Hartford Courant restaurant critic Elissa Altman has a very long and very powerful essay over at the Huffington Post about the state of food writing, and it repeats something we’ve heard often: Personal, heartfelt memoirs about food should trump the fembots of the Food Network and their ilk. It’s an argument we can well understand, but we disagree.
Our problem with Altman’s argument is twofold. First of all, we’re sick of the cheap shots at food celebrities. Yes, Rachael Ray is no M.F.K. Fisher, but so what? Who cares? The straw man built up here — “multi-millionaire celebrity chef/cookbook author screaming BAM or YUMMO at an overwhelmingly corpulent audience whose idea of real food extends probably as far as the nearest McDonald’s” — is as weakly self-serving as the screeds of intellectuals who pretend that every record not made by Sufjan Stevens is Britney-esque pap for the masses. Second, we’re weary of “the words of the learned home cooks and writers with vital connections to Real Life in all its history, pain, glory, and survival, in order to remember that what we eat and the way we eat it, at its best, is not only a construct of physical need, but also of civility, peace, and cultural empathy.” Please. For our part, we’ve read enough “in the midst of my divorce, nothing succored me like mother’s kugel” essays to last a lifetime. The emo tropes of middlebrow food writing are almost as bad as the perky hosts of TV food shows, with the added feature of being coy and self-congratulatory in the most mawkish possible way.