News

The must-read food writing of 2020

Finely-crafted words to absorb along with a cup of coffee underneath a snug blanket

Christmas and New Year’s are all about traditions. For this website, my minor festive tradition is to round up and link to some of the best food writing that I’ve read in the past 12 months or so. A collection of other people’s words that I admire for some combination of lyrical prose, topical worthiness, encapsulating a zeitgeist-y moment and/or incisive research.

2020, of course, has been a year like few others. The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted widespread damage on restaurants, food suppliers and the people who depend on them – from restauranteurs and chefs to workers and farmers.

This not only makes the usual title for this annual round-up inappropriate (‘food writing jealousy list’ just doesn’t fit when most of us would skip 2020 in its entirety if we had the chance), it also means quite a few of this year’s selection are about the pandemic in one way or another. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to read even more wordage about Covid-19’s impact on our society, especially if you’re enduring the festive period under de facto lockdown. I’ve therefore divided this round-up in to two, with one section devoted to articles related to the pandemic and another section for those articles that are not.

Whether you merely sample each article by skimming my introductory comments, or click through to each and every last link, I hope your curiosity gland will be tickled – if only a bit, for a short while.

The coronavirus-themed reading list

‘A room, a bar and a classroom: how the coronavirus is spread through the air’, English version by Heather Galloway, El Pais

It may seem bizarre to begin this round-up with an article that’s notable more for its diagrams than for its writing. But El Pais’ clearly illustrated guide to how coronavirus spreads in indoor situations, such as a bar/restaurant, is fundamental to understanding the necessity of restrictions on hospitality businesses. Without adequate ventilation, masks and social distancing by themselves are simply insufficient at preventing multiple infections. The importance of ventilation has been recognised by multiple health bodies around the world from the World Health Organisation to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Japanese Ministry of Health (UK bodies have finally given the issue greater prominence).

Given that the current UK government has been clumsy and dangerously inept in its response to the pandemic, it falls to individuals and communities, not just institutions, to take the actions needed to protect people’s health. Given that I’ve yet to see a single restaurant in the UK even mention ventilation as part of their ‘Covid-safe’ measures, there’s still much more to be done.

‘I recreated my local pub in VR’, by Tristan Cross, Wired UK

Restaurants and pubs are, of course, businesses on which their proprietors and staff depend for their livehoods. For their customers though, they can become more than just dispensaries of food and drink. Pubs, in particular, are social places where people do everything from celebrate and commiserate to mourn and scorn. Some combination of that prompted Tristan Cross to recreate his much-missed local in virtual reality (VR) during the height of the spring lockdown.

The effort expended for this 360 degree polygonal proxy isn’t just impressive in its own right, but also as evidence of the affection held for one particular communal living room. Plus, Cross’ write-up of his sweaty endeavours will have you chuckling and chortling whether you want to or not.

‘To Survive Coronavirus, Restaurants Can Never Go Back to ‘Normal’’, by Vaughn Tan, Eater UK

Countless words have been spilled on how restaurants can adapt to survive the ‘new normal’ thrust upon us by the coronavirus crisis. Few have been as lucid, prescient or as pragmatic as Vaughn Tan’s examination for Eater UK. His key insight that things won’t go back to normal anytime soon makes for uncomfortable reading. That only makes his analysis even more important than ever.

‘Every restaurant’s corona-time business model will have to be fundamentally different from what it was as a dine-in restaurant. This business model will have to change continually as the situation changes… This will be hugely difficult.’

‘From humble grocers to de-facto ministry: How supermarkets took over Britain’s food system’, by Dan Hancox, Prospect

How supermarkets bring us our food has been brought into stark, sharp focus this year, from bare shelves in spring to lorry tailbacks in winter. The UK’s supermarkets prioritise cheap prices for consumers above almost everything else, a laudable goal considering that so many people across the country cannot easily afford to feed themselves. But this focus on cost has also had perverse effects on almost everything and everyone else in our food supply system, from farmers to frontline workers. Hancox’s article not only provides a potted history of the supermarket’s influence on our food supply, but an overview of the systemic problems that we ignore at our peril.

“The so-called normal situation was riddled with fissures,” says Lang. “Millions fed by food banks. Farmers kept alive by subsidies. It was never sustainable.” 

The Covid-free reading list

‘Bury St Edmunds-based food writer Nicola Miller explores the enduring spiritual connection between humankind and corn and gives us a ‘gentle side dish’ in celebration’, by Nicola Miller, Suffolk News

This article may once have started out as nothing more than a recipe for cornbread. But it’s now also a gentle, lyrical yet easily digestible rumination on the multifaceted importance and beauty of corn. Although that might sound a little corny, it’s anything but.

‘Sweetcorn, that symbol of the USA from sea to shining sea, is an immigrant, a beautiful Mexican wave rippling across the Americas. How ironic.’

‘YouTube’s Candy King is running a sugary online cartel’, by Amelia Tait, Wired UK

Those of us who remember life before the internet tend to refer to the online world as if it were a singular, monolithic entity. But that network of interconnected servers hosting countless lines of HTML is really home to an endless spiral of communities and subcultures. One of them revolves around influencers peddling tips to school kids on how to sell sweets at school, maximising profit without getting caught. For those of us that remember tuck shops and their underground term-time alts as they were, this small insight into what they’ve since become is both whimsical Grange Hill-esque nostalgia and a chance to tip our hats at our successors.

‘Under the Instagram name “Rich Snack Seller” he flaunts his cash (though, notably, it is often $1 bills he is fanning).’

‘How Nespresso’s coffee revolution got ground down’, by Ed Cumming, The Guardian

Although I have an unhealthily passionate relationship with coffee, I have little affection for Nespresso capsules and their ilk. Even so, I found this deep dive into the birth, early life and corpulent middle age of those inescapable little caffeine pods oddly fascinating. It’s almost like being introduced to a religion or popular sport that you’ve otherwise spent little time thinking about.

‘How a cheese goes extinct’, by Ruby Tandoh, The New Yorker

I rarely order the cheese course in restaurants, preferring instead to intermittently gorge myself on hemispherical wheels of the stuff in the privacy of my own home. This fascinating piece on the precarious life of reconstructed, otherwise extinct artisan British cheeses will whey upon your mind and have you reaching for your cheese knife and credit card. Although it does touch upon the pandemic and its effect on cheesemakers, I’m including it here as Covid-19 is – as I read it – merely the latest mammoth-scale challenge facing those brave souls keeping the UK’s unique cheese culture unique.

‘The butcher’s shop that lasted 300 years (give or take)’, by Tom Lamont, The Guardian

This long read by Tom Lamont spends a lot of words on one high street butcher, but the poignantly melancholic pay-off is absolutely worth your time. This account burrows into your brain by being as much the life story of butcher Frank Fisher, as it is a story of fickle shopping habits in a consumerist society. If not more so.

‘A curly-corded telephone rang, interrupting his reminiscences. Frank reached to answer it: “High street butcher?” ‘

‘The Appealing and Potentially Lethal Delicacy That Is Fugu’, by Ligaya Mishan, The New York Times

A lot of writing about Japan in Western media tends to overemphasise what – to Euro-American eyes – appears to be strange, eccentric and/or outright dangerous. This is true of food writing as it is of anything else, with fugu (aka blowfish) the perpetual ur-everstory about braving an exotic danger in pursuit of the ultimate culinary thrill. Except that’s not really the whole story, as this article explains, from the fish’s perceived status value and what it actually tastes like to the differences in farmed fugu and the fact that dangerous food was commonplace in the West just a few short decades ago.

‘The fight to save Latin Village is a fight for London’s soul’, by Peter Yeung, Huck

Last year’s reading list included a couple of articles dealing with regeneration and gentrification in London, specifically their impact on marginalised communities and the restaurants they depend on. Sadly, this year is no different. While building more homes is of course vital, part of the cost inevitably seems to be the ferocious disenfranchisement of people who already live and work here.

This seems to be especially the case if those people are from ethnic minorities, such as the traders at Latin Village in Haringey. At the beginning of the year, this community faced a barrage of bad faith behaviour and indifference to their plight – including from those in elected office who are supposed to represent their interests. With none of the major party candidates in the upcoming London mayoral election devoting much time or thought to this crucial interplay between home building and de facto social cleansing, I sadly suspect we’ll see more of the same in 2021 and beyond.

– TPG

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.