On a balmy May evening in 1997, I was at a bookstore in Santa Barbara, California, signing copies of my third cookbook. It wasn’t my best book, and nearly every chapter of it had previously appeared in my food column in The New York Times Magazine. Nevertheless, nearly two hundred people waited to pay me homage — as well as $26.95 for the book.
The magazine was one of the most powerful platforms for food writing in the nation and, to the people in line, I was a rock star. My mother, a sensible Ohioan, was with me that night and she was appalled. She stood near as fans gushed admiration for my prose and recipes.
Finally, as if unable to contain herself another second, my mother interrupted one woman’s compliments and asked: “Do you actually cook that stuff?”
“Of course not,” replied the customer, who looked like my mother, tall, lean, with a white cap of stylishly coiffed hair. “Every week I cut them out of the magazine and promise myself I will cook them. Don’t we all?”
The laughter that erupted was a deep ah-ha-ha-ha. It was a truth-telling sort of laughter, the kind that started rising among women in the late 1960s when, after cooking through both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, they began reading books like The Feminine Mystique and forming consciousness-raising groups.
The sound of it made me feel like I’d eaten a very, very bad clam.
I meant to be a journalist, a sort of latter-day Finley Peter Dunne, writing about the triumphs and inequities of private life as he had those of the public one. For more than twenty years I tried to tease the extraordinary from the mundane, and to use the familiar — the sprig of basil, the bottle of olive oil — to usher readers into social, geographic, and cultural worlds where they otherwise might not go.
But the people lining up to buy my book didn’t see me as an interpreter of everyday life. They saw me as the high priestess of a world that exists almost exclusively in the imagination, the ambitions, and the nostalgic underpinnings of American culture.
And they were not mistaken.
It was a painful reckoning. But it was important, and it was timely. Some of the most significant stories today — the obesity epidemic, water purity, the genetic manipulation of the food supply as well as its safety and sustainability — are food-related. And while science and business writers, as well as general assignment reporters and a growing number of food scholars have and should continue to address these issues, food writers are uniquely suited to the discussion.
In addition to training and experience particular to the edible world, food writers enjoy a rare and intimate bond with readers. Shared tastes imply shared values and aspirations. A food writer is, therefore, trusted to disseminate the issues that can affect what readers put in their mouths.
And never before has interest in food been as avid or as widespread as it is today. Fifty years ago, for instance, fewer than twenty food magazines were published in the United States. Last year, 145 food magazines, quarterlies, and newsletters were produced in America and, if the circulation that each claims is accurate, a total of 19.7 million people read regularly about food. TV’s Food Network claims that 78 million households subscribe. The number of books about food and wine sold each year continues to climb from the 530 million that Publisher’s Weekly reported were sold in 2000. So the opportunity for food writers today is unprecedented in audience size alone.
The question is this: Will food writers pander to these readers or will they seize the chance to be better journalists?
Unfortunately, recent history — including my own — favors the former. In general, entertainment, rather than news and consumer education, has been the focus of food stories for nearly a decade. Food porn — prose and recipes so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience — has reigned.
Food writers have always walked the dangerous lines between journalism, art, and their role as handmaiden to advertising. But we have not wobbled quite so regularly in nearly a half century as we do today. Food has carried us into the vortex of cool. There, the urge to become part of the story is stronger than the duty to detach and observe and report the story.
Traditionally, there were several schools of food writing and each served as social arbiter. In the gentlemanly tradition of gastronomic prose, the food writer was a sort of everyman’s “Jeeves,” the one who knew all. The domestic science branch of food writing was the voice of an über-Mom. The merging of these two sensibilities was part of what created food-writer chic in the final years of the twentieth century.
As early as the 1840s, when food writing first appeared in American newspapers, culinary writers were already established as more than cooking instructors. They were trusted to describe the world, as explorers had in the earliest written accounts of food in America. They were also relied upon to supply guidelines for upward mobility. The first cookbook published in America, known as American Cookery, was written in 1796 by Amelia Simmons, presumably a member of the serving class, and gave clear instruction on cooking for the gentry. The cookery writing by abolitionists, ideologues, and dietary religionists also primed the culture to look to food writers for life advice.
That advice began to appear regularly in newspapers in the late 1880s. An enormous wave of immigration had brought people who wanted to live and eat like Americans, and newspaper publishers wanted each of them to read their papers. Women with sights set on the middle class needed instruction in living accordingly, and given the rise of suffrage and increased female literacy, newspapers were happy to oblige. Another social and economic change — the shift from making everything in the home to mass production — was also an incentive to publish food stories. Food, fashion, and fiction that were heart-rending, or inspiring, or an object lesson for gender or class training were as heady as free chocolate to Victorian ladies — and to the advertisers who wanted to reach them.
As nonpartisan commercial journalism grew, so did a code of ethics designed to protect its editorial integrity. Except in women’s news. “During the time that women’s pages were emerging, journalism was becoming more independent politically, and objectivity was emerging as the dominant journalistic ethic,” says David Mindich, a professor of journalism at St. Michael’s College. “But the women’s pages were not included in the objective mix. Even into the twentieth century, women’s pages were not seen as real journalism.”
In fact, until the early 1940s, newspaper food writing was generally the province of home economists or reporters who’d failed elsewhere. Then, in the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar era, food began moving up the social scale.
Since Pliny, stories about food have located the reader in time and then, by evoking distant lands, exotic flavors, or lives unlived, taken the reader elsewhere.
For almost as long, gastronomic writing has also sought to ease readers’ anxieties and to affirm their ambitions. Therefore, the aspirations of those who read food stories influence their style and content.
As the middle class grew after World War II, a reconciliation began between elite cuisine and the meals of everyday people. The concerns of those who cook (traditionally, women) and those who savor but do not cook (traditionally, men) became more similar. The polarization between continental taste (once considered the gold standard of cuisine) and American taste (once thought to be an oxymoron) began to subside.
These changes were reflected in the pages of Gourmet magazine and in the food coverage of The New York Times, and they suggest that a new audience — if not a nascent mass market — for fine food had taken root.
When Gourmet was introduced in 1941 it was conceived not as a food magazine, but as a general interest one. The early Gourmet was aimed at a small social elite that could afford to hunt, fish, and travel, and that viewed fine dining much as it did art, theater, or opera: as something one need only appreciate in order to possess. During its first decade, the magazine sounded as if it were written by and for members of “a pre-war London gentleman’s club,” wrote the food historian Anne Mendelson in an analysis of sixty years of Gourmet that appeared in the magazine’s September 2001 issue.
The food advice that appeared during the magazine’s first decade wasn’t aimed at people who cooked; it was crafted for people who considered themselves connoisseurs. But by the 1950s, the magazine began to recognize people outside the old club. Its travel stories became more service-oriented; its recipes more accurate and concise; its tone less pompous and more practical.
As if to balance the shifting class lines of the postwar era, food was romanticized, primarily in nostalgic ways. In fact, according to Mendelson, the most important part of Gourmet’s identity in the 1950s was “an intense fixation on the past as the standard of meaning.”
But even in the whirl of their purple prose and gossamer tales of edibles gone by, food writers promoted a fundamental shift in the way America began to view dinner in the 1950s. “Food acquired a . . . gloss of snobbery it had hitherto possessed only in certain upper-income groups,” writes Nora Ephron in an essay called “The Food Establishment” that appeared in her 1967 book Wallflower at the Orgy. “Hostesses were expected to know that iceberg lettuce was déclassé and tuna fish casseroles de trop.”
The photographs in Gourmet reflected this change. When I was growing up, an elderly neighbor subscribed to the magazine and I remember leafing through it before I could read, studying pictures of quiet streets dappled with light, charming doorways, and wide open, unpopulated vistas. But by the late 1960s, when I perused Gourmet while waiting in the orthodontist’s office, there was a picture of girls in miniskirts outside a pub in London, and one of a long-haired boy careening around a fountain in Rome on a Vespa. There was a picture of people eating paella — people I wanted to know.
By 1968 good food was no longer remote and rarefied in Gourmet; it no longer revolved around a “romantic glorification of the past,” wrote Mendelson. Good food was young. It drank. It showed thigh. It probably rubbed elbows with the Beatles. “Food became, for dinner-party conversations in the sixties, what abstract expressionism had been in the fifties,” writes Ephron.
This evolution from food-as-fuel to food-as-aesthetic-experience was mirrored — if not urged along — by the food coverage in The New York Times.
From the nineteenth century until nearly the middle of the twentieth century, the Times published a single weekly column dedicated to food, and its titles, “The Household,” “Hints for the Household,” and “Timely Hints for the Household” suggested whom the column was written for.
In the late 1930s, however, food information in the Times became newsier and appeared under the heading “Food News of the Week.” And while most stories maintained a dowdy and dutiful tone, a few suggested that food was social climbing. In 1940 a story by Dr. O. Gentsch, for instance, declared cooking “one of the greatest arts.”
The best evidence that food had arrived, however, was the anointing of its own specialist. The term “food writer” first appeared in the Times on March 12, 1950. Given the intimate connection between food writing and the food industry, it may be no coincidence that the phrase made its debut in a story by Jane Nickerson about a press trip to the manufacturing plant of Tabasco sauce in Louisiana. Interestingly, Nickerson was the one of the first to apply news-side ethics to the food report.
When Craig Claiborne became food editor at the Times in 1957, he continued the trend, banning press trips, free meals, and gifts (other than food samples and cookbooks) for those who wrote in his pages. With an undergraduate degree in journalism and culinary training from École Hôtelière, the venerable Swiss hotel school, Claiborne treated food pages as if they were part of the news report. He also reformatted recipes and lifted them from within stories to an adjacent space, making them easier for aspiring cooks to follow. Many were, in fact, learning to cook from books, cooking classes, and the food section of the paper and, by melding culinary criticism, consumer information, and education, Claiborne became their guide. His authority rested, in part, on his gentlemanly reserve, on the fact that he was the paper’s first male food editor. However, his most significant contribution, the four-star restaurant rating system with its protocol of multiple, anonymous visits, was not a result of his gender, but of his training as both a journalist and chef.
Claiborne’s tenure at the Times spanned nearly thirty years. In 1976 food was broken out into its own section, called “Living,” a rubric that suggested both simple sustenance and “really living,” as in “the good life.”
By then, Claiborne was established as one side of a gastronomic trinity that also included Julia Child, a.k.a. The French Chef on PBS, and James Beard, the cooking teacher, cookbook writer, and impresario.
Between them, they brought journalistic muscle as well as style and joy to the subject. In addition, each personified some of the characteristics that defined food writing until the last decade of the twentieth century; they embodied, in other words, the traits and qualities that lent cachet to culinary expertise. Claiborne’s air of impeccability and unflagging curiosity engendered absolute trust in his readers. He also commanded a respect among his colleagues that had not previously existed. Beard’s memoirist approach to food writing lent mystique to daily life and created an emotional resonance with readers. Child was a clown who made cooking fun and, week by week, demonstrated the delight of being wholly human and less than perfect.
Not one set out to be a food person. Beard imagined himself in the theater, Child wanted to be a spy, Claiborne had writerly ambitions. Food was Plan B for all of them. Each, therefore, exuded the delight and wonder of the amateur, a feeling that resonated with the counterculture’s antiestablishment, anticorporate cosmology. Food was fun and relatively lawless when I started writing about it. The hurdle between being a culinary illiterate and having food savvy was not particularly high. There was plenty of room for idiosyncrasy, but most of all, the writers who shaped my generation — primarily Claiborne, Child, Michael Field, M.F.K. Fisher, Richard Olney, and Elizabeth David — exuded the excitement of discovery.
I wanted to be all of them, with a slice of Woodward and Bernstein on the side. My fantasy was fated. The “foodie stories” (such as a chef profile, a report on an ingredient or cooking technique) had slowly been eclipsing “news” stories (such as a report on famine or food poisoning or a culinary event with news value) for almost forty years.
The change seemed insignificant at first. In 1940, for instance, the New York Times Index listed a total of 675 stories about food. Of those, 646 were news stories and the remaining twenty-nine, or 4 percent of the total food editorial that year, were “foodie” stories. This percentage remained constant through the 1950s, but in 1960 news stories about food slipped to 91 percent while “foodie” stories rose to 9 percent. Ten years later, the percentage of “foodie” stories rose another point to ten. By 1980, 36 percent of the food stories in The New York Times had no news hook.
The shift largely occurred in the Claiborne era, and it was as much a reflection of the culture as it was of his influence; nevertheless, the shift was one of Claiborne’s deepest regrets. As I was preparing to begin writing the weekly column about food that Claiborne had formerly written in the Times magazine, I invited him to lunch and asked his advice.
He told me that although I might want to write like Proust, my audience just wanted to eat dinner. He advised me never to run a column that lacked either a news element or an anecdote that touched a universal chord. “When you remove the news you lose the vitality of a story, its ability to touch real lives, its slow and incremental way of reflecting the world,” he said. “Before you know it, you have the god-awful pretension and solipsism that trivializes the entire subject and can only, in the end, compromise the reporter.”
Three years after Claiborne joined the Times, in 1960, 244 stories about food appeared in the paper. By the year 2000, 1,927 food stories were published in the Times. Eighty percent of them were foodie stories, 20 percent had news value.
I belong to what may be the last generation of Plan B food writers. I was a poet and a painter and I worked in restaurants to support my art. It was unusual for a woman to rise through the ranks of the hard-drinking, hard-working, blue-collar men that cooked in restaurants when I began working in them. My ascension was inextricably linked to the fact that I couldn’t drink as much as my colleagues and by 10 p.m. was usually the only one who could read the orders and organize the subsequent proceedings. Possessing physical endurance and a college degree probably aided my ascent as well. I read voraciously, traveled, studied cooking in Paris and, because I was one of only several women chefs, my name became known in Boston, where I lived in the late 1970s — recognizable enough for The Boston Globe to ask me to write a story about pancakes. Earlier, I’d not have considered it: food writing would have been an embarrassment. But the times had changed. Within days I was the world’s leading pancake expert — and a food writer.
When my first story appeared, the editor of Boston Magazine called and offered to turn me into a “great” food writer. I was young and stupid and arrogant enough to believe him, which was my good fortune: I got to work for a brilliant and difficult editor who understood how important food was to readers and the necessity of exhaustive reporting. In the five-year journalism apprenticeship that followed the decade I spent learning to cook, I was forced to report news stories, business stories, science, wine, travel, trend, and human-interest stories, and to write profiles. Unimpeachable ethics were assumed. Once, when I was still living around the corner from her in Cambridge, Julia Child told me, “You have to earn the right to all this fun somehow, dearie.”
But the line that separated information-with-a-commercial-agenda from objective information was clearer in those days. A reporter who passed on freebies, discovered her own stories, and found three sources for each assertion had a reasonable chance of maintaining an independent view. Or so I thought. In fact, only part of the relationship between food writers and the food industry is blatant; other parts are all but invisible.
After extensive research for her 1986 book, Perfection Salad, a cultural history of how home cooking was hijacked by science and industry, Laura Shapiro concluded: “Food coverage is either written by the food industry or at the service of the food industry.”
Food stories were, after all, first included in newspapers and magazines to attract the readers most likely to buy the products that were advertised in those pages. In the early twentieth century, when food processing began on an industrial scale, advertisers quickly realized that recipes using their products were potent selling tools. Food manufacturers established test kitchens that created thousands of recipes — using everything from gelatin to canned soup — and distributed the concoctions to food editors. To publications lacking the resources to create their own recipes, these handouts were a boon.
Marketers were not concerned by newspapers and magazines that shunned their free copy, meals, or junkets: if thousands of people are suddenly enamored of, say, the molded and gelled “Perfection Salad,” then the recipe and its acolytes become a “trend” worthy of being noted in loftier publications.
Entering the food fray at the height of its bohemian chic, I was, of course, morally superior to food concepts that issued from industrial kitchens. I knew that an average of 20,000 new food products are introduced in the United States each year, that an average of $10 million to $12 million is spent to advertise food products, and that up to $50 million is often spent to introduce a snack item. I understood that my job was to question anything those dollars bought.
Nevertheless, even as I protected the public from nefarious comestibles — writing, for instance, about the dysentery-like reaction that a dietary fat substitute produced among the food writers attending its introduction ceremony, or exposing the synthetic truffle oil that had more in common with petroleum than it did with expensive subterranean mushrooms — I was already participating in the most successful marketing campaign of recent memory: olive oil.
The International Olive Oil Council, a consortium of olive oil producers, exporters, and importers was founded in 1959 expressly to increase olive oil sales by expanding its consumer base from the ethnic fringes of American society into its mainstream. With an annual budget of about $1.5 million, says Fausto Luchetti, the former director of the IOOC, “We understood very clearly that we could not afford to compete with large brands in America, and we spent that money almost exclusively to influence the taste makers.”
In the 1980s, the council began a major push. It publicized dietary health research that championed olive oil and sponsored seminars in tantalizing spots abroad to disseminate and debate that information. The IOOC hired some of the country’s most influential food and health writers to speak at these symposia. It hired other food writers to lead trips to the Mediterranean to investigate olive oil production as well as olive oil-based cuisine and the olive oil life-style.
I attended several of these events. Some of my closest food-writing friends consulted for the council. I didn’t write about the events directly, but over time I found myself cooking more often with olive oil and that shift was obvious in the recipes that I published. In 1994 I wrote a feature story about America’s romance with Mediterranean food, fashion, and décor.
The story was legitimate. But was the phenomenon bought and paid for by the olive oil council? Maybe. Or maybe olive oil was in the air and sun-baked Tuscan colors were on the walls of more and more homes, and I was doing my job, responding to public appetite.
Either way, the incident resides in the shady spot between being an ethical journalist and being an arm of the food industry’s marketing machine. Such gray areas — those that exist between education and promotion, as well as between personal friendships and professional relationships — are what people seeking to influence opinion are most apt to exploit today.
More shadowy land lies in the area of justifiable boosterism. Do I, for instance, mention olive oil because it is delicious or because I believe the health claims associated with it? Or do I leap to believe the claims because I’ve been seduced by the Mediterranean mystique?
In 1982 “olive oil” appeared 483 times in the publications tracked by Nexis. Last year, the oil had 8,161 mentions. In that same period, olive oil imports rose from $8.4 million dollars worth to the $64.3 million worth that will be imported this year. Many in the persuasion business believe that for every dollar spent on food-related public relations three dollars would have to be spent on advertising to achieve the same results. Linda Luca, an advertising executive for McCann-Erickson in New York City who oversees $40 million worth of food advertising each year, regularly counsels clients to supplement their ad campaigns with public relations efforts aimed at food writers and editors.
“They are the ones who disseminate information, who usher taste from the high end of the food chain to the mass market,” she says. “The food editor is the one you trust for what you put in your mouth.”
If Luca is correct, the power to affect at least $900 billion worth of buying decisions resides in the fingers of food writers as they race across keyboards toward deadlines. That is the total amount America spent last year on conventional and specialty groceries, restaurant meals, and fast food. According to Competitive Media Report, a total of $12.3 billion was spent advertising food and restaurants.
Food is big business, and from that vantage point alone writing about food is serious business. The food and health connection is also serious business — and whether they are equipped with the skill to read and interpret scientific data or not, food writers have a profound influence over readers’ food choices.
From the beginning of newspaper food coverage, the pages have been home to dietary fads and weight-loss schemes. Horace Greeley was himself an acolyte of Sylvester Graham, whose vegetarian moralism makes that of say, Dr. Dean Ornish, appear to be downright sybaritic. But it may be nothing more than the mists of time that differentiate the dietary faddism of that era from the fads promulgated by food writers today. After being diagnosed with hypertension and counseled to reduce his salt intake, for instance, Claiborne wrote a guide to cooking without salt called Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet in 1980. Based on the medical establishment’s assumption that foreswearing salt could stave off hypertension, Claiborne echoed the American Heart Association’s position and rallied the public to join his low-salt life-style. Thus was a low-salt food industry born before further research revealed that although cutting salt consumption is critical for people who have high blood pressure, reducing it prior to the onset of high blood pressure generally does little to lower the chance of developing the disease.
More recently, food and health writers baptized the low-fat life-style and a wildly lucrative segment of the food industry was created to support it. In an article called “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine on July 7, 2002, however, the science writer Gary Taubes suggested that dietary fat theory was not science but an amalgam of poorly controlled studies, preconceived notions, and an assortment of private and commercial agendas. Even as the fat debate continues, the “low-carb” life-style is ascending in food and health pages.
Health myths are one of the aspects of food studies that Andrew F. Smith, who teaches culinary history at the New School University in New York, addresses in his paper, False Memories: The Invention of Culinary Fakelore and Food Fallacies, which he presented to the Oxford Food Symposium in 2000. Undocumented assertions he writes, are the norm, rather than the exception in food writing for several reasons. Historically, food preparation has been passed along via an oral tradition and stories recited change over time, some information is dropped and other aspects added. In his studies, Smith has found that food stories are vulnerable to additions born of journalistic enrichment, logical error, local boosterism, individual puffery, and commercial promotion.
Food writing is also frequently guilty of “presentism fallacies,” or the undocumented belief that because something is true in the present it has always been so, as well as “temporal jingoism,” or the conviction that food is better today than were the victuals of earlier times.
These problems are symptomatic of work done by people whose enthusiasm is not quite matched by what Smith calls, “a canon of knowledge.” George Lang, a restaurateur and author, was more direct in his assessment. “Culinary history is a collection of questionable happenings,” he wrote in 1980, “recorded by persons of dubious credibility.”
But the creation of hundreds of university-based food studies courses is already beginning to lend more intellectual rigor to food research and, by inference, food writing. “When I got into this field twenty-five years ago, there were about a hundred people who were writing seriously about food,” says Smith. “Now, not a week passes that a decent food book doesn’t come out of the academic or commercial press, and there are three to four thousand people working on food-related research.”
A new generation of Plan A food writers, then, is already taking shape — people who not only have a working knowledge of the existing literature and traditional food-writing mistakes, but who are also educated to think analytically and apply science, history, and economics to food writing.
In addition to the need for renewed rigor, food writing also faces other challenges. The current cultural landscape needs less wistful nostalgia and more food coverage oriented to the here and now. The times also seem to beg for more authority and less autobiography.
This will require some subtle recalibration of the six components of food writing — reportage, education, guidance, interpretation, criticism, and motivation — a process of de-emphasizing some of the elements that have over the past twenty-five years become more pronounced.
Led as much by Claiborne’s frequent profiles of them in The New York Times Magazine as by the era’s idealization of “working-class heroes,” American chefs began to be viewed as trailblazers and life-style gurus in the late 1970s. And the celebration of the amateurism of the early Claiborne era began to give way to a celebration of professionalism.
Chefs, and by association food writers, became stars, an image bolstered by the habit of dressing sex up in gourmet drag in food stories. Books such as Blue Skies, No Candy, the 1976 novel by Gael Greene, the restaurant critic for New York Magazine, that chronicled the awakening of a young woman’s appetite for good sex and good food, brought an outlaw aura to food writing. The mystique of food writing received another boost from Heartburn, Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel whose heroine is a cookbook writer.
But even as the profession came to be seen as a sexy life-style arbiter, food writers had, by the early 1980s, begun to respond to public taste rather than lead it. In part, this was because food became news during the decade and covering news is, by its nature, reactive. Nouvelle Cuisine unseated traditional French cooking, and America finally began to mint its own tastemakers — native-born chefs. In California, New Orleans, New Mexico, Boston, and New York, American cooking was being elevated to “cuisine.”
At first, these happenings were reported in excited trumpet blasts — it was so cool to see the small town of Food becoming Food Nation! But as the decade waned, food writing began to sound arch. The detachment was an understandable response to the 1980s ethos: although more and more people were turning gourmet, the conversion had less to do with sensual engagement than it had to do with status and the appearance of living like a sybarite.
The pursuit of lean body mass was, after all, second only to the pursuit of lucre in the early 1980s. Treadmills and StairMasters gobbled rare leisure hours, liquid diets were vogue, and both anorexia and bulimia were on the rise. Food writing became voyeuristic, providing windows into a world of unattainable bodies and unimaginable disposable income and time, an unreal world.
This world was increasingly attractive to advertisers. The New York Times began publishing the first freestanding magazine supplement on food in 1979. The appearance of the advertising-driven insert signaled that food had become a comfortable atmosphere for advertisers such as automobile, liquor, and credit-card companies. Food, in other words was not just food, it was a life-style. And, as the decade progressed, the taste for living high on the food chain trickled into the middle class from the wealthier spheres and spread from both coasts into the nation’s center. At the same time, dietary health concerns became more pronounced, everyday life became more frenetic — and fine homemade meals became the stuff of dreams.
Given the dissonance between food fantasies and everyday eating, the birth of food porn was all but unavoidable. Waxing sentimental may have been questionable art, but as a counterpoint to the technological changes that clicked through the culture over the past three decades, nostalgia served an important role. Likewise, first person singular was a reassuringly human voice; it was also a logical extension of the confessional mode that was popularized in the feminism of the 1970s.
Some social analysts believe that citizens of an increasingly violent world watch crime shows to feel safe. Reading food writing offers a similar sort of reassurance. People tell me that they read my cookbooks “like novels,” to enter an alternate reality where cooking is slow and leisurely and imbued with a comforting glamour.
The upper middle class is willing to pay dearly for these feelings. By the mid-1990s, it was not uncommon for people to spend much of their disposable income on fancy food and wine, traveling to eat, and building kitchens large enough to accommodate crowds: cooking was becoming a spectator sport.
When reporting a story for The New Yorker several years ago, I found that the less people cook, the more money they spend on cooking appliances. Like the people who stood in line to buy my cookbook, people bought professional-grade ranges in the hope that they would one day use them.
It should not have been surprising when, in the final decade of the twentieth century, food writers became the voice of an idealized past, issuing bulletins from a land where pies cooled perpetually on windowsills. Even so, I was startled in 1990 when an editor at The New York Times proposed cutting six words — “the mad arc of Norah’s knife” — from a profile I’d written about M.F.K. Fisher.
Fisher had written the words about a cook who had worked for her family and had later murdered her own husband. The editor said that mad knives were not good for my image. “Lets leave the raging knives to the news side,” said the editor. “We need you to be the princess of our little patch of blue.”
There is a place in newspaper food sections, and food magazines for cheery, revisionist, nostalgic waxings, for songs of dew-kissed baby lettuces, for Proustian glances back, and for personal opinion. It is impossible, after all, to write about food without writing about the self. But there is a line between soothing readers’ anxieties and becoming the Victoria’s Secret of the Fourth Estate.
Today that line is as fine and brittle as a thread of spun sugar. It divides vibrant, responsible, and useful food journalism from words written at the service of the food industry, food writing that reflects the reality of its era from food writing that is a fantasy.
The affluence that prompted the mass-marketing of epicureanism and the emergence of food porn in the last half of the twentieth century has given way to economic uncertainty and dietary trepidation. Already, editors and writers are struggling to adjust to the changed atmosphere.
The public’s response to Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, The Botany of Desire, and the acclaim that Eric Schlosser garnered for his Fast Food Nation suggest that readers are, once again, hungry for solid reportage, fearless analysis, independent opinion, and knowledgeable interpreters and guides.
The fact that neither Pollan nor Schlosser identify themselves as food writers is a sad commentary on the trajectory of the genre over the past decade. But the talent to retake the journalistic high road exists — and more food experts capable of tackling the difficult and controversial subjects that begin (or end) at the table are being trained in university-based programs every day.
The stories to prove their mettle — all the instances and variations of the convergence of health, environmental, and legal concerns around food — are waiting to be documented. Together, they could unravel the current American food chain as certainly as The Jungle did nearly a hundred years ago.
With the support and encouragement of their editors and publishers, food writers can take a leading role in each of these discussions. We also need to merit the support. And to understand that readers are hungry for joy and passion, hungry for the writers they trust in a nearly familial way to distill scientific and economic information, as well as interpret fashion, manners, and mores.