The Best American Food Writing 2018 and Atrisco Café’s lamb burrito
THE first surprise on opening The Best American Food Writing 2018 is that this is the inaugural edition of the series — and not to be confused with Best Food Writing, an annual anthology published by Da Capo Press and edited by Holly Hughes for the past 18 years.
As Best American Food Writing series editor Silvia Killingsworth notes in her foreword, “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been publishing anthologies of fiction, travel writing, essays, and poetry dating back over a hundred years, and it seems impossible that the first Best American Food Writing collection won’t have appeared until thirteen years after the launch of a website named Eater, nine years after Michael Pollan’s bestselling In Defense of Food, and four years after the New York Times changed the name of its ‘Dining’ section to ‘Food.’ ”
Ironically, the publisher’s foray into the topic comes at a time when food-centric magazines have been folding or reducing publication (Gourmet, Saveur, Cooking Light) and local and national general-interest newspapers have been cutting staff and pages dedicated to food reporting — just as the internet and social media have expanded the opportunity to tell more inclusive, wider-ranging food stories.
“Ten years ago,” writes guest editor Ruth Reichl — whose credentials include three culinary memoirs, a novel, a cookbook, a decade as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, restaurant criticism for both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and six James Beard Awards — “a book called The Best American Food Writing would have been filled with articles gleaned from epicurean publications. Not anymore. These articles come from an enormously wide swath of publications: literary magazines, newspapers, science journals, business publications, sports magazines, and the internet. … This was the year,” she continues, “when race, class, and gender became fodder for food writers,” as did “the important part politics play in deciding what we eat.”
Some of the authors of the 28 pieces chosen for the book are well known; others, less so. Sources of the stories range from Harper’s to Thrillist, Saveur to Catapult, High Country News to Bloomberg Businessweek, Eater to ESPN The Magazine. There’s literature here as well as serious journalism. That a full quarter of the selections focus on some of the people, places, history, and culture of the American South is the second surprise, although perhaps it should not be: food, race, and politics are intrinsically linked in that part of the country, offering thoughtful writers many avenues of exploration. “Barbecue might be America’s most political food,” Lauren Collins writes in “Secrets in the Sauce,” as she examines the past and present intersection of barbecue and racism through the lens of Maurice’s Piggie Park, a South Carolina chain founded in 1953. Shane Mitchell stirs the rice pot in “Who Owns Uncle Ben,” a warm blend of family memoir and clear-eyed reporting that is as charming as it is enlightening. But the story that will come to mind whenever I lift a single-plantation coffee pour-over or a $10 microbrew is “The White Lies of Craft Culture” by Lauren Michele Jackson, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago, who addresses issues of
“When I began to write, I bristled at being labeled a ‘food writer.’ Back then, food writing was tepid stuff, created primarily for women by women,” writes editor Ruth Reichl. “These days I not only admit to being a food writer, I do it with great pride.”
race and appropriation with an alternative take on small-batch breweries and distilleries, old-school butcher shops, and coffee. “Craft culture looks like white people,” she writes, “a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism” that ignores the hidden history of black and other people of color whose labor first produced those goods. She closes by musing that “food culture would do well to look around and pass the mic to the people of color. Craft is only as white as the lies it tells itself.”
Equally impactful are “The Struggle of ‘Eating Well’ When You’re Poor” by Marissa Higgins, whose bio indicates that the author’s “work centers on poverty, LGBTQ issues, and how food intersects class and culture,” and “I’ve Worked in Food for Twenty Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?” by Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy, an awardwinning vegetable restaurant on the Lower East Side of New York City who directs her rage to food writers themselves.
“Only a real grouch,” Cohen writes, “would point out how depressing it is that what’s gotten food writers actually excited about covering female chefs is their sexual assaults, not their approach to food. … Women may not have value as chefs, but as victims we’re finally interesting.” And she backs her charges with hard numbers: “Over the past twelve months,” to take one example, “the New York Times has written major reviews for 44 restaurants. Six of those kitchens are run by women.” Think there are not enough women chefs to generate more stories? She follows up with a list of 62 female chefs in New York, pulled off the top of her head.
Longform journalism also shines in this collection — stories about school lunch policies, the politics and economics of raising soybeans, the need to revitalize the dairy and strawberry-growing industry, and Silicon Valley’s push to develop “meat without livestock” are all investigated in detail.
On a lighter note, we can travel to the Extremadura of Spain, home to famed Ibérico hams, with John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and celebrated Tennessee ham and bacon curer Allan Benton. We can almost taste “The World’s Last Great Undiscovered Cuisine” that Russian-born food and travel writer Anya von Bremzen found in Azerbaijan.
Although restaurant reviews may be what come to many readers’ minds when they think of food writing, there are only two in the collection — one humorously extolling the unusually creative pizza scene in Portland, Maine; the other an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek putdown by the late Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of the Los Angeles Times of avant-garde dining at Vespertine — the kind of place, he tells us, where “a cynical diner, confronted with twenty-plus courses of kelp, hemp, and tree shoots, makes jokes about stopping for tacos on the way home.”
Should the editors’ choices whet your appetite for good writing rather than sate it, take a look at “Other Notable Food Writing of 2017” — a list of 90 fine stories that didn’t make the final cut — at the back of the book. Many are still available on the internet.
The Best American Food Writing 2018 is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Images from avantgarde LA restaurant Vespertine’s Yelp page