Tuesday, April 09, 2013

point and counter-point

As you know, we live in an out-of-the-way corner of an underpopulated state.  When we moved here, there were three small bookstores, and I visited them often, but they were small.  So when Amazon started (I just googled, it was 1994), I was in heaven.  I could browse to my heart's content at any hour of the day or night, and they had every obscure book that I could dream of. I adored Amazon.  I've subsequently learned a few things about their business practices that disturb me, but there will always be a little corner of my book-loving heart that belongs to Amazon.

A big part of the appeal for me was the customer reviews.  In 2013, you never know if it's a "real" review or one that someone has been paid to write, but for a long time after Amazon started, there was a real community of opinionated booklovers who passed reviews and recommendations back and forth at a furious rate.

And surprisingly, Amazon allowed negative reviews.  I'm pretty sure they were the first major retailer to do that--now it's common enough, but back in the day, it was a courageous statement of commitment to their customers' experience.  Here they are trying to sell stuff, and yet they let users write terrible reviews of their products and they leave them up where anyone can read them.   I loved it. 

I wrote quite a few reviews early on, but once I started a blog I stopped-- now I post my reviews here.  I've deleted most of the ones I had on Amazon.  But occasionally, when I feel that I have something to add that I wish someone had told me before I bought a book, I'll still post something.

About a year and a half ago, I posted a review of a cookbook called The Breakfast Book. It had nearly all glowing five-star reviews.  But I thought it was about the most boring cookbook I'd ever seen--it had recipes for biscuits from scratch and scones from scratch and several different ways to cook eggs, but it was all basic stuff that I already had in my big fat Fannie Farmer cookbook.  What I wanted was inspiration, some new ideas for things we could eat for breakfast on a typical chaotic day; what this cookbook gave me was just a bunch of basic recipes that would only have worked for us on a leisurely Saturday morning (if we ever had a leisurely Saturday morning), not a busy weekday.  

So I posted a review to prevent another cook like me from making the same $16 mistake, giving it three stars out of five (you can skip down to the next paragraph if you're pressed for time, this is just here for the sake of completeness):
I ordered this purely based on the glowing reviews it receives here. Once I received it, it took me awhile to figure out why everyone loves it so much, because it didn't seem that great to me. I think to appreciate this cookbook, you have to love to cook. I don't hate cooking, but I don't love it the way some do-- I would never, for example, choose to make my own cheese when you can get perfectly good cheese at the grocery and even better at the gourmet foods store. But [the author] provides a recipe for cheese, because "this is exactly the cheese I've always wanted to make at home." If you read that and think, "Great! I've always wanted to try making cheese!" then this is the cookbook for you-- there are some great recipes here (and not just for cheese, of course, there are all kinds of buns and muffins and egg dishes, etc.). But if you're like me and see that recipe and think, "Why the heck would anyone want to bother making their own cheese?" then you probably want to look for another cookbook. I just wanted more ideas for quick breakfasts for my morning-challenged family, and although there are a few of those here, not enough to make it worth the purchase price. 
I hadn't thought about that review in months, but a couple of days ago I got an e-mail that another user had left a comment on it.  I didn't ask her for permission to post the comment here, but it would be really complicated to tell you how to get to it at Amazon, and she did post it in a very public place, so I'm reproducing it here anyway:
That's the problem with people today, most people just want to go to the grocery store and buy things that they need as opposed to spending some time learning how to make healthy foods. Of course you can simply go to the grocery store and buy some random pack of cheese, but do you have any idea of what you're actually paying for? I am one of those people who have read labels, done research, and have learned what is really in store-bought foods and I love the idea of making my own foods at home. Homemade trumps store-bought any day and I don't understand why you would write such a negative review about the recipe for homemade cheese. Our society is full of lazy people who would rather make a food company rich as opposed to learning new skills regarding making homemade food.
Whoa!!  Really?  I don't think I've ever been grouped in with the people who are "the problem today."  The more I thought about this, the more dumbfounded I was.  The number of conclusions she jumped to just because I don't want to make all of my own food from scratch astounded me.  I'm lazy because I don't love to cook!  (what if I just have other things I'd rather do?)  Since I'm willing to buy cheese at the grocery store, I never read labels and have no idea what's in the foods I buy!  (I'm actually a pretty dedicated reader of labels, and I do my best to buy food with a minimum of additives.)  Any food made at home is better than any food that you can buy!  (seriously? anything a mediocre cook (me) makes at home is necessarily going to be better than a food made by someone who knows what they're doing?) (not all foods that you buy at a store are made by huge corporations, by the way.)

So I replied and told her that.  But I'm still a bit offended and a lot amused at her strident tone.

So, that's all.  I just thought you might be interested in the exciting life I lead.


  1. so, just in case you want it, here is the full reply I made to her comment. This post was already so long that I figured it wasn't necessary.

    "Why would you assume that because I don't love to cook that I am lazy? And why would you assume that because I don't want to make cheese from scratch that I never read labels or do any food research? Actually, I am an obsessive label reader and I'm pretty aware of what's in the foods I buy. And why would you assume that ANY homemade food made by me (a mediocre cook) would be better than a food made by someone who knows what they're doing --say a natural foods baker who sells her goods at our local natural foods store? or a local artisan cheese maker?

    If you enjoy making everything from scratch, go right ahead. But I have many other things I'd rather do than make cheese. And by the way, I don't think this was a negative review-- I still gave it three stars. I don't write reviews very often, but I posted this one specifically to help describe it to people like me who might order it thinking they're getting something that they're not. In my defense, I was clearly looking for a cookbook so I could COOK BREAKFAST for my family, as opposed to feeding them pop-tarts. This just isn't the kind of thing I was looking for. "

  2. Well, I, for one, don't understand why you don't have your own milch cow from which to make your own cheese. And your own wheat, oat, corn, barley fields so that you know exactly where your grains come from. I mean really. If you cared about the food that you eat and that your feed your family, you'd be growing and making it all yourself. It's really only a small investment of your time for such a great reward.

    Oh, wait. That was me at the grocery store today buying pre-sliced cheese to expedite the sandwich making for the brown bags at 6 am. Never mind.

    Some people can get all up in arms over just about anything. Sigh.

    1. Ha!! I know, that's all I need is a cow. I actually have been teasing Dean about getting a goat just because I think it would be fun, but I wouldn't milk it. Apparently if you don't milk them they don't .... you know. provide milk. Fortunately he just rolls his eyes and ignores me. ;-)

  3. To me, the rejoinder is a byproduct of the medium: the ability to review anything and anybody with impunity, behind the cloak of internet anonymity can certainly blur the line between reviewing a product, and reviewing another review/reviewer. I've certainly fallen prey to the powerful allure of having a platform from which to pontificate---and sometimes reviews come across as so *authoritative*---as if they are more than what they are: opinions. I'm interested in what sort of response you'll get from your counterpoint, hopefully it will be as thoughtful as the point you made. I also think that you should mention that you MAKE YOUR OWN YOGURT FOR GODS SAKE (which is my own line in the sand---for you it was cheesemaking, for me, it would be yogurt making! They sell that!!!! and it's GOOD!!!). And, I'm probably the last one to know, but I had to find an electrician fast, and used YELP. The guy I called was great, did great work, was everything the online reviews claimed. I mentioned that to him as he was finishing the job, and he wrote down "YELP--10%" and said that anyone who uses the word "yelp" gets a 10% discount, and to please write a review---just the sort of practice you alluded to regarding the origin of some of these "reviews". By the way, I think you are a good cook, way better than me....

    1. Well, I only make yogurt because of environmental guilt, not because I think it needs to be from scratch. We can't recycle the yogurt containers around here, and we were going through 15-20 a week, maybe even more than that. Our favorite brand of store bought yogurt is definitely better than the stuff I make. But at least I only buy one 32 oz container now.

      I just went and checked to see if she had replied and she hadn't. She may not ever, I suppose.