Why Food Writers Should Play Nice

March 31, 2011 · 17 comments

Call me Pollyanna.

Since the day back in the late 1980s that I turned my personal and professional attention to the world of food, food journalists, cookbooks, chefs, editors, photographers, producers, growers, and television personalities, one thing has become crystal clear: for an industry that is ultimately built around the particularly human act of nurturing, we can be one hell of a vicious lot. And it doesn’t seem to be getting much better.

The fact that at last September’s Greenbrier Food Writer’s Symposium (at which I was a panelist), industry stalwart, Dorothy Kalins, felt compelled to add the words BE NICE TO EACH OTHER when offering her list of ten things every writer should know, confirmed it for me. So, culinary nastiness was not a construct of my highly Cancerian, deeply oversensitive imagination after all. Why the need to say that to a group of wide-eyed, Liebling and Fisher-toting adults? Because it’s necessary. Now more than ever.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that there was a disproportionate amount of rudeness running the gamut from personal vendetta to abject enmity kicking around in the food business, but I think it first hit me back when I was working at a gourmet food hall in New York; there were department managers who did infantile things like tossing their colleagues’ keys into the cage—the giant, locked, walk-in storage room that only one or two people could access, and if they weren’t around and you needed to get home, or move your car, you were screwed. There were the owners, one of whom had a habit of inventing transgressions that would allow him to loudly take to task any woman (and generally only a woman) employee in front of people like Edna Lewis or Giuliano Bugialli, both of whom were so horrified they’d turn on their heels and leave. Some time ago, I guest-hosted a food radio show with a gentleman who literally asked me, outright, if I could give him advice (!) on stealing the gig from the regular host, who had been doing it for ten years and had graciously asked us to stand in for him. I remember many years back, when I was an associate editor at a big, prestigious publishing house, and a job opened up working for one of the food editors; naturally, I went to talk to her, resume in hand. Her response? Something along the line of “I don’t give a fat rat’s ass about your food background.” I was stunned, but mostly because everything that everyone had ever said about her turned out to be true. We still run into each other on odd occasions today, and for arcane reasons that escape me, she’s still rude as ever. Only now, she’s become a cliche.

All of this is small, petty beans, of course, and most people who’ve spent any time in kitchens, in television or radio studios, in newsrooms, and on food magazines, have either witnessed or themselves been the unwitting recipients of outsized nastiness. And, it seems, the bigger you get, the more irate the relationships become. It was Nika Hazelton who said, back in a 1968, Nora Ephron-authored New York Magazine article called Critics in the World of the Rising Souffle that ours “is a world of self-generating hysteria.”  More recently, take the feud between Esquire critic John Mariani and Anthony Bourdain: the latter calls the former things that I’d be beaten around the head and ears for repeating, with the exception of one-man schnorrer, but that’s only because it’s Yiddish for sponger. Or Bourdain’s beef with Sandra Lee, whom he not only openly loathes and calls the frightening hell-spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker, but is now terrified of, having been famously cornered by her at the Julie and Julia opening party. Or Bourdain’s now-infamous Beard House rants (transparency: Poor Man’s Feast is a nominee).

The truth is that nobody can marry eloquence to potty mouth the way Bourdain can, and indeed, he is the writerly equivalent of Joe Pesci talking in Goodfellas: he’s Charlie Parker wielding carbon steel instead of a sax. It’s not for everybody; I adore the man’s work and respect him enormously. Sometimes the anger gets so loud, though, that it obscures the message. But, like it or not, it is music.  If you don’t want to listen to it (and I sometimes don’t), put on classical.

But let’s remember: we’re talking about Bourdain here, and not the young, impressionable food writers in the trenches who are probably holding down three jobs to do what they love and are totally devoted to. And it’s them I worry about. Because, what’s the trickle-down of all this high-visibility, vitriolic yammering? What happens when someone’s hero makes a living out of being so obviously, frantically angry? What do we have to look forward to as the fighting gets louder and more antagonistic?

The belief that rage is the new black.

And at that point, I don’t care who you are. When fury rules the game, it’s no longer about the food.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Diane Morgan March 31, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Well said!!!

2 Monica Bhide March 31, 2011 at 12:35 pm

My lady, this is why I am a fan.

3 tina March 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I am so glad to have found your site this morning.
Sometimes my husband and I think we are the only ones who feel that “When fury rules the game, it’s no longer about the food.”
I gave up on Bourdain about a year ago. This past season of “Top Chef All-Stars”, he attacked Fabio for making a “poorly made meal” (I AM being kind here). He was a “bully” (my words…being nice again!) and made fun of Fabio, attacking him personally. Fabio took him to task about his disrespect. Bravo Fabio!!…and to you too for stating what we use to think was the obvious…
“Be respectful always”.

4 Raghavan Iyer March 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Great piece. What still holds true is the old adage what goes around comes around. They will all find themselves in deep kishka…

5 Mark Scarbrough March 31, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Outrage is the tenor of our times. To quote that horrid Coulter, the only way you get noticed these days is to “punch up.” In other words, find someone to knock off their pedestal. Not wanting to agree with her, still I believe there are some people who need to be taken down a peg or two. Yes, be nice. Good grief, I’m horrified by the backstabbing at many foodie events. But that doesn’t mean the pedestals for some of the idols don’t need a good kick now and then. Frankly, Bruce and I have cooked through many an “award winning” cookbook that has far, far, far too many errors. I have a feeling the glow of their idolhood has kept many from seeing the hey-you-got-no-clothes-on truth. But that said, there’s a difference between contempt and honesty (although you wouldn’t know it these days).

6 anon March 31, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Interesting piece. As a food writer, I used to always approach people in the industry with a sense of equality. We’re all in this together, no? Well, actually, no. Having organized a symposium last year with a large number of renowned food journalists, I discovered one thing: with the exception of a few gracious individuals, I never want to be in the same room with another food journalist again. The overwhelming sense that I got from this gathering was that the lifeboat was just too damned small. It was disappointing to watch how, in the space of just one day, this large group splintered into cliques, with the obsequious (you know who you are) ingratiating themselves to the notables. Thankfully, I never have to do that again.

7 Antonia Allegra March 31, 2011 at 5:39 pm

I hear you, Elissa. What I find is that, given the spirit of openness,
food writers are creative, humorous, savvy and curious, not raging
creatures. Given a tight deadline, a pressuring editor or or an adversary event, they can be, well, human.

8 Sandra Gutierrez March 31, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Ah….you have a way with words that few have! Another great post, Elissa.

9 alyssa March 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm

are you sure it’s not just journalists in general? because nearly two decades of working in woman’s and shelter mags and i have never, ever met meaner people in my entire life. do you think it’s the industry? i cannot imagine some of the behaviors i’ve witnessed happening in, say, banking, and having them fly.

10 Dianne Jacob March 31, 2011 at 9:26 pm

In addition to Bourdain there are website writers who love to fan the flames. Sometimes I can hardly make out who’s dissing whom in these pieces, just that there is some kind of a nasty commotion. People will send me a link with a breathless “Have you seen this?” and I can’t even get through it.

The web thrives on nastiness and hysteria. I made a mistake posting early on about someone I disagreed with and had to close down the comments because people went overboard in insulting her. It was the highest ranked viewership for months.

I don’t mind controversy. What I dislike is contempt and rudeness, in print forever, just for the sake of it. We can do better.

11 Annie April 2, 2011 at 2:28 am

Tony is angry because he’s passionate about the subject. His beefs with Sandra and Rachel are understandable if you are as well, plus it’s funny and he knows it.

Some people are just plain jerks without with or humor.

12 Annie April 2, 2011 at 2:29 am

Should have read “without wit or humor”

13 Kat April 2, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Came upon your site today. This post has such heart and eloquence to it, thanks for sharing.

14 Elissa April 3, 2011 at 12:11 am

Thanks so much, Kat.

15 Nancie McDermott April 3, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Can’t bring myself to call you Pollyanna without giggling myself into a fit, but I will call you several names: Brilliant. Insightful. Articulate. Astute. Witty. Funny. On-the-money. Oh for heaven’s sake, if all THAT were true you’d be accepting a James Beard Award!!! Oh, in fact, That’s exactly what I see in your near future. This post is just one shining example of why I love savoring your Feast.

16 Garrett April 5, 2011 at 1:45 am

“the young, impressionable food writers in the trenches who are probably holding down three jobs to do what they love and are totally devoted to”


Okay, enough blog reading for me. I have an article to finish in between the work on my MA thesis and my day job in adoption services that pays the bills that the epic amount of time and labor in food writing can’t but that make me feel fulfilled and that I love anyways. =D

17 jen May 8, 2011 at 1:30 am

Right on!

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