On Food Writing: A Response to Marc Vetri

by Charlottesville29

This is a response to chef Marc Vetri’s thought-provoking piece: How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread, in which he argues that food writing is at a “crisis.”  Before reading this, I’d recommend reading Vetri’s piece.

Actually, “response” may be misleading.  This is not a point-by-point rejoinder. In Vetri’s piece, I find much with which to agree, and much with which to disagree.  In my other life as an attorney, or my former life as a philosophy student, I might dissect and critique every line.  (E.g. Was this parody intended?: “By far the least admirable aspect of reviewing today is the need to express every opinion in superlatives.”)  But law and philosophy can make for dull reading.  So, instead, I’d merely like to offer a context in which to consider Vetri’s general point about the change in food writing over the last several decades.

In short, while Vetri’s piece is rich with opinions, his central position is that the current state of affairs of food writing is somehow inferior to an earlier state of affairs.  “To combat the curse of instant access,” Vetri writes, “real journalists have been forced to downgrade their standards, and are now in the business of giving younger readers their much-needed immediate buzz as opposed to producing more thoughtful — and thought-provoking –content. In the process of lowering their standards they have done irreparable harm to the once-elegant business of reviewing restaurants.”

I confess that I have not studied enough food writing, today or in the past, to form an opinion on whether this is true.  While I am passionate about both food and writing, and have consumed a great deal of both, I lack the experience to state with confidence whether today we enjoy a smaller amount of quality food writing than we once did. He may be right.  He may be wrong.  I don’t know.

But, in evaluating whether he is right or wrong, I propose considering two factors – one food-related and one not food-related – that may have impacted food writing over the last several decades, and which may inform a view on whether food writing today is, as Vetri says, worse than yesterday or, alternatively, just different – or, perhaps even, better.

The food-related factor is what I’ll call the food boom.  Over the last several decades, food has exploded in this country.  While folks can debate the causes of the boom, its existence is undeniable.  Never before have more people in this country been more passionate about food.

The consequences of the food boom have been both good and bad.  The good are obvious.  There are more good restaurants today than ever before.  There is also a greater variety, with far greater access to more types of food. Of course, just as there are more good restaurants, there are also more bad ones.  Opportunistic businesses have swooped in to exploit all of this food fuss.  Nonetheless, most of us would agree that the good outweighs the bad.  Few food-lovers long for the era preceding the food boom.

Food writing has paralleled this.  The greater interest in food has created a greater demand for food writing.  Supply has risen to meet the demand, and it is some of that supply with which Vetri takes issue – e.g. “best of” lists, “what’s hot and what’s not,” and tips on chefs’ favorite holiday treats, knives, or gadgets.  Vetri is of course right, that we’ve seen an increase in these types of writing.  But,  I’d argue, this is because the food boom has brought an increase in all kinds of food writing – good, bad, and indifferent.  The proliferation of what Vetri considers the bad need not, and indeed has not, come at the expense of what I consider the good. More on that below.

The factor unrelated to food is the internet, and the related rise of social media.  This has impacted all forms of journalism, not just food writing.  Media in this country has undergone a transformation.

In the old days, an aspiring journalist faced great obstacles to reach an audience.   The power to decide what would be printed or broadcast was consolidated in a privileged few, whose blessing a journalist had to earn to obtain an audience.  Three networks determined what news television viewers saw each night, while the nation’s newspaper and magazine editors were the gatekeepers of the printed news.  As the New York Times has long proclaimed, it alone is the arbiter of: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

In the food writing world, this gave enormous power to the few writers who were fortunate enough to win a position as a critic at a major publication.  The Ruth Reichls and Phyllis Richmans of the world could make or break a restaurant with the stroke of a pen.

Even assuming that all food critics were discerning judges and unfailingly scrupulous (ahem), one might wonder whether this was a desirable state of affairs.  Is it a good thing for the opinion of one person to matter so much?  Worse still was the temptation for ethical lapses or foul play.  Power corrupts, as they say.  I have a friend who worked for a four-star New York City restaurant who told me that, when they once spotted a NY Times critic in the restaurant, they sampled $15,000 worth of wine in the kitchen just to make sure they made the best pairings with each dish served to the critic.

And then came the internet, which changed everything.  It has given a voice to the many, and consequently reduced the power of the few.  This has been felt across all of journalism, not just food.  Well-respected periodicals have gone out of print.  Those that still exist have been forced to consider drastic changes to their business models.  Arguably, some of the consequences of this change have been desirable, and some less so.

In food writing, it has been the same way.  To be sure, the internet has enabled disgruntled customers to libel a restaurant before an audience of thousands just by pressing “Enter.” And, it has spawned an industry of websites that rely on click-bait to drive advertising revenue – where traffic trumps content.

As Vetri also notes, it has facilitated an abundance of puff pieces and articles about things like “chefs’ favorites.”  As to these, reasonable minds can differ about their value. I, for one, happen to value sites like Chefs Feed and (self-servingly) Five Finds on Friday, sharing chefs’ tips on what to eat where.  Never before have Average Joes had access to so much expert insight.

But, setting aside the proliferation of bad food writing and puff pieces, these have not come at the cost of good food writing.  That still exists.  In fact, thanks to the internet, there is more of it than at any time ever in history.  The internet has provided platforms to thousands of talented writers whose voices might never have been heard in an era where publication required significant time, resources, and, in some cases, luck.  I cannot count the number of times I have been struck by the entertaining and informative content of online food writers.  They are everywhere.

Sure, you have to wade through a lot of crap, but if you do you’ll find that many of them serve no master other than themselves and their readers.  They write neither for money nor for attention. They write to share.

While Vetri argues that the increase of bad food writing in the internet era has lowered the standard of print food writers, there’s also evidence that the explosion of good food writing online has improved print food writing.  With the monopoly gone, the new competition has challenged some print writers to raise their game.  And, indeed, the quality of writing of some longtime critics does seem better than ever- see, e.g. the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema.

Though the effects of the internet on print writing may be up for debate, one undeniable benefit of the proliferation of good food writing is that it has allowed us all to make much more informed dining decisions.  My parents travel between Connecticut and the South several times a year, and they often stop to eat in Philadelphia.  Their favorite place there is Vetri’s Osteria.  I suggested it to them years ago, and they’ve been almost every year since.  The thing is, I’ve never been there.  My suggestion was based on online research.  I found some sources that appeared reliable, and then I cross-referenced, and cross-referenced, and cross-referenced again.  Eventually, I decided on Osteria.  In an earlier era, though, when newspaper food critics were the predominant source, someone might have passed on Osteria, given the two star review its sister restaurant received from one such critic.  Thank goodness for the new media.

Indeed, Vetri’s post itself, and the reaction to it, illustrate both the good and the bad of the new era of food writing.  On the one hand, social media amplified the intensity of responses as soon as Vetri’s post went viral. On Twitter and Facebook, users quickly aligned themselves with one side or the other. You were either pro-restaurant or pro-food-writer.  In 140 characters or less, there was no room for middle ground, or nuance.

On the other hand, without the advent of the new media, Vetri never could have initiated this discussion in the first place, unless he could have somehow persuaded a print editor that his writing warranted publication.  Vetri’s post, after all, appeared on a blog – the same blog that later that day published 22 Chefs Tell Us What They’d Eat Every Day if They Could. (‘Social media causes irreparable harm,’ he wrote on social media!)  Thus, but for the new media, there would have been no platform for Vetri to express his opinion, reach millions, and generate this healthy discussion.

Likewise, in the old world, no editor ever would have printed this very post that you’re reading.  Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.