Manly Food Writing

There are several opinions playing through my mind after reading Paul Levy’s article about opting out of the “macho food-writing movement”. The article was brought to my attention through the normal routes, namely through the blogs of Derrick Schneider and Michael Ruhlman, each taking a different point of view, but neither really touching upon where my thoughts led.

The premise of Levy’s post essentially led me to think that he wished for a tad more civility in the food world, especially when it comes to those who practice the art of food writing. And while it’s difficult to argue against that position, something in my head still can’t fully bring myself to Mr. Levy’s table. From his piece:

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. Has this influenced my own writing? It’s made my sentences shorter and snappier—but perhaps that is because as I age, editors get younger, and the young are more urgently hurried. And the prevalent, apparently unburnished style of my fellow male cohorts has made me buff and polish my prose even more. I unsplit infinitives and unpick clichés. I try to imitate the rhythms of (my own) speech, but remain more scrupulous about my written than spoken vocabulary. When we are pricked, do we not shout “shit!”? Of course, but I strive to write more decorously, and avoid the four-letter words for things gastrointestinal as well as sexual. OK, it’s partly to preserve their shock value when I do use them.

When it comes to “food writing”, I think there are some people who focus primarily on the food, and others who focus primarily on the writing. I don’t believe either approach is incorrect, but it certainly leads to different styles of articles. Your preference in these articles is likely dictated by your own perception of food.

My belief is that food, or more specifically food production, is a very uncivil act. It’s a dirty, messy business, where one has to get their hands dirty and bloody. The producers of food deal with everything from bugs and worms, to callouses and burns, and everything in between. What the recent spate of writers have done is reminded a fair amount of readers about this specific aspect. They’ve lessened the romance of food, reminding us that sometimes in the food world a booty call is preferable to a long drawn out courting ritual.

That’s not to say that there aren’t idiots out there, throwing their testosterone about like a fish fertilizing eggs. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Gordon Ramsay’s public persona, nor the business acumen of Conrad Gallagher. But these are chefs, and for some reason the phrase “bad-boy chef” is a selling point, not a warning sign to those wanting to run a restaurant.

But food writing? It’s a different beast. None of the writers mentioned in Mr. Levy’s piece are lacking in either skill or voice. More importantly, these writers are resonating with readers, getting them to think about food, and more importantly showing glimpses behind the curtain set up by PR firms and calculated business decisions. As I said before, the food industry is a dirty business, and sometimes it’s good to show the tarnish on the veneer.

Food shouldn’t be a mystery. Nor should it be exalted to point where it’s been given expectations that it could never possibly meet. And if that means using meatloaf to give the reader an idea about the job of the charcutier, or writing about the lengths Mario Batali will go to save on kitchen costs, then more power to them.

Food can have the charm of poetry, don’t get me wrong. But food can also have the charm of a James Ellroy novel. It’s important to remember that.