09 March 2009

What’s up with the odd moniker, MC Slim JB?

Pictured: an actual MC
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
I know my pen name is obviously unconventional for a food writer, so I get asked about its origin a lot. It dates back to the days when my friends and I, very young punk-rock kids, became fans of old-school hip-hop: The Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, et. al. We sat around dreaming up stage names: what would your emcee (rapper) or deejay (turntablist) name be? Good for a laugh, but as I was unlikely ever to rap outside of the shower, my microphone controller name “MC Slim JB” went into a drawer alongside my spinner name, “DJ Phattee Phat Phat" or somesuch.

I dredged up the MC moniker sometime around the turn of the century for use as my alias on Chowhound.com, where most posters go by nicknames. As a frequent poster on Chowhound's Boston Board, I came to the attention of two local print-media editors: Scott Kathan of Stuff Magazine, and Eric Solomon of Boston’s Weekly Dig. Both approached me the same week with offers of freelance food writing work. Kathan, my first editor, suggested I write under my Chowhound nickname, saying “MC Slim JB has some credibility with local Chowhounds, and I’d like you to bring that Chowhound sensibility to your food writing here.” Solomon saw similar value in the name for use at The Dig.

After my food writing debut with a Stuff cover story and over 30 pieces for The Dig, I felt the name had brand equity worth preserving, and so pitched it as I went on to write for Boston Magazine (where predictably it made the editors nervous) and The Boston Phoenix (which valued its name recognition). My current gigs at The Phoenix (a cheap-eats review column) and Stuff Magazine (a fine-dining review column) are what I am now best known for, all as MC Slim JB.

So through no real plan, a jokey lark from my youth ended up as my nom de plume. As it happens, choosing an alias for Chowhound instead my real name proved a happy accident, as the anonymity it afforded has made it easier to avoid special treatment, the extra service and kitchen attention that well-known critics get. (The great Ruth Reichl outlines this phenomenon in her excellent, funny restaurant-critic memoir “Garlic and Sapphires”.)

Anonymity is a fragile thing; no critic goes unrecognized forever. But thanks to the MC Slim alias, many restaurants still don’t know me by sight, and I strive to be an unobtrusive, ordinary-Joe diner. This improves the chances that my experience will be the same as that of any diner walking in off the street, not the “as perfect as it can be” version that recognized critics tend to get. With any luck, there will always be restaurants that don’t connect the dots between that person sitting at the counter and the food writer with the odd hip-hop name.