Dishing food with passionate fans

The Baltimore Sun

Last week a reader posted the 1,000th comment on my restaurant blog, Dining@Large (baltimore I was ridiculously proud of the fact. Our Web site's marketing manager even sent him a stainless steel travel mug.

For those of you who aren't sure what a blog is (and if you're reading this in print you probably aren't in the minority), it's a personal journal of comments, thoughts and information on the Internet.

Readers post responses to an entry - sometimes insightful, sometimes humorous, and sometimes critical. They can be anonymous, although most people use a first name, their whole name, or a pseudonym like Ravngrl. Here's a typical example from Stan, commenting on a photo I posted of overcooked ribs:

Wow. That is one unappetizing-looking half rack of ribs. I've seen cows struck by lightning that came out better.

I have readers who post regularly on my entries - Kathy, Hal, middlevrmuncher, Darlene, Eric, Janet and Robert, to name a few - and those who drop in every once in awhile like Marginal Foodie and Piggly Wiggly. They only occasionally give me clues about who they really are, their ages and what they do. When I don't hear from names I've come to recognize, I wonder what happened to them.

I love comments because they are instant feedback. I know someone is actually reading what I wrote and thinking about it. I appreciate even the ones that aren't - shall we say - very complimentary, like this one complaining about I mistake I made:

Hopefully you can start getting something right, or maybe just go away into your tasteless culinary abyss.

OK, a little over the top but, much as I hate to admit it, he had a valid point.

Most people who post, though, are actually quite civil. More so than readers who used to call me or write when they weren't happy with a restaurant review. Many years ago I picked up the phone and Jim Palmer was on the other end. The ex-Orioles pitcher was the most important celebrity ever to give me a call; and he had some really ugly things to say about me and my review of his friend Hersh Pachino's Orchard Inn, now closed. That was actually pretty typical of the feedback I got before the Internet.

As former Sun Magazine restaurant reviewer John Dorsey once said, "Make a mistake and they will fall on you like ravening wolves."

Most of the readers of my blog aren't like that. They seem to realize a blog is a joint effort, and our interaction is a critical part of its success. A restaurant owner recently referred to me as the Dalai Lama of local reviewers, which I thought was pretty funny; and some readers still think I should be all-knowing. But as a critic I only get to a couple of places in a week. If you consider that six months is about the shelf life of a review - after that, it probably isn't accurate - you can see I can use all the help I can get, particularly with Dining@Large's most popular feature, Top Ten Tuesday, which lists things like Most Romantic Restaurants or Best Places to Get Pizza.

Sometimes the discussion can get quite lively, even heated, as when I posted a Top Ten on places too youth-oriented to take your parents to. Regina aptly summed it up at the end when she said:

Talk about opening a can of worms. This is hilarious because the issue became my parents are cooler than yours instead of addressing the real issue of older folks seeking a different experience than a twenty something.

When someone posts a comment at the bottom of the entry, an e-mail alerts me. Until I read and approve it, the comment doesn't show up on the site. (So forgive me if you post it at 3:30 a.m. and it doesn't appear for another three hours.)

I don't edit posts for grammar or content, and I've had to kill only a very few.

I recently published these guidelines for commenting on my blog after I got a couple of posts that were questionable:

1) I can't "publish" comments that might get me and/or you sued. If you get a burnt steak at a restaurant and want to talk about it, that's one thing. Saying that a place has rats unless the health department has reported it is another, even if I know you're probably right.

2) I'm assuming that faithful readers have two things in common, no matter what their differences: They love good food, and their Holy Grail is the perfect restaurant experience. That seems to me a good enough basis for a certain degree of civility when you're responding to other posts.

3) Posts that make me queasy are off-limits. To paraphrase Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, my stomach is my life. And, of course, profanity etc. etc.

4) I'm fair game, but not other reviewers, or really hateful comments about anyone else. See rule #2. And frankly, if I'm having a bad day, really hateful comments about me aren't going to get published either.

I not only enjoy the interaction with readers, I learn from them, too. Those who have gotten to know me through my blog are more likely to give me tips on new places or changes at restaurants that I can use in posts or for my restaurant news column in the food section. I get many more e-mails than I did before Dining@Large.

And readers continue to surprise me. Until my blog, I had no idea Baltimoreans were so interested in German food. I got 19 passionate comments on the subject, mentioning restaurants I had never heard of, like this from Ray:

I have been to the DeutschesGastHaus in Aberdeen, and recommend it. Sehr Deutsch. And run by 2 crazy German sisters, to boot!

But that number pales in comparison to the 30 comments I got on doughnuts. Not only were there practical suggestions for where to get your sugar fix, but there was this moving encomium by Chris:

Let's all give donuts their due respect. Such a humble pastry known for the nothingness that defines its shape. It has brought comfort and togetherness to many an office breakfast, construction sites, police stations (haha!), and any where hard working americans want to start their day with some innocent indulgence before heading out into the cut throat working world. Bask in their glory!

Oddly, readers will comment on posts that are days or even weeks old. Unfortunately only I get to read them in chronological order, so some of the good ones don't get the audience they deserve.

Nancy, for instance, posted on July 15 an entertaining recollection of a Chinese restaurant that had closed. It was in response to an entry called "Greetings." It took me a moment to realize that was my first blog entry ever, which I had written on April 18. (For the record, the first reader to comment on my blog was Kathy, a food blogger herself, complaining in the nicest possible way about my praise of P. F. Chang's.)

People have told me they'd like to comment on my blog, but they can't think of anything clever to say. Clever isn't necessary. I liked this comment from jwiv in response to a slideshow on the Sunday farmers market I made:

Yay kettlecorn

I knew exactly what he/she meant.

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