The Food Writer’s Bubble

So, yes. Apparently a fair amount of food writers and food bloggers are now up in arms about the brouhaha between Anthony Bourdain vs. James Beard Awards vs. Eatocracy (a name which I find just shy of “(rī)¹” in terms of sheer silliness. But considering the glass house of “Accidental Hedonist”, perhaps I shouldn’t be tossing pebbles too hard.) Others are involved as well, but really? It’s difficult for me to get myself too riled up to care.

The basic premise of the argument is this – one side believes that The James Beard Awards are little more than an excuse for wealthy patrons to mingle with up-and-coming chefs looking for quick and easy PR, and food writers looking for handouts, none of whom would know the “real” status of the food world if a book of food stamps hit them in the face. As you can guess, Bourdain represents this side.

As far as I can tell, the other side, represented by Eatocracy, is saying “Well, yes, part of that may be true, but don’t paint everyone with the same brush.”

There are other side arguments here, including the validity of Ruth Bourdain’s nomination in the humor category, the scuzziness of John Mariani, and the hypocrisy of Anthony Bourdain in writing his screed whilst galavanting in Italy. Most of that, as far as I am concerned, is little more than white noise.

The part that I find humorous in all of this, is the complete lack of defense to the initial charge by Bourdain – that there are those in the food media who live in a world that is contrary to what is actually out there, and that the James Beard Awards help propagate that insular world-view.

We see evidence of this all the time in food writing. Just the other day, on a food site that shall go nameless, a published author stated that they didn’t understand why organic foods were more expensive than most produce, that the problem was far too difficult to answer, and that we should all (well, those of us who made enough money and cared enough for our children) buy organic. The fact that we live on a planet that has to feed 7 billion people, and needs foods that have long, stable shelf lives in order to help accomplish this goal, was completely lost on this writer.

I’ve alluded to it many times before, but let me come out and say it direct. Many of us in food media live in a bubble. Writers, chefs, marketers, and publicists, all groups have people who, when you mention food culture, majority privilege, or the effects of poverty on consumption patterns, you may as well be mentioning quantum physics or string theory.

Is this a problem? Only if you take the food media seriously. If one believes that food media equates to journalism, then yes. This is a problem. But the majority of food writing out there isn’t journalism, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s entertainment. For many out there, regardless of if they are writers or chefs, their goal is to titillate, not to inform. Yes, there are exceptions. But for every one of them, there are ten who are looking to, as Bourdain says, “spend their hours and days writing about ‘kicky new muffin recipes’ , ‘Pie: The Next Big Thing’ or attending launches for bottled water, restaurant openings, and anywhere they can fill their plastic lined pockets with free food and swag.”

Most days, I feel a great sense of disdain for this ratio of 1 to 10. The reasons are personal more than professional. However, the more I think of it, the more the arguments start to sound like the type of arguments I heard in the mid-90′s. “What, you like Pearl Jam? Pfff. They’re nothing. You haven’t heard real grunge unless you saw Mother Love Bone back in the day.” If given a choice between reading another Beer-Can Cookbook versus talking to that guy? I’ll take the Beer Can Cookbook, thank you very much.

In fact, the music analogy works for me. We food folk have the James Beard Awards, the music industry has the Grammy Awards. Both are meant more to promote as much as they are to acknowledge. And for the life of me, I can’t tell you who won in any of the categories over the past five years.