Fault Lines in Food Writing

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Last month, Harper’s commissioned something unusual.

Unusual in the context of our tight-pursed digital world. Less unusual, perhaps, in the heady (nearly bygone?) literary indulgence from which the magazine sprung.

Harper’s, based in New York City, flew a British writer across the Atlantic and, once in The Big Apple, covered her sprawling tab at New York’s most elite restaurants. Then they cut her a cheque—and seeming carte blanche—to fill up their pages with any ensuing adventures.

The piece seemed preordained by the magazine’s weighty masthead to be free-flowing and diaristic, spared the publication’s usual tight oversight.

New York food writers and bloggers generally hated it.

Now true, the whole endeavour was slightly un-Harper’s like. But the diaristic style wasn’t an error or oversight. Nor was the writing bad. It was good. At times, fabulous. So what’s the problem, you ask? Well this very fault line, more and more, is where the gap between between food culture, food writing and the reader is being drawn.

It would be hard to pick four more towering foodie temples to visit: Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Chef’s Table and Masa. It should be noted that Harper’s is neither food publication or news magazine. It doesn’t cover a regular “beat”, much less have a restaurant review section.

Who knows its mandate in 2015? Though broadly-speaking, Harper’s is still about excess: liberal reflection, the pleasure of the text.

…[Per Se] is not a restaurant, although it looks like one. It may even think it is one. It is a cult. It was created in 2004 by Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, in Yountville, California. He is always called Chef Keller, and for some reason when I think of him I imagine him traveling the world and meeting international tennis players. But I do not need to meet him; I am eating inside his head.

Now I’m a long-time follower of people like Keller, a junkie of chef culture and resto innovation through and through. I’m the kind of guy who would waste hard-earned money on these nutty places.

Animal Farm may be a metaphor for the anxieties of those who dine at Through Itself: they are hungry, but only for status; loveless, for what love could there be when a waiter must stand with his feet exactly six inches apart … Through Itself is such a preposterous restaurant, I wonder if a whole civilization has gone mad and it has been sent as an omen to tell us of the end of the world — not in word, as is usual, but in salad.

What’s more, smug, foreign food critics are nothing new to this scene.

Nor am I sure that the human body is meant to digest, at one sitting, many kinds of over-laundered fish and meat…

Yet at every turn of phrase like this from Gold, I only dove in further. The thing is, it didn’t matter what my food sensibilities told me: this was crisp, fantastical, entertaining, and ultimately — like all good satire —based on more than a small grain of truth.

If knee-jerk reactions are to be expected from locals and overwrought foodies, they are worrisome when they come from food writers. Why? Because the stark opposite emerged from another specific group: a global collection of folk that may or may not have cared about famous chefs, or even heard of these places.

I can only unify this mass as readers — the targets, after all, of a magazine article. It would seem that readers’  conception of Gold’s essay was different. They perceived it as writing.

And they’d be justified. Let’s leave aside the premise itself: that the magazine doesn’t even do reviews, that the writer was flown in to a city brimming with food critics for an expository feature.

Readers got it, knew that they — along with 99.9% of the world — knew they’d likely never set foot in these uber-elite places, or even necessarily have the desire to. — and that was the whole point all along.

Readers did not require “disclaimers” of satire or elitism.

Yet things continued to split apart. Both sides soon christened Gold’s piece as “an evisceration.”

Fair enough. Yet thanks to the highly-evolved logic of Twitter, the label just wasn’t reductionist enough. Sure enough, as the narrative changed, Gold’s piece became something slightly more vulgarized: a “takedown.”

The thing with “takedowns,” it seems, is once defined, they require “takedowns of takedowns,” each step further distancing readers from any literary agency of their own.

Only one more reductive t word could possibly be invoked, could possibly paint a starker picture of what’s been going on for years now, a sheer widening gap between “food writing” and essay. It happened:

Now food is no exception. These things happen all the time. Social media dumbs things down, to no one’s surprise, I know…

Yet to me, this particular saga is exemplary for three reasons: the sheer spectacle of it all, the big players of food criticism involved, and the fact that it highlights the tense space opening up between foodies, writers and food writers.

The trend seems to be that dry, cutting, whimsical, food writing should never even edge on brutal or fabulous — it must never go too far off the edge.

It’s ironic that food writing started from the edges, with fantastical, metaphorical essays that touched upon food coming from somewhere else.

One level head reigned. Pete Wells, New York Times critic  himself—tasked with hallmark reviews of these joints over the years—might have captured it best: between diaristic and satirical, Gold was for him not just any writer, she was the foreigner turning heads by flirting at the precipice of food criticism.

All this to say that I learned three things:

  1. We’re drawn to New York misadventures just as we’re drawn to the ire of Parisians: their hunger to take down their own is outweighed only by their ferocity at defending outsiders from doing the same.
  2. Harper’s still exists. I should probably check it out more often.
  3. “Food writers” gotta chill.

Back when I first started raising this drama, someone pointed me an old Harper’s essay. Turns out, in 1996, they paid Neil Foster Wallace to write about the cruise industry.

I read it.

Suffice it to say that if such a thing came out today, cruise line bloggers (if they exist) would dissect it with glee. Industry experts and travel writers would doubtless be next at the gate.

For in the piece, NFW is out of his element — uncomfortably so — and one teeters with him as he lurches along in search of his point. It’s as if his grip on the topic might disintegrate at any moment.

Here’s the thing: it is a glorious and riveting essay.

So if there’s a lesson for us food writers, bloggers and commentators, maybe it’s simply to take a deep breath. If those of us who care most about the topic keep strangling it, food’s life within language won’t fully thrive.

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