Over a recent dinner with a couple of local food critics, I said that food criticism might very well be anachronistic. Played out. Done-zo.
My companions were James Norton and Becca Dilley, founders of Heavy Table, a respected online magazine about Upper Midwest food scene and traditions.
Norton did not immediately plunge a steak knife into my arm, and even conceded that I might be onto something. But still, he clings to criticism. You can read his four-point blog "In Defense of Reviewing Food" here.
I agree with some of his points. Especially: “A good working critic has likely eaten at thousands of restaurants in dozens of cities, at all price points, and at locations from gas stations to chef’s tables.”
I’d add that working a decade-plus as a professional cook, caterer, and chef lends me an added layer of street cred as a professional critic. And still, I’ve opted to lean away from traditional food critiques at this point in my career.
Here’s why I’ll leave criticism to others for now. Call it my 4:44 to their Lemonade.
Everyone’s a critic now
Really. Professional reviews (on any topic) are no longer our only source. Before YouTube, food TV, Yelp, and Instagram took hold, Dara Moskowitz’s weekly City Pages column evaluating restaurants and highlighting new openings was essential. To know how to make pasta puttanesca, I forked over $29.95 for Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s latest cookbook. Resources for any town's finest gourmet ice cream cone or the best flour for making hand-pulled noodles are now available at the flick of a thumb.
For the first time in history, Americans are eating out more than they are eating in. For many, eating out is now a daily endeavor, not a wait-until-the-weekend treat. And everyone's reporting back on what they experienced. The average 20-year-old is posting opinions about what is or isn't good nearly as often as a posh food writer.Every eater can consider herself a critic, and does – whether the professionals like it or not.
Even if something is bad, it can still be interesting
At its core, food is sustenance and cooking is an offering (whether to oneself or others). Cooking is a highly personal, vulnerable endeavor, and when reduced to “good” or “bad” that vulnerability becomes heightened. Sure, when a service is offered in exchange for a (often very high) price that service is fair game for critique.
Still, whether or not something is good, bad, or worth the price is only part of the story. The story I’m more interested in is the “why?” Why did someone endeavor to cook this food in the first place? Quality aside, there’s a story behind every plate, no matter how simple. I want to tell the story of the why, rather than the bite-by-bite commentary and pictorial provided by... everyone (see above).
Not everyone dines, but everyone eats
The more time I spend with food as a career, the less interesting the eating part of the equation becomes. Don’t get me wrong. I love to eat. I came by this career honestly. But the more I do it, the more I realize that a cheap hot dog on a slightly stale bun can be just as satisfying (sometimes more so) than the most elaborate tasting dinner at a high-priced restaurant.
How do I reconcile that? And moreover, the guy who served that dog to me might have a more interesting story than the veteran chef. So food criticism, while certainly worthwhile, may be beside the point in an ever-expanding conversation around food and eating. Eating is the sole common denominator among all humans. That’s why we’re all inherently interested in it. And while I (or you) may not have a hundred bucks for a tasting menu, we’ll all almost always have enough cash for that dog. Let’s talk about the hot dog instead of the tasting menu for awhile.
Food criticism still matters... sorta
Here’s the truth: lots of people only care to read about food right before hiring a babysitter for a Saturday night out. In which case, they deserve to know ahead of time whether or not something is worth the fuss. Lots of people are never going to pick up a copy of Lucky Peach (RIP) or debate the virtues of Shake Shack vs. McDonald’s.
Can that new place on Eat Street top the couch, Game of Thrones, and a pizza? For those people, there is Heavy Table-style food criticism that James Norton defends. But these days, I want to go beyond the salt on the meat. I want to know who killed the cow and why we like tenderloin more than liver. I want to write about the room where the meat was served, and about the whole wide world of food that produces the meat. Although I might occasionally comment on there being too much, too little, or sometimes the perfect amount of salt.