Humankind must eat, agreed; and as with all the other habits of our metabolism-addicted nature, words can be used to describe the pleasures and pains of eating, its elegancies of style, the distinctions thereof, even the grunts and snorts of greedy feeding. And writers by their nature must write, some of them choosing culinary expertise as their subject.
A few snotty souls seem fated by a contrary trait to hold their noses upon encountering prose of overripe odor. Alas, I am one of this number.
Some years ago, in my hometown of Cleveland-the Paris of northeastern Ohio-I detected early spores of the food-inflation fungus blowing across Lake Erie. One restaurateur struggled to rise to the demands of the region’s fine-dining pioneers. He revised his menu to feature something called “cuisinely cooking” which, in keeping with the tastes of the region, paid homage to fresh-frozen vegetables, which were plucked in the morning from his ice chest, except when Libby’s canned peas and succotash were in season.
So it’s time for a confession. In my secret heart, I yearn for food critics who can rise to the level of a wise child, one with sensitive taste buds, who says: I ate the cheeseburger and it was good. (George Orwell might smile, if he ever did.) Lacking skilled labor in the pages of newspapers that are bloated with food-related advertising-and, therefore, bloated with food-related news and opinion (indeed, we live in a time afflicted with gas-fired prose)-our hungry nation needs antidotes against the food-inflation fungus.
How about strong medicine? I suggest a paperback edition of Orwell’s classic account of his experiences in the restaurants of two of Europe’s fine cities, Dining Out in Paris and London . As things currently stand, the rhetoric of food criticism is truly down and out.
Food can provide joy, companionship, the sealing of friendship and love, interesting sensations of taste, even the miraculous sighting of celebrities-they also eat. These are all rewarding aspects of our duty to metabolize or suffer the consequences. Dining, snacking, sneaking to the pot and dipping in a spoon or a couple of fingers provide tender moments during our time here below on earth. A crusade against appreciation, relish, even deep analysis is not appropriate. But surely dear, departed M.F.K. Fisher, bib strung about her throat at the great chef’s table in the sky, would lose her good humor if she could hear the rattle, drone and squeals of the horde of deep-fried food aficionados spattering the air.
A disciplined corps of Wretched Excess Police needs to be appointed to punish violators of hyperbole regulations by forcing them to watch videos of Martha Stewart making her breakfast. For the food-inflation fungus leads to cliché and metaphor blight in the spreading clot of culinary journalism. At the risk of spoiling the dinner of a certain fellow writer striving for distinction, I’ll use this “rising star” as an example. I take all the following quotations from a single article, published not long ago in an important and respected newspaper of national circulation, in which the writer was describing the delights of San Francisco restaurants.
In the first paragraph, she washed down a frisée aux lardons with a “moody Gigondas.” Immediately, a state of alert resounded in my garret. Heathcliff was moody; Marilyn Monroe is said to have suffered; but who is Gigondas and why was he or she pouting? Then the writer reports that the frisée aux lardons at a different restaurant was “smartened with a fan of smoked duck breast resting under the frisée.”
Personally, I take gingko biloba in the hope of improving my I.Q., but if I can be smartened by application of a smoked duck breast, I’ll aspire to higher achievement. It should be no trouble, even for a person without aptitude for animal training, to persuade a smoked duck breast to take a rest, perhaps even a good long siesta, under a frisée.
Inevitably, the writer proceeds to a discussion of San Francisco “foodies.” This baby talk for people who enjoy a good meal is so ubiquitous that perhaps it must be tolerated-I’m trying to be nice-and then we can allow folks who treasure their pet companions to be called “doggies,” “catties” and “birdies.”
The writer eats briskly along to a restaurant described as a “sensualist’s paradise … the humming of the hood fan … the clatter of plates … the winding grind of a coffee machine.” Whoa there! I know about paradise, at least from rumor (lovely dancers at my service, the smile of angels with folded wings, perhaps the deity of one’s choice overseeing eternal life). But “the scent of lamb daube under my nose” does not qualify as one of those conditions of paradise. I hope to become a sensualist someday, if I work hard at it, but surely a writing sensualist’s paradise should include prose that does not cause acid reflux.
The meal begins with a “statement.” By “statement,” the writer means butternut-squash soup and a potato, artichoke and asparagus salad. That sounds pretty tasty. But what does it state? She states that the salad was “freckled with mustard seeds.” Freckles are cute, but what do they help to declare? Explain the statement, please.
Later, she fidgets with the “heresy” of serving out-of-season asparagus-the charge of heresy is worse than blasphemy-but then swiftly modifies a hasty judgment: “The asparagus, admittedly, was superb.” That is a relief. This tolerant critic will forgive heretical out-of-season asparagus if it manages to be superb. She also respects courage. A chef “bravely serves a chicken fricassee with garlic and green beans.” Most of us respect bravery-the fireman who carries the baby out of the burning building, the soldier who crawls under fire to rescue a wounded comrade. But I see no medals in the offing for brave variations on chicken fricassee.
She reports that new bistros have been opened “with a soulful purpose: survival.” Here is an example of language inflation at its finest. Survival is a universal ambition for commercial enterprise. We can respect the hope of excellence, the filling of bellies with enjoyable cooking. But where’s the soulfulness here, buddy?
Probably I should allow this writer to take her rest-perhaps under a nearby frisée-but honesty requires the registration of her praise for “the visual theater of cooks’ heads waving with activity.” Apparently, these are cooks with hinges in their heads. In addition, the sentences “the topping exploded with flavor …. A guinea hen terrine was similarly amplified” suggest a fireworks display, along with speakers and volume controls to make sure that everyone can hear the guinea hen terrine sing its arias.
Now go in peace, Amanda Hesser of The New York Times , and may all your out-of-season vegetables miraculously overcome their heresies. You’re more entranced by restaurants than I am, and surely a better cook, a better dinner guest, and more discriminating all the way down the line.
Herbert Gold writes novels and eats in San Francisco.