May 22, 2020 • 35M

A Conversation with James Hansen

Listen now | Talking UK food media with the associate editor of Eater London and anthologizer behind the In Digestion newsletter.

Alicia Kennedy
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I didn’t expect to spend this installment asking James Hansen, of Eater London and the In Digestion newsletter, to be a representative of his nation, but as a recovered Anglophile—who, in high school, had a Union Jack cover on her first Nokia cell phone—I got a bit in the weeds asking for the scoop on why UK food writing, as perceived from the other side of the Atlantic, is so stratified and filled with social media beefs. There are the newspaper critics, who, as he explains, have a combined 125 years of tenure at their jobs between them, and there are the new wave, like James himself, Jonathan Nunn, Anna Sulan Masing, and Ruby Tandoh, who have sought to broaden the landscape of what is considered food writing and worthy of coverage in their country. How does it all play out in reality?

The only thing I can hope is that this sort of thing is interesting to anyone but me. Please read on, or listen, and excuse the moment where I leap in to find out just how he got into this food thing at all.

Alicia: Thanks so much for coming on, James. How is it over there today?

James: Thanks for having me. It's okay. The UK government's response to all this has certainly been suboptimal, but I think that people are increasingly acknowledging that this is going to be with us for quite some time and reacting accordingly. Despite the many concocted horror stories about parks being flooded with people not socially distancing and such. Yeah. How is it in Puerto Rico? 

Alicia: Well, we have some tourists who are here not wearing face coverings. It's pretty cheap to get here right now and pretty cheap to stay, so people are taking that opportunity to visit for some reason, even though there's nowhere to go and nothing to do—just stand in the street. I guess sometimes it's fun to have a different setting for your isolation, but it would be nice if they wore their masks.

People are—I've been trying to figure out a way to say this and get an answer from a scientist—but the information that has been shared that it's okay to ride your bike or to run without a mask basically makes it so that no one wears one, because everyone acts as though they're out exercising and they're not, necessarily, and also if everyone is out exercising and not wearing a mask then it kind of defeats the whole purpose of trying to keep this under control.

But we've been in very, like, severe lockdown with a curfew for over two months now, without a lot of good information or tracing, which is the issue in the entirety of the United States, so… it's been a journey, as it has been for everyone. And luckily, you know, on the good side of it, I’m not sick; no one I know is sick. So for now, I'm, you know, one of the lucky ones in the situation.

Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

James: Yeah. So I grew up in a small town in the UK called Cheltenham, which I'm certain no one listening to this podcast will have heard of before. It's famous for two main things, which are a horse-racing festival, which has been this year—not the Cheltenham one, but it was one of the main reasons that the UK has possibly suffered such a bad Coronavirus crisis, is that they didn't cancel a leading horse racing festival which had many tens of thousands of people attending just as things were starting to become clearly bad. Another thing is famous for is that it's a spa town, so in the sort of Edwardian Georgian 1800 times, people who were wealthy enough to do so would come to take the waters in the belief that it would cure them of all ailments and also make them virtuous and excellent, which is probably a very strange precursor to the wellness industry.

Neither of my parents are particularly invested in cooking. They both obviously cooked meals for me and my sister and I think did a very good job of that. But I wouldn't credit my like, interest in food to them, so to speak. I was always given the task of doing the “magic stir” at dinner, which was a single stir that would make whatever was being cooked perfect.

Alicia: How did you end up getting into food then?

James: I mean, I read a lot of cookbooks when I was quite young. And I think the first one I got given was a book by Nigel Slater who was a UK food writer who I admire a lot called Real Food, which was divided into chapters based on individual foodstuffs. So I think the main ones were garlic, cheese, chocolate, potatoes, sausages, and I think chicken—all of which are quite appealing categories to someone who's 10 and is interested in cooking. And then I think it mostly started when I finished university and I moved to London and was working in theater and needed to get a job to pay the bills because I was doing an unpaid thing assessing scripts for a new writing theatre. And that got me interested in coffee and coffee culture, and I think the food thing kind of spiraled from there.

Alicia: And you mentioned Nigel Slater—he's one of the British food writers who have kind of crossed over into the American consciousness somewhat. But for the most part, there's not a lot of dialogue back and forth between the UK and the U.S. on matters of food, it seems that that's changing now with some folks such as yourself who are involved with Eater London, who are a bit more engaged with folks in the U.S. on social media and such. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that food writing that originates in the United Kingdom is so different from the food writing that comes out of the States?

James: That's a really good question. And one that I try to reconcile on a regular basis. I think that one of the key reasons is that Eater, despite being in the U.S. since 2005, only launched in London in 2017. I think that's a pretty good kind of precursor to understanding why the food media in the two countries is so different. In the UK, aside from publications, which are very much focused on London rather than being focused on—nominally, at least—an entire country, so in America places like Eater, Saveur, Gourmet when it was still around, publications that may have seen themselves in that vein, are focused entirely on London. And obviously Eater London is the same. 

Food writing has mostly been the preserve of national newspapers, and food writing in national newspapers is largely confined to two strands, both of which fall under lifestyle and those are restaurant criticism and recipe writing. So I think that's the key difference, is that I think if you asked someone in the street in the UK what they thought food writing was they probably default to it being either reviewing restaurants or cookbooks, both of which are interesting mediums in their own right, but certainly aren't representative of all the things that food writing can be. And that is very keenly demonstrated in the range of material you can find in the U.S. and that's not so true in the UK. It’s starting to be true, certainly opening out, which I think is very welcome. And I'm glad that Eater seems to be in some small way a part of that. But I mean, the five leading restaurant critics in the UK have a combined tenure of about 125 years.

The arena in which you're working—as in my personal case, I want to speak for myself as a newish food writer, but also for Eater London as a newish publication—is very entrenched in a certain way of thinking about restaurant writing and food writing and what those things are for and the forms they should take and who they should serve. And I think there's not the plurality of form that there at least appears to be in the U.S. I hope that changes in the next five to 10 years because it would be very disappointing, boring if it didn't.

Alicia: So how has Eater London and and the people in this kind of newer wave of food writing, what steps have you all taken to create that sort of plurality, and what has the reaction been to that?

James: The reaction has mostly been this perception that, I think because Eater London is a new site, and because I think barring the very early days, when we had a couple of current restaurant critics write guest pieces for the site, everyone who has written for us is not tied to a newspaper, which is like I said, the provenance of the food writing in the UK. So the reaction has been that it's a sort of, you know, new wave of generational upstarts coming in to steal away everything that we hold dear. And that's untrue for a number of reasons. And the main one is that there are people in the UK who have been doing that similar kind of writing and were doing that similar kind of writing long before Eater London existed and long before I was even out of school, let alone doing food writing.

But those publications either closed or changed their angle or the people doing it were never able to break into the very rarefied and closed-off kind of newspaper circle of writing. And so the reaction has been one of factionalism.

Like, for example, one of the steps we've taken would be Jonathan Nunn's best value restaurant project, which was twofold. It was designed to work against the sort of entrenched idea of the cheap eat, which I think is, you know, baked into both American and UK food writing culture and is something that needs redressing, and is almost always designed to counter the fact that restaurants reviewed in newspapers in the UK are almost all in London; they're largely at a certain quite expensive price point; and they're largely run by white male chefs. A lot of the response to it has been this sort of, like, why are you doing this? This isn't the way that food writing is in the UK. This isn't what food writing is supposed to be.

And I think it's been strange to experience that, because the perception seems to be that we're trying to kind of, like, stage a coup of some kind. And we're not, we just want to like exist as an alternative alongside what already exists. But that's not how we’ve been met in some quarters of the UK food writing circle, I suppose.

Alicia: UK food writing also kind of hit the States recently when there was that—I guess it's always when there's a bit of a kerfuffle, like when, when this one editor, you know, wrote back to a vegan pitch, saying something like vegans should die. And then he came out with a book that, by all accounts is not very good and was reviewed in Grub Street and kind of just destroyed.

His name is failing me right now. But it really it's very interesting to watch from the outside, because like that perspective is kind of, I mean—it's sort of like a jokey, outsider perspective of what a British person is from, from the U.S., like, so of course we like to make fun of him, and pay attention to him because for us it's a caricature. But it does do a disservice, it seems, to how people perceive food in the UK because if we're only going to talk about these very like upper-class type writers who never want to see any change, then we continue to kind of view food in the UK as a very stuffy affair, and from all accounts it is not necessarily that.

How does that play out in terms of what you decide to cover at Eater London, do you take more risks because you want to push back against this very staid idea, or is someone like that kind of a joke even to you guys?

James: I think there is that element of stuffiness still. I think it's probably even in the book by the critic you're talking about, William Sitwell. I think it's overstated in terms of its actual impact on the way that restaurants in the UK kind of operate and think about food. It does definitely still exist. Probably the most prominent food TV program in the UK is probably MasterChef, and that definitely still exists in this kind of like space where the pinnacle of food is like Eurocentric, white tablecloth, all the vegetables are in little cubes kind of dining. And I think that does have an impact on other restaurants in the country, but I think—and this is a hypothetical, but I think it's mostly true—I think that has more of an impact in restaurants outside London, particularly those recognized by the Michelin Guide, and particularly those recognized in places that aren't cities.

And in terms of London, I mean, the thing is, is that I think that we don't see the places that we cover as taking a risk. Like, I think one of the most dangerous things that food critics can do, and I think that it happens a lot in UK food writing in particular, is to write for this imaginary audience that you kind of patronize by assuming that they won't be into or won't understand the risk that you're taking, and therefore you just never take the risk.

I think that's been proven by the fact that lots of people read our site and lots of people want to read about the restaurants that we cover that we don't perceive as risky at all, but I think other critics in the UK certainly do. Or they want to handle it with kid gloves and talk about it in the sort of like, “Oh, isn't this a nice restaurant project run by, oh, someone who doesn't look like me,” and then we'll leave it alone and then go back to the same old thing, which is probably where the staid perception comes from.

The second strand to it is that because the London restaurant scene, if you were to put restaurant scene in, like air quotes, is quite a newish invention. I think it's still—and I don't mean this in a derogatory way; I mean this in a developmental way—I think it's still relatively immature. And I think that it has this air of like, this is a group of people at a party, and they love all the food and they love all the drink, and they love all the guests, and they love the hosts. And then someone turns up, and they say, “Oh, the food's great, and the drink’s great, and you're quite nice people, but maybe the host is actually not such a good person.” And even though the thing being criticized is like the superstructure, the guests feel criticized for being there. And I think that's kind of part of the problem is that when we try to address larger issues, they're often taken as personal attacks, like raining on someone's parade or stopping people from having fun in restaurants. That's not the purpose of this. The purpose isn't to drag individuals or say that people are making bad individual choices, necessarily. It's just to ask, Sure, this is the way things are, but why are they the way they are? And who are they actually good for? And I think that's a pretty good summation of how we try and guide what we cover.

Alicia: And you are doing so much reading for your new newsletter In Digestion. How does that happen? Like, how do you how do you put that together? What are you following and how are you making sure you know, to read outside the sort of, you know, well-trodden, well-tweeted, I should say, types of voices and publications that are, you know, used to attention. I mean, I know you've linked to Granta couple of times, which is more well known as a literary journal, so can you give us some of your methodology?

James: I started doing it as a project for another publication, The Gannett, which was the first food writing thing I did. It was a free, kind of passion project that mostly interviewed chefs, restaurateurs and food writers, but we wanted to kind of collate an interesting range of perspectives on what food writing was doing and what all the different ways in which food writing—and I think more broadly, food media, because I try and look at podcasts and videos and photographs and zines and all other formats, as I possibly can. In terms of In Digestion, I'm sort of relying on a very large network of publications and publications that I built while doing that, but I mean, a lot of it honestly is using Google; a lot of it is following up on links in stories that those kinds of stories you're talking about, that maybe do get shared a lot, because quite often in the branches have a story, they get informed by links to other publications that can unearth more interesting things that probably could have been given airtime or their own have been just in publications or places that maybe don't necessarily get as much airtime as a sort of what you might call the usual suspects.

And, I don't know, I think just looking around. I mean, it takes time, but you know, it can be done and I think it's hard to—I just read a lot and try to not look at mainstream publications as the starting point, I guess.

Alicia: And so are you looking, when you are creating your weekly anthology, for food writing that is making up for what you see as missing in the mainstream or for conversations that are lacking in the mainstream? And I mean—but even if that's not your aim, that is what you end up doing. And so what do you think is lacking in mainstream food conversations, not necessarily just in the UK, but in this kind of global conversation that we all are having all day?

James: I think that the key thing that's lacking is a recognition of the fact that restaurants and food don't just appear. I think that it comes from this. The thing that spurred it for me in the UK was definitely that there wasn't enough writing that even considered why a food cost the amount it did or why ingredients came from certain places, or—when I was working in the coffee industry, like, why the term speciality coffee even came to be and what what does it mean and what can it be translated as? I think that’s the main thing. I think there's a lot of assumption baked in a lot of food writing about—yeah, I mean, we've thought about it. I think your line in your newsletter about “the coffee always comes from somewhere” is kind of the thing I think is missing, like an awareness that the single thing that you're writing about being a dish or a restaurant or a whole restaurant, or a chef who is at the head of a kitchen, or a restaurateur who is at the head of a large restaurant organization or even a small one, is part of a chain that doesn't start or stop with them. I think the most interesting, vital food writing addresses that and treats food as something which intersects with being essential to life and something that can be treated as a luxury or a pleasure. And I think often, particularly in the UK, those two things don't really meet.

And you just have this sort of very glossy, lovely impression of a restaurant world and like a restaurant culture, which is full of wonderful people and does wonderful things and has so many wonderful aspects to it, but also, you can't just stop at the surface; you can't just take all of that at face value and say, there's nothing behind this. There is, and you need to ask what that is and also whether it's actually good or not.

Alicia: It does make reporting much harder to ask this question. But it's so necessary.

You reminded me by tweeting the other day about some sort of bug food, food made from bugs, worms, I think. This is a kind of, sort of utilitarian perspective on food that has been driving me nuts for a while, where, you know, the things that you're saying about sourcing and that the food always has a longer lifespan than one can imagine from when it appears on your plate. But there's been this strain of not caring about that for the sake of efficiency and for the sake of greenwashing items to make them seem as though they are saviors of the planet and saviors from climate change when, you know, there's a lot of questions that can be asked about their sourcing and that sort of thing. And I'm talking, yes, about heavily marketed products made from insects where people aren't considering how insects can also be monocrops and thus susceptible to disease, but also things like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.

And how are those things manifesting in the UK? Are people talking about these things? Are they writing about them? You know, what is the temperature on these things right now? I know that it's kind of taking a back burner, to the fact that we're living in a global pandemic, but these things still exist. And I'm still wondering how it's being perceived over there. As someone who, you know, in the U.S., we're always looking toward Europe and saying, “They do better things with food, they care a little bit more.” And so it's been, you know, troubling to see that these things could take hold there in a similar way. But, you know, basically what's the status on the situation regarding, you know, efficiency things like Soylent or tech food like Impossible Burgers and that sort of thing?

James: Interestingly, one of the kind of prominent—I guess you'd call it a trend, even though I’m loath to do so, in UK restaurants that the majority of people who are covering London restaurant media will consider to be good—is this focus on meat and fish and vegetables which are produced using the mind-set of regenerative agriculture. There's a big debate in the UK environment media, which has had its entrails spilled into restaurants, whereby a lot of prominent environmentalists are arguing for extensive rewilding, so allowing the landscape to kind of just do its own thing, and the kind of strongest opposition to that in terms of mind-set would come from people who are supporting regenerative agriculture who would say that allowing cattle and pigs, particularly, to graze on kind of, I guess, quasi-rewilded landscapes, which aren't planted as monocultures. The theory is that it allows more carbon to be sequestered into the soil and is therefore better for the environment than standard livestock production. I have my doubts about whether that is a viable long-term solution, particularly at scale, but what it's led to is a series of prominent London restaurants focusing on using meat and fish from sources like that, particularly pork and beef. So you have this one strand, which is supporting small-scale farming and restaurant critics and restaurant writers love to write about that and love to give it praise and rightly so, because a lot of the product they produce extremely good. But at the same time, you have people eulogizing about the Impossible Burger—not the Impossible Burger because it's not even the UK yet because it hasn't been regulated as a foodstuff—but the Beyond Burger has and it has been, yeah, widely praised as an ethical, environmental, and tasty solution to me without even a moment's consideration to asking why the main people taking it up are fast food chains.

There's a Formula One driver in the UK called Lewis Hamilton, who is known for having gone vegan a few years ago and he's backing a fast food chain called Neat Burger, which has designs on being a rollout, basically. So you have a guy who makes millions of pounds by driving a car around on a track for 70 laps also hawking a burger that purports to save the environment. And it's like, the cognitive dissonance or what there is staggering.

I've been thinking about this for a while, I think it's not so much that people don't want to have these kinds of conversations. It's more what I was talking about at the beginning. But food writing in the UK is so entrenched in, basically, if it's not a restaurant review or a recipe, I'm not really sure what it is. Outlets with the necessary kind of reach and impact to disseminate alternative ideas in a way that might even have a hope of penetrating the mainstream is just not really viable in the current media ecosystem. I think things like Vittles, that’s the key example in London, is providing like a plurality in UK food media, but it's also really sobering to think that it needed both a pandemic and an entirely new publication to present its ideas. Right, if that makes sense, like a shame that it’s perceived there is no room for the things that the largest publications in the country. There’s an essential parochialism there which I think is slowly kind of drifting by.

Alicia: And for you, is cooking a political act?

James: I think it always is. I don't like the BuzzFeed piece about Guy Fieri that said he was unproblematic because his food is apolitical like, I think it always is, I think, like, whatever choice you make about the food you buy, what you cook with, and all the other things that go into cooking, I think, are all political choices. And I think as well as that, being mindful of the things that control what those choices consist of is also important.

No individual person can make the same choices for the same kind of available roster of choices as anybody else, and I think that trying to think of cooking as not political is—yeah, it's not admissible to me personally.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for coming on, James.

James: Thank you for having me.