Madison: No appetite for Chow

Madison likes to talk about food. It isn't just me. Food journalism here is pretty popular, and Yelp gets good traffic. When buzzy new restaurants open, people tend to hear about it, and talk about it. But there's one venue of food communication that Madison just steadfastly doesn't utilize: Chow.com's Chowhound forum.

Chow publishes a lot of user-generated content interspersed with editorial content related to food, cooking, and kitchen products. It's a site with a simple, almost spartan design, but full of a lot of good stuff. And the Chowhound forums are where people aggregate to ask about openings and closings, restaurant recommendations (especially as related to travel), and recipe suggestions.

The majority of the Chowhound forums are divided geographically, and Wisconsin falls into the Great Lakes section. This lumps Madison in with cities from Illinois (excluding Chicago), Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota (excluding the Twin Cities), Ohio, and the rest of Wisconsin. Madison is the ninth largest city in the mix, while Milwaukee is the fourth.

Of course, you'd never know that by looking at the traffic in the Great Lakes section. I did an accounting a while ago (August 2013 to be precise) and from the first three pages of the section at that time -- 75 posts -- Detroit and its suburban area accounted for 21 topics. In fact, at that time, I had to navigate to the third page just to find a Madison topic. By that point in the section, Rockford had a hit, Toledo had a hit -- the Detroit suburb of Berkley had two, and its population is around 15,000. Milwaukee had ten posts, Wisconsin generally had another four, and Madison only had that one lone post.

More recently (today, in fact), Detroit tips the scales even more pronouncedly. Of the first 50 posts in the Great Lakes section, Detroit's metro area eats up 26 of them. There's one post that asks about a burger chain that covers multiple states in the region, and then 22 others to account for every other city in the region -- including two for Milwaukee, one that more or less discusses Racine, and one for Madison. If you're doing the math and coming up one short, you're not crazy, nor am I that bad at math. There's as many posts in the Great Lakes section of Chowhound discussing Westport, Connecticut, as there are for Madison.

(It's only there for the time being, of course; I couldn't help but report its misplacement to site mods.)

I think the reason for this is the same Goldilocks Syndrome I've ascribed to Madison before, writ large for the major population centers of the state. We're big enough that our populace is used to food talk, and can navigate the world of restaurants and food retail comfortably. On the other hand, we're small enough that our horizons are more or less knowable; we're not New York or LA, where the breadth and depth of the food scene is almost too much for the average resident to appreciate. There's also the proximity of agriculture to keep us sharp on our culinary raw materials.

Detroit, on the other hand, is kind of just coming up right now. It's a reclamation project for a lot of young creatives, and that includes the foodie demographic. People know what's out here generically, but don't necessarily know where to find it at home. And it's a large metro, so there's a lot of 'em.

I would like to see Madison, and Wisconsin in general, represented better on Chowhound, but at the same time, I think I can appreciate why we're not there. We're pretty food smart for our size as a region, and I'm proud of us for it.