Petite and perfectly coiffed in a cardigan and heels, Hanna Raskin sits alone at a high top in the window of Elliotborough Mini Bar. I figured she'd be early. Much as she responds to story comments within minutes, The Post and Courier's food editor and critic is, in my experience, always prompt. We begin with little banter. This conversation is part of her job. And she takes her work seriously.
"I would say that I always had an interest in food," Raskin says. "My eight- or nine-year-old birthday party was a chocolate chip cookie tasting to rate all the cookies."
And so it begins.
It's been a year since Raskin moved to Charleston from Seattle to take over The Post and Courier's food section. In the Northwest she'd been food critic at Seattle Weekly and left after the paper decided to restructure, removing reviews all together. The alt-weekly offered her a new role, but she told media contacts that she passed on the position as it "came with a reduced salary, smaller office, and a very different set of job duties." The Pacific Northwest hadn't really been her scene anyway. "Seattle was not great," she says. "I'm really glad I was there. I was exposed to so many things I hadn't been exposed to, but I was ready to get out of there. It was not a good fit."
While it wasn't a good fit for her, Raskin's husband still lives in the Puget Sound area. He got a promotion shortly before the P&C recruited her, and after making him move twice before — once to Texas to work for the Dallas Observer, then to Seattle — she says couldn't do it again. The two make a point to see each other every four weeks and stay in touch via phone in between. And while Raskin says they've managed a very loving relationship apart, the separation has actually given her more time to fine-tune the P&C's cuisine coverage.
"If I have to work until 9 o'clock, I don't need to get home to meet someone for dinner," Raskin explains.
That relentless work ethic has paid off. Mitch Pugh, The Post and Courier's executive editor, reports that since January 2014, when Raskin's new print and digital food sections launched, the paper has seen a 264 percent increase in total page views for food content. "Obviously, that is healthy growth," he says.
Remarkable growth may be more apt, especially in light of the dwindling American newspaper industry. Between 2009-12 the Los Angeles Times, The Times Picayune, San Francisco Examiner, New York Magazine, New York Daily News, and The Oregonian all laid off restaurant critics, according to Eater.com. Meanwhile, under Pugh, The Post and Courier's overall food page coverage has grown by 33 percent with a restaurant review published every week.
Looking at the numbers, no one can argue that Raskin hasn't revolutionized the South's oldest daily newspaper's food coverage. Of course, "the hornet-nest kicking restaurant critic," as Eater.com has called her, has also gotten some folks' dander up in the process. Why the controversy? Phrases like "Jestine's food is unremittingly bland" come to mind. Just three months after her arrival, Raskin caught readers' attention when she nailed the Southern food destination last November. The review was a pen lashing. Raskin wrote of the "unforgiveable shrimp-and-grits," "startlingly mushy crab cakes," and "limp meatloaf." While many agreed with her review, some readers were shocked.
"The best call was from a reader who said, 'Everything you said was true ... and we would never say it,'" Raskin recalls. Some argued that there was simply no need for a review of the Food Network darling, especially when many agree Jestine's is overly hyped. But Raskin defends her choice. "It wasn't known to my readers," she says. "People emailed me after I wrote it saying 'You saved me a trip.'" There were other haters as well. Raskin, who was raised in the Reform Judaism faith, was asked to speak at last year's Jewish book festival shortly after the Jestine's review. Upon arrival at the event, she got a less than welcome greeting. "These women came in and said, not joking, 'You're the person we want to kill,'" she recalls. It should be noted Jestine's owner Dana Berlin Strange is Jewish. "It was very clear that the Jewish community felt I had wronged them," Raskin says.
But a Lincolnian commitment to the truth is at the core of Raskin's journalistic creed. This is the woman who, with committee input, drafted the Association of Food Journalists' Code of Ethics after all.
"I guess I feel the most important thing in journalism is transparency and honesty," she says. Raskin believes a willingness to challenge the status quo and stand behind unpopular opinions was lacking in The Post and Courier's food section before her arrival. "It needed a tremendous amount of help," she says. Previously the section was managed by Teresa Taylor, who is now the life editor. When pressed to say what was missing, Raskin responds, "Any sense that there are restaurants that aren't great."
Did we mention she's brutally honest?
The irony is, aside from the cookie birthday, Raskin didn't grow up with ambitions of becoming the next Craig Claiborne. No, by her account, she had a typical Michigan childhood. High school was seemingly a blast. She edited the yearbook, played softball, and organized a community service project. "I wasn't the most popular, but I was friends with a lot of the people who were," she says. Even as a teen, she was already developing her frank personality. Instead of superlatives, her small private school did senior wills where an upperclassman would bequeath something to an incoming senior. "I was willed tact," Raskin says.
Her parents were not into food. In fact, she says, "We ate really badly." But restaurants always made a big impact on Raskin, and she worked in them through high school, college — she attended Oberlin where she majored in politics and history — and beyond. "My last shift, I think was in '08 or '09," she says.
Charleston's celebrated restaurant scene is setting for widespread, systematic wage theft, workers and U.S. DOL say. http://t.co/LQrafBVogq— Hanna Raskin (@hannaraskin) August 27, 2014
After college, she took a rookie reporting job with The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi. She liked it but was making something like $18,000 a year. So she took another newspaper gig at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, a city she describes as attracting the unloved. It was around this time when the first mentions of "the death of print" began to be whispered. The Daily Star went through a reorganization. "They put me out in this little suburban bureau with four or five people who had been at the paper their whole lives and they looked so sad," she remembers. "I thought, I don't want to do that. I don't want to be in newspapers for the rest of my life."
So Raskin did what many floundering 20-somethings do. She decided to go to grad school and applied to the American History Museum Studies program at State University of New York College at Oneonta's Cooperstown Graduate Program. "I had this idea that museum exhibits would be just the same kind of storytelling," she says. "But you could put it on a wall and see it for a year, which seemed like a really great idea."
She confesses it was not really a great idea. Raskin inevitably discovered that she enjoyed visiting museums far more than creating them. The best thing to come of her degree, it turned out, was her thesis — Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine.
"It was really innovative and showed great observational skills," says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an institute at the University of Mississippi. "She had an ability to see possibilities in mundane things and glean something smart from it."
Edge — essentially the grand poobah of Southern cuisine — ultimately got hold of Raskin's thesis and invited her to coordinate a trip for SFA in Apalachicola, Fla. Pretty soon Raskin was involved with the organization, and shortly thereafter was inspired to found The American Table Culinary Tours, a food tourism business in Asheville, N.C. She was also freelancing for the alt-weekly Mountain Xpress, her first taste of published criticism, albeit light. If she deemed a restaurant worthy, she would write about it and interview the chef. Unworthy spots were not included. But her food-writing star was rising and eventually Village Voice Media asked her to join the Dallas Observer in a city she barely survived thanks to a nasty allergy to Texas ragweed. Seattle followed, which brings us to Charleston.
Viewing her LinkedIn profile, it looks as if her editorial spin around the states is a resume-building attempt to eventually land at The New York Times. But Raskin claims she has no Big Apple ambitions. "I want to stay here," she says resolutely. In fact, she loves Charleston. And it appears no amount of reader affection or fury, whether over her description of Chez Nous as possessing "an innate haughtiness" or a glowing review of Leon's Oyster Shop's "insanely magnificent, and utterly seasonal, heirloom tomato salad" can diminish her love for her new home.
But being the local paper of record's main food critic in a town one could call chummy is not exactly a friend-winning enterprise. "If you're outside of journalism, everything I do probably looks very standoffish," Raskin says. "I can't and don't schmooze. I'm sure that's offensive."
That also means publicists, forget about trying to win her over, because according to Raskin, it just isn't going to happen. Just as the AFJ Code of Ethics states, she says, "I don't meet publicists in person. I will never go to a media event or take a free meal."
But wait, she has socialized with publicists including Melany Mullens of Polished Pig Media who handles clients such as Neighborhood Dining Group's Husk, McCrady's, and Minero. "Somehow we did become running buddies," Raskin concedes. "But I think I've put a stop to all of this. I think we're done. It was absolutely wrong." And we've seen her at events, like last year's Charleston Wine & Food Festival. "I felt like people wanted us to cover that. I was wrong," she says. As far as taking free food, though, we've got nothing. We're pretty sure Raskin would flip over a dinner table before consuming a handout, no matter how insistent the chef.
"I'm here to do a job. I'm not here to make friends," Raskin says. "I don't think you necessarily need friends in your own town."
OK, so maybe we don't all need friends. But what about food critics, does Charleston need them?
Edge thinks so. "I think a vital and nationally important food scene requires the good eye and good words of a smart critic," he says. 'But Charleston continues to be a small town. If a critic is going to work in that town, it's a really tough balancing act being a member of the community."
Raskin is just entering Act II of her one-woman show, and she's cast herself in a difficult role — a character defined by strict rules, a code of conduct seemingly impossible to follow in a city where six degrees of separation isn't a Kevin Bacon joke but reality. Then again, if she can pull it off and craft a hermit-like existence only emerging for food and deadlines, then by God, we'll read her because we guarantee she'll serve up three things: tough questions, disagreement, and ultimately increased newspaper readership.
That takes moxie. And we'd be lying if we said we didn't respect that.