Last spring I studied abroad in Cannes, France for an internship at the festival parallel, the Marche du Film. I thought I would be indulging my inner cinephile as well as my inner foodie in France. I expected to be marveled every night at dinner by the country that is famed as the culinary capital of the world, but sadly I had the exact opposite experience. I saw many beautiful and engaging films in France, but I was completely disappointed in the culinary realm of my travel.
To save money I invested in a meal plan at the college cafeteria. The school let students eat for one week to decide if they liked the food before it was too late to back out of the nonrefundable meal plan for the semester. The food was not excellent but it was satisfying.
As soon as the week was up, the quality of the food changed drastically. I am not a picky eater and I am certain that my American tuned taste buds were not just being fussy. This food was downright disgusting.
They started serving pieces of lime wrapped in smelly fish skins at the salad bar, burgers covered in green soup for the main course, and moldy strawberries for dessert. The first night this happened my friends and I just got up and walked to a twenty-four hour restaurant, called “Funny Food,” that served shwarmas, pasta, baguettes, and beer. The next day we were served questionably edible food at lunch and then again at dinner. We decided to hit the town again. Cannes is a very wealthy area and a “cheap” meal could easily cost fourteen dollars with the exchange rate playing against you.
Collectively, we realized we could not afford to go out every week, let alone twice a day. We returned to the cafeteria disheartened. To cope with this we created a system. One of us grabs a bottle of balsamic vinegar, one a bottle of olive oil; one grabs a baguette, and the other little packets of butter. The other two would save seats at a table. Over the next month, all six of us began to put on weight from the bread yet we were constantly feeling hungry and sluggish. Obviously, something had to change.
The next night at dinner we decided to give the food another chance. We were feeling pretty inspired until a meal arrived at our table that we affectionately came to refer to as “Chish.” Essentially, chish is fish that smells like chicken and is bathed in a honey glaze. We were about to abandon our table once more when we noticed our friend, Rich, digging in to his chish and mushy vegetables. Incredulous, we asked him how he was doing it. He replied, “I don’t think about what it is. I just open my mouth and chew.”
“I Just Open My Mouth and Chew”
Maybe it was the malnutrition talking, but we all thought this was hilarious and we sat back down and all began to open and chew. As a coping mechanism we all began to try and best each other with jokes about the food (this is when the word chish was born). This became our nightly tradition. We enjoyed the food rants and jokes so much that we immortalized them in the form of a blog. We called it Open and Chew. It was, “A genuine down to earth blog about the worst French food you could possibly eat.”
We did not solicit that the blog existed, but eventually people would come up to our table and request that their comments be added as well. The vegetarian community at the college was especially vocal that we air their grievances. It seemed like all the American students at the college were having a great time reading the blog and were excited to add their comments as well. We added a Post Anything section and encouraged people to send in their own pictures. Everyone seemed to be having a great time contributing. Then the witch-hunt began.
One Tuesday afternoon, all the American students were called into the cafeteria for a meeting. The director of the college and the head stewardess stood by the door scanning each of our faces as we filed in. Very seriously, the director, in French and some broken English, explained that he knew the existence of a food blog that “defamed” the school’s kitchen. It seemed inappropriate to laugh, but I could tell everyone was trying hard not to. It seemed impossible to deprecate the image of the cafeteria more than it had already done to itself. Those responsible parties were asked to cease and desist the blog and turn themselves in.
My friends and I looked at each other. Sure we had created a blog, but this blog belonged to everybody now. We were an online community. Being surrounded by the festival mania, I started likening our blog followers to that of a film audience. Can one person be responsible for the audience response to a film? Were we solely responsible for the damage this blog could possibly do? Is a slasher film responsible for an unstable person’s deadly actions? Surely we were not the only contributors. We were the directors of a production aided by many hands. We would have been just as happy in our anonymity as we were in our small fame. We did not advertise or call for rebellion. The meeting ended with no responsibility accounted for.
We began to see the blog shift from an entertaining medium to that of a tool. In a way we were documentarist showing the truth through our own bias. The blog uses actual pictures of the food served. If they served rotten vegetables then why is it wrong to post pictures of them? Sure we did not produce anything close to the shock wave Michael Moore would have enjoyed, but the meeting showed us that we had people’s attention and thus the first step towards change. We wanted the cafeteria to feel accountable for the product they were producing.
The school should feel like they cheated us. After all they proved that they knew quality food. They had enticed us the first week of the meal plan. As soon as they received the money they slacked off. We justified our actions by comparing the cafeteria to a business. If a company allows a free trial of a product and then swaps out the working product for a broken one after the warranty is done, then the consumer has every right to voice their opinions of the company. The school claimed that the blog made the food look unappetizing to potential students who might have purchased a meal plan. We thought that was fair, so the blog continued.
Once again the school sought the creators out. We took down the most disgusting pictures (including when they fed us bone marrow and half the cafeteria left) and we deleted many purely negative comments. As filmmakers, the group was thankful that the nature of the blog, unlike film, allows for cheap and easy editing. We were constrained by the fact that we could no longer post comments that could be directly linked to individuals. Something that had started out to be purely for fun became strategic. We started to comment on food that we liked, hoping that the school would catch on.
At first they punished us. They served, if possible, more disgusting food and refused seconds on the good meals to those suspected of creating the blog. This continued for about a week. The dissent grew openly and finally the school gave up trying to attack the blog. They started serving in the same manner they had the first week.
It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t fish skin wrapped limes either. To this day I like to think the cafeteria is serving good, if not at least mediocre, food because of the efforts of our blog. Our counter-attack to the cafeteria’s attack on our taste buds was very easy to orchestrate in comparison to a film.
First and foremost, the blog was free, no sponsored even, by the coffee shop,Cafe Pico , across the street from the school who donated expressos and Wi-Fi. Second, any member with a password could post without any other member. Unlike a film, nobody really needed to coordinate, but if they so choose they could read the earlier entries. Thirdly, we did not need to produce a whole product to get a reaction from the audience. We could edit content and change focus as quickly as we wished instead of going to a primer to see if we were well received. Lastly, we controlled our persona. I preferred to stay anonymous, a preference not as well respected as a director of a film.
The creation of the blog made me hope for the future of documentary film. If documentarist shaped their findings in video Vlogs they may be able to save time and money which will enable them spread their message while it is still prevalent. A feedback section will also enable real time comments and can help the documentary find a clearer focus and deeper resonance with the audience. I do not see the Vlog being just as advantageous for feature fiction films because I believe the fiction feature blog already exist in the form of a television series. The feedback are, of course, the ratings.
The semester abroad turned out to be disappointing in the culinary arts, but enlightened me to the exciting future blogs hold for various industries, especially film. The blog and film share a visual media link and have both been used for social change. I imagine that when combined the two mediums will blur the line between each other and become a very powerful tool.