and by contrition, prayed i shalom
July 17, 2007
Upside-Down Whole Wheat Muffins with Muesli Crust
July 19, 2007

Criticizing food is a thankless job. Food changes; palates are finicky and whimsical; restaurants come and go. Though we often reach for the stars, the qualifying grade, and the one-sentence review, attention quickly fades. Some critics have given up elaborating on their own experiences in print. Their stories are so often argued with, their opinions ravaged, that they reduce their humble thoughts to gestures. “Fair,” they mark with indifference. And we are left to decipher it.

But then, there are those who feel the ambiguous nature of one-word critiques demands revision. These are the ambitious ones, the lovers of food who write almost entirely for themselves. Because, as any critic will tell you, if you write for the public, you will quickly be worn to a nub. And so, the stories I read in my newspaper are ones told by persistent, indulgent minds and unfettered taste buds. I enjoy them; they care nothing for audience and rarely—if ever—embellish. They are real.

Regretfully, though, I admit that even the best storytellers hang to food as the focus of appetites, flavors, and satiation. Ambience jumps at the side in their stories like second-thought wiener dogs; it is an elemental touch, but a distant and unimportant relative to what appears on the plate. Food is for eating; that is all, it would seem.

Has the world lost interest in M.F.K. Fischer? Is the meaning of food, the power it holds, the cultural tool it has become—have these all been thrown to the dogs? I have often been told, on the footsteps of a food writing career, that my style is too heavy for the audience who reads about food. It would seem they love only two types of writing: gilded bits of fact and embellished novels. Food, I am sorry to tell you, fits neither of these neatly-packed, opposite genres. The first is a joke in itself; to encapsulate food in encyclopedic precision is to destroy everything about it that is alive. It destroys creativity, possibility, variance, and iteration with unfeeling brutality. The second, I feel, is contrived. Why write elaborate fiction when reality is more interesting? The goings-on of a compact, steaming kitchen, the tension between chefs and their ilk, the designs that reach high in imagination and fall flat in practicality—these are the elements of real life that makes cooking so exciting.

What then? Do we do away with the eye-catching, popping vocabulary of a world with too-short attention spans? I’m not suggesting anything of the kind. Rather, I think, it would do us some good to extend a bit of courtesy to discussion of food that’s not “trendy,” or “a la mode.” What of the genres that criss-cross? What of the play of food with its people? Why does it all fall boring and bare into a see-saw of “how to cook” and “what to eat”?

Let’s revive Fischer, then. Not for her sake, but for ours. Many of my old friends aspired to be food writers, but lacked the discipline, and frankly, the talent. If the sensitivity of fine food were not enough to make writing about food difficult, we critics have the added onus of placating finicky readers. It’s not always a matter of practice making perfect. Nor is there a formula for success. Much of writing about food—in a manner that makes for a successful career—is timing, friends, and tact. Write about what you’re asked to write about. Then, when readers stop you and say: “I read the article you wrote on organic produce. It was wonderful!” you can reach for the next higher star. Someday, you may find an audience who enjoys a pure form of your own work. But if not, the best food writers never stop pushing for meaning in their work. They will tell you, I have no doubts, it’s not about remuneration. It’s not about the size of portfolios. Rather, it’s about making food meaningful. And whatever is said about the delicious creations of any one restaurant, the words on taste are fleeting at best.

It’s a difficult world—comparable, even, to the brutal punishment of French Laundry hazing. Still, its potential is unfathomable. And, as veterans of any serious kitchen will tell you, the truth of the business—for chefs, waiters, and all the world’s serious food writers—is simple: “It’s a thankless, tiring, exhausting job. But if you love it, you never want to leave.”

Let’s write about the eccentric personalities of chefs, the clamor of kitchens, the culture of fired-up tempers and restaurants gossiping as much as they cook. Let’s join the communities of food and learn to live inside them. And of course, between anecdotes told at the edge of a wine glass, we’ll interject our delicious asides on the merits of truffles and foie gras.

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