Food Writing is Dead; No It’s Not

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The weather is changing and so is my mind, maybe, a little bit.

Months ago, in the darkest days of winter, I was spending a lot of time in the bathroom.  Partially because I was pregnant, partially because it was really cold and our bathroom has heated floors (a decision that the previous owners, who were clearly grown as hell, made and from which we benefit almost daily), and partially because I somehow only now discovered the recipes published by Lucky Peach a few years ago for alkaline noodles and tonkotsu broth.  I’m not shy; I will tell you that I did a lot of reading on that toilet, my toes tapping toasty stone tiles, my mind dreaming up weekend trips to H-Mart and the purchase of all the trotters.  It was clearly the jubilant second trimester, when my meat-smell aversions disappeared as suddenly as they came on.

Somehow – probably because I was too busy fainting with joy over the recipes – I only caught David Chang’s well-argued lament of the death of ramen, but not Peter Meehan’s sunnier, but equally real counterpoint celebrating the place we’re at with ramen in the present day.

Chang’s piece reminded me – as it probably did for many – of one of my favorite Portlandia sketches, in which Punk Rock Hipster Bike Guy sees the world around him adopt, appropriate, and finally absorb everything he once loved about his supposed subculture, declaring everything from bikes to shell art “OVER!” when spotting some anonymous nerd joyfully, and surely naively, pursuing the same activity.  Punk Rock Hipster Bike Guy is all of us, obviously:  from the most basic of bitches to Dave Chang himself, one of the coolest food dudes of the moment (or at least one of the most widely followed cool kids in the industry, I think).  It’s upsetting to see the Thing you thought was just for you, or just for a talented few with rarefied tastes, including you – something you’ve lovingly, quietly cultivated – begin to leak into a wider consciousness.  Surely those people have no conception of how important, how storied, how nuanced your beloved Thing is. And maybe that really is true.  Maybe no one can ever possibly know.

But more recently, I met up with a friend who writes and designs for a living, and mostly about food.  I vented to him my frustration about the world of food writing, confessing that one of the hangups I have about this very blog – yes, this one that I’ve pottered around in, off and on for an unbelievable 8 years – is that everyone is doing this.  To me, it was like saying “I love you” too often, or to too many people, or both.  The more you say it, the less it means.  With the mind-bending explosion of the Internet of the last two decades came the democratization of food writing, and now everyone’s got a blog, everyone’s a contributor, a pinner, everyone tweets, everyone comments, everyone’s got something to say.  If everything is the best thing ever, then nothing can be the best thing ever, right?  And at that point we’re just talking semantics, so really, everything is the worst.  This was my funk.

“But,” my friend said, “the beautiful thing is that there’s room for everyone.”  He reminded me that this food thing started well before I began writing this blog, and if it’s been around this long, it means there’s a real industry here, so it’ll be around for a lot longer. It might be evolving, and in huge ways – as evidenced, for example, by Mark Bittman’s departure from the New York Times.  But it’s not dying, or at least I don’t need to think about it that way.

Enter Meehan’s piece.  He acknowledges Chang’s stance:  he has eaten ramen all around Japan and finds himself for a time admitting that the US has nothing on that ramen, that nothing can come close, that authenticity is necessarily and inescapably tied to place and – this is what this says to me – therefore authenticity cannot be replicated, cannot evolve, cannot morph, cannot become something else.  Which, maybe it can’t.  (Because what’s authenticity, then?)  But then Meehan goes on to open the door to the consideration that, yes, not every ramen is the Aristotelian ideal of ramen, BUT:  does it need to be?  Would the great-great-great-grandaddy of ramen be pissed because his creation has been adopted – and, this is maybe the more important part – become utterly beloved, utterly made a culinary muse the world over?  How can we be mad about that?  Rather, let’s maybe recognize and celebrate the place in which we find ourselves with ramen:  decent ramen (not found in a packet or disposable cup) is not hard to find, it’s usually very good if not ridiculously great, and people are treating it – albeit in their own way – with love and thoughtfulness.  What more could we ask?  What a gift, right?

 

A comparison, using a far-less-contested food item (sort of):  surely someone, before the Internet, before phones even, felt a little upset about the proliferation of pizza joints all over this great land.  Maybe they claimed that pizza was over, that it was nothing like what’s in Italy, and therefore, whatever we call pizza here is nothing, is dead.  And maybe they were right.  But that didn’t stop pizza from bringing joy to a whole buttload of people, becoming pretty much everyone’s favorite food, and being a sub-industry in itself, in terms of pizza joints, regional styles of pizza, the people who eat pizza, and the people who write about making and eating pizza.  So it’s pretty clear that pizza is not going anywhere. Pizza is eternally beloved, and there is enough passion for and curiosity about pizza to sustain a million swings between research-level authenticity and mad-scientist innovation.  This is how Punk Rock Hipster Bike Guy ends up in a (ostensibly nerdy) button-down and ironed chinos by the end of the sketch.  Everything old is always-already new again.

 

We can’t all be pizzaioli; we can’t all be ramen masters.  And do we need to be?  If the point is pure authenticity – some kind of Ur-ramen – then maybe.  But if the point is pleasure, and growth, and allowing that all kinds of people can derive some shape of enjoyment from the same thing, then no.  In fact, it’s best that we’re not all masters, otherwise who lets innovation in?  It’s often noted that the people with some of the least information on a subject ask the best questions about it – questions that the masters have completely missed.  How do we privilege one noob’s inquisitions over another’s?  Just because they were an early adopter and everyone’s forgotten that they were, at one point, also a noob?  How do we know the later noobs weren’t busy doing something equally important that the first noob now benefits from?  (When will I stop saying “noob?”) I’m not saying it happens this way every time; I’m saying it’s totally plausible, and that allowing for anything less is tough way to live and maybe a waste of time.  And I’m saying this more to myself than I am to anyone else.

So it’s in that spirit that I write this, and post it here.  Most of the time when I think like this, I either let it ride around in my brain for days or weeks (or, uh, years) and slowly let it bum me out, or I write half a thing and put it in my drafts, uncovering it only months later and completely losing my train of thought in the meantime.

 

Have you felt this way about food?  About anything?  Where do you stand on it now?

Tell me what you think...

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