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Food Networking 

A funny thing happens on the way from online food forums -- everyone suddenly becomes an expert on New Orleans dining.

Toward the end of August, Spencer had a question that was on the minds of many New Orleanians: "Anyone know when Casamento's is opening back up?" Spencer, however, isn't a New Orleanian; he lives just west of Orleans Parish -- in southern Texas, to be more precise. So Spencer posted his question on the New Orleans message board of Chowhound (www.chowhound.com), one of several online communities where foodies from around the country gather to talk about the Crescent City's cuisine.

A local Chowhound participant, who posts under the name Amanda, had a lunch date the next day at Nirvana and wrote back, "I'll walk down the street to Casamento's and see if they've put a date up in the window yet." She found no sign in the window that day. A few weeks later, however, Amanda announced in a message filled with exclamation marks that the green-tiled oyster bar would reopen in late September. "Excellent report!" Spencer feverishly typed back.

For people who make an annual pilgrimage to the restaurants of New Orleans, Chowhound's New Orleans message board is where they offer their daily prayers. A collection of honorary New Orleanians -- frequent visitors who devote most of their annual vacation days to eating po-boys and barbecue shrimp -- and generous locals debate the merits and demerits of the city's restaurants. Chowhound is but one of many such sites for visitors and locals alike; national sites such as eGullet and New Orleans' Talk Food (hosted by Tom Fitzmorris), provide a range of forums to discuss local culinary passions.

Participants from outside the parish line can meticulously plan their vacations to New Orleans around food so that each meal will be memorable. When they return home, the "chowhounds" (as they call themselves) post trip reports detailing every meal they ate while in the Crescent City.

"There's no better resource than Chowhound when traveling to get you up to speed on local treasures," says Jim Leff, who founded the Web site in 1997 as a forum to discuss the New York City culinary scene. Today, nearly 600,000 people visit Chowhound each month searching for everything from a recipe for duck sausage to recommendations for good food in Finland. The addition in 1999 of regional forums like the one for New Orleans increased interest in the site. Over the past five years, 15,000 questions and answers have been posted to the New Orleans board.

People come to the site looking for information, not idle chatter. The Chowhound New Orleans board is free of the insults and arguments typical of many online discussions. "If you can moderate really well as a site grows, it develops a prevalent tone of friendliness, generosity and savvy," Jeff says. "And that tends to self-reinforce."

Although the participants, both locals and out-of-towners, have an encyclopedic knowledge of New Orleans restaurants, they were perfectly kind to a poster who recently asked if they had heard of a hole-in-the-wall place called "Jocqui-mo's" (which everyone knows, of course, is Jacques-Imo's). Anyone who questions the quality of Brigtsen's or Uglesich's, though, will have a fight on their hands.

While researching an article on the Thanksgiving turkey drop at Carrollton Station, Brooks Hamaker, a writer and the former brewmaster at Abita Brewing Company, discovered eGullet (www.egullet.org), another popular discussion board devoted to eating and cooking.

"I was fascinated by the site and many of the incredibly well-informed and wildly diverse personalities on eGullet," he says. Hamaker now volunteers up to 20 hours a week moderating the boards dedicated to Louisiana, beer and Southern food culture. He offers topics for discussion, gently keeps people's conversation focused on food, and imparts the culinary wisdom he gained during his years as a bartender, line cook, seafood buyer and manager at restaurants throughout southern Louisiana.

"If I had known how much of my time and effort eGullet was going to suck up, I would have deleted the link and never gone back. The place really draws you in," Hamaker says.

At first glance, eGullet, founded in 2001, looks similar to Chowhound, with boards devoted to food topics and regional cuisines. But closer inspection reveals that the site attracts more culinary professionals, food writers and historians. While people still ask for restaurant recommendations, informed debates on the origin of the doberge cake or celebrations of Creole tomatoes are more common.

"Our organization and its goals go beyond posting messages -- we're about advancing culinary knowledge," says eGullet co-founder Steven Shaw. The site hosts an ambitious schedule of online culinary classes, sponsors discussions with prominent food writers, and has even borrowed from reality television with its day-to-day chronicle of the opening of a new restaurant in Chicago.

Anyone can read the posts at eGullet, but the site asks people to submit a brief essay on their interests in food before being granted permission to participate in the discussions. Site administrators approve almost all applications, although they may request additional information from applicants. "We have found that, by limiting access at the membership stage, we free ourselves from needing a lot of other types of restrictions," Shaw says. Nearly 5,000 people participate on the eGullet board.

Hamaker would love to see more Louisiana chefs and foodies involved in eGullet's Louisiana forum. "Let's face it, tons of industry types in Louisiana read the thing every day -- they tell me so all of the time. But many of them, for an assortment of reasons, are leery of posting on a public discussion forum," Hamaker says. "I think that this will slowly change as time goes by and chefs and industry people see that eGullet is about discussion, not anonymous slagging."

Longtime New Orleans food critic Tom Fitzmorris has little patience for the anonymous posters on Talk Food (www.nomenu.com), the online food discussion he hosts at NewOrleans.com. "My belief is that most of them are insecure about emerging from the cloak of anonymity that allows them to speak up as if they were bold people of substance," says Fitzmorris, who hosts a daily radio show devoted to New Orleans food on WSMB and reviews restaurants for CityBusiness.

He shares a gentle antagonism with the participants of his discussion forum. Occasionally, Fitzmorris will bait them with his strong opinions and defy them to disagree. For example he recently declared, "Trying to walk into a major restaurant without reservations marks one as an unsophisticated, careless diner, and gives the staff permission to treat one any which way." Some of the posters, who enjoy locking horns with Fitzmorris, dared to suggest that restaurants never have the right to treat diners poorly.

Fitzmorris, by directing the conversation with daily questions and polling participants about local restaurants, has created New Orleans' most active food discussion board. Local foodies flock to Talk Food for advice from Fitzmorris and the other participants.

"When I have a question about cooking, I can ask my mom, but Talk Food is like having 100 moms to ask," says Mindy A. Nunez, a frequent poster. Some of those people responding might be a local restaurateur, like Janis Vazquez of Marisol.

Conversations range from the serious to the silly. One day posters will argue about the appropriateness of splitting an entree, and the next they will debate which local restaurants are Democratic and Republican. Many participants check the board frequently throughout the day, which creates lively back-and-forth discussions.

"I pop in sporadically, like how some go take smoke breaks," says Barbara Ireland, another poster.

The online forum grew out of Fitzmorris' email newsletter, which reaches 10,000 people daily with restaurant reviews, recipes and musings on ingredients and flavors. For Fitzmorris, who has reviewed New Orleans restaurants for three decades, the Talk Food forum provides a "reality check" on his reviews. "While my reviews and ratings will always be based on my own first-hand experiences," he said, "when I hear many reports at odds with my own findings, I take another look at what might be generating them."

Many Talk Food participants, after meeting online, have become friends in the non-virtual world. Some have even dated. According to Shannon LeBlanc, who regularly eats lunch with friends she met on Talk Food, in person the posters resemble their online personalities. "I think in general most people post with their personality showing through," she says.

Some of Talk Food's most active posters also spend time at a site created by Catherine Campanella called Mr. Lake's Nonpompous New Orleans Food Forum (www.network54.com/Index/10892), where the friendly chatter and impromptu invitations for lunch can make you feel like you wandered into a private conversation. It soon becomes clear, though, that everyone is welcome to join this club. Campanella, a technology coordinator for a local elementary and middle school, adopted the Mr. Lake persona when she created the online food forum in June 2003.

"My forum is sort of like a local neighborhood restaurant where people hang out, relax and enjoy conversation about food but feel free to stray from the immediate topic -- just like people do in real life," Campanella says.

Other food-related sites include NOLA Foodie (www.nolafoodie.com), in which a banker and part-time bartender shares his recipes and musings on local cuisine, and Appetites (www.appetites.us), a local attorney's lively journal of what he cooks and eats. In a city that loves talking about food almost as much as eating, these online food communities keep the culinary conversation going nonstop. If you have a question about New Orleans food, there are hundreds of people online just waiting to give you an answer.

click to enlarge "If I had known how much of my time and effort eGullet was going to suck up, I would have deleted the link and never gone back," says Brooks Hamaker, who moderates the boards dedicated to Louisiana, beer and Southern food culture. "The place really draws you in." -  - DAVID LEE SIMMONS
  • David Lee Simmons
  • "If I had known how much of my time and effort eGullet was going to suck up, I would have deleted the link and never gone back," says Brooks Hamaker, who moderates the boards dedicated to Louisiana, beer and Southern food culture. "The place really draws you in."

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