Why the Sudden Frenzy to Unmask Ruth Bourdain?

Yesterday brought déjà vu all over again. Almost two weeks after a reporter claimed that the anonymous, unisex Twitter entity Ruth Bourdain was Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema, The Feast’s Ben Leventhal asserted that it was, appropriately, the combined effort of two food writers.

“Here’s a new one,” Leventhal wrote. “Josh Friedland and Adam Robb are collectively Ruth Bourdain.” Both Friedland, who blogs at The Food Section, and Robb, creator of the Fake Restaurant Girl Twitter feed, have, of course, denied it.

What’s most remarkable about the whole saga—aside from how dependably and witheringly funny a Twitter feed can be—is that La Bourdain’s identity has remained a secret for so long. Since March 2010, when Ruth Bourdain first mated Ruth Reichl’s effete ruminations with Anthony Bourdain’s routine profanities, the source of the tweets has been a favored guessing game; even the James Beard Foundation’s decision to bestow the Twitter feed with its first-ever humor award failed to smoke out the perpetrator.

Maybe the reason RuBo has remained a mystery for so long lies in the nature of food writing itself. Like any other subgenre of the journalism world, food writers are clannish, incestuous, and prone to gossip. But unlike, say, investigative reporters or war correspondents, we suffer a certain lack of real, ground-shifting drama—the news that Keith McNally is opening another restaurant isn’t quite on par with, say, the death of Moammar Gadhafi. Ruth Bourdain is the closest we’ve ever come to having our very own Deep Throat. So why spoil the fun?

Perhaps coincidentally, this renewed speculation about Ruth Bourdain’s identity dovetails with the question of who will succeed Sam Sifton, who earlier this week wrote his final dispatch as the New York Times’ restaurant critic. “I'm sitting on the edge of my seat wondering who the next Times restaurant critic will be,” Robert Sietsema wrote last month after Sifton announced he was stepping down from his post. And so is just about everyone else in the food world—we may as well be waiting for presidential election results. (Again, we are food writers. We take our intrigue where we can find it.) On Wednesday, Eater reported that a number of reputable sources had fingered the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson as the heir to the throne, something Anderson would neither confirm nor deny.

Aside from timing, both mysteries have one thing in common: They highlight one of the central ironies of social media. Conventional logic says that as the conversation grows louder and more insistent, it connects and reveals us to one another, and makes us all feel like we’re part of something. But as Ruth Bourdain shows us, social media is even more effective at obscuring us from one another—if anything, it enables previously unseen levels of pretense. Just ask any chef who has his publicist routinely update his supposedly personal Twitter feed.

Plenty of people know who Ruth Bourdain is, just as it’s likely that plenty of people know who will replace Sam Sifton. But they’re not talking, which leaves everyone else to try to do it for them. Declaring Ruth Bourdain’s identity solved after seeing someone tweeting in a room full of food writers shows us that we’re all equally free to pursue our assumptions. The more compelling mystery lies in why so many of us continue to believe that social media is synonymous with conversational democracy.

Image source: CHOW.com