What We Write About When We Write About Food
Last year, vaunted food critics Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold passed away.
They were two men who showed us where to eat and what to eat — Bourdain in his shows for CNN and Travel Channel and Gold in his Pulitzer Prize-winning columns.
But the world of who gets to write about food and what they get to write about is expanding.
New voices are getting broader exposure in digital and print media. We’re learning more about the spaces, tastes and sentiments the mostly white, male, heteronormative food writers might have simplified, condescended to or simply ignored.
Food writer Mayukh Sen revealed the story behind the largely forgotten Princess Pamela, a Manhattan legend and the author of “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook.”
Princess Pamela became a sensation after releasing her cookbook, especially in that stretch of the East Village where she opened her first restaurant. You could call her the doyenne of soul food for New York, when the city had precious few soul food restaurants. She earned this title during a time when her black skin, her womanhood, and her Southern accent weren’t just signifiers of identity; they were handicaps that limited her possibilities in the culinary world. Pamela’s defiance of odds was, for these reasons alone, both singular and unprecedented.
The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner also wrote about the increased politicization of food writing, as a part of her broader reflection on the work of a Thrillist journalist who failed to disclose allegations of assault in a piece about a burger restaurant — and how, by dubbing the burger it made the best in the United States, he helped doom the restaurant.
The stakes, in food journalism, have changed rapidly in recent years—a once-cushy beat that was largely divorced from hard-news concerns is now being recognized as a battleground for issues of sexual assault, immigration, labor issues, and financial fraud. With this comes a responsibility among writers to see restaurants more holistically, not only as places that put food on a plate but as complex social organisms. Even the smallest, most casual operations involve communities of employees, communities of customers, dramas both private and public, and the two can’t always in good faith be separated.
Rosner’s point is exemplified in a piece by Osayi Endolyn, called “Fried Chicken Is Common Ground”.
But American fried chicken will always be tied inextricably to race and the violent, egregious exploitation of black Americans. Outside of the United States, this complex food can seem dissociated from its history.
With fried chicken, the taste question is moot. Vegetarians notwithstanding, everyone loves fried chicken. Some fried chicken is better than others, but even bad fried chicken is better than none. Everyone who wants to cook fried chicken should. Everyone who wants to sell American-style fried chicken ought to be able to give the market a try. Fried chicken is eaten all over the planet. People from completely opposite sides of the socioeconomic and political spectrum, who might agree on almost nothing, can agree that fried chicken is good.
And so, with its deliciousness unquestionable, all that remains is what fried chicken means. No matter where it’s cooked, American fried chicken carries the learning and effort and skill of a people who persevered against unfathomable odds. That Southern hue follows fried chicken all the way to Melbourne and Sydney, too. And therein lies an incredible opportunity. If everyone can agree to share fried chicken, then perhaps that’s a step toward sharing the weight of its complex legacy as well.
What does our relationship with food say about our culture? Why does who writes about food matter?
Endolyn, Rosner and Sen join us to talk about all that and more.
Helen Rosner, Food writer at The New Yorker, @hels
Mayukh Sen, Food writer; @senatormayukh
Osayi Endolyn, Food and drink writer and editor; @osayiendolyn
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