Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Do we really need another food blog?

That question is the most appropriate place to start. The Internet has become a haven for, among myriad other things, food blogs. Some of these are the products of amateurs with dreams of becoming the next Julie Powell, skyrocketing to fame and a cushy life writing and wearing pajamas. Others perhaps want to be the next Ruth Reichl or Jeffrey Steingarten or Molly O’Neill or Anthony Bourdain or Frank Bruni. Well, maybe not Frank Bruni.

In any case, there has been a proliferation of online food discussions, rants, and information. Why not get in while the getting is good? No, just adding another voice to an expanding chorus isn’t reason enough. The quality of food writing on the Internet is increasingly good. Every new entry must have — and should have — something worthy to offer.

My desire to start this blog stems from two central complaints about a lot of today’s food writing, on the Internet and beyond. First, and this is a grievance surely shared by many, is that food writers tend to not be much on the writing part of their jobs. No, that puts too fine a point on it. Auberon Waugh would not approve. Far too frequently, food writers are like hobby writers who thought being an English or creative writing major in college was a good idea but never had the dedication to craft that it took to truly succeed. As a result, food writers, along with other critics, have garnered the (sometimes deserving) stereotype that they are talentless, arrogant hacks more interested in being an adversary, judging what they themselves cannot do. Naturally, as with all stereotypes, this classification of critics is both overbroad and frequently unfair. Nevertheless, the complaints against food critics aren’t entirely without substance, as a few examples illustrate:

“Chef John DeLucie is doing some of the best tuna tartare in town (all that creamy avocado and zingy heat!), plus a hefty and juicy pork chop, a classically blissful Dover sole, an addictive clam chowder, a gorgeous fillet of wild salmon (with those adorable little beluga lentils) and . . . feloniously fatty short ribs . . . .”

Or, “There’s another tension at work, too: the contrast between the crisp, highly structured grid, singed by the waffle iron, and the tender, steamy, nursery-time interior.”

Now, who wrote these particular passages is irrelevant. That isn’t the point; the point is that food critics habitually overwrite their prose. They are bakers of prose frosted in adjectives — those adorable little adjectives. It can reach the point where the writing overshadows the content, where observation is subordinated to language without due attention paid to the meaning words convey. Take “feloniously fatty short ribs.” I would think “felonious” amounts of fat in short ribs would mean that they aren’t good, rather than indicate admiration. And descriptions like “nursery-time interior” make me want to enjoy some nursery time so I can fall asleep rather than figure out what the words try to convey.

You likely have noticed that this complaint is rooted in writing. I don’t mind that restaurant critics often are adversarial or judgmental. That comes with the territory. Something would be wrong if critics hesitated when confronting their subjects. But overwritten restaurant reviews thrust the language (and its writer) to the forefront of the piece. (I realize that, writing in the first-person here and thrusting myself into the forefront of this post makes me look hypocritical. So be it; I’ll use as my defense that this is an introductory post meant to clarify this blog’s goals.) This confuses what food writing is truly about. The food. The service. The atmosphere. The wine. It’s not about ego — although sometimes there is something undeniably delicious about seeing an egomaniacal chef being cut down to size. In the end, however, that appeals to base emotions. It subordinates the important core, the food and wine. The writer and his writing has to be cloaked to the extent possible.

As for the second complaint, it involves the virtually invisible role of wine in food discussions. Too much food writing is just that — purely about the food. Perhaps you might take this opportunity to point out that, like a nincompoop, I am writing about food here. Where does the wine come into play? To me, food and wine is inseparable. To divorce them — or shortchange one at the expense of the other — is the equivalent of requesting Spam substituted in the meat course at the French Laundry. You shouldn’t think of it, and even if you do, decency forbids you from acting on the thought.

Much of the food writing I read makes no mention at all of wine or, if it does, the discussion is cursory and amateurish at best. It’s hard to even know what to say about that. Wine is food. If you’re having a serious meal, in a restaurant or at home, you’ve got to have wine with it. (Medical conditions and religious objections excepted, of course.) Yet there is a strange dichotomy in gastronomic writing that separates the two. You have food critics (Frank Bruni and his ilk) and wine critics (Robert Parker and his disciples). It is rare to find someone who unifies passion for both in a single medium, yet I can’t think of a single gourmand who willingly gives up pairing wine with food.

In any case, the goal of this blog is two-fold, as you might have guessed given the complaints explicated above. First, I want to take back the realm of food writing from the traditional critic. I want this site to be about the food (including wine), with minimal intrusions of self-serving and heavy-handed wording. This will not be a site that’s the product of a creative writing masters program Second, I want the posts to honor the interaction of wine and food. As James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Above all, this blog intends to be a celebration of food and wine. No frills. No snobbery. And certainly fewer adjectives.

3 comments:

hawk gates said...

i'm excited for what is to come. will a food blog war ensue? only time will tell.

very good point about the quality of the writing being important.

Tom Gutting said...

Hopefully a solid war of ideas, my friend! I should send you a prize for being the first to comment!

K-Ham said...

I completely agree with your complaints and am excited to read your blog!