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I Can't Stand Melissa Clark's Writing


Shalmanese
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Of all the New York Times food writers, Melissa Clark is the only one who I have a visceral reaction to whenever I read her work. I'm not in the habit of checking who writes what but I constantly catch myself reading halfway though a piece and thinking "who wrote this garbage". Inevitably, when I scroll to the top, 9 times out of 10, it's Melissa Clark.

It's not just the cheery, homespun, haphazard amalgam of ingredients that she tosses together and pronounces delicious. It's that cheerful, almost oblivious tone which powers through any cooking disaster and wrestles any stray ingredient into order such that they day is always saved at the end by clever improvisation.

This would be acceptable if she were actually good at her craft but the recipes she puts out are not only pedestrian and lacking in creativity, they also don't look appetizing.

I'm sorry but it's been building up for a while now. She might be acceptable for the local country gazette but I don't see at all what she's doing at the New York Times.

PS: I am a guy.

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You know that famous pillow? The one that says, "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me?" I love that pillow. So when I read your post, I thought, ooooh goody. I love reading the Bruni and Beyond topic, but I never have anything insightful to say about any of it, never having eaten anything anywhere in New York.

So I immediately skipped over to the Times website and found something by her; and read one.

To be honest, I found her process of creating plum sauce exactly pretty much how I go about cooking. In fact,

...wrestles any stray ingredient into order such that they day is always saved at the end by clever improvisation.

is an excellent description of almost all my adventures in the kitchen. I live a transient life, so I have a collection of cookbooks that numbers exactly two: "How To Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman, and "Larousse Gastronomique" (abridged). When I get home at ten o'clock and have to put dinner on the table the thought of opening one up and actually referring to a recipe makes my brain hurt. I could check the internets, but my husband is hogging it with Facebook.

That being said, I'm not a writer for the New York Times, which pretty much proves your point, I guess, if you're working from the premise that people who read the NYT Dining section are there to learn about cooking food seriously. Which, I think, a lot of the discussion on the Bruni topic boils down to - who are these articles targeted at?

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I like most of Melissa Clark's pieces, especially when she does restaurant coverage. Outside of the pages of the Times, she's also a talented book-author. I guess I don't quite follow the basis of the complaint.

The pieces in the dining section I can't stand are the "Feed Me" essays by Alex Witchel. They're self-indulgent and often wrong-headed. They have no place in a serious newspaper (they're not even funny).

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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(I realized I lied in my first post: I actually own four cookbooks, two of which I bought so I could learn to feed myself in Japan. I still occasionally refer to them, but there aren't any flat surfaces in my kitchen to put them on, so I find them incredibly inconvenient for actual cooking.)

The pieces in the dining section I can't stand are the "Feed Me" essays by Alex Witchel. They're self-indulgent and often wrong-headed. They have no place in a serious newspaper (they're not even funny).

So I went back to the New York Times and read this offering from Alex Witchel, about a recipe for burritos from one of her stepson's friends. Definitely not "serious". And not particularly funny, either. But is the New York Times trying to be serious with its Dining section, and missing the mark, or are they just trying to fill pages with articles like these?

eta clarification

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I like most of Melissa Clark's pieces, especially when she does restaurant coverage. Outside of the pages of the Times, she's also a talented book-author. I guess I don't quite follow the basis of the complaint.

My reaction to MC's articles is pretty similar to that of the original poster. I think the problem for me is the problem-solving format of the "Good Appetite" columns. The problems usually strike me as extremely artificial: what leftovers happen to be in MC's own refrigerator, what ingredients are available within a few blocks of her apartment, what her social circle is tired of or finds declasse. Since I never share the same problems, I'm not interested in the solutions unless they're great recipes on their own. Which they're not.

Before she got this column I had some awareness of MC's cookbook work (which FG rightly praises), and had actually looked forward to "Good Appetite" on that basis, but I've been constantly disappointed. I don't know about her restaurant coverage, but that suggests to me that it doesn't share the same problems. I think my problem, at any rate, isn't with MC as a writer in general but with the conception of her NYT column.

Andrew

Andrew Riggsby

ariggsby@mail.utexas.edu

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I absolutely know what the original poster is talking about. I don't mind most of her stuff, I've read her books etc. so I think it is something about the column she does for the NY Times.

I just want to throw the paper at someone if I bother to read it.

I think the problem is that she doesn't SAY anything. She just talks you through basic cooking. Like, I do that every night. But she thinks she is SOOOO inventive because when she didn't have olives she used capers...or whatever.

I think that maybe for people who are used to just following a recipe out of a cookbook, this style of writing is more interesting, but for me it makes me so annoyed.

I can't pinpoint just why. I just hate it.

Okay. I'm done now. Thanks for listening.

Gnomey

The GastroGnome

(The adventures of a Gnome who does not sit idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages)

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I'm surprised that Melissa Clark draws such intense reactions. She's no Amanda Hesser, but she isn't a bad writer, and she's cheerful (okay, maybe too cheerful) but not saccharine. Her spontaneous substitution ideas--whatever's in the pantry--sometimes seem interesting, and sometimes seem kind of dopey or even unappealing, but once in a while she hits her mark: has anyone tried the Slow-cooked Greenbeans recipe in the NYT a few weeks ago? I've been making it at least once a week while tomatoes are still great and serving it with a variety of things (not the sausage she suggests) and it's always a revelation. It works anywhere from steaming hot out-of-the-pan to room temp (so excellent for taking to a pot-luck) and as a side for just about anything. Heaven with a grilled cheese sandwich or mac 'n' cheese. Like the author, I too have been in a "crunchy stringbean rut" for many years, but now I'm born again. One great recipe forgives a multitude of questionable impulses; for that one I am willing to keep on reading.

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Like I said, I never look at the author unless they particularly irritate or impress me so it's highly likely that I've read quite a few Melissa Clark articles I've had no problems with. As a matter of fact, today I did happen to catch that she wrote one of the articles this week which I though was decently done.

But of all the articles I do get angry at, 90+% are written by Melissa. There's just a certain type of article she writes which I continue to viscerally loathe.

PS: I am a guy.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Her writing is a bit chirpy, but I did enjoy the "deconstructed turkish dumpling" recipe - made it for the debate last night and everyone enjoyed it:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/01/dining/0...html?ref=dining

I admit, I did add mint and cumin to the yogurt sauce...

“"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.”

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