An Open Letter To The New York Times Magazine Food Section

Dear New York Times Magazine Food Section,

It’s very weird to be writing you right now because I’ve been reading you for so many years–almost a decade–and I feel sheepish calling you out in such a public forum. Let me start by saying that my motivations here are entirely pure; I’m writing as a fan, not a foe, and I want only the best for us both, you as a magazine food section and me as a reader. But lately something’s changed about your format and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s ruining what used to be a cherished Sunday morning experience.

When the changes first started to happen, I took them in stride. Here’s a nifty graphic by Mark Bittman showing all of the different ways you can use miso. Here’s a gruff, no-nonsense account about grilling by Sam Sifton. Here’s another nifty graphic by Mark Bittman showing a spread of chilled soups. Here’s another gruff, no-nonsense account by Sifton, this one about chowder.

Bittman, Sifton, Bittman, Sifton. Graphics, gruffness, more graphics, more gruffness.

Now if this were all the Magazine had ever been, I would have nothing to compare it to. But that’s not the case. Before this era of male-dominated, image-heavy content, the magazine had a sequence of editors that made the food section the crowning glory of the entire enterprise, crossword puzzle be damned. I’m talking about Amanda Hesser and Christine Muhlke.

Hesser’s reign (which coincided with when I started reading the Magazine) showcased a veritable smorgasbord of talented writers, everyone from Ann Patchett to Gary Shteyngart who contributed to the “Eat, Memory” column that eventually became a book. It was in the Hesser era that I first became aware of Gabrielle Hamilton as a writer, and she’s proven to be one of the more important figures in the food writing game (Anthony Bourdain called her book “The best memoir ever written by a chef. Ever.”)

Hamilton’s launching pad was the Magazine food section and now such a launching pad no longer exists, unless your name is Bittman or Sifton. Under Muhlke’s reign, more voices emerged, like those of Daniel Patterson (of Coi in San Francisco), Jennifer Steinhauer (who normally covers politics), Aleksandra Crapanzano, and Muhlke herself (she’s now an editor at Bon Appetit). It was an eclectic era, one where new voices had a chance to debut on a world stage. Standards were set very high; I should know, mine was rejected when I submitted this piece about my grandmothers’ boiled cabbage and egg salad.

I didn’t mind, though, because the Magazine was something I could always aspire to. Not anymore.

Nowadays, I barely scan the words that lead up to the recipes. This is a shame because the Magazine taught me, back at the beginning, that recipes are only as good as the stories that are attached to them. The more urgent the story, the more emotional and revealing the tale, the more eager the reader will be to try the food. Now it feels like everything’s written with a shoulder shrug, as if somebody in charge writes an e-mail to Sifton or Bittman and says, “Jewish holidays are around the corner; can we get something with apples or honey. Maybe a spread of all the things you can make with apples and honey?” (I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a spread in next week’s Magazine.)

I don’t blame Sifton or Bittman, though; they’re both talented writers and if their voices were among the many the Magazine featured, I’d be glad to have them as part of the chorus. But there isn’t a chorus; there’s just a two-man Vaudeville act and it’s quickly growing stale. If this is about downsizing or banking on what goes viral (I’m sure the heavy graphics are tied to this), it’s a sad, cynical turn for a Magazine that used to be a food writer’s showcase.

Sifton is currently working on a new food project for the Times, which sounds promising, but–as far as I can tell–it has nothing to do with the print Magazine. Which brings us to the inevitable question: is this the end of an era? Are these the final wheezes of the Magazine food section?

I hope not. There are so many talented, young, energetic food writers emerging these days on the web (and elsewhere), the Magazine could easily pull from this group and give itself a jolt back into relevancy. (That strategy has certainly worked for Bon Appetit.) As it stands, I remain a print subscriber, and the Magazine is what I open first. I used to go straight to the food section; now I take my time getting there. Here’s hoping that, someday soon, my fingers will have a reason to flutter straight to the back again.