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Asheville: XPress writer Hannah Rachel Raskin [Moved from South board]

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I got beef with Hannah Rachel Raskin.

Now, Raskin might be a perfectly lovely person, but it is her writing that I have an issue with. I usually cannot get past the first couple of sentences in one of her columns, so I usually skip over her columns.

Her writing has all the trademarks of a first-year staff writer in a mediocre college newspaper. It is frequently self-referential, off-topic, filled with bad puns. It just generally comes off as irritating, cutesy, grating, immature. She tries to come off as hip.

She needs a good editor. The editor should strip her column to a mandatory three paragraphs. The editor should say, "Hannah, just write about the food, in a simple and direct way, and you'll be fine." Because, as anyone who would bother post on Chow can understand, I like to read about food. Any number of my fellow posters on Chow could do a much better job than Raskin.

I want our weekly alternative paper to have a decent food writer. We have this city with great things happening in food.

A good food writer stimulates appetite. The way she writes about food makes me queasy.

How did she get this position? Can't the Xpress do better? Anyone else feel this way, or is it just me?

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  1. Its a free weekly publication.I am sure they dont have a very large budget for a food critic.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Spreadhead

      In the few cities I have lived in the writers of the alternative weeklies have generally been decent. Raskin is the worst I have seen so far, in any department. If you even compare her to the other writers on the Xpress, she comes off as a hack.

      My point was that, as a foodie, I just know they can do better. Even just editing her would be fine. How has she escaped the watchful eye of the editor?

      In a city teeming with starving artists and writers, they could find any number of people to do a better job than Raskin, for the same pay or less.

      How did she get onboard? Anyone else see it?

      Feel like ranting this morning.

      1. re: Budget Palate

        did you ever read any of her predecessors reviews??

        1. re: Spreadhead

          I've been reading Xpress for the past several years. I don't remember the previous food writer much. What was the predecessors name? Was he/she better or worse in your opinion?

          1. re: Budget Palate

            While the predecessor didn't hit you over the head with painful attempts at creative writing, IMHO she was of the "likes everything" school. I read her columns for information on Asheville restaurant openings, etc. , but didn't feel that I could trust her opinion. HRR has actually given some bad or middling reviews, so I pay a little more attention.

            1. re: danna

              Hit you over the head with painful attempts at creative writing.... hahaha, yes, I think that's what it is.

              I guess you're right, if you can stomach it, you can pull some valid and useful information out of her columns, maybe, but it's painful. I want to like her, I really do.

              But maybe I should come clean with what I REALLY want to say here.... My original post should have read: "Asheville: Any insider advice on how to take Raskin's job?"

              Anyone know anyone at the Xpress? It's hostile takeover time. hee hee

    2. unfortunately, the xpress' editors/management have bowed to "lobbying" by air (asheville independent restaurant assoc.) and are no longer running anything other than positive reviews. this might contribute to the free-ranging aspect you touch upon, since the column length remains the same, but what is fair game for filler has been much restricted. if you go back and look at raskin's earlier reviews, they tended to focus much more on the food, and less so on the asides. when the editors stopped allowing critical pieces is when the filler showed up.

      whatever beef you might have with the current writer, we won't have a good food column until the powers that be at the xpress stop kowtowing to air and put their reader's first. they should at least post a prominent caveat with the review acknowledging their editorial complicity.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mark

        Are ya sure about a positive-review-only policy? The only reason that I question it is that I would swear I've read recent reviews that are critical at times. But maybe that's ok as long the overall impression of the place is positive?

        Anyway, to go off the topic of food for just a minute, what you're saying reminds of the general decline of alt weeklies. They all go through this cycle where they get more corporate or whatever. Then a fresh new paper comes up to compete. Prediction: look for a new alt weekly to come along in Asheville and compete with the Xpress within the next couple of years.

        Back to food. My original point was that any one of us posting here could do it better. But I guess what you're saying is that she is writing within these restrictions. Still, she's so smarmy about it. I propose that we all bombard the paper with letters to the editor! Then I'll make my move..... haha

        1. re: Budget Palate

          yeah, there's still a little criticism, but it can only exist in the shadow of a largely positive review (in other words, if a place is bad, or even just mediocre, the review won't be published unless it's foisted off on a writer who has no palate). and pay attention to the kid gloves when an air member is reviewed.

          carolinadawg, is that info lacking in the print version? i know it doesn't (or didn't use to) show up online, but there's generally an info box appended to the print version that carries that data.

          to all, the ac-t is downright awful. the entire living section appears to be product placement, and, correspondingly, the staff benefitting from it. their "reviews" serve only to tell you what places to avoid until the post-review stampede abates.

          1. re: mark

            I probably should have specified that I only read the Xpress online; if the print edition includes additional data, I wish they'd incorporate that into the online edition.

      2. My biggest annoyance with the reviews in Mountain Xpress is the fact that they never include basic information such as the address of the restaurant, hours of operation, prices, website link, etc.

        1. I can't say I enjoy all the puns/references, but she gives some solid information about the food and restaurant in an interesting way. I get the feeling that she is really giving it her best effort, and I appreciate that. I agree with Mark, the column is a product of the overall editors' attitude, which I'm assuming is someone who knows nothing about food but wants to please the AIR.

          I do know for a fact that Hannah reads these boards. No, I've never met her, but the owner of the French Broad taqueria in Marshall told me that the photographer told her that the reason Hannah come out to review was becasue of the thread on chow about it. I wonder if she'll read this one? I know I sure as hell wouldn't, but if she does, I think she'll pay attention.

          You want to read some really bad, useless food writing- consult the citizen times, where many a recent review and column are written by none other that the feature editor's husband. Everyone in this town could use a lesson in good old fashion journalism ethics- don't pander to you advertisers, don't keep it in the family, and on and on............

          2 Replies
          1. re: charlottecooks

            Be advised: if you ever want to know whether or not the restaurant in question offers good sweet tea, be sure to read the restaurant reviews in the Greenville News...because that tends to be the foremost consideration.

            1. re: danna

              What rating system do they use? Insulin syringes?

          2. By the way, there's a popular Chow thread, still going, entitled "Cringe-worthy words in restaurant reviews." It's in "Food Media." Good for a laugh. Over a hundred people responded already. They are having visceral reactions to bad food writing, including their local food critics/reviewers. Guess I'm not the only one. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/461726

            1. couldn't agree more with the above comments. What is it about AIR that the express feels it has to appease?

              1. I couldn't agee more. the xpress has the worst food writers I've ever seen. You wonder if they are working at putting independent restaurants out of business to help keep the chains busy. Always picking on the little guys. Air has done a good job of keeping these pit bulls away.

                7 Replies
                1. re: ncwino

                  "Picking on the little guys?" I'm sorry, but bad food is bad food. I don't care who is serving it. Good restaurant critics (and the papers that employ them) must be knowledgeable, anonymous, honest, ethical, and completely objective. Otherwise, what is the point of running restaurant reviews in the first place? My own maxim when it comes to critics is simple: Never trust one who likes everything, and never trust one who hates everything. Anything else is waste of ink, newprint, and my time.

                  1. re: Jeff C.

                    Jeff, I think you've written the perfect job description for a food critic. I always strive to meet exactly the criteria you've outlined -- although I might add a few items to the list. My goal is to produce clear, informative, engaging pieces which convey the essence of the places I visit (which is why I often linger longer on non-food issues than my detractors would like.) But I realize I don't always achieve my objectives, which is why I'm thankful for the watchful eyes of Chowhounders and other interested eaters.

                    I would encourage anyone who has questions or complaints about the Xpress food column to contact me at food@mountainx.com. Although I rarely post on this board -- as someone fortunate enough to have a forum of her own, I don't want to monopolize the discussion here -- I am an avid reader and admirer of the community. I would welcome your expert feedback, and hope it serves as the springboard for a productive and ongoing conversation.

                    I'm heartened by the disagreements and dissension in the posts above (Does the Xpress appease AIR? Or has it taken a blood oath to destroy its members?). The arguments speak to a vibrant and contested food scene, and one to which I am proud to belong. I look forward to continuing to work with you to chronicle it.

                    1. re: Hanna Raskin

                      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Hannah. While I know you probably can't respond to specific questions/concerns re AIR, I'm wondering if you'd care to make a general comment about the economic pressures small-town newpapers are currently under and how the need to bring in enough advertising dollars to stay afloat effects the editorial bottom line, particularly in the sensitive area of restaurant reviews?

                      1. re: Jeff C.

                        Like every newsroom staffer, I'm endlessly fascinated by the intersection of media and commerce, and appreciate your interest in the same. While I'm not equipped or empowered to speak on behalf of the Xpress, I'm happy to outline my approach to the issues you raise.

                        You're right: free alternative weeklies depend on advertisers to survive. Although I'm not privvy to budget discussions, I suspect there is a fair amount of hand-wringing when a major advertiser cancels his or her contract. That said, I have been allowed to conduct my column with a remarkable amount of freedom: I choose which restaurants to review, and have never been lobbied by either my editor or publisher to alter my opinions to pacify restaurant owners. The Xpress is a small paper with a small office, which means I do see advertising reps in the hallways (I've worked at some papers where editorial and advertising staff have separate entrances), but -- much to their chagrin -- they have no say in what I write. My hunch is a few of them are as unhappy with me as some of the posters here.

                        I have twice had reviews either killed or returned for rewrite because in-house readers thought the tone was unnecessarily harsh, a concern rooted not in a cynical play for advertising dollars but in an effort to remain true to our paper's mission, which calls upon us to offer some measure of support to the hard-working folks who are transforming Asheville into a world-class eating destination. I want to be very clear on this point: I think the best way of supporting our area's burgeoning culinary scene is by providing tough, fair-minded criticism. As some of the posters here have pointed out, I'm not adverse to running a negative review when the restaurant merits it. But there's no need for a community paper like ours to get nasty.

                        AIR restaurants are in no way immune from negative reviews at the Xpress. I understand there are some restaurant owners who feel the situation should be otherwise: After I wrote a negative review of an AIR member restaurant last year, I was asked to meet with the group's board. In the spirit of community, I did: It was a spectacularly unproductive affair. No matter what names its leaders choose to call me (and they chose some doozies), I still believe my ultimate responsibility is to the reader, who has a limited amount of money to expend on eating out and deserves the information to make wise decisions.

                        Speaking of budgets, ours at the Xpress is limited too. I can only visit the restaurants I review twice. I can't sample everything on the menu. This is one of the few places where economic pressures surface in how I do my job.

                        Finally, there are a few restaurants that won't receive negative reviews in the Xpress: I won't stoop to single out mom-and-pop operations for attack. There may be a little shack in Swannanoa that garnishes every dish with salmonella, but it won't show up in my column unless the place is getting significant traffic. It doesn't help anyone to waste 1000 words on an eatery you're never going to patronize: That's why I stick to reviewing restaurants with higher profiles (which means restaurants with higher advertising budgets are actually more vulnerable to getting panned.)

                        If people don't like my column -- and this is a highly optimistic use of the word 'if' -- the blame belongs to me. I believe the initial thrust of this post concerned my ability to write a decent sentence, which is a skill no advertiser can award or deny me. I understand some people don't like my writing style, and I sympathize: I've lived in towns where the I found the resident restaurant reviewer unreadable. Like you, I thought I could do better. And while you may not be pleased with the results, I hope you will at least continue to take me to task if you feel I've violated any of the principles I've outlined here. I am committed to covering the Asheville food scene in an objective, fair and informative way. I deeply appreciate all the help Chowhounders have already offered, and look forward to future feedback.

                        1. re: Hanna Raskin

                          You present yourself very well. I come away from this impressed with you overall.

                          You are right, my original post was about your writing. This thread's detour into local Asheville politics was very interesting and perhaps inevitable. But my original post was about just writing a simple restaurant review.

                          My (strong) opinion is that a critic makes the food the primary point in the review. Second to that would probably be the service. Then, of course, the reader will also want to know a bit about the atmosphere, the dress, etc before going out.

                          But you seem to reverse all this. Often your reviews seem to be almost obsessed with atmosphere. You go on for paragraphs about "scene" and then mention the food almost as an afterthought. That is why I thought your writing sounded "immature." It strikes me that someone in their early 20's would be so interested in "scene." Of course we all know what parts of the Asheville scene can be. We know, we know. We know about the tattoos, the hipness, the attitude. We know. Tell us about the food, then briefly mention the people, the ambience, the dress. Briefly.

                          The reason why this matters, beyond just being about good writing, is that I think your type of review actually hurts our food community in a way. Asheville unfortunately has a deep history of snob culture completely out of proportion to its size and importance. Yes, this permeates into the dining scene. Your job, in my view, is to cut through all that crap and get to the heart and soul of the matter.... not reinforce the tired Asheville stereotypes. You have a unique advantage... you write in a widely distributed free paper. So please, take your position seriously. Tell us if the food is any good. I still have no idea what type of palate you have because your reviews are so all over the place. Provided your palate is any good (we still don't know), straight-to-the-point reviews will do much to lift our dining scene higher. Obsession with the hipsters will not.

                          In your above posts you write clearly, simply, beautifully. What is the disconnect with your restaurant reviews? May I suggest someone who might prove to be an inspiration and a mentor for you, if she isn't already. The writings and reviews of Ruth Reichl. Yes I know this ain't the Big Apple, and you're not writing in the New York Times, but could you aim a little higher? Reichl got down to business.... she showed up to eat, and eat well.

                          ... But I'm still coming for your job.... :-)

                          1. re: Budget Palate

                            I'm a fan of Ruth Reichl too, and still miss her weekly dispatches in the Times. For what it's worth, here's what Reichl has to say on this very issue:

                            "To me, the best food in the world is no good if you're miserable while you're eating it. I think it's half food and half everything else. Maybe food isn't even 50 percent, because so much else is really important, including certain comfort factors, which matter a lot. If it's noisy, it matters. If you're cold, it matters. If the booths are uncomfortable, it matters." (Dining Out, 1998)

                            Very few restaurants are either “good” or “bad.” I think examining various elements of a restaurant – including décor, service and atmosphere -- allows us to get at the nuances that make eating out exciting. Jeff C.’s post at the bottom of this thread is a great example of what I mean: Although he never says how the food at Fig tasted, his impressions give me a good sense of what to expect should I decide to dine there early in the evening.

                            We may have to agree to disagree on our review philosophies. But I’m very glad we’ve found a forum in which to discuss them.

                            1. re: Hanna Raskin

                              I hate that I missed out on all of this until now....I'll never go to a conference or take a vacation again! Hanna, I like your reviews and tend to find them more accurate than those in AC-T. But sometimes you get a bit flowery and carried away with other stories...and I find myself forgetting what the original intent of the piece was....like the first few paragraphs of this week's review of Blue Mountain Pizza's Monday night special meals....ya' lost me babe... Thanks for not using the phrase "spot on" and for glorifying huge portions as some of the other area restaurant critics are want to do.

                2. Gee Hannah and Jeff, I hate to break up the love fest but really. The bottom line is if you want to know if a restaurant is any good, check out Chow not the MtnExp. Better yet, go try the place for your own thoughts.
                  Hannah, I'm sure you are doing what you think is best but for some time (years) the reviews from the xpress have been less than fair to the A.I.R members and non-members. If you live in Asheville long enough you know that this market is not an easy one. Many a winter has put restaurants out of business; not just bad food. A.I.R has been a way for the little guy to work together and to help others do a better job making Asheville a great place to dine out. I'm looking forward to visiting your restaurant one day when you decide you can do it better than everyone else who has put their money where their mouth is. Keep up the easy work, lighten up a bit and enjoy the food and wine. Going out should be fun, quit picking apart the places and enjoy.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: ncwino

                    "Quit picking apart the places" ????? She's a CRITIC! That's her job. Her responsibility is to the readers, not the restaurant owners.

                    Props to you Hanna for your diplomatic and elegant responses.

                    1. re: ncwino

                      all the various forums leave something to be desired, but i think singling out the xpress as being unfair to air is bull. sure, there have been some unflattering reviews in the xpress, but, you know, i've generally found my experience bears them out. more unfair to air would be the ac-t reviews that imply (or outright state) how wonderful a place is, only to have it fall far short in reality.

                      when i go to a place based on a critical review, i'm willing to chalk up a less-than-expected experience to a difference in tastes. when i go based on a glowing review that in retropsect could only have been product placement/purchased (see any ac-t review excluding nelms'), i not only will voice my displeasure, but will actively attempt to dissuade others from trying it, and will question any future input from the review source. so which has the bigger impact?

                      i do think the xpress would benefit from some prominent wording stating that they do not review chains (thus the focus on air members & other independents), and pointing out that any review captures just a few moments in a restaurant's life and therefore experiences may vary.

                      while i think air is a good organization, there are a few members with a very over-inflated belief in their restaurants, and at least a couple owners who use air (and its collective advertising might) as a bully pulpit. reviews are part of the restaurant business; if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen (or make better food).

                      you're right, ncwino, going out should be fun. and part of the fun is good food. critical reviews help many of us find that good food. lip service, which seems to be what you want, benefits only the restaurant, and then only in the short term.

                      1. re: mark

                        "i do think the xpress would benefit from some prominent wording stating that they do not review chains (thus the focus on air members & other independents), and pointing out that any review captures just a few moments in a restaurant's life and therefore experiences may vary."

                        Why? I'm not sure I understand the significance, but more important is the fact that the information is obvious...we all know whether or not a restaurant is part of chain, and I would hope we all know that any review is a snapshot in time. By definition any restaurant review is a recap of the reviewers experience visiting the restaurant at a specific time. In addition, Xpress does ocassionally review chains, so your first statement is not factually correct.

                      2. re: ncwino

                        I'm confused by your posts. Are you saying that independent restuarants should not receive bad reviews because the restuarant business is tough? Even the AIR members that are decidedly NOT "the little guy"? So basically, give 'em a good review and the diner be damned?

                        Believe me, I sympathize. You see a struggling restaurant next to some hell-hole chain with a 5 acre parking lot and you want to scream. But I need to know if that struggling restaurant is good or not...I only have so many meals...I can't be wasting any.

                        Hannah: enjoyed your posts...please post more.

                        1. re: danna

                          What I'm saying is that when you know these folks who have independent restaurant and you see first hand what a bad review from a person who might or might not know what they are talking about does to them. I dine out 5 or 6 times a week and some of the reviews were just wrong. Hey, we all have had a bad expereince when going out but I would like to read about the restaurants that are doing something specail or hot. I want to read about the good places in Asheville, the exciting places. About wine dinners or specail events. Word of mouth will keep folks from going to bad places. Is it to much to ask to read GOOD news or good reviews? I guess some will say it's half full and other it's half empty. I read the xpress because it's has information mostly dealing with the positive things going on in Asheville. These restaurants work their butts off and have everything on the line. Keep me informed with whats good and new, I can watch TV to hear all the bad news I want.

                          1. re: ncwino

                            I look at critics--the ones who meet all the criteria I've already outlined, that is---as providing a service just like restaurants. (In fact, my long-time favorite music critic, Robert Christgau, actually calls his monthy column "Consumer Guide.') I want them to steer me to interesting new places, tell me about changes--both positive and negative--at older restaurants, and help me avoid wasting my time, money, and stomach lining on places that are clearly inept...all this with the understanding that no restaurant is so good or bad that it can't be improved by informed and constructive criticism.

                            Case in point: My wife and I ate at FIG last Friday night. We had a six p.m. reservation and were promptly greeted and seated. Our waitress then proceeded to explain that there were no dinner specials that night because the changeover from lunch to dinner service was taking longer than anticipated. Needless to say, we were disappointed but took it in stride and ordered from the overly-familiar regular menu. Imagine our surprise when not ten minutes later we overheard the same waitress describing a very lengthy and delicious-sounding list of specials to a nearby table of four...I feel bad about it now because it wasn't her fault, but when she returned to our table, I said something along the lines of, "I see they found some dinner specials somewhere." She apologized, said it sometimes happens, and I replied, petulantly, "Maybe we should've made our reservation for ten minutes later." Like I said, I feel bad--but not too much.

                            Was this an unpardonable offense that would make me never revisit an otherwise worthy restaurant? Of course not. But diners need information like this so they don't get similarly burned, esp. at such high end prices. That's why we need Chowhound, and that's why we need print critics who are free to tell the unvarnished truth.

                            Word to the wise: Make those FIG reservations for after six p.m.!

                            1. re: Jeff C.

                              Amen Budget Palate!! My wife and I are new to the area and we have yet to figure out if the food is bad or good from the reviews.

                      3. Once again you're working at killing another fine restaurant. The Stove trotter review was off the wall. I have been there 4 times so far and everyone that I've taken has loved it. Most have been back on thier own and have called to say thank you for telling them about it. Do you ever go anywhere and have a good expereince? You keep this up and there won't be any restaurant's advertising in the xpress much longer. I'm sure the Advertising department at xpress loves you. One by one you are closing the doors. Keep biting the hand that feeds you and maybe Mackensie will give you a position over at her restaurant. And please don't write about them, I like it there. We need all the good restaurants we can get in east-ville. Mac's food is a lot better than her writing, How are your cooking skills?

                        1. ok 'hounds, this is our shot to have a voice in the xpress food column.

                          the xpress has opened their food column to comment for the next week or so. please take a moment to tell them your thoughts. it is my understanding that, barring sufficient support from the community, the xpress will go the route of the ac-t, and we will lose our last print resource for restaurant information.

                          http://www.mountainx.com/news/2008/fo...

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mark

                            yep, I already wrote in. Although they were often exceptionally meandering, I enjoyed Hannah's reviews and miss having a restaurant review column. For the past few weeks they have just had informative articles...not the same.