“What is the role of the food and drink critic?” Clay Risen muses in Atlantic’s online Food channel after downing a publicist-arranged snifter of $38,000-a-bottle scotch and feeling some ethical qualms. “Let’s face it: readers aren’t looking for an intellectual discussion of a restaurant’s spaghetti alle vongole — they just want to know if it’s worth the extra clams.” Next to more objective cultural experiences like dance, art, or literature, writing critically about food is hardly comparable, says Risen: “The good critic needs an exceptional palate to be of real service. But Sontag it ain’t.” Burn!
But fellow critic (and Risen’s editor) Corby Kummer, responding on the same site, disagrees: “A restaurant critic has an enormous field to write about,” he says, making the case that there’s more to writing about food than just noting how things taste. There’s also “the farmers, cooks, and food producers around it, the cultural life of the city, food fashions, the role of small businesspeople versus large corporations.” Still, that sort of writing edges into reporting and profiling, and not criticism per se — Risen doesn’t dismiss the importance of restaurant reviews wholesale, he just plops them on a lower rung than pursuits that are perhaps higher-minded — not to mention less directly tied to sustenance and survival. Curiously, neither side mentioned the rise of Internet criticism as one of the major game-changers in the world of food writing.