The Best Amer­i­can Food Writ­ing 2018 and Atrisco Café’s lamb bur­rito

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Pa­tri­cia West-Barker I For The New Mex­i­can

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

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