Rest easy: The best food writing I’ve read this year isn’t about the pandemic
In a year when it’s still generally been advisable to spend more time at home than eating out with others, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’ve spent almost as much time reading about food as I have been eating it. In spite of this, there’s surprisingly little pandemic-related writing in this now traditional round-up. While this probably doesn’t mean the big C has finished causing havoc on the world of food and restaurants, it does at least mean this round-up is a largely coronavirus-free zone.
While there’s no guarantee that the same will hold true this time next year, let’s take things one step at a time. Whether you merely skim bits and pieces or read the whole lot in between bouts of seasonal roasted poultry, I hope you’ll find this eclectic reading selection as intriguing as I did.
‘In Search of Memsahib’, by Sejal Sukhadwala, The Fence
I emailed uk Hospitality and various South Asian restaurant associations – the Asian Catering Federation, Bangladesh Caterers Association and British Curry Awards – but didn’t hear back. Same with L’Auberge restaurant that’s currently on Memsahib’s site. I browsed through several pages of Google Books and the British Newspaper Archives, but there was nothing except a few more advertisements. Might there be any clues on the website of the long-shuttered Punch magazine, where Memsahib had also advertised, or the Advertising Archives? Nope.
Restaurants come and go, ebbing and flowing with the passage of time. Many are barely remembered, especially those that operated before the era of constant, remorseless documentation that the internet has enabled. What little is known about Memsahib is due to the recollections and dogged determination of food writer Sejal Sukhadwala – mainly its acerbic, self-deprecating and iconoclastic advertising. In a way, I’d rather not know anything further about Memsahib than its ads. Much like putting off the final chapter of a good book for as long as possible, as you fear the ending won’t live up to everything that has come before it, the real Memsahib of decades past can’t possibly live up to its tongue-in-cheek advertising or the Memsahib of Sukhadwala’s imagination.
‘Bros., Lecce: We Eat at The Worst Michelin Starred Restaurant, Ever’, by Geraldine DeRuiter, The Everywhereist
Reviews slagging off fine dining tasting menus out-of-hand tend to be deeply tedious and rarely anywhere as interesting as the author thinks it is. This is especially so when the author walks into the joint expecting to be served the equivalent of a Harvester buffet, a KFC mega bucket or something else equally beige and superficially voluminous.
I’m not talking about a meal that’s poorly cooked, or a server who might be planning your murder—that sort of thing happens in the fat lump of the bell curve of bad. Instead, I’m talking about the long tail stuff – the sort of meals that make you feel as though the fabric of reality is unraveling. The ones that cause you to reassess the fundamentals of capitalism, and whether or not you’re living in a simulation in which someone failed to properly program this particular restaurant. The ones where you just know somebody’s going to lift a metal dome off a tray and reveal a single blue or red pill.
This review of a restaurant in southern Italy avoids that trap. Its scathing evaluation not only seems convincingly justified, it’s also wince-inducingly hilarious. So many details are utterly delicious. Unlike the meal itself, it would seem.
‘ ‘Magic dirt’: How the internet fueled, and defeated, the pandemic’s weirdest MLM’, by Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News
One slide suggested alternatives for 14 popular BOO uses, including switching terms like ADHD to “trouble concentrating,” and “prevents heart attack” to “maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.”
I’ve written about wellness eating fads a handful of times in the past. And yet I never cease to be surprised by either the dank, fetid depths to which wellness fads will sink or the inexplicable allegiance of its devotees. This investigation by NBC News into the fad of consuming and bathing in actual, literal dirt is immersive and maddening in equal measure.
‘The Bread, Cake & Biscuit Walk’, by ‘The Gentle Author’, Spitalfields Life
In the midst of the carnage of the Somme, Henry Barefield was lost for words – so he sent a biscuit home in the mail to prove he was still alive and had not lost his sense of humour either.
Spitalfields Life is a blog almost always worth reading for its lyrical if occasionally rose-tinted lookbacks at various historical aspects of East End life. This charming baked goods-themed ramble through the streets of the City-Whitechapel borderlands is as warm and enticing as a freshly baked loaf. While it doesn’t have any grand conclusion or narrative arc, not every bit of reading has to. Plus, it gives a taste of this particular part of London in a way unlike any other.
‘Lab-grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. The science tells a different story.’ By Joe Fassler, The Counter.
He found it to be an outlandish document, one that trafficked more in wishful thinking than in science.
A huge amount of hype surrounds lab-grown meats as a potentially more sustainable and ethical alternative to the farmed meats we’re all familiar with. This exacting long-read thoroughly analyses the multitude of practical, technological and logistical challenges facing companies growing meat without animals. If the science as laid-out is even half-right, then those challenges are as steep as they are many.
‘The unlikely rise of the French Tacos’, by Lauren Collins, The New Yorker
Mercedes Ahumada, a Metepec-born chef who owns an eponymous consulting and catering business in Paris, told me about one experience she had while running a taco cart at a food fair. “I had a customer who threw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco,” she recalled.
Upon learning about ‘French tacos’, the misnamed Gallic fast food wrap the size of a small child, I was enthralled at its inventiveness and elephantine size. While also overcome with pity for the long-suffering Mexican diaspora of Europe for the continued misrepresentation of their cuisine. Still, if nothing else, this exploration of the origins and popularity of ‘French tacos’ is guaranteed to leave you both curious and hungry.
‘A Safe Place to Fill Up’, by Amethyst Ganaway, Eater US
During the civil rights era and beyond, Black-owned fill stations also served as restaurants — one-stop shops for Black patrons who would frequently come across restaurants that would serve them but forbid them from using the restrooms, and gas stations that wouldn’t allow them to fill up.
The fact that gas (i.e. petrol) stations in the US can be worth eating at shouldn’t be surprising, given the primacy of the car in American life. The fact that a whole genre of gas stations were once run by African-Americans as roadside eateries and safe spaces for other African-Americans, oases in a landscape of violence and discrimination, also shouldn’t be surprising. And yet it was, to me at least, indicating just how unaware many of us still are about the all-too-recent history of overt racism in our societies.
‘Caterpillar wars: time to pick sides in battle of Colin v Cuthbert’, by Ed Cumming, The Observer
Colin is the perfect example of that faux egalitarianism beloved of middle England.
This year’s eye-rolling intellectual property spat involved caterpillar-themed cakes and two well-known supermarkets. While M&S would doubtless want us to treat the curious case of Colin vs Cuthbert with po-faced solemnity, Ed Cumming gives this dispute the facetious, smirk-filled kicking it really deserves.
‘Tamale kitchens’, Tales From Topographic Kitchens, by Nic Miller
This was a real corn-breathed tamal. Unwrapping it felt, once again, like a gift. Possessively, I curled myself around that tamal, eating it all up with no care for anyone else, standing guard over my past.
Tamales are one of the most delicious dishes in the Mexican pantheon. Yet its representation on this side of the pond is patchy at best, in London at least, with truly delectable examples even rarer. But nothing I can ever write about tamales will ever have the same emotively articulate and heartfelt longing that this piece has.
Honourable mentions go to The Washington Post’s investigation into the child labour endemic to the cultivation of açai and The New Yorker’s (unnecessarily) long read into the fraudulent certification of US organic produce. The common thread connecting the two is that some of the systems meant to certify the ethical/sustainable production of food are actually unsettlingly flimsy.
A final honourable mention goes to a long read from Eater US about the quixotically parochial Japanese dish ‘pizza toast’. This breakfast dish is a staple of the equally curious kissaten, a retro quasi-coffeehouse with its origins at the turn of the last century.
Author Craig Mod’s country-spanning walk chronicles the many varieties of pizza toast he came across and the people that make it. The article is not only an endeavour after my own heart, it’s a story that touches upon many aspects of modern Japanese life and is told with charm and warmth. If it hadn’t been written in 2019, it’d have been a shoo-in for the main reading list above.