A Call For A Reasoned Approach to Food Writing

Posted in Food by Arasmus on August 3, 2010

I’ve been frustrated by food writing for quite some time. In a single sentence, my frustration is that food writers don’t write in such a way that helps their readers to learn.

The internet has been a huge asset to food lovers everywhere and it has continued the trend, started by media outlets such as the Food Network, towards an ever more popular appreciation of food. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of food and a more widespread understanding of the sociological, political, economic, ethical and cultural environments in which food as a human activity finds context. But the manner in which food writers write leaves a greater potential for growth untapped.

My understanding is, and my own personal experience seems to support this opinion, that the brain learns by adding new information to a structure that it already knows. Imagine then, if you will, a process whereby I take a child, that has lived in cave for all of its short life, outside for a few seconds everyday over several years. I show him the sky at 10AM and say “this is day.” I take them outside at 11PM, point to the darkness and say “this is night.” The process goes on ad infinitum with the child gathering snapshots of varying degrees of light and darkness, and associating them with either day or night. Obviously, the child at some point is going to encounter problematic periods, such as the break of dawn or twilight and it will try its best to categorize these periods as either day or night. This crude example is an attempt to illustrate what I call the “Sampling Approach.” It takes quite a long time and even if the child can remember all of these samples, its learning is still quite rough. By contrast, suppose if I explain to the child the process whereby night becomes day, how the sun rises in the East, makes its way across the sky and finally sets in the West. When the sun is in the sky it is day and when it is not it is night. Armed with this 5 second conversation, the “Reasoned Approach,” the child can leave the cave, look at the sky and not only determine whether it is day or night but also determine based on the sun’s position what time of day it is. It can clearly distinguish the nebulous period of dawn from that of twilight.

Much of food writing follows the Sample Approach. For example, I love sushi. I’ve probably eaten more than my fair share. I’ve read about it, watched hundreds of people on television eat it, but I still have only a vague idea as to what makes for truly excellent tuna. Of course it should be fresh, and the color is important, and I can tell what I think is a better texture. But no one has ever sat me down and said something to the effect that; “when you taste tuna, first look at it closely, you are looking for _[?]__, then when you taste it, better tuna should be more like __[?]___.” Instead I just read and see one food commentator after another saying “that’s awesome tuna” but with no instruction as to what are the tell-tale sensations that denote that quality. Now of course I could go and do a food course. But food writers are already talking to the finest chefs in the world, they eat in the best restaurants – why can’t they ask these chefs what their criteria is for determining high quality sushi, compare it with what other chefs say, and then tell me? (Needless to say, I have a suspicion that the reason this does not happen, is because a lot of people in the food industry are simply faking it. I eat therefore I write). It is in the interest of good chefs to elaborate how they measure quality. I can get bad tuna in lots of places, but if you teach me what good tuna is, and you are one of the few who has it, I’ll visit your restaurant. Leave me in ignorance and I’ll plod to the place around the corner. Bad restaurants live, good restaurants die. I keep on plodding.

I’ve expressed this opinion before and one of the responses I get is that there shouldn’t be an elite that tells people what is good and what is not good food. This completely misses the point and fails to engage my point in the reasonable center in which it is being advocated. I am not proposing that an elite tell people what is good (e.g. “Tuna from the Tasmanian Sea is the best”) but that people be given tools that they can use to measure what is good (e.g. “good tuna should have no smell and a light red luminescence due to the presence of ___ which declines as the tuna ages”). Once I have this structure to work with, I can then eat tuna and decide do I like what others consider to be good tuna? I can begin to tag my experiences eating tuna with useful metadata that helps me to grow in my knowledge and enjoyment of the food I am eating. I can begin to sort restaurants and chefs in an intelligent way. I can begin to refine the rule, interconnect it with other rules (e.g. fresher tuna is better with a more subtle sake) etc.

Now what would be thrilling about the net-effect of a move from the current Sample Approach to what I’m calling the Reasoned Approach is the impact that it would have on our food culture. Imagine if hundreds of thousands of foodies armed with these Reasoned Approaches ignited an ever-improving eco-system of better and better restaurants. Imagine how these reasoned approaches bubbling up to the surface, in a process akin to what we see in the world of open-source software, would create a cultural inheritance that could be added to, day after day, year after year and generation after generation. It would very quickly drive charlatans into the light and recognize and reward the true chefs, the true keepers of the flame of quality, nuance, honesty and integrity. In a traditional culture, these rules are passed from one generation to the next. A few bright-line rules delivered to me squarely in a vineyard during my youth helped me to appreciate wine more than years of watching quaffers on television. Because of the wonderful diversity of our culinary traditions in the United States, in this culture that role of observing, documenting, preserving and communicating falls to the food-writer. The challenge of course is that this will require food writers to do more work. Their writing must move from impressionist stories that feature food to reasoned arguments as to why the steak, tea, wine or stout, at a certain restaurant or bar is on the better end of the spectrum. But this discipline will over time give them an admirable cogency that will benefit them individually as well as the rest of the community.

And so, to the extent that anyone is listening, I’d like food writers to think about this. And more than that I would like them to start adopting a mental process when they begin to write of asking – what tool can I give the reader to help them appreciate better steaks, better cupcakes, better wines, Indian Pale Ales etc. Start your articles, books etc. by stating the standard, and then tell me how this particular experience compares to that standard and why. Feel free to describe two standards, or variations due to geography. But give it structure. I am not (and I feel I may have to repeat this) calling for “thou-shalt-nots” but I am asking for “it’s-often-better-ifs.” Structured in this way, the articles will begin to accumulate over time into a body of work that I think any writer looking back on his life will proudly be able to say – “that’s my contribution, that’s how I tried to help.” The alternative notion, that somehow everyone is remembering an opinion here on a particular set of facts, and another one there on a different set of facts, and another tip from this friend of mine who went to Napa once, is just a delusion. It’s an Emperor’s-Clothes scenario that better minds ought to leave behind. No one is remembering any of that unstructured random information in a useful intelligent way. It’s just not how our brains work. People have busy short lives. Food writers should try to help to make them more enjoyable. The net result will be better food for everyone now, and those to come.


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