Monday, September 24, 2007

Article: Food, Inglorious Food

(I know I'm late on this. I wrote this Friday, didn't have time to edit it, now it's Monday, you know how it goes.)

Here's an interesting article for Slate by Paul Levy, and I don't think it will surprise anyone when I say I disagree with his critique of "macho" food writing. He thinks modern food writers, such as our old pal Bourdain, are "foodie shock jocks" and poo poos their use of crude language and masculine imagery where he used, um, "allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, or Damon Runyon, readers who would understand cryptic puns and whose jaws would not slacken when asked whether they knew 'the land where the lemon trees bloom?'"

The problem with Levy's argument is that he doesn't realize what argument he's making, which surprises me given the fact that he dangles his PhD in Literature in front of the reader to prove He Knows What He's Talking About. In promoting a return to "elegantly simple" writing, he's also denying food writing's fascinating propulsion towards a variety of styles in recent years--a move that I'm sure his doctoral committee would support over simple stagnation in any genre of literature. This particular style of food writing is very important in that it reflects the voice of the professional culinary community, as opposed to the "eater" Levy claims to represent--which I'm going to go ahead and claim is a move towards a French-style food writing culture (preserving both professional and amateur culinary history through literature), regardless of the fact that the tone of the style might not mirror this shift.

Here's where I dangle my I Know What I'm Talking About factoid in front of you--I've worked in four professional kitchens and every one has been filled with foul-mouthed boys showing off to each other. This style of writing is caustic and imposing and perhaps Levy is right to critique its tone, but I'm not sure he does so in a constructive manor. These men are writing what they know, and you know what? It's similar to how I write about food because it's also what I know. Would I call my tone masculine? No. Would I call it pretentious and a little bit crude at the same time? Sure. This reflects the game that cooks play both in the kitchen and out, and it reflects the fact that, although the eater is presented with a lovely clean plate upon ordering, he's paying people to deal with the grosser aspects of preparing that plate (shelling, for example, or, you know, butchering).

I think this style of food writing is a far cry from being the dominant style--that crown goes to twee 'foodie' writing. Yes, Bourdain's popular, but it's because the man is charismatic. I don't think it represents a deterioration of taste in food writing, and furthermore I think this whole discussion smacks of elitism. Call me crazy, but I thought criticism was beyond bitching about stories told in vernacular.

(Edited to note that Levy doesn't offer up any good food writers--past or present--against Bourdain and Buford apart from...himself?)

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