Responding to critics

I’ve been teaching a writers’ workshop in Chautauqua all week, one of the most unusual and interesting spots of the country, a summer resort, an enclave of Victorian gingerbread cottages devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits (it has thus made anything good to eat, this many times daily pleasure of the flesh, really hard to come by).

But it’s given me a moment to do something I’ve wanted to address pretty much since I started publishing books. Respond to critics. This was one reason a non-fiction writer told me he blogged. What pleasure, what satisfaction! I thought. To answer the snarky and ham-handed journalistic rabble; until recently one could only sit there, wrists and ankles bound to the chair, mouth gagged, and absorb the mauling. It’s a double-edged sword though because one can easily come off sounding petulant and whiny, especially when the reviews are mainly favorable. But I have wanted to address a couple issues some reviews (and comments from a couple of journalists) have brought up: the notion of enthusiasm for one’s subject and conflict of interest issues for a writer who both works with and writes about chefs.

In his nytimes review of my book, John T. Edge calls me a gusher who's too cozy with his subjects and implies that I hid the fact that I’d worked with Thomas Keller on his books (he had to go to the PR material, he writes, to learn that I’d coauthored these books that I speak so highly of); in fact, I note numerous times in Reach of a Chef my part in these cookbooks and moreover they’re listed on the “other books by” page in the front of the book, and my association and friendship with Thomas Keller is spelled out in the opening pages of the book. But the implication that I’m shilling for my own work isn’t really what bothers me; it’s the slightly unctuous tone of the reviewer. Isn’t he really questioning the conflict of interest in writing about Keller? If he didn’t like the book, he should just say so. It reads as if the Times editors forced him into a positive slant at the end. I say all this, of course, with gratitude to the reviewer and to the book review editors for consideration at all, something not to be taken lightly.

A more generous review (but not without its criticisms) comes from Louisa Thomas in the NYObesrver. Identified as being on staff at The New Yorker, Ms Thomas seems to convey the spirit of my book as I intended it, but even her reading is perplexing. I make a hero out of Keller in the book, she says, adding that I believe chefs are the high priests of the food world. Edge, too, says Keller is my muse. This was more true of the last book, Soul of a Chef, in which I truly could seem to be gushing. In Reach of a Chef, I don’t gush, relative to what I’m capable of when I care about a subject. The opposite really—I’m the most skeptical person there is with regard to the contemporary chef. We are entering an unromantic era with regard to chefs and restaurants. In this new world, Keller has lost his shoes, is out of balance, and says he’s not a chef anymore. And I think this is something that people don’t want to hear. People still want to believe that chefs are artists, which they very rarely are.

In the end, there are genuine reasons to be enthusiastic in today’s chef world (e.g. Melissa Kelly, Masa Takayama—if there’s a hero in my book, it’s him—Judy Rodgers and her smart words, what an observant cook and excellent writer she is)—but it’s more complex now, the chef is in transition, and I don’t know what the next phase will be. There’s simply too many alumni coming out of great kitchens; a finite number can fit into the always moving circle cast by the spotlight of public adoration; we can only have so many celebrity chefs. Those chefs who no longer cook have become in effect CEOs, and it’s hard to maintain celebrity when you’re a CEO, except by becoming a criminal.

About the gushing: I don’t gush indiscriminately (and I wouldn’t call it gushing; over-idealizing is more accurate). The people about whom I “gush” deserve it. And again, I do very little gushing in the new book, because I think a lot of what’s happening in the upper echelons of the chef world are confusing and sad. But I think that for journalists, especially those in the New York food media, being skeptical and snarky (which is the opposite of gushing) is somehow perceived as an asset and somehow beneficial to the reader. Only rarely is the snarky writer talented enough to deliver a truly great read, a really ugly, delightful evisceration. I’d go so far as to claim that snarkiness and talent are mutually exclusive for all but the rarest writer.

Two journalists have questioned how I could have written about someone formerly close with Keller, Adam Block, a businessman, for The Times magazine, which, given the aforementioned reviews deserves a response. It's important and interesting, and I intend to address it, but I’m late for my class…

Ever wanted to write for this site?

A while ago I bought tickets for A Celebration of Life's Simple Pleasures at the 92nd St Y in Manhattan. Ruth Reichl, Anne Patchett, Jane and Michael Stern, and David Rakoff/Leonard Lopate will discuss good food and great writing. Now it turns out I'll be out of town, so I'm sitting on two tickets (a $50 value!) for Thursday, July 13 at 8:00pm.

So here's a deal for you. If you'd like to attend I will give you my two tickets, on one condition: You must write up the event for publication on this site. If you're interested in being Megnut's first stringer, send me an email explaining why you should get the tickets and do the write-up. I will select the "winner" based on demonstrated writing ability and enthusiasm for covering the event for this site. You have until next Friday July 7th to get your message to me. Send your messages to "reader" at this domain with the subject "92nd St Y tickets". Good luck!

For reference, see my Notes from Michael Pollan's 92nd St Y talk and Thoughts about The End of the Plate.

CSA wipe out

Flooded greenhouseIt's been raining heavily in the northeast for the past few weeks, but I wasn't aware just how much rain we'd gotten until yesterday. I received an email that my weekly CSA (from Norwich Meadows Farm) fruit and veg pick up was cancelled because a road was washed out and the delivery trucks couldn't make the trip. Bad news to be sure, but today's email contained worse:

"Our lower field was devastated. Our plantings of squash and cucumbers were washed out. Our upper field was flooded as well. It will take a week or so to know the extent of the damage."

Flooded fieldWith all the rain, they've fallen behind on planting, and with the reduced income due to crop loss, cannot afford to hire more employees. Members are working to arrange trips upstate to help on the farm. It's disappointing as a CSA member to realize we might not get much in the way of a harvest this summer, but that disppointment is nothing compared to what the farmers are going through. So much rain is devastating for the farm. As you can see from the pictures, the fields are filled with water. With rain like this, it becomes easier to see why local products might cost considerably more than those grown and shipped from California's arid Central Valley.

AG muses on the violence…

AG muses on the violence in professional kitchens. The worst kitchen violence story I heard was pretty bad: my sous chef reported one of his chefs at culinary school was doing a stage at Daniel. There was some trouble on the line between chefs, one of whom kept screwing up but not taking the blame, thereby getting others in trouble (big no no in the kitchen, you own up to your fuck ups in a kitchen). Finally, the unfairly-blamed chef snapped, and grabbing his chef's knife, he stabbed the other chef! Of course this story came out right after I said, "I've got the card of the person who arranges stages at Daniel. I was thinking of doing one…" I never did follow up.

First the came for the…

First the came for the foie gras, then they came for the trans fats. Chicago looks to ban trans fats in all the city's restaurants. Ald. Edward Burke has proposed the ban and says “Why not start here to talk about what government can do to keep people more healthy? If they can't resolve to do it themselves, maybe municipal government ought to step in.” Watch out Chicagoans, up next: government-mandated calisthenics at work!

Veganism, foie gras and personal choice

I received the following via email today:

Regarding Jason's letter: Just go vegan. My wife and I did it about a year ago, and it's one of the best decisions we've ever made.

I will admit to being upset and thrown off about what and how to eat after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. But my distress is not limited to meat but to how all the food we consume is produced, including vegetables. Sure if I'm troubled by meat production, I could "just" remove it from my diet. But do I remove fruits and vegetables and grains as well because I'm concerned about pesticides and pollution and monocultures? I'd be pretty skinny if I followed that diet!

I have been a vegetarian three times, the final most severe phase of which occurred from 1998-2002. During that stint I forsook all dairy products, all eggs, and all meat. I was almost vegan (AV) except that I couldn't give up fish and ate a four to five servings of it a week. This was not because I thought fish had less feelings than cows or pigs, I simply enjoyed fish too much to give it up. Giving up the other foods hadn't felt like much of a sacrifice. The decision to go AV was based on a dislike of meat initially. I dropped the dairy when I realized soy would give me more protein with less fat. And eggs had always grossed me out. It was not a moral decision.

In 2002, a visit to the French Laundry and a torchon of foie gras precipitated a rapid and total collapse of my almost-veganism. I haven't looked back and I don't want to. Being an AV created a very contentious relationship between me and my food. Eating was rarely fun or pleasurable. It was always a series of questions and compromises, trying to find something on a menu that would work when I was out, a frozen Amy's vegan pizza at home.

Since my return to meat, I've learned more about food and garnered more pleasure from eating and sharing food with friends than I had in years. My culinary world has expanded in ways I'd never imagined — I'll actually order bone marrow and liver when I'm out to dinner. And I'm more engaged and aware of food production methods and practices than I ever was as an AV. I eat with eyes wide open, with the full knowledge that an animal was bred and slaughtered for my consumption. And I am OK with that.

This leads to what angers me about the recent foie gras bans, PETA, and animal rights activists in general. First, there's the assumption you must be eating meat because you're ignorant of where it comes from. I support efforts to educate consumers about factory farming (though I draw the line at the propaganda activists produce that utilize intellectually dishonest methods to support their "arguments") but trying to convince anyone of anything by initiating an argument with an insult isn't particularly effective.

Second, there's the moral superiority that oftentimes accompanies said argument. Great, YOU made YOUR choice because it aligned with YOUR values and beliefs. That does not mean your choice is right for me, and your condescension isn't going to convince me of anything. Keep your veggie burger, and leave me my Shake Shack.

As with everything in life, eating is a series of personal choices. The more education we have, the better choices we can make. I believe in personal responsibility and the freedom to make choices, and I don't think the government should be in the business of restricting them. Factory farms, whether they produce milk or eggs or beef or berries, are environmentally unsound and cruel. And I do not support food produced in this fashion (with I'd wager about a 95% success rate in reality). In my ideal world, everyone would be aware of the conditions under which their food is produced and we'd all purchase humanely treated meat and organic vegetables.

If state and local government want to do something to prevent animal cruelty, banning small scale foie gras production provides a minimal and questionable (many argue that foie gras birds are humanely treated and do not suffer) result. Why not legislate sunlight and fresh air requirements, or set a certain amount of square footage required for a given number of animals? Heck, enforce and update the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). But banning foie gras production has little impact on the suffering of animals in the United States. Leading producer Hudson Valley Foie Gras processes 7,000 ducks a week1. But more than 27,000,000 farmed animals are killed a day in the United States2.

Instead of forcing one's individual choices upon others, everyone should be working together to expand consumer education and improve treatment for all animals on this planet, including fellow humans. Then allow people to make decisions based on their socio-economic and religious reality, not yours.

I guess I could have just said, "Go vegan? No thanks!"

1 Anthony Ramirez, "Animal Rights Groups Ask New York to Ban Foie Gras," June 22, 2006, <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/22/nyregion/22ducks.html> (28 June 2006)

2 Dena Jones, "Crimes Unseen," July/August 2004, <http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/04-4om/Jones.html> (28 June 2006)