Words I wish I had written in 2018 (and 2017, for that matter)
As 2018 staggers to an end, the realisation dawns on me that I’ve been writing this website for almost eight years. The number of lost weekends spent churning out an ungodly assemblage of verbs, adjectives and innuendo-laden captions is almost beyond counting. The trickiest part isn’t finding new restaurants to review or pummelling my chronic writer’s block into submission. It’s the art of making my reviews as fresh, accessible, interesting and helpful as possible – a writerly sleight-of-hand which arguably grows harder, not easier, with time.
That makes reading the work of others all the more important. Not just for the prosaic purposes of cribbing, adapting and drawing inspiration from the work of writers far better than myself. There’s an immense amount of joy, knowledge and pathos to be derived from reading food writing for its own sake.
In that spirit, this is a collection of my favourite food writing – not only from the past year, but with a few choice selections from 2017 too (the last time I had a chance to do this was in 2016).
The Life and Slow Death of London’s Pie and Mash Shops by James Hansen, Taste
I’ve never had an affinity for most pies, but even I’ve felt a sense of sadness at London’s vanishing pie and mash shops as documented in this incisive article. It not only neatly summarise the unique place these eateries hold in London’s history, but the meaning and utility they hold for their regulars and the communities in which they trade.
If ever there was an article that neatly encapsulates a sense of regret, missed opportunity and yearning then it’s this one.
“London’s pie and mash shops are not for everyone. But they never were.”
Asian-American Cuisine’s Rise, and Triumph by Ligaya Mishan, New York Times
The relationship between ‘mainstream’ Western societies and ‘ethnic’ cuisines is more contested, tempestuous and conflicted than many realise. The beauty of this deftly-crafted piece lies not in its potted history of Asian cuisines in the US. It lies instead in its summation of how those cuisines have been viewed by the people who grew up with it, who cook it and those who consume it. In doing so, it becomes increasingly clear how Asian cuisines can be seen as a proxy or analytical device for illustrating the knotty, uncertain place Asian-Americans hold in the racial hierarchy of their adoptive society. Or, at least, that’s how I read it.
“This is food borne of a particular diaspora, made by chefs who are “third culture kids,” heirs to both their parents’ culture and the one they were raised in, and thus forced to create their own.”
What Does Disability Have To Do With Cooking? by Jonathan Katz, Flavors of Diaspora
As an able-bodied person, the only impediments I face to improving my own cooking are a lack of time and a world-weary aversion to poorly commissioned and edited cookbooks. For people with a disability, however, anything from kitchen layouts and how recipes are written to the very physical actions required in cooking itself can be a barrier to something so many able-bodied people take for granted. Katz’s blog post is a must-read, especially if you’ve ever had an ill-advised moan on Twitter about prepared ingredients, seemingly needless kitchen aids and packaged foods.
“Disability affects the way we make, consume, and perceive food. The topic is so large, however, that there is always more to say.”
Being vegan and the sink holes in the moral high ground by Marianne Landzettel, Slow Food in the UK
I considered not including this article in this food writing jealousy list. As an adult with a job, several hobbies and only 24 hours in any given day, I’m loathe to waste time on militant vegans that may be upset by the title, tone and introduction of Landzettel’s article (and while ‘militant vegans’ may be something of a cliche, they do seem to exist). Landzettel succinctly delves into some of the practical challenges of being a vegan in a society inextricably dependent on industrialised agriculture and the challenges posed by the very physical acts involved in any form of agriculture at all. In doing so, the thorough-minded thoughtfulness of some vegans – a facet often lost in social media shouting matches – is brought to light.
“…agriculture doesn’t work without animals, not even in an ideal world.”
We Suck At Reservations by Marissa Conrad, Grub Street
I was once asked to comment on a Financial Times article about people making reservations and then not turning up, but my shallow comment went unused. As someone who steadfastly tries to honour reservations, and always takes the time to cancel – when circumstances force it – rather than failing to appear, my good-natured naivety at the time must have seeped into my witless comment. Now we all know better – the spectacularly selfish ‘no shows’ phenomenon is one of the factors blamed for the recent wave of restaurant closures across Britain.
Conrad’s piece delves into some of the possible technological solutions to this problem – mostly reservation systems, with a few unique process-based quirks, to rival industry-standard OpenTable. Putting aside my scepticism about the utopian tech bro view that software is automatically the cure to any societal ill, Conrad’s article is well worth reading. Plus, if linking to Conrad’s article makes even one person act more considerately towards restauranteurs when booking a table, then it’ll have been worth it.
“Five percent of all diners are total dicks…”
The Tipping Equation by Catrin Einhorn and Rachel Abrams, New York Times
We all live in a consumerist culture and the world of restaurants is, by definition, focussed on consumption. It’s therefore all too easy to ignore or overlook the stories of people who serve and toil for us in the name of a good night out and a few quid saved.
It’s equally easy to be dispirited by Einhorn and Abrams’ investigation into the sexual harassment waitresses and waiters tolerate in order to get tips. It’s perhaps even easier to dismiss the problems highlighted in this US-focussed investigation as a uniquely American phenomenon, given the outsized role tips (always a contentious issue) play in the livelihoods of American front-of-house staff. But either response would be to diminish the roles that all of us play in sustaining the wider money and power dynamics that seem to inherently disadvantage hospitality workers at every turn.
“If I paid all my servers $7 an hour, I couldn’t charge $7 for a hamburger”
In short, ignorance is not bliss.
“Ms. Wallace questioned the waitress, Klaycey Oakes, who told her that the man had grabbed her thigh and even followed her to the bathroom. “I was like ‘Why would you have not told me?’” Ms. Wallace recalled. “She was like, ‘Well, he leaves me $20 every time.’”
Honorary mention: Burrowing Under Luminous Ice to Retrieve Mussels by Craig S Smith and Aaron Vincent Elkaim, New York Times
While the words in this final selection are perfectly fine, it’s the photos which I particularly enjoy. I’m certain you’ll be as captivated as I am by these photos of Inuit collecting mussels beneath sheets of ice in the far north of Quebec!
– The Picky Glutton