim: So you’re telling me that agreeing with Jim is not a prerequisite for posting on chowhound?

Pat: Absolutely not.

Jim: Maybe that explains the 700,000 postings that I disagree with

Pat: What? I don’t get that.

Jim: Well because there are lots of postings on site - people saying they don’t like my favorite restaurants - and we don’t delete them, do we?

Pat: No!

Jim: What would you do if *I* deleted them?

Pat: We’d put them back!

Jim: How have things changed since CNET got into the picture? Are they imposing a different scheme on things at all?

Pat: So far, so good!

Jim: So is it the same people?

Pat: You mean the moderators?

Jim: Yeah

Pat: Yes, all brought from within the Chowhound community as it was...and as it is

Jim: Right And not all of them are CNET employees, correct?

Pat: No.

Jim: So we still have a number of volunteers?

Pat: The vast majority of the moderators are volunteers, which to me is extraordinary.

Jim: You sold out though, didn’t you?

Pat: Yes I did...

Jim: You sell-out!!! Why would people continue to volunteer to moderate a corporate site?

Pat: Because it’s still Chowhound. The aims remain. They do. The mission, the brand, it’s all the same.

Jim: Right. You know how I think of it? You could have a poker game in your kitchen and have your friends over every week to play poker. And you know, the snacks aren’t that great and the chairs aren’t that comfortable. Or you can move to a casino somewhere where it’s much better snacks, much more comfortable chairs, better lighting and you know you have to pay the house something here and there. That’s what I feel like. CNET’s the casino, it’s the house. You know, they gave us new tables. We’re doing exactly what we always’s same the old nice folks playing poker. We've just got fancy new digs. Do you feel that way, too?

Pat: Yep. Good analogy

Jim: So you’re telling me the people who volunteer, they don’t just do it because they dig the power?

Pat: That’s got to be the least of it! [laughing]

Jim: On a daily basis how much do you enjoy the power of being able to delete people? Just the sheer POWER of it?

Pat: It doesn’t enter into the equation at all

Jim: So then why are you doing it?

Pat: I love the website. I love what I do. I always have. Ten years of being around Chowhound...I just like what it represents. It’s an honest place. And that takes good moderation - not everybody’s honest - but for the most part, when you read something on Chowhound, chances are the person went to the restaurant, came home, sat down at the computer and that’s how quick you get the person’s impression of where they ate. It’s almost real time and you come to trust people and it’s just...honest!

Jim: How can you tell a shill posting from a real posting?

Pat: It’s not always easy..... [whispered] We don’t want to say THAT!

Jim: No, don’t give too many specifics here. We don’t want to educate the bad guys on how not to get caught! But, just basically, without giving details, how can you tell honest from dishonest? Isn’t that just an abuse of power as you just make this arbitrary call?

Pat: We’ve been doing this a long time. We know what we’re doing! We know what to look for, and sometimes we just, you know, bide our time...

Jim: You’re saying you’ve seen every scam a thousand times?

Pat: We’ve see a lot of them! [laughing]

Jim: And even the devious ones, you’ve seen how many times?

Pat: Plenty!

Jim: So it’s hard to put one over on Pat Hammond?

Pat: ANY of us. Any of us!

Monday, March 7, 2022

...A Farm Upstate Where He Can Run and Run

So they're shutting down Chowhound, just four months short of its 25th birthday. Converting dog years to human, that's "long dead-and-buried already." Which sounds about right.
Here is my 20th anniversary post...and my 15th anniversary post.
This will not be my touching final goodbye to The Chowhound Project. I've already offered that via a series of postings, written years ago; an epic and hilarious tale full of hindsight, juicy background on what actually went down, and deep affection for Chowhound's users and gratitude for its fantastic moderators and supporters.

If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, I've linked to that series both here and below. But having previously "reflected" at length, the following will be a mere gaggle of impressions jarred loose by the recent news.

A Three Hour Tour. A Three Hour Tour.

I was never trying to build something to last forever. I was an old-school entrepreneur, building a cool thing largely for the challenge and satisfaction, rather than territorial ambition. A brief caprice. I never intended to, like, run a big thing. I'd perpetrated a slew of cool ventures, hoaxes, goofs, and schemes before and since. This was just one you heard about.

Mark Zuckerburg is a freak, dug in on both sides of the equation: building and sustaining. And now everyone wants to be him, so that seems normal. But it's not. There used to be a firewall between creative, free-wheeling entrepreneurs and dreary corporate wankers. Before Zuckerburg straddled both sides, these were seen as very different tribes (Steve Jobs also crossed over, but only after a humiliating decade of retooling).

I used to joke with Chowhound co-founder Bob™ Okumura about buying guns so we could ease each other's misery in the event the thing dragged on for 5 years or - impossible to imagine! - even longer. So 25 years seems like extreme extra innings. I’m fine with this news, and relieved that the data continues to live at Internet Archive (I hope people pass the word around about that, as Chowhound content will no longer appear in standard web searches).
When I built my magnum opus, a smartphone app called Eat Everywhere, I needed to research and check thousands of food facts, and it was immensely gratifying to see, again and again and again, Google pinpoint esoteric bits of knowledge found exclusively within old Chowhound discussions. And it's never not authoritative. To this day, no resource in any other media compares.
While I'm not wistful, it's my nature to assess things, and moments like this organize one's thoughts. For example, while I've previously accepted some blame for how things turned out (the site hasn't been good in a long while, hence the dog joke, atop), I'm realizing that I deserve a larger share than I'd initially imagined. But more on that later.

We Had Our Own Mole

Chowhound was badly mismanaged by a succession of companies who tossed it around between themselves like a hot potato. And here's a surprising chunk almost nobody knows: At the largest of those companies, the divisional super boss was an old fan and site user who, in a previous life, had been part of the effort to find a solution when Chowhound originally turned into a scaling monster (I told the story of that period, and the ultimate sale to CNET, in this epic, traumatic series of posts, referenced above), too much for a freelance writer/musician to support out-of-pocket in his "free time".

This executive, who truly understood and cared, did nothing constructive. It broke my heart, but I got it. Fresh initiatives - and going out on limbs, generally - might have endangered a fast-rising exec career, and no quantity of Chowhound love was worth putting that at risk.
Don't cluck your tongue disapprovingly. Empathize! It makes me crazy to see people righteously expect career sacrifice for higher principle when those very same people would meekly look the other way if their boss poisoned a nursery school. Other people aren't cartoons. They live lives as visceral and high-staked as one’s own.
This uber-boss hired on one of a series of bold geniuses to run things, none with any feeling or savvy. They’d all tell you how frustrated they were by the lack of financial support - as if throwing money would have been the answer!
Note: I'm complaining about the strategy people; the honchos. The day-to-day admins were genuinely devoted to the thing, especially the final one, Pat "Sully" Sullivan, who worked tirelessly alongside a couple of anonymous volunteer moderators from the old days (who stuck around to the bitter end and were absolutely the unsung heroes of the entire ordeal).
My Master Plan

I had a plan, dating back to 2002, to create a structure to organize and streamline our fire hose of timely local food info, polishing it for syndication into local newspaper columns, books, maps, alerts, plus the holy grail: a way for non-fanatics to query our chaotic resource cleanly and effortlessly. Find a great place to eat without delving into gigabytes of spidery, contentious discussion.

That would be the shiny front end. A black box offering casual users sleekly dependable output, while the spidery contentious discussion gushed undisturbed, daunting to all but the devoted fanatics who stoked the operation with their great reporting. Chowhound's delicate ecosystem would be preserved, while we'd normalize, utilize, and monetize our famously expert torrent of data.

My first step was to launch ChowNews, a weekly email newsletter cobbled together by smart editors who read everything posted for a given region, extracted the best tips, looked up address/phone/web info, and distilled the smart consensus. ChowNews answered the prayers of food-lovers who didn't have time/interest in following hundreds of daily posts. It shot them all the hot tips in polished form.

As I sold Chowhound, I was hard at work creating a system to digest all editions of ChowNews into a database, so people could search for, say, great Southern Italian places within X miles of a certain address. I'd built a prototype, and it worked. Bear in mind that Yelp was still two years away as I launched this plan (and they didn’t reach critical mass until 2006, long after I was gone).

We could have been Yelp...while staying smart. All for the cost of a dozen part-time editors (doubling as moderators), plus a copy editor. Just keep feeding the beast as the great tips flowed in. Repurpose our fantastic crowd-sourced reporting in more or less real time.

Here's how I summed it up:
The geese who laid our golden eggs, contributing the savvy, cutting-edge food information and news that made the site such a draw, wouldn't enjoy having their clubhouse diluted by hordes of Olive Garden fans raving about free breadsticks. Hardcore chowhounds would bolt in a nanosecond if all of America ever dropped by to inject food opinions. This was another reason we needed a shiny front end; a glossy layer to absorb and entertain less fervid newbies. The discussion part would be de-emphasized, requiring persistence to find and join. Ideally, only serious people would make the effort, and the resource wouldn't dilute. The rest would be entranced by shiny baubles up front.
None of the bold geniuses charged with managing Chowhound for the various mega corps were the least bit interested in the founder's kooky ideas. Each, in succession chose the lazy route, tarting up the design, festooning it with ads, and aiming to attract the widest possible crowd to maximize ad views. Just as they'd heard me predict, this strategy diluted Chowhound's unique expert vibe. Our data no longer dependable, the community deteriorated into ditzy nonsense, the torrent dried into a trickle, and, with no one left to view the ads, well, here we are.

The Critical Failure Was Mine

I naively imagined that a big corporation might deploy fresh, creative initiatives like my scheme. But even my secret friend/fan in the exec suite wouldn't lift a finger for any such thing. That's just not how it works.

The shiny front end should have been bolted on before selling Chowhound. I needed to demonstrate its effectiveness at my risk, not theirs, because I'm the risk guy, while corporate executives are ass coverers. But, alas, I'd run out of gas before I could hook it all up. And my plan was too unusual (at the time) for managerial honchos to listen to, much less envision, much less approve. It should have been completed on my watch, and that failure made Chowhound's slow decline inevitable.

Here is a gem of insight that popped up in the epilog of my Chowhound exegesis:
The best route for creative people with business impulses (or vice versa) is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pudpuds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it.
I did not pass the property on to the pudpuds in full bloom. I figured they'd help it happen. Instead, the pudpuds, imagining themselves virile swaggering geniuses, had their own master plans, thanks very much. And the plan was always the same: sell ads until it all collapses.


Creativity is not their strength. But it’s definitely mine. So I should have breathed life into my idea on my own, rather than hope to develop it "in-house." The corporate "house" isn't for brainstorms. It's for drearily cautious monetization. Not because these people are so greedy, but because they completely lack creativity. It’s not that creativity gets rejected; it doesn’t even register.

Founders are the creative ones, able to make something from nothing, while corporations are patently uncreative vehicles for relentless management of Something. To the uncreative, creativity seems like loosey-goosey touchy/feely bullshit, of interest only to children and whackos.
Here's the story of the CNET manager enraged by my clever proposal to solve his multimillion-dollar problem for a few thousand bucks.
The Energy of a Thousand Suns

I'm a jazz trombonist and food writer. I had no entrepreneurial skills or training. No funding, no structure. No tech guy. Just boundless enthusiasm and dedication. Chowhound scaled mercilessly, which was fun for about three weeks, but $50/month server bills began accruing $800 or $3000 bandwidth surcharges, and the software couldn't support the load (and developers need $$$$$), and I found myself engaged in 24/7 existential warfare with hundreds of psychos and vandals, anxiously downloading immense Apache log files every 15 minutes via dial-up because, even at the late date of 2004, I couldn't afford broadband. Having worked seven or eight full-time jobs for Chowhound for nearly a decade, unpaid, I was beyond exhaustion.

But, even so, I was proud to have kept it all up and running, at a high level of quality. It felt miraculous to me as-is, and it would have been unrealistic to imagine pushing forward with big ambitious plans in a state of exhaustion, with negative net worth and zero income, all possible favors already called-in, all for a breezy project that was never supposed to be more than a sidelight.

Here's how I explained it:
There are two main reasons why building stuff is harder than you'd think: First, most capable people are pretty maxed out doing whatever they already do, so there's little marginal time or energy to pour into big new initiatives. Second, while a great idea is a nice thing, there's vastly more devil in the details than you'd imagine. "Get some ads!" "Talk to some venture capitalists!" "Upgrade your software!" "Move to a cheaper serving company!" All these suggestions spill easily off the tongue, but it's the dark matter - the hidden complications and expenses, the unintended consequences, and the black swans - that gets you. Pushing through the swamps, time sinks, and aggravations, all above and beyond preexisting commitments, requires nearly superhuman resolve. People who lack experience building things always vastly underestimate this dark matter, and that's what execution is all about.

This explains why CEO's get paid so ridiculously well...and why so many people are so mystified by their pay scale. Everyone's a genius at sideline quarterbacking, but only a very few human beings have the competence, the stamina, and the cojones to navigate the miasmas and wrestle into existence something successful.
"There's only so much a fatally over-extended penniless shlub can achieve without funding or manpower or tech. But I did amazingly well, considering." That's been my rap this whole time. But I've repeated it long enough that I can spot my own fallacies.

"It's Hard" is No Excuse

Every successful endeavor pushes past "completely unrealistic" points. There was nothing unique here. What I did was very hard, and required vast work and commitment, yes. But everything is very hard to build. Including, counterintuitively, crap.

Let’s consider that last part for a moment (I previously examined this here):
•It takes enormous commitment and labor to open and maintain a crappy diner serving crappy frozen burger patties on freezer-burnt buns.

•Every mediocre book or movie gave its creator an ulcer and took years off their life.

•Even rip-off car repair shops are barely solvent, despite the cheating. Most sleazy people are just barely hanging on. Their lives are not easy.

•Beyond the business realm, consider your worst-ever relationship. It still involved mountains of consideration and compromise. Immeasurable bullshit toleration on both sides. For any two human beings to closely associate for more than a single day without exploding into aggrieved contentiousness requires miracles of bilateral tolerance and self-sacrifice. Even the most unbridled, selfish, and impulsive asshole tries, in innumerable ways, much harder than you'd ever recognize. Every shmuck is Hercules.
Sticking your nose out to build something - to do anything beyond idly drifting to Point B, i.e. serving as a cog in some larger machine - is unimaginably hard. The universe favors entropy. Chaos is the default. The energy to fight the tide and establish some momentary sort of Order powers galaxies.

So "hard" is no excuse for failure. "It's a miracle anything got built at all!" is not an excuse for failure. The daunting odds defied to get something partially made do not excuse the failure to bring it to full fruition. Every success (except for a few lucky bastards) bucks the same tidal opposition. Near-impossible hardness is the starting point of any worthy endeavor. So this was really on me.

Some of that may sound bitter, and overly self-critical. But no. I write this with lively bemusement, recognizing that we're all, ultimately, failures. Entropy always wins in the end, sand castles wash away, and my kudos to anyone who makes an effort. I take my hat off to the windmill tilters, the Herculean shmucks and the larcenous mechanics! I am comfortable among their rank.

We don't like to think of ourselves that way. Americans are all winners, every single one of us, including the myriad shleps who idly drift to Point B. But I favor truth even when it doesn't fit a glorious narrative of stupendous achievement. That's my greater Order.

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