Off-Topic: On Food Criticism

Photo by David Greenwald

I like food. In fact, I like food a lot. I’d go so far as to say that I’d probably die if I stopped eating food. It is for this reason and many others that I like to read food writing. Of course, as a vegetarian, I don’t benefit from all food writing and find much of it repulsive. Still, I seek great food writers in print and ablog, and make time when I can to explore dishes whose greatness they extol.

Paul Levy wrote an interesting piece in Slate about the increasing masculinity of food writing. It’s a good commentary and I recommend it, even though I think he’s mostly wrong; there is a minority of hypermasculine douchebags in every quadrant of criticism, music especially included, and they need only be ignored. He takes the presence of a few in food writing to mark a changing tide, and I think he overstates that case.

But my beef with food writers (lolol) is more fundamental, actually. [Continue reading…]

Food critics tend to associate price with quality: A $6 sandwich is a great bargain, or a $20 entree might be too small to justify its cost. This is a stupid criticism.

First, this is essentially a non-criterion for any other “art,” which should give us cause for suspicion when it’s applied to the art of food. Critics roles are as aesthetic evaluators, not value appraisers. Imagine hearing a rock critic say, “The album was good, but $13 was too much since it was only 40 minutes long. It would’ve been better if it was $4.” Everyone prefers to pay less when it’s an option, but an aesthetic appraisal ought not to account for cost in ratio with size.

Second, when it comes down to it, cost is not particularly important when it comes to the taste of food. If someone told me, “I have the best bite of food here that you’ll ever taste. It’s only one bite, but it’ll cost you $100,” well, I don’t know about you, but I’d hand over the $100 immediately. Herein lies my point: When we are talking about the actual goodness of food, the cost is more or less irrelevant.

I think I have a good understanding of where the role of cost in food criticism comes from. Food serves dual purposes; we want it to taste good, but it also needs to sustain our lives. Paying $100 per bite would not enable this, so it’s relevant to the sustenance aspect of food, but not the aesthetic one; critics just confuse these two things sometimes. I also think it is informative to realize that many food bloggers pay out of pocket for the meals they criticize. Rightly or wrongly, when you get a big bill, it often leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth.

I don’t think money and food writing should be divorced; it can be informative to know a restaurant’s rates, and if you’re very hungry and strapped for cash, it can be a dealbreaker. Maybe writers could just try including price without tying it to the quality of the food, or perhaps those critics insistent on a taste:cost ratio could call themselves “restaurant critics” instead of “food critics.” In the meantime, good thing us music bloggers have Radiohead to make it easy on us.


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