There was a piece about a “vibe shift” in The Cut, and people had a lot of reactions to it. I liked it because the anxiety of aging was palpable in the writing, the seeking of an answer for how one should live when they went into the pandemic in their early 30s and are coming out in their mid-to-late, when many friends have had babies and their favorite bars have closed and maybe even their clothes have gone out of fashion. How to retrieve cool, the piece seems to ask, when you’ve aged out of it in what feels like the blink of an eye? Should one even try to retrieve it?
We can argue, of course, about the reality of this situation, of these vibes, of whether anything really matters—these arguments are the stuff of living, and I live for a good argument. By which I mean, not a fight! A spirited discussion. Sadly, though, we are living in an internet age of consensus-seeking rather than engagement-seeking. As if everyone of a certain milieu online must agree or else the whole world will fall apart. I think we can agree—or perhaps we can discuss—that it’s falling apart whether we think there’s a vibe shift happening or not.
In times like these, when I feel nuts because people on the internet project themselves onto the work of writers rather than just enjoy or not enjoy the writing itself, engage with its ideas, be entertained. In school, I studied literature, darling, and so I like the sentences; I like to see what the sentences are doing; I like to engage in the sometimes cacophonous counterpoint of what’s being said and how the saying is being done. “The style tells you that the author is in touch with language,” said “Bookworm” host Michael Silverblatt while in conversation with writer Sarah Manguso. I rewound the episode and wrote that down.
Instead—and I’ve expressed my anxiety on this before—everything is read as prescriptive, as a dictate, as dogma. On the internet, it seems no one can read writing as writing; they must agree or disagree, 100 percent, nothing less. (This is seemingly part of the same imperative to comment on all global affairs beyond expressions of solidarity with all oppressed and colonized peoples.) It's tell, not show, and certainly not both at once.
Of course, I’m not talking about hard news or investigations or any bullshit that questions other people’s existence. I’m talking about culture writing, nonfiction, essays, creative work that isn’t in pursuit, necessarily, of some objective truth. That can be good or bad or middling—whatever—but it doesn’t have to show us ourselves. Indeed, we are all different. To be or feel seen doesn’t need to happen, every time we read. Ligaya Mishan wrote about the concept of the “food writer” for T, concluding:
“[M.F.K Fisher] mourns but retains the “consciousness of the possibilities of the table” and grows up to be herself the kind of cook — and writer — determined to shake people “from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy but of thought, of behavior.” And, more forcefully: “To blast their safe, tidy little lives.” Surely there is no better mantra for a food writer today, wallowing in scraps and swinging for the stars. What more could we give our readers? For what is the point of reading about food or, for that matter, reading about anything at all: to look in a mirror, or through a window; to escape the world, or to discover it?”
“To blast their safe, tidy little lives”! “To look in a mirror, or through a window”! What a beautiful reminder this was of what food writing, any writing, could seek to do: not merely make people nod their heads and go hmmm but invite readers to think, see a bit differently. To think, period. And occasionally recognize themselves. As a favorite writer of mine, Iulian Ciocan (read Before Brezhnev Died), has said, “The role of the writer is not to change the world, but to speak about things differently and thus make them more visible.”
As a food writer seeking to be understood as a writer—or as described by Rene Ricard in “The Radiant Child” in more dramatic fashion, “a public eye”—who is pointedly not an influencer (though sometimes I do think I should try to be, for the money to take care of people in my life), who has made a conscious effort to get away from writing about restaurants because she finds them mostly dull as a site of intellectual stimulation at this time (an essay on this is forthcoming), I am still seen by some as a machine for pumping out restaurant recommendations and recipes. While I love to write recipes and give people I know personal recommendations for restaurants, for a broader audience, all I can give are my ideas and my sentences. My readings, my thoughts, my feelings. I don’t want to convince anyone of anything aside from the importance of taking food seriously; that doesn’t mean you have to always agree with me, just as not every dish will taste delicious on both our palates.
I don’t seek total agreement, just engagement—not in a social media metrics way, but in a thoughtful way. Recently, someone mentioned my essays’ “imperfections” as giving them “style and charm.” This wasn’t intended as an insult, and I don’t think I should necessarily perceive it as such, but I also want to clarify that I see the ongoingness, the relentlessness of this project as part of it: I’ve been thinking in public on a range of subjects for just about two years now. This is essay number 91. Perfection, like agreement, is not the point.
I think seeking engagement for its own sake is what it means to be a writer, what we should strive for, and in reading others’ writing, I don’t want to always be in agreement, don’t want to always be seen or recognized or understood: I want to be thinking, feeling, generating new knowledge myself. Perhaps chastised, provoked, shamed. I want to know humanity! And of course, I hope the sentences are good. But maybe I’m just old; maybe I’m just not going to survive this vibe shift.
The last podcast featured Jenny Dorsey, chef, writer, and executive director of Studio ATAO, a nonprofit think tank focused on equity. This Wednesday’s podcast will feature Kristina Cho, author of Mooncakes and Milk Bread, to discuss the significance of Chinese bakeries and Chinatowns in the U.S., as well as how her architecture background aids her recipe writing. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be a sweet plantain caramel spice cake—perhaps my favorite cake that I’ve ever made! See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
I was on Foodprint’s “What You’re Eating” podcast about fake meat. I was also on “Heartland Radio” to discuss my work in this newsletter.
And here is my first piece of 2022 published not in this forum: an ode to people-watching at dive bars for Bon Appétit.
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them by Dan Saladino and I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg, who will be a future podcast guest!
Up there is the Valentine’s Day tahdig—full scoop on Instagram.
Well articulated. Too often the only categories seem to be that someone is “the best, our girl” or a shunnable horror. There’s a lot of room in there to find someone’s writing thought-provoking, fresh and real.
I really appreciate this essay! It brought to mind a bell hooks quote I recently read in All About Love. I don't have my copy with me, so forgive my poor paraphrasing, but it was about being able to simultaneously admire and critique. I also love the phrase "thinking in public" :)