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Has food writing become too macho?


Fat Guy
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There's an essay on Slate.com today by Paul Levy titled "Food, Inglorious Food: My decision to opt out of the macho food-writing movement." I think he gets a few things wrong -- some of his examples from Buford and Gopnik do not particularly support his thesis -- but it's an interesting overview of the transition from feminine to masculine food writing.

No, today's market does not allow for food writing that aims to be allusive, playful, or elegantly simple. The prevailing style is like polenta or steel-cut oats: coarse.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This article in todays Chronicle:

The burger is this: two sickeningly brownish-gray, chemical-blasted 1/4-pound beeflike patties, intersliced with two slabs of neon-orange cheeselike substance, slathered with mayonnaise, all topped with the big kicker: six (yes, six) strips of bacon. Oh my, yes. It's like a giant middle finger to your heart.

This is the sort of food writing I can support, macho or not. I've had my fill of the Michael Bauer 'fantastic beet and goat cheese salad' bullshit already. Food writing needs to move beyond the sycophantic nonsense that serves no purpose...

Edited by melkor (log)
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This is the sort of food writing I can support, macho or not.  I've had my fill of the Michael Bauer 'fantastic beet and goat cheese salad' bullshit already.  Food writing needs to move beyond the sycophantic nonsense that serves no purpose...

Totally agree with melkor. And while I find Bourdain (one example in the original slate article) oft projects a little too much affected machismo, I can read John Thorne or Jim Harrison all day long, satisfying my urges.

In fact, Harrison & his Raw and Cooked column in Esquire back in the late 80's heavily influenced my early culinary attitudes, while I'd only flip through Gourmet, looking at the pretty pictures.

Even so, browse the food-heavy section at the local Barnes & Noble and you'll find that flowery prose still far out-numbers the macho writing by a couple of orders of magnitude. If anything, there's not nearly enough Hemingway balancing out the plenitude of Nicolas Spark's out there, on any shelf or subject.

And aren't we long overdue for another Thorne collection??

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This article in todays Chronicle:
The burger is this: two sickeningly brownish-gray, chemical-blasted 1/4-pound beeflike patties, intersliced with two slabs of neon-orange cheeselike substance, slathered with mayonnaise, all topped with the big kicker: six (yes, six) strips of bacon. Oh my, yes. It's like a giant middle finger to your heart.

This is the sort of food writing I can support, macho or not. I've had my fill of the Michael Bauer 'fantastic beet and goat cheese salad' bullshit already. Food writing needs to move beyond the sycophantic nonsense that serves no purpose...

See -- here's the funny thing about that column: Morford writes stuff like this (emphasis added)

Because there it is, that violently obnoxious Wendy's burger commercial I stumbled across recently, apparently part of a larger and stranger ad campaign featuring the usual assortment of requisite sagging thick-waisted former frat dudes -- a group, by the way, that must be an entire category unto itself for Los Angeles casting agencies, given how many of them appear in all sorts of similar monosyllabic commercials for, say, trucks. Or beer. Or power tools. Et al.
and then he writes like he's one of them, taking aim at targets even the most stereotypically beer-addled frat boy could pick out (fast food! bacon! fake cheese! Boy, no one's ever taken a swing at them before) and then smothering it with bombast and hyperbole that's more or less the journalistic equivalent of the food he's writing about.

Nothing to be learned here, just move along people.

On the larger issue, my personal bete noir is "feminine" food writing, all full of ethnic grandma's and sepia-toned family dinners and bonding and feelings and stuff. That's why Bourdain was so cool when he came along and -- back when his writing was more or less effortless -- it was great. Now, Bourdain's painted himself into a corner and an unfortunate portion of his stuff is painful to read (including the quote in the Slate piece)y but when he arrived it was blast of rock and roll after years of folk guitar. If it was "masculine" the more important thing was that it was fun and intelligent: quick, pointed, informed, new (at least to me) and containing more than a few instances of the depth that Levy claims for himself.

So, what does that mean? It means overly-stylized posturing is annoying and uninformative regardless of the genre. When food writers remember they're writing about food, they tend to be interesting. When they're female bonding or spitting out adjectives over the latest $400 Cabernet to come out of Napa in order to demonstrate their erudition, just showing off their dicks (how's that for macho posturing?) they get old fast.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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bad writing is bad writing. at one time, i think a certain rowdiness was a welcome break in food writing--kind of like john belushi bashing the guitar of the gentle minstrel's head in animal house. now it's sometimes just belushi.

Maybe it is a erroneous perception on my behalf, but I feel that at a period where it seems that there is more commentary on food culture then ever before, there doesn't seem to a great increase in individual voices, just more of the same points of view expressed loudly.

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This article in todays Chronicle:
The burger is this: two sickeningly brownish-gray, chemical-blasted 1/4-pound beeflike patties, intersliced with two slabs of neon-orange cheeselike substance, slathered with mayonnaise, all topped with the big kicker: six (yes, six) strips of bacon. Oh my, yes. It's like a giant middle finger to your heart.

This is the sort of food writing I can support, macho or not. I've had my fill of the Michael Bauer 'fantastic beet and goat cheese salad' bullshit already. Food writing needs to move beyond the sycophantic nonsense that serves no purpose...

that's not so much macho as just bad writing--someone sitting around with a thesaurus stringing a bunch of random clauses together, who needs to learn to put together a coherent sentence.

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To some extent we are referring here to nouveau journalism (the new journalism), a style in which the writer becomes as much if not more the focus of the writing than the subject under examination and, in some cases where rudeness, vulgarity and pomposity are the accepted norm. Indeed, not a style that finds pleasure in the eyes of all but certainly today a legitimate form of expression.

The acceptance over the last decade or so in America of such a style demonstrates its popularity among some. It does not, however, indicate that other journalistic forms are dead, dying or even the least bit ill. In either style it does in the end come down to the talents of the writer.

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I agree with Russ that it's really just a question of bad writing. A writer begins to die when he or she believes that they're more interesting than the subjects being covered. (Sure, there are some rare exceptions.) It just might be that men are more likely to be highly impressed with themselves than women (that's what my wife would tell me :laugh: ).

Is this habit of elevating the author over the subject more common in food writing? Perhaps.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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I wonder about the extent to which we're talking about gendered prose, too.

I find it's hard to make sweeping generalizations about the subject. For example, TA, I know what you mean in the post you wrote shortly before this contribution, but think of MFK Fisher and gender distribution among authors of food memoirs.

I've heard an unattributed observation from a linguist who claims that men tend to use language to promote themselves and compete while women, in general, to empathize and identify with others in the conversation ( what Busboy dismisses as bonding). To the extent that the journalist is complaining about cocky writing, okay there is an unappealing Three Stooges element to such writing that may be exaggerated to distinguish the writer in the regard of Real Men Don't Eat Quiche.

For a journalist, there's also the matter of Real Men Write About Socioeconomics if they can't Write the Great American Novel. Or at least Sports. The bravado is to proclaim Food Journalism as a worthy venture. I have to question how many readers nowadays remember The Woman's Pages. But there is a homophobic element in the overcompensating, perhaps.

What strikes me is the Casual Friday/SNLiveliness of such writing. I am okay with very stylized writing if it's done in earnest, well. It's hard to do it without being precious, so I admire anyone able to pull it off. (I'm thinking of the stark, bare-bones prose of a novel, Kitchen, rather than journalism at the moment.) However, there is too much jokiness that comes with sneers. Sincerity is an object of fear in an age of cynicism. Wit is good. Clever is fine. But it all gets old, yes, when everyone is doing it and you're apt to be snickered at when you get all serious. Cf. the essays The New Yorker publishes as "Shouts and Murmurs". Or the sentence before the last one, along with this one for that matter.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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Quote from the article:

".............these scribblers mostly ignore what's on the plate. They view themselves as boy hunters and despise sissy gatherers, thrive on the undertow of violence they detect in the professional kitchen, and like to linger on the unappetizing aspects of food preparation. The gross-out factor trumps tasting good as well as good taste......"

and

".........What is novel is that, thanks to the Bad-Boy chefs' aperçu that the kitchen can be a thrillingly dangerous place, real writers can now show off the size of their cojones while admitting to an interest in cooking. Personally, I'd rather stay home and read a good cookbook........"

http://www.slate.com/id/2174218/fr/flyout

Peter
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