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The Rise of Non-Snobbish Food Writing


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#1 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 08:49 AM

During the Round Table, Ellen Shapiro asked a question that we did not get to, but that I think is worth following up on.

Extrapolating from my age (35) to Russ's (48) where does that pinpoint the rise of the kind of non-snobbish food writing that Robb illustrates? Would it be sometime in the 1980s?


I am not sure what exactly classifies as "snobbish" and "non-snobbish", but I would include the food writing of the poet-novelist-screenwriter Jim Harrison (The Raw and the Cooked ) as part of a wave of new voices.

#2 Mayhaw Man

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 09:16 AM

What about Calvin Trillin? I think that Trillin probably has had a fairly large influence on Food Writers as he certainly seems to have the ability to take a food and describe his enjoyment of it in a way that allows the reader to almost taste the same thing just by reading the passage. He got started writing about food as a common man's persuit pretty much in the late 70's early 80's

He was also one of the first non Louisianans to "get" what crawfish were all about. His writing on the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge is both accurate and hysterically funny.
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#3 John Whiting

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 09:33 AM

There's a problem with applying the social standards of today to the writing of yesterday. For instance, A.J. Liebling was as far from being a snob as it's possible to get, and yet his subject matter, French cuisine, and his highly literate prose would, if he were writing now, make him liable to the accusation.

Snobbishness lies not in the subject but in the manner of its treatment. John and Karen Hess dealt with this at eloquent length in The Taste of America. Chapter 10, "The Gourmet Plague", begins:

If we Americans are ever to eat well again, we shall have to declare "gourmet" a dirty word.

It started out as a perfectly valid borrowing from the French, a noun meaning "a connoisseur in eating and drinking; an epicure," according to Webster. . . The word is [now] applied to anything edible, or nearly so, that has been fancied up. Gourmet cooking has nothing to do with the excellence of basic materials, the artistry of the cook, or a discriminating palate.

Read the book. It's been reprinted after twenty-five years and is as devastatingly relevant as the day it first appeared.

Edited by John Whiting, 10 February 2004 - 09:38 AM.

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#4 russ parsons

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 11:22 AM

that is a very complicated knot to tease apart. i would argue (acknowledging upfront that i may be completely wrong), that there was relatively little "snobbish" food writing before the 1960s. before then, most food writing was written as if it came from the group that was intending to read it. you can hardly fault andre simon's wine and food society stuff as snobbish, since it was written for a closed group which he addressed at its own level.

for better or worse, the "snobbish" aspect of food writing probably started when writers felt the need to "uplift" the common man, to help him raise himself above the food he was happy with and to show him the truer path to gourmet-ism. (this ignores the fact that in the early 1960s, much of what the common man was eating was horrible packaged stuff, while even 15 years before that wasn't true).

Another distinguishing characteristic of "snobbish" food writing, I would argue, is that it usually seems to come from second-hand information: someone in Chicago telling us commoners that this is what the french do. the tone is one of lecture rather than of sharing an honest enthusiasm.

If any of this is true, the lessons for current food writers, it seems to me, are obvious: 1) address your audience at your level rather than talking down to them. 2) know what you're talking about. and 3) don't be afraid to be enthusiastic about the things you honestly love (at the same time, don't be enthusiastic about the things you merely believe you should love).

#5 John Whiting

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 11:41 AM

Russ, Amen. What you've written could virtually serve as a postscript to the Hess's chapter on snobbery.
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#6 Robb Walsh

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 05:45 PM

I wonder if any of you have any thoughts in this vein on the first person/third person debate raging in some food writing circles. Third person comes naturally to journalists. But to me, third person sounds stiff and snobbish in a review. I know the NYT insists on it, but they also call the musician Meatloaf, Mr. Meatloaf.

How do you have a conversation with your dining partner in third person, I mean who are they talking to? And how do you describe subjective tastes? "For this reviewer's palate, the salsa was insufficiently piquant."

I was reprimanded by one of the judges in the Association of Food Journalists competition this year for writing reviews in first person. "RESPECT YOUR READER, DON'T WRITE IN FIRST PERSON!" read the note sent back to me with the low score on my reviews. Which was kinda odd, since Bill Daley, the prez of the organization is a reviewer who writes in first person. When I asked him about it, Daley commented that more and more reviewers are writing first person, but there are still a few old school holdouts who can't stand it.

Do you folks see the trend toward first person as part of a movement toward a more informal style of food writing? Or bad journalism?

#7 Jaymes

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:04 PM

Do you folks see the trend toward first person as part of a movement toward a more informal style of food writing? Or bad journalism?

Times change. Styles change. I find "third person" reviews silly. Not to mention arrogant, affected and annoying. As I do the Journalistic We.

Unless of course, there really were more than one of you in attendance.

And unless of course, you are the Queen. Or, for that matter, any ol' queen. In which case, I graciously still will allow you the Royal We.

Edited by Jaymes, 10 February 2004 - 06:05 PM.


#8 fifi

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:25 PM

We are with Jaymes on this one and we hate the third person. Silly? Arrogant? Affected? Annoying? Yeah... I think Jaymes covered it well.

Robb, one of the things I like about your writing, reviews or essays, is the personal approach from the first person.
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#9 John Whiting

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:33 PM

Waverley Root, Richard Olney, Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food in such a personal and intimate manner that they always seemed to be writing in the first person, even when they weren't. In a sense, all writing, except the most formal, is in the first person, unless the author specifically identifies himself as someone else. (Even Fowler's English Usage has a very personal feel.) You have to go a long way in the encyclopaedia direction before that stops being the case.
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#10 russ parsons

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 10:33 PM

first person is the gaudy crutch of the insecure.

here's the deal: when you write in the first person, you are making yourself an actor in the story. if you are going to be an actor in the story, you had better be pretty damned fascinating and pretty damned irreplacable. most first person constructions are both self-indulgent and wish-washy: "For this reviewer's palate, the salsa was insufficiently piquant." well jesus christ, whose name is on the damned story anyway? why is that better than flat out saying "the salsa was insufficient piquant" ... if you were going to say such a mushy-mouthed thing anyway ("the salsa was wimpy" is so much more elegant).

there is the approach, favored it seems, by frustrated novelists, to write everything in the first person. "I walked through the door, talking to my friend. we agreed that our boyfriends ... then i spied the menu." who cares?

here's a rule of thumb is: write it in the third person. if it doesn't work, write it in the third person again. if it still doesn't work, ask yourself if you really need to say it. then if there's no other way, write it in the first person.

(and careful readers will notice that that rant, highly personal though it was, was written entirely in the third person. try inserting "I think" in ever clause and see how it weakens the delivery.)

#11 John Whiting

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 12:07 AM

(and careful readers will notice that that rant, highly personal though it was, was written entirely in the third person. try inserting "I think" in ever clause and see how it weakens the delivery.)

Even more careful readers will note that, although "I" never appeared, the ego predominated throughout. When you address the reader in the second person in a hortatory manner, the first person is inevitably present by implication, especially when the invisible speaker is getting visibly worked up. In stylistic terms, I [sic] suggest that "first person" is not just a matter of grammar but more particularly a state of mind.

EDIT: Grammatically, it's possible to avoid the first person in a personal narrative in the Victorian fashion: "Upon tasting the disgusting mess on the plate, one might have wished to stick one's finger in one's throat." :biggrin:

Edited by John Whiting, 11 February 2004 - 12:33 AM.

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#12 Robb Walsh

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 06:36 AM

Golly, hasn't everything else you've written in this round table, including your self-decription as "cantankerous" and "a wonk," been first person? (Smile, Russ I'm joshing you.)

Is first person a "gaudy crutch" or is it a more natural, and more personal, way to carry on a conversation with your readers? I am sure it can be either. There is such a thing as bad third person writing too.

And as for the salsa. If I write: "The salsa was insufficiently piquant, or The salsa was wimpy" doesn't that create the assumption that there is an objectively perfect heat level that all salsas must be judged by?

#13 russ parsons

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 10:48 AM

oh hell, i use the first person all the time. well, often, anyway. and of course i've never been accused of a shortage of ego. i was just trying to make a point, one that is probably inherently biased by years of editing bad first-person writing. (i sometimes think there should be an apprentice period for writers, during which they are allowed no self-glorification. if they last, there's plenty of time for that afterward).

and, yes, when you write "the salsa was wimpy," there is an implied first person. my problem is not with boldly (or baldly) stated opinion, my problem is with the sloppy use of the first person. to my taste, saying "i found the salsa wimpy" is the same as "the salsa is wimpy", except that it is softer and less direct. if you're going to express an opinion, just say it!

i also find that writing in the first person tends to take the reader out of the story. write in the third (even in a wildly individual--no, egocentric--third) and the reader is put in the place of the writer, experienceing things for themselves without the distraction of an intervening character. write it in the first, and the whole thing is happening to somebody else, not to him.

as for john's neo-victorian suggestion: "Upon tasting the disgusting mess on the plate, one might have wished to stick one's finger in one's throat." i'd suggest the more yankee-ized "the mess on the plate was so disgusting you wanted to stick your finger down your throat." unless, for some reason, the point of the story is that it is YOU wanting to stick your finger down your throat, rather than the reader at large.

(careful readers will note that this was written entirely in the first person: one effect of the voice is of softening criticism: "i think this, you may reasonably think otherwise". i find this especially effective after a long rant. and let me be clear, once again, that this is not aimed at robb (or at john thorne or jeffrey steingarten). if everyone wrote in the first person as interestingly and as engagingly as they do, i might have to revise my opinion. heaven forfend!)

Edited by russ parsons, 11 February 2004 - 10:50 AM.


#14 John Whiting

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 11:35 AM

Is it perhaps the case that advice is only useful in making a bad writer mediocre?
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#15 russ parsons

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 11:48 AM

Is it perhaps the case that advice is only useful in making a bad writer mediocre?

i prefer to think of it as a case of preventing less-than-wonderful writers from making horses' asses of themselves.

#16 Chad

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 12:04 PM

i prefer to think of it as a case of preventing less-than-wonderful writers from making horses' asses of themselves.

Oooh, can you work freelance???

Chad
(sometimes less-than-wonderful-writer, frequent horse's ass)

edited to fix punctuation error -- two lousy sentences and I screw up the punctuation. See what I mean?
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#17 Busboy

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 02:47 PM

first person is the gaudy crutch of the insecure.

here's the deal: when you write in the first person, you are making yourself an actor in the story. if you are going to be an actor in the story, you had better be pretty damned fascinating and pretty damned irreplacable. most first person constructions are both self-indulgent and wish-washy: "For this reviewer's palate, the salsa was insufficiently piquant." well jesus christ, whose name is on the damned story anyway? why is that better than flat out saying "the salsa was insufficient piquant" ... if you were going to say such a mushy-mouthed thing anyway ("the salsa was wimpy" is so much more elegant).

there is the approach, favored it seems, by frustrated novelists, to write everything in the first person. "I walked through the door, talking to my friend. we agreed that our boyfriends ... then i spied the menu." who cares?

here's a rule of thumb is: write it in the third person. if it doesn't work, write it in the third person again. if it still doesn't work, ask yourself if you really need to say it. then if there's no other way, write it in the first person.

(and careful readers will notice that that rant, highly personal though it was, was written entirely in the third person. try inserting "I think" in ever clause and see how it weakens the delivery.)

Here, here.

Though, I suspect that most of my aversion to first-person writing is the fault not of the form but of the writer. It seems to encourage self-indugence and imprecision, and it becomes a cheap way to make unsubstantiated predjudices sound like fact. All writers -- all people -- are fascinated with themselves, staying in the third person reminds a writer that it is his subject, not himself, that is important for the moment.

Many exceptions, of course. And food writers are far from the only or the worst genre of offenders.
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#18 John Whiting

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 02:55 PM

John Thorne's comment, posted with permission (he wasn't able to sign on):

What's wrong with snobby food writing? It often can be smart and witty and telling. The house of food writing is, and should be, a place of many mansions. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more truite au bleu and vintage wine?”


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#19 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 03:13 PM

John Thorne -- you should have no problem signing on. Please email me at rkilgore@eGullet.com and I'll try to fix it.

Edit to say: John T. -- it's fixed now. Please feel free to join in.

Edited by Richard Kilgore, 11 February 2004 - 07:24 PM.