My first “real” feature for the Houston Press, “Designer Meats,” came out last Thursday. It was the third attempt at writing a full-blown feature in a couple of months, as my first two ideas fell though.
Charcuterie is something I’ve always been interested in, and was planning on doing a series of blog posts for Eating…Our Words about the various chefs around town who were reviving the craft here in Houston (seeing as how it’s already experienced a long overdue renaissance in other cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco).
So when my other two stories fell through, this seemed like the perfect answer: combine all those blog posts I was going to do into one, full-length story. Brilliant! Except for one thing…
I found out through the course of interviewing various chefs that some charcuterie — in particular, the hard cured meats that are hung to dry — is considered illegal in Houston. It seemed ludicrous to me that a food preparation technique that has been around since the dawn of man and is still used throughout the world to this day would be illegal because U.S. health laws are still in the dark ages compared to, say, Europe. On the other hand, this wasn’t why I set out to do the story and I eventually turned in my copy with no mention of the illegality of the situation.
You can probably guess what happened next.
My editor rightly pointed out that I couldn’t simply gloss over the fact that this food preparation technique is considered illegal in Houston and — in fact — throughout the rest of the country unless you have a HACCP plan in place. So I called the health department and after bouncing around through the various levels of bureaucracy, finally found someone who actually knew what I was talking about: the bureau chief. I dutifully inserted the quotes into the copy and turned it back in for re-editing.
And then I went into the hospital. Long story. But needless to say, the feature suddenly became far less of a priority for me.
When it came out the next week, I was both excited to see the final product in print — I hadn’t even seen the photos or cutlines until I got the final proofs across my desk — but also nervous about the new angle. After all, it’s one thing to write an article about the joys of cured meats. It’s another thing to write an article about cured meats and the potential legal entanglements these chefs could find themselves in if discovered by the health department. And being preoccupied with health issues, I hadn’t even had the chance to talk to any of them about what was going to print.
Despite the worries, I was actually very happy with the way the feature turned out. I found it more balanced than if I’d only written something on charcuterie and — as my editor said — glossed over the illegality of the situation.
At first, I heard very little negative feedback on the feature. (Other than the typical, “You’re not Robb Walsh so why are you writing anything at all you don’t deserve to breathe go rot in hell” kind of comments I’m accustomed to by now, even though I am not the food critic for the paper and haven’t impinged on Robb’s old position in the slightest.) I spoke with Chris Shepherd when I went to Catalan last week to get video of a hog-butchering session and he seemed puzzled by the story’s new angle, but not angry. And certainly not angry when I explained the story of the feature from first draft to final copy. He even gave me a lovely piece of pork to take home.
But then, today, I noticed a new comment had cropped up on the feature:
“I cannot believe you would put this article on the front page. You tell the Chefs you want to write a story about them and then you backstab them with this article and now they are all getting fined and are being found in predicaments thanks to you. You will get yours.”
And these are the times when I still relish having a personal blog, specifically for purposes of stating my true intent and standing my ground.
I certainly never set out to stab anyone in the back. I truly hope no one that I interviewed feels this way, and that this is just another one of our trolls at the Press. And I’m not really sure what “get yours” means. I get enough negativity flung my way on a daily basis, so a bit more probably won’t make a dent at this point. I’m slowly learning to grow a thicker skin, a necessary coping and survival mechanism in an industry where everything you do is held up to public scrutiny — even a small public — for any anonymous person on the Internet to comment on.
I certainly don’t want to burn any bridges or get anyone in trouble. But I think I did a pretty good job, all things considered. The emails and phone calls I’ve received on the feature have all been exactly the same: Variations on “I had no idea so many places in Houston were doing charcuterie; I can’t wait to try it!” or “I’m so glad to see more places reviving this craft. Good for them!” I strongly believe the general public read the story as, “Oh, cool. Meat. Yum.” and not as “Ooooooh, those naughty chefs!” I could be wrong.
But I hope I’m not.