Is ‘Macho’ Food Writing A Real Problem?

Ever since we read food writer Paul Levy’s recent piece in Slate, we haven’t been able to get it out of our mind. Levy’s piece, which is titled “Food, Inglorious Food: My Decision to Opt Out of the Macho Food Writing Movement”, alleges that in the thirty years since he burst onto the scene, food writing has increasingly begun to consist of “a bellow of bravado. It’s a guy thing, sure, but (with a few honorably hungry exceptions) these scribblers mostly ignore what’s on the plate. They view themselves as boy hunters and despise sissy gatherers, thrive on the undertow of violence they detect in the professional kitchen, and like to linger on the unappetizing aspects of food preparation. The gross-out factor trumps tasting good as well as good taste.” Levy goes on to contrast his “serious” description of a durian (“Some find the smell excremental, some find it reminiscent of sick”) with that of John McPhee’s in a recent issue of The New Yorker ("a fruit that smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu”). Throughout, he refers to the new food writing as “macho” and “virile” and to the practitioners of such writing as “Bad Boy chefs.”

Even if we politely ignore the fact that “excremental” and “fecal” mean exactly the same thing and are on exactly the same level of technical/euphemistic language, it is difficult not to see Levy’s piece as a bit ridiculous and, rather unfortunately, as a case of sour grapes. To start with, why is the pottymouthed new wave of food writing necessarily “macho?” As anyone who has met us in real life can attest, it’s not just dudes who have sailor mouthes and while, admittedly, there aren’t many women practicing that style of food writing, we’d argue that this has more to do with a depressingly low number of major female food writers, which is another topic altogether, than with the new food writing being an intrinsically male phenomenon.

Our major issue with Levy’s piece, however, is the assertion that the type of food writing practiced by folks like Bill Buford and Anthony Bourdain (two of our four favorite food writers, by the by) is lesser than Levy’s own measured, heavily intellectual style of writing. For better or worse, Levy comes off as a complainer upset that no one gets his Goethe references. We’re as fond of a Dickensian pun as the next girl, but reading a pallid description like Levy’s “the meat had dark skin attached to it, was quite fatty and looked like pork … chewy, and had a very strong, though not disagreeable flavor” (about eating dog!) doesn’t make us feel hungry or excited or even, truth be told, terribly interested.

We’d argue along with Grub Street that what Levy calls “macho” food writing is simply food writing that appeals to a wider audience. America (and, as we understand it, Great Britain) is in the midst of a food revolution. People are becoming more aware of what they eat and the increasing popularity of food writing has both contributed to and been influenced by this rise of epicurianism. There’s still a place for Levy’s style of writing (as Slashfood noted, one of the best things about the foodie revolution is the chance to hear lots of different voices in food writing), but the more active, exciting, and accessible style of Mssrs Bourdain, Buford, et al is becoming the norm, and frankly, we’re okay with that.

What do you think? Do you enjoy books like Kitchen Confidential and Heat or do you prefer the food writing of yesteryear?

Food, Inglorious Food [Slate]
British Toff Decries The Coarseness of Modern Food Writing [Grub Street]
Is Food Writing Better or Worse Now? [Slashfood]
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly [Amazon]
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany [Amazon]

[Photo: Anthony Bourdain]


Is ‘Macho’ Food Writing A Real Problem?