Does Food Writing Matter?

[Photo credit, Dallas Observer]

By this point it’s old news that Sam Sifton, restaurant critic for The New York Times, has stepped down from his job after only two years. It’s a pretty short run for a restaurant critic, and his reasons for stepping down have been explained matter-of-factly: he’s going to become the Times’s national editor. That means instead of covering Parmesan flan and celery leaf sorbet he’ll be focusing his energies on issues such as the debt crisis, the job crisis and any other crisis that creeps up before the next Presidential election.

When the announcement was made, it was taken as a given that this was clearly a step up for Sifton. A memo from the Times’s new executive editor, Jill Abramson, said: “[Sifton] takes over a superb desk that flawlessly handles the fastest-breaking and challenging news stories. This will be very sad news to his devoted fans as our brilliant dining critic, but Sam, a lover of regional food, looks forward to dining adventures with the National correspondents.”

Implicit there in Abramson’s dispatch is the idea that news is a more serious beat than restaurant criticism. News is “fast breaking and challenging” and restaurant criticism is…what?

An amusement? A diversion for the wealthy and/or the cultural elite?

Well. There may be truth to that! After all, Sifton’s final review heralded Per Se as New York’s best restaurant, a fact that led Gothamist to ask: “Is It Right To Spend $1000 On A Meal While The Country Crumbles?”

My concern, though, has less to do with Sifton’s judiciousness as a critic—I mostly agreed with his restaurant evaluations—and more to do with his readiness to leave his post. What does it say about food writing as a vocation that a man at the very pinnacle of the field, a man whose words about food mattered more to more people than probably anyone else writing on the subject, was so quick to give it up to write about news?

Of course, we don’t know how it went down. Maybe Sifton wasn’t happy in his post as critic. Maybe he was doing Pete Wells (the Dining section editor) a favor taking it on. Maybe he thought it would be a glamorous gig but he quickly realized that eating out six nights a week is taxing, as is wielding so much power over so many (owners, chefs, waiters, bus boys, and so on). Maybe he ran out of ways to describe a farmer’s market heirloom tomato salad with burrata.

My hunch, though, is that, on some level, he was unfulfilled. Why write about food when you can write (or, in his case, edit) stories about issues that really matter, issues that will shape the course of this country and, very likely, the world?

Similar thoughts ran through my head when I was in the hospital with Craig. As we waited in the hallway for his appendectomy to begin, I watched nurses and doctors whisk past us, pushing heart attack victims into rooms with heart monitors and burn victims into rooms where they could be studied by dermatologists.

“Being here makes me feel so frivolous,” I said to Craig. “These doctors and nurses are doing jobs that really matter and I spend my days writing about burgers and Top Chef Masters.”

Craig didn’t bat an eye. “That matters too,” he said. “You’re making people’s lives better. You’re entertaining people at work and you’re helping them decide what to eat and—“

“I guess it’s a quality quantity thing,” I said, interrupting. “Doctors and nurses increase the quantity of lives and food writers and writers improve the quality of lives.”

“Doctors and nurses improve the quality of lives too.”

“Well, ya,” I said, “but not in the same way.”

What it boils down to, I suppose, is enrichment. If we all just went about our days performing basic functions—waking, walking, eating, breathing, sleeping—we would be very functional robots, but not people. We need our painters and poets and singers and dancers and sculptors and writers to show us how to live our lives more meaningfully, more substantively. And that’s a food writer’s job too. The best among us—the M.F.K. Fishers, the Calvin Trillins, the Gabrielle Hamiltons—reveal to us how what we eat shapes who we are. Food as a subject isn’t like news—it’s not “fast breaking”—but it can and should be challenging. It should force us to examine ourselves—our habits, our customs, our beliefs—in ways that are illuminating and transformative.

Perhaps food just isn’t Sifton’s beat. And if that’s the case, his decision to leave his post is probably for the best. It’s impossible to imagine a Craig Claiborne or a Ruth Reichl leaving restaurant criticism for hard news; it’s also impossible to imagine Woodward and Bernstein writing their version of “Consider The Oyster.”

Sifton’s decision should be seen as a function of his character and not as an objective declaration about the meaningfulness of food writing versus the importance of news writing. In the grand scheme of things, both things matter equally.

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