“Everyone does their best to want power,” writes Andrea Long Chu in her slim book Females, “because deep down, no one wants it at all.”
Is that it? Is that why everyone is so boring—because they’re trying to want a power they don’t, truly, desire? I’m applying the thought, of course and always, to writers, to the current media landscape. I think about when Sarah Schulman writes in The Gentrification of the Mind about the time Kathy Acker wrote a review of her novel for the Village Voice in 1988 simply because she liked it; Schulman had no connections for Acker, and she was genuinely surprised and touched that someone would write about something they liked without an exchange in mind. I think about Rene Ricard writing “The Radiant Child” for ArtForum in 1981, saying it’s the artist’s responsibility to get the work in front of the critic but also that “all of art history will be retribution for Van Gogh’s neglect,” for the failure of the establishment to notice Van Gogh’s brilliance while he was alive (a double-edged sword). I think, again, of Schulman in the same book talking about the ways in which writers from places like The New Yorker and New York assume that all artists have the same power and access that they do, as well as the same desire for it.
These were the kinds of ideas I had in my head when I decided to start writing about food in 2015. I’d been working at New York as a copy editor since the end of 2009, (also) ran a vegan bakery from 2012 to 2013, and by then was about to turn 30 and figured I should do something about being so frustrated with the vision of food the mainstream was putting forth. Wouldn’t it be interesting for me to write about all the vegan things I’d been experiencing firsthand, for me to bring the eye of someone who ran a small food business to journalism? It was interesting to some, but not to many, and while I’ve had some luck telling alternative stories, I’ve often felt capped in the knees by various editorial visions into really going anywhere new or interesting, especially in food media. I’ve done my best work for a Canadian literary website, a now-defunct British nonprofit focused on the future, and various indie print magazines. Oh, and for the Village Voice, which got pretty gentrified there at the end but was still a place where I could write my first restaurant review on an ital bodega in the Bronx.
But the sausage continues to be made a certain way despite having a pretty dull flavor, and I think of gentrified minds when I see that Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio, millionaire chefs who laid off their restaurant workers immediately upon the lockdown in New York, are being granted space to explain themselves, their challenges. I think of gentrified minds when I read so many fawning over Gabrielle Hamilton’s sad tale of having to mop the floor of her own restaurant (at a rate of, according to one interview, $3 per word). I think of gentrified minds when David Chang is regarded as a go-to thought leader on how to reopen the hospitality industry but has apparently never thought of the connection between the environment and restaurants. I think of gentrified minds when my own brain continues caring what these people who have power and will continue to have power have to say.
Because if the truth is that food media is so insular and has so little reach—as various folks have made clear recently with their basic ignorance—then why doesn’t food media have any guts? Why doesn’t it fear neglecting its own Van Goghs, or redefining who it pays attention to? Why doesn’t it worry about the true cost of food, or alienating readers who might rely on canned goods?
There is good reporting happening (always read Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle, The Counter, Civil Eats), but where are the bigger ideas? (Aside from the voice of Tunde Wey, who made a brilliant appearance on The Bite podcast this week, and Eric Rivera’s great essay on the failures of his once-hero chefs.) Please tell me if I’ve been missing anything else that takes a big stab at the very foundation upon which restaurants’ and their handmaiden media’s economies are built.
But the gentrified mind doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. I read Mayukh Sen, my friend, writing for Eater on the chef Garima Kothari, who was killed by her partner in a femicide. Mayukh had just interviewed her and, enraged by the continued coverage of big chefs to the neglect of those who haven’t ruthlessly and perhaps mindlessly expanded, but who were serving their communities specifically, without fanfare, wrote this beautiful and anguished tribute. Was her work not reflective enough of the zeitgeist to merit more discussion prior to her death? What determines the zeitgeist—or, who? Awards? Stars? These things perpetuate only what they want to see, only what does not threaten their very existence. The exception that proves the rule is Chris Crowley’s Grub Street obituary for Jesús Roman Melendez, who cooked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten for years; he died of Covid-19. Most had never heard of him before this piece ran, just as most have still not heard from whoever was laid off by Meyer, Colicchio, Chang, and Hamilton in favor of their voices. If we’re not seeing anything new, any new faces or any new bylines that come from a fresh perspective, from the mainstream food media now—in a non-tokenizing way—then when will we?
This year, I’ve been writing more for non-food outlets. I’ve also taken matters into my own hands, somewhat, by writing here. But there needs to be more done to de-gentrify the space, or to leave it behind. To burn it down. What would the end of prestige look like? What does the beginning of its end look like?
To dive a bit further into the gentrification of food media, I’ll be talking tomorrow to Stephen Satterfield of Whetstone Magazine and its Points of Origin podcast for Friday’s paid-subscriber interview. If you have any questions for him, please let me know.
A lot went up on Tenderly, such as a recipe for patatas bravas and an interview with Raechel Ann Jolie about the vegan elements of her memoir Rust Belt Femme.
You can also watch my chat with Feminist Food Club from last Tuesday now via their website.
I’m reminded, as if the above didn’t make it clear, that my brain opens up when I’m reading good writing and starts to atrophy when I get too mired in the food world. I reread Females, because I wanted to remember its perfect structure, the way such a short text with big ideas unfolds with exquisite pacing; I opened up The Gentrification of the Mind to remember that part about Kathy Acker and got stuck in it, because it’s so fucking good; I want to reread Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey and Devotion because I’ve started working on something a bit… mystical, for lack of a better word, about my own life. I received my copy of Claire Comstock-Gay’s Madame Clairvoyant’s Guide to the Stars and was flattered to find out that Scorpio is indeed the punk of the zodiac.
Online, I can’t recommend the perspective of Aleksandar Hemon more on the current problem that is the United States, and my personal favorite Substack newsletter, Book Post, which features occasional reviews by one of my other favorite writers, Àlvaro Enrigue, like this one about the Uruguayan leftist Juan Carlos Onetti.
You can make mushroom bourguignon without a lot of the ingredients and it’s still good, it turns out. I especially like it cooked fully covered and longer than this recipe suggests, then plopped on toast crisped in the cast-iron with a bit of olive oil. For Friday dinner, though, we put it on whole roasted eggplants. Why don’t I roast whole eggplants more? Oh, but I stumbled upon a way to make eggplant good really quickly: slice it super thin; salt it and let it sit a bit, oozing some of its water (I never skip doing this because otherwise eggplant can come out bitter); and meanwhile, get some oil hot in a pan, season it with smoked paprika, and once it’s really going, put in the eggplant slices. They’ll brown up quick into a perfect sandwich filling without all the work and time of making eggplant bacon. They’ll just be, indeed, fried slices of smoky eggplant.
A new section! I have been obsessively eating the jam from V Smiley Preserves (full disclosure: they sent it to me, but it was the rare instance when someone properly targeted me). They’re all honey-based, yes, but capture really wonderful seasonal flavors in combinations like Lavender Blackberry Rhubarb and Pear Quince Ginger Orange.
I asked people on Instagram to recommend their favorite jams after seeing my friend Keia Mastrianni post Brins Jam, a go-to of mine made back in Brooklyn. Their Banana and Cherry Chai jams are so good. The writer Scott Hocker recommends June Taylor’s jams out of Berkeley, where the maker endeavors to use up the whole fruit. Ren Moreau, also a writers, suggests Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies our of northern Maine; the eccentric shop apparently makes Deer Isle a worthwhile visit in better times.