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.