Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Foodie Can't Fail

You'd think that someone who can turn a phrase as wondrously as James Wolcott would be able to avoid moments like this, but I guess not. In a recent post about a meal at Mario Batali's Babbo he wrote:

How was dinner eating-wise? I'm not a foodie, finding comparison eating a grossly materialistic and presumptuous exercise (why should I care what went down your gullet that halcyon night in Provence?--nor am I interested in knowing from which sun-kissed vineyard derived your wine in all its Tintoretto splendor), but for the record I ordered rabbit as an entree, and it was fab.

Part of me wants to point out "comparison eating" gets summarily dismissed in a piece that is largely about his dinner companions that include birthday celebrant Elvis Mitchell, Roberto Benabib, one of the executive producers of Weeds, cinematographer Harris Savides, Lola Ogunnaike from CNN, and a novelist some of you may have heard of, Toni Morrison. So, sure, namedrop your Nobel Prize-winning companions, but god forbid you mention the AOC of your wine.

But there's more to it than that. First, perhaps in the rarefied, Vanity Fair air foodie can only equal snob. That leaves out one of the greatest of foodie joys, the cheap find. A true foodie delights in diners and dives as much as what's haute. A foodie wants nothing more than surprise, and to stumble upon that perfect sopes, say, ranks as a greater thrill than finding out Alain Ducasse is as talented as everyone says (or that one of his numerous sub-chefs is, but that's a different issue, perhaps--a true foodie is intrigued by the chef celebrity game yet realizes there's often a mighty marketing department behind the great Oz's kitchen).

Second, dismissing rapturous food writing is like dismissing an edgy evening in a punk club watching the roar that is the Ramones or an evening at Lincoln Center when the ballerina nails it so she seems heaven-glimpsed, to pick two events Wolcott has exalted in his own writing past. One of the great glories of food and wine, and the desire to write about those glories, is they're so flash and gone. The mulberry bursts the essence of redness, and unless you have your mouth open and now that white shirt won't launder, all you're left with is the magical memory. Unless you write about it. Which is never the same, and therefore poignant and a different pleasure. But that's memory for you.

Third, many of us read food writing for the same reason we read any criticism--to delight in aboutness. What a wonderful thing, thought. Criticism of food follows such a lovely through line, from description to argument, having to build from particulars, getting to revel in all the senses in a way denied most other criticism. Pauline Kael couldn't discuss how the film smelled (ignore Odorama for a second); Lester Bangs, thank god, never tasted Lou Reed (surely we would have heard about it). Turn to a Jonathan Gold or a L.E. Leone, to name just two fine food writers, and we could be worded into anywhere land.

Or everywhere. For that's what Wolcott seems to want to deny. Food isn't just fuel. It's taste, of course, but culture and kindness. It's kin and country. It can be come-on or apology, lavishment or last lusciousness before a lethal injection.

What it can't be is dismissed so easily. Heck, I bet even Toni Morrison would tell you that.



Blogger Noelle Aguayo said...

Now THAT is some impassioned writing. If Dave Prine were to read this, he'd be snapping you a Z through the air for the smooth champagne of your prose.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

I'm no foodie either, if only because my vocabularies can never express in words what happens on my tongue, but for god's sake: Why pick on food writing? If you shouldn't write about great food, why review anything?

And if people who ate fancy food didn't write about it, then how might I ever get an inkling of what it might taste like?

11:03 PM  
Blogger Cookie Jill said...

I embrace my inner (and outer) foodie. And, you are correct, the word encompasses more than just "haute"..it involves the "hot", the "luke warm" and the delightfully "frozen."

Food is a universal language, however, there are few people who put their food experiences into actual writing. But, deep within us all, we want to know what things taste like, what they smelled like, are they available for take-out.

Food is a necessary item, some items more necessary than others. Take for instance, the $15 martini. It is a common thread to all civilizations, both current and not so current. Hey, Montezuma loved his chocolate, too.

We are all foodies, just perhaps not the all caps with exclamation mark type that is so bandied about in the society pages next to the recipe for Escargots in Potato Cups with Black Truffles.

3:25 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

Rickey's a bit of a foodie and will tell you that it aint easy writing about food, you've got a very limited number of ajdectives to use. So we go with more bombastic ones such as "scrumtrulescent."

6:47 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

I saw two things that I hate in the universe of writing in that article you quoted. The first is "gosh, I hate to do this because I think it's crap, but I'm going to tell you about it anyway." Feigned reluctance is bullshit. Of course he wants to tell you. He's just no good at it.

The second thing I saw is that someone rips on a style of review, but are themselves reviewers of sorts. Either all reviews are materialistic,or they're art. If you ask me, they're art.

As a nationally-certified beer judge through the ABA, I have to compare beers and use phrases to describe my total experience, including all 5 senses. Am I m,aterialistic? It is, afterall, a "comparison" review.

It's that "I'm actually too cool to stoop to this but I'll do it for you" condescending crap that I hate in some prose.

That said....your prose, george, was incredible. Well put, well said and well done!

8:18 AM  
Blogger freakpowertix said...

excellent entry, george.

my perspective on the merits of foodie-ness is best summed up by the character of steve zissou, from wes anderson's "the life aquatic," during a tour of his boat: "here's where we do all of our different science projects and experiments and so on... this is the kitchen, which contains probably some of the most technologically-advanced equipment on the ship."

dood's got his priorities right...

9:50 AM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

This kind of reminds me of movie critics who basically hate movies ... like that woman at Salon.com (I forget her name).

6:28 PM  
Anonymous kusala said...

That kind of comment would irk me momentarily, but ultimately I would just chalk it up to some people lacking any degree of interest in specific subjects. That would be unlike some of us dilletantes who enjoy reading about everything from the perfect Albariño to the engineering of the composite material used in the fuselage of the Boeing 787 (to choose an...er... random example).

Wolcott says why should he "care what went down your gullet that halcyon night in Provence?" I suppose I could wonder why I should care about any of his dining companions besides Toni Morrison. However, I might press forward and read his article anyway, in the hopes of learning something new about topics I previously didn't consider caring about. And we can all just hope that Wolcott might consider broadening his horizons with a bit of "foodie" perspective without being so dismissive.

Finally, it is annoying when writers dismiss the so-called snobbery of others with what are essentially pronouncements of their own. On that note, happy holidays!

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Putta Nesca said...

Why pick on food writing? Here's one of the best answers I've read.

Money quote:
"...our consumption has created a cult of fetishists and fussbudgets. And we're breeding children within earshot of our fussing over wines and breads and artisanal cheeses. (Funny, how the word artisanal has "anal" in it). Now they too lift the top slice to peer what's underneath and announce it. All of our fears and preferences culminate in awful table manners and wrinkling brows. Even in praise, deconstruction often follows, which can turn food into a pile of parts and processes."

7:47 AM  
Blogger George said...

Dear Ms. Nesca (I don't know you well enough to know if you're a Putta, so I won't assume)--

Yes, when things get fussy it's a problem. But as I tried to explain in my already long-winded entry, being a foodie isn't automatically about over-analyzing or being precious.

And I'm always suspicious of any suggestion that any thinking is over-thinking. In general we don't think enough.

9:30 AM  

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