The Browser has a pleasurable Five Books interview with the English newspaper food critic Giles Coren, in which he talks about what makes for good food writing. The man is, um, opinionated:
Apart from being fat, what do you think makes a good food critic?
It is someone who understands that your first job as a journalist is to sell newspapers, and to do that you need to entertain people. Your opinion is neither here nor there. Almost all restaurant critics are rubbish. Worldwide, 99% of them are a waste of time. The only ones that are any use at all are here in the UK and there are probably only three or four who are really any good. The ones who show off about each mouthful of food, trying to show how it was cooked and what was done and give you the biography of the chef, are tedious bores. If you were next to them at a dinner party you would just kill yourself.
But Adrian Gill and Jonathan Meades, who was my predecessor at The Times, understand that the first job is to tell a great story that people will look at in the weekend paper. Essentially, being a food critic is nothing – it’s not politics, it’s not war reporting. There is no need to see it as something terribly important and become pompous and self-aggrandising about it. We all know who those people are! It is all a bit of fun.
Mind you, I want the food writer I read to know something about how dishes are put together, but in general, I agree with Coren. I don’t want to read a food writer who is technically skilled in describing food. I want to read someone who knows how to tell a story, and who can convey a broader sense of the experience of eating. I can think of a particular upscale restaurant where the food was really good, but the decor was so frigid that it made the place less fun. That same food in a warmer room would have produced a different experience — and that’s part of the job of a food writer, conveying the subjective experience of eating a particular meal.
I think the same is true of any kind of critical writing for a general audience. When I read a film review, for example, I want to know what the movie was like, but I equally want to know what it was like for Roger Ebert, with all his strengths and weaknesses, and in all his humanity, to watch that film. Having read Anthony Lane’s film reviews for 20 years now, I feel that I know what moves him as a writer and filmgoer, and I enjoy reading his work not only as a guide to moviegoing, but also because it is flat-out entertaining, and it leaves me with the glow of having spent a few minutes in the company of a witty, discerning connoisseur. I will read Lane’s reviews of movies I have no intention of seeing, only because he’s so damn good with the English language. Clive James is the same way; he could review Chinese menus, and I would not only love what I read, but I would probably learn something about life from James’s critique.
It is possible, of course, to take this too far. In the end, the reader of a restaurant review wants and needs to know whether or not the joint is any damn good. But you don’t really get that sense from a clinical, technically “correct” analysis of the food. You can dissect a bird to learn how it flies, but that’s not the same thing as conveying the experience of flight.
More Giles Coren:
Your final book is Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking.
She was the first modern English food writer, although she is basically talking about French food. She never really wrote about English food. When I talked about cholent, that is really just a Jewish version of cassoulet. She has two different cassoulet recipes in it – cassoulet de Castelnaudary and cassoulet de Carcassonne. I used to cook every type of cassoulet when I lived in Paris in my early 20s.
There she was in the 1950s with her incredibly complicated domestic life. In the same way as Nigel Slater, with his difficult childhood and his coming out, she had her issues as well. She was known as a monstrous shagger and I think people with incredibly complicated romantic lives bring something to the table as food writers. Even Gordon with his dalliances and bits and pieces has something.
But considering you are so anti-French cooking and French food writing, why do you like this book?
I just think she is a very good cookery writer. She is trying to explain to people in austere 50s Britain how to make a petit salé or a beef bourguignon. She’ll write things like, “Try and get hold of a bay leaf; you may not have heard of these things. You will sometimes find them in the delicatessens of Charlotte Street”. Bloody hell, what was England like? “If you can’t get ham, use luncheon meat.” So there was this post-war rationing. Her writing is escapism. It started with the English middle-class drift to the Dordogne. She tells endless anecdotes, which really works. One of them is how she tried to get her car fixed but there was a sign saying that they were closed “à cause de cassoulet”. So you actually have French industry stopping for the day to eat a really good dish of goose and beans. She was retelling that story in 1950s Britain when people were eating Spam. It has a sort of poetry to it.
I’ve never read Elizabeth David — Julie has a couple of her books on the shelf here — but Coren’s bit about her causes me to recognize that food writing, and food, has for me a lot to do with escapism. Cooking is a form of alchemy, of enchantment: the idea that with the right formula, and the expert application of heat, you can turn ordinary things into something that thrills, delights, and transports you out of the everyday. In that thoroughly secular way, food is sacramental. A couple of days ago, I smeared the last of some salt butter caramel spread I’d brought back from France onto a water cracker, and ate it. Suddenly, and for a few seconds, I was no longer standing in my kitchen, but was back in the Marais, at the Breizh Cafe.
And now I’ve got to thinking about the leftover bits of ham from Christmas, and how rich and delicious a pommes de terre dauphinoise would be with ham inside. Not for me — I’m back on the Nativity fast — but we have houseguests, and it’s cold outside, and what a lovely treat this would be when Julie and our guests return from their daytrip to New Orleans. Off to the store for potatoes and heavy cream.
Oh, and this is the New Year’s Day menu: Navy beans with ham (using the hambone from Christmas), turnip greens and roots from my dad’s garden, baked Louisiana sweet potatoes, and cornbread. OK, I gotta go cook…