Trolls, Good Listicles and 45K recipes: Notes from Day One of #AFJ2014

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It's proper here to begin this post by explaining the hashtag I subjected so many of my friends to last week. AFJ stands for Association of Food Journalists, and we held our 2014 convention in Memphis, Tenn. That means we ate, drank and talked food for three days, and returned home in a whirlwind of professional invigoration and physical exhaustion. At least it wore me out.

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Holed up in the historic Peabody Hotel, we talked about barbecue, race, obesity, Memphis history and a ton more. I plan to parse through as much as I remember over the next few days of blog posts, but here's a few notes from the Day One chat with Kim Severson, Kat Kinsman, Kimberly Voss and Sid Evans.

In the 1920s it was jazz. In the 1970s it was film. Now, food trades as our cultural currency, said New York Times journalist Severson. She's right. Food and food issues are on everyone's mind, and the foodways of regional and ethnic pockets around the U.S are researched and rejoiced regularly. Severson also described the act of verifying the functionality of a set of culinary directions – known colloquially as recipe testing – as journalistically equal to verifying the veracity of the Pentagon Papers. I have a ton of horrible recipes attempted to back that up.

Kat Kinsman, who runs CNN's Eatocracy, had a couple snappy comments on journalism and the Internet. Getting content online, she said, is like packing a suitcase on top of a moving car. Writers produce at lightning speeds, then update and correct at lightning speeds. There there are the commentors. Kinsman wonders why there hasn't yet been an entry into Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) about whatever malady those trolls suffer.

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, newspaper food editors were almost entirely women. According to Kimberly Voss, associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, some were forced to take pen names. One example of the absurdity was Mary Hart, a food writer in Minneapolis. Her paper trademarked her name upon hire, expecting her to soon depart for marriage and motherhood. They wanted to keep a consistent brand running through what they expected to be a rotation of women editors. Hart got married and stuck around for four decades. Showed them. Voss' book, “The Food Section,” a history of newspaper's “women's pages” in the 40s, 50s and 60s, won the Carol DeMasters Service to Food Journalism Award this year, and it's on my short list for consumption. I first heard about Voss through a Gastronomica article published in 2013. It's definitely worth reading to sate your interest in her work until you can read the whole thing.

Southern Living Editor-in-Chief Sid Evans defended, in a way, the use of listicles on the Internet. Many at the conference decried, mostly, the rise of Buzzfeed's often empty-calorie content (while noting that, sure, the site does some cool stuff). But Evans said when journalistic rigor is applied, listicles have merit. Case in point, the recent Best Restaurants in the South list. SL's deputy editor and lead food writer Jennifer Cole put in 2500 miles on her car, eating and eating again at restaurants across the South to research the list. She did so anonymously. She produced 7000 words on the subject, too. In turn, her work garnered even more mileage online; the story was picked up by multiple national websites. “It created a conversation,” he said. “But it took real time and energy to pull it off.”

Evans also commented on the database of recipes in Southern Living's digital possession. There are 45,000 recipes under the SL brand, he said, but that largesse gives the magazine no competitive advantage when it comes to Google searches.