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Wonkish Appetites, Unite

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Hosea's dish, barftastic," says Kate Steadman.

"Hosea's fish looks like a rock," agrees Spencer Ackerman. "Dear lord."

"Could it finally be his time?" Steadman asks.

This is the kind of conversation that occurs at 10:41 p.m. when friends gather for Brazilian stew, wine and an episode of Bravo's "Top Chef: New York." Steadman, 25, and Ackerman, 28, are friends. But they're also bloggers. That means that although the two are sitting just a few feet apart in a Mount Pleasant group house, this high-minded commentary isn't carried on verbally. They, along with Kriston Capps, are communicating via Google-chat. During commercial breaks, they upload their exchanges to the blog they share with their circle of foodie friends, the grandly named Internet Food Association.

After a long day's blogging about complex policy issues -- Ackerman writes about national security for the Washington Independent; Steadman writes for Kaiser Health News -- they could be forgiven for wanting to close the laptop and actually have a conversation. But for the truly hard-core, a glass of wine and a good post about how Toby Young has absolutely no business being a judge on "Top Chef" is a fine way to unwind.

Launched in November, the IFA originally was intended to provide a freewheeling, uncensored space to sound off on recipes, restaurants and, of course, "Top Chef," which the clique gathers weekly to watch and deconstruct. "We are music reviewers and online organizers. Political pundits and network security experts. Health policy writers and programmers," reads the mission statement on the IFA Web site, http://www.internetfoodassociation.com. "But we are united by a shared recognition that all those things suck, and we'd much rather talk about food."

But the 14 members' broad range of interests and expertise -- urban policy, education, health care, punk rock -- has given the site an only-in-Washington vibe. Try as they might, IFA bloggers can't entirely shed their wonkish tendencies.

Take one of Ben Miller's first posts: "Should chefs go to culinary school?" To find the answer, the 24-year-old, who by day blogs for the New America Foundation's Higher Ed Watch, examined an obscure education measure known as the cohort default rate. The rate, Miller kindly explains "for those who don't spend all day obsessed with higher education trade publications," is the percentage of a school's student loan borrowers who default within two years of graduation. According to Miller's analysis, the prestigious Culinary Institute of America had good results: just 2 percent each year between 2004 and 2006. But at the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts in Philadelphia, 10 percent of borrowers defaulted in 2006 and 13 percent defaulted in 2005.

"Think of the implications," Miller writes. "Over 1 out of every 10 students defaults on their debt," strong evidence that a culinary school diploma didn't help them land work.

But Miller's analysis also showed that culinary school might be just the ticket to a spot on the all-important "Top Chef": 73 percent of cheftestants on seasons two through five had a culinary degree.

Another example is the series dubbed "angry rant from a New Yorker," in which Brooklyn-born Ben Adler, 27, complains regularly about the lack of Middle Eastern cuisine, bagels and (insert New York food of choice here) within the District's borders. To Adler, who covers urban policy, the shortage of cheap ethnic fare not only is a culinary disappointment but illustrates a failure of public transportation and community building. "If you can't get to good Middle Eastern food without a car, it's wrong," Adler declared at the recent "Top Chef" get-together. "The ability to get a good bagel within walking distance is a basic necessity of life."

He was only half-joking.

Even the de rigueur recipe posts have a certain verve, too often lacking in earnest food blogs. Take the recent Valentine's Day lament by AA, a former Washington blogger who moved west but still posts anonymously to the IFA site: The creme brulee she'd made "was such a comprehensive failure that it began to mirror what Valentine's Day actually is for most people, most of the time. A rotten breeding ground for cynicism and self-doubt, a metaphorical trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower with someone you realize you no longer love."

Ouch.

But no matter. A comment from RV, AA's roommate, brought the topic squarely back down to earth: "I didn't think they were that bad, but then again I was pretty drunk."

The site's buzziest post so far was written over inauguration weekend. Ezra Klein, a health policy blogger for the American Prospect who has long written on his personal blog about food (including his quest for the perfect kung pao recipe), attended a party for chefs and food luminaries at cookbook author Joan Nathan's Northwest Washington home. Chez Panisse chef-owner Alice Waters was the guest of honor. Journalists Bob Woodward and Jeffrey Toobin and TV anchor Rachel Maddow were also present. But the story Klein wrote when he got home, around midnight, was this: "Top Chef" co-host Tom Colicchio saves Joan Nathan's life with the Heimlich maneuver. "Not only can Colicchio run multiple restaurants and anchor a cooking show and win five James Beard awards and cook for the rescue workers after 9/11, but he can save your life," Klein wrote.

"Versatile guy. Think he'd be willing to manage the stimulus package?"

Within hours, the story had gone viral. The number of visitors to the site surged. MSNBC picked it up; that's where Nathan's mother heard about the near-catastrophe. So did the New York Times. Nathan herself later wrote an op-ed piece for the Times advocating that everyone learn the procedure.

Otherwise, the IFA's traffic remains small: about 1,000 unique visitors a day. But the site already has provided at least one unintended opportunity. It's a bridge to regular readers and, perhaps more important, sources: When Klein interviewed an official from the Obama administration recently, he couldn't get any information about specific proposals. But he did connect with his source over a problem she was having with one of Klein's recipes. "Food is a very human thing," Klein says. "You get to engage people on a much more fundamental level."

That said, several IFA members predict that the site will become increasingly Washington-centric. Ackerman is working on a post about where to take a defense contractor to lunch "to get them to tell you stuff." Klein wants to introduce a feature dubbed Weekly Wonk, in which he asks "some undersecretary or whatever" to give him five thoughts about food and a recipe.

"Bob Woodward may have broken the story on Watergate, but you are on equal footing when it comes to whether the prosciutto is good," says Klein. "Food is this thing where everyone is on the same page."

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