Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about recipes, cookbooks and food blogging. Who am I kidding? Whenever I come to this space, this is what I inevitably think about. But, this time at least, it goes a little deeper than my usual interest in these issues. In part, this is because of the Piglet, Food52’s annual cookbook competition, controversy–namely, the comic strip cookbook review that “fired a shot heard around the [food] world.” The author who was the target of this review accused the reviewer of sexism (for the record, I felt it was more a socioeconomic critique than a sexist one, but that may be because, as a woman, I really like to believe that we’re beyond these things…I should, however, know better); Food52 then responded (rather weakly, in my opinion) by saying that cookbooks are about more than their recipes (are they? should they be? When did this shift take place and why? And is it possible that there are now too many cookbooks? Anybody with burning thoughts on these issues, I’d love to hear from you), and now a lot of food bloggers, including little old me, are writing about this issue.
I don’t care so much about the specifics of the reviews–ultimately, criticism is a good thing, even though it can be hurtful and, depending on its format, can come across as crass or mean-spirited. I think the bigger issue for me, at least at this specific moment in the food world, is the lack of sincerity. To call a spade a spade: the Piglet is about selling cookbooks. Authors agree to have their books judged in this competition because it exposes them to a wide(r) audience. People agree to write reviews or articles about this competition because it’s fun and generally harmless (it’s the food world’s response to March Madness–pretty much as low stakes as it gets!) and it allows them to, however temporarily, become part of a self-enclosed community with its own inside jokes and language. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things: we all like communities, we all want to be part of inside jokes and the point of writing a book is to make a profit off of the book; what is wrong is that these contests and communities take away from independent thought and personal opinion. Of course Mimi Thorisson, the subject of the comic book review, was going to be upset when both her book and very identity were panned; not only did she look foolish, but these reviews, as silly as they are, carry a lot of weight and impact sales. And this is because these days too many of us are swayed by the opinions of random reviewers–by the thoughts and “lifestyles” of people we don’t even know (by people who more often than not are getting to sample a product or book for free)–when what we need to be doing is reclaiming the ability to think for ourselves, assessing a book on its own merits and deciding to buy it not because it wins or is nominated for the Piglet (!) or because of what “x or y reviewer” says about it, but because we actually like what it has to offer to us as individuals. This alone would be a huge step in the right direction for social media. It would acknowledge not only that books are highly personal objects, but also that there is life–exciting and diverse life!–outside the echo chamber of kale/quinoa/Ottolenghi cookbooks/white-marble-countertop madness. And in case I sound too preachy, let me just say that I like and own three out of four of the things I just mentioned.
The other reason I felt so up in arms about this issue is that if you look at the lasagna in the photo at the top of this post, you most likely will be thinking that it looks pretty good–like a dish that would probably taste delicious. I felt the same way when I saw this recipe on a blog several months ago: both the colors and the layers drew me in. I thought to myself: “You love squash and sage and lasagna, so why not try this?” It didn’t bother me that the “ricotta” was vegan and made out of tofu and cashews; I like trying new things and, though the recipe seemed a little labor intensive, I don’t mind having to sing for my supper. In fact, I was really excited about it as I was making it–the tofu ricotta was excellent, as creamy and flavorful as the “real” thing, and the smell of the sage and squash invitingly filled the kitchen as it baked in the oven….And then, once it cooled a little and I took a bite, I felt overwhelmingly disappointed. As a whole, it felt too creamy and too “one note” for me; I like acid, texture, food that has a little pep and bite. When I thought about it, I felt like I had somehow allowed the blogger’s enthusiastic review, as well as the look of this dish–its very prettiness (and it is oh so pretty with the spoonfuls of tofu ricotta that decorate the lasagna’s top and that have a sage leaf pressed into them)–to trump what I knew to be my flavor preferences. It’s not the first time I’ve been fooled by a pretty food photo on the internet, either. It’s hard to know who and what you can trust, or if it all boils down to a difference in personal taste. I believe Polonius said it best: “To thine own self, be true.”
Since this is already longer and more in depth than I had planned, I will now give you my remaining nuggets of food for thought in smaller bites: 
I recently saw Leviathan, the Russian film that was just nominated for an Academy Award. It’s well worth seeing in theaters if you still have the chance; if not, wait for its release on Netflix. It was all the things that I love and hate about Russia: beautiful, disturbing, tragic and downright human. Besides the stark landscape of the film, the thing I loved the most about it was its depiction of the law–its incomprehensibility and, strangely, the very lawlessness that lurks within carefully written legal code. And I will also confess to immensely enjoying the scene in which a drunker mayor yells at a Muscovite lawyer, informing him that he is no better than a “krysa advokatskaia [a lawyerly rat].” I’ll have to use this one myself one day and hope that nobody knows what I’m saying.
 Here’s a site that is happy to poke fun at the food world (it’s good not to take oneself too seriously).
I saw this article in the Atlantic today and, given how tired Daylight Savings has made me, I would get behind this movement in a heartbeat. 
I recently wrote to a good friend who lives far away and asked her if she would be interested in a monthly long-distance book club. Much to my delight, she said yes. First on our list is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go.
I don’t cook too much from food blogs these days (there’s too little time), but recently I’ve been tempted by both Anna Jones’ Kale Chips (via Lottie and Doof)–how can anything with olive oil, miso, maple syrup, lime juice and soy sauce be bad? This may become my new favorite roasting sauce and salad dressing in one–and Sean Brock’s Cornmeal-Fried Pork Chops and Smashed Potatoes (via Smitten Kitchen), which make me fantasize about visiting the South again. Really, I just want to eat all the grits and pie the world has to offer. 
Also, if you have the opportunity to try Blue Hill savory yogurt (I recently found it at Whole Foods in Berkeley; it was quite the surprise, too: I hadn’t thought it had made it to the west coast yet), I recommend you overcome your fear and embrace the possibilities of flavors like butternut squash, beet and parsnip. They really are a treat and not nearly as cloyingly sweet as most fruit-filled yogurt cups.
Finally, rumor has it that a pink Hello Kitty food truck is making its way to San Francisco for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in April. You’d better believe I’m going to be there…with bells on. I may just splurge and help myself to a Geisha Float, too.
I’ll be in Pittsburgh this weekend for a wedding, but I’ll be back soon with photos from my travels and a recipe for an authentic Greek sweet that I may just like better than baklava…

4 thoughts on “Food for Thought

  1. Yay yay yay! There are so many things I love about this post! I had no idea about the Piglet controversy (this, I suppose, is a consequence of my never reading Twitter anymore, but who can blame me, so filled it is with nonsense and ads these days), but I feel like your measured take on it, and on self-reliance, should be etched in stone and sent to all who tread the hallowed hallways of the internet. And I secretly hope your Polonius reference is also a reference to Clueless 🙂 I haven't seen Leviathan, but Russia plays a large role in the third season of House of Cards, which I have just finished, and which left me feeling like I needed a thorough scrubbing of my soul. Frank Underwood, you krysa politicheskaia! If you watch it, we must discuss! XOXO

  2. I've still been meaning to comment on your last luscious post (peanutty apple tart dream come true!), but here I am instead…

    I was so happy to read this post. First and foremost, I’ve gotta check out the savory yogurt! I’ve been craving savory breakfasts the most lately, and non-sweet yogurt sounds divine.

    I wasn't familiar with the controversy going on with Piglet, but had heard the annual event was happening from snippets in my feeds, without much attention. Your thoughts on this controversy are emblematic of my long emerging feelings about Food52 as a wider presence in the online food world – and I feel refreshed by your words. Over time, I increasingly notice their lack of diversity in both voice and aesthetics (indeed “white marble countertop madness” – with sterile looking, bright white photos, almost all taken from directly above). And the “self enclosed community” you describe is a much more apt phrase than their guise of being an openly collaborative community, IMO. This is especially evident every time they pick one of their own editors or photographers or employees for their themed IG reposts, recipe contests, or “blog posts we love” – and this happens quite a lot! I admit it: I’d want to help my friends out if I were in such a successful position, of course! And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since Food52’s founder got in trouble for similar conflicts of interest before she left the NYT, found her big investors, and launched F52.

    Oh well. Thankfully, we always have the option of being true to ourselves (as you have reminded your readers), listening our own tastebuds and our own intuition. Right now, mine are calling me away from the screen, to a bowl of ice cream and a bubble bath.

    Thanks for the engaging post!

  3. Hello, friend,

    This is much too late a response to your kind and thoughtful comment, but between the wedding, getting back to work and finally getting everything put away (as well as laundry, the eternal enemy), today was the first day I could sit down and actually take care of this space. Life's little worries aside, I would say that you're lucky not to have known about the Piglet this year; it honestly seemed pretty stale this year–pretty predictable in a way. I was, of course, excited that a Greek cookbook that I loved was doing well, but, lo and behold, the relatively obscure Greek chef with her innovative recipes lost to a French cookbook that I do, admittedly, love, but still. At the end of the day, same old, same old.

    I still owe you an email (it's coming in the next few days; Kostas is going to Denver for a conference tomorrow, so there is lots of doggie daycare in Elektra's future and hopefully downtime for dog mommy) and look forward to writing it! 🙂 Also, it's funny you should mention House of Cards; I tried to watch it, but couldn't get past the dog being hit by the car and then having its neck broken in episode 1. That said, I do believe that Frank Underwood is most likely a krysa politicheskaia (Kevin Spacey played the serial killer in Seven; ever since he sent Gwyneth Paltrow's head to Brad Pitt in a box at the end of that movie, I realized his propensity to choose the most diabolical of roles). 🙂 xoxo

  4. Dear dear Moriah,

    Thank you for your insightful comment and for your general observations about the food world. Before I say anything else, I must reiterate the need for anybody within reach of it to make a point to try the savory yogurt. I love it so much! I was really lucky the night I bought it at Whole Foods, though; for some reason, they wouldn't scan, so I basically got to try them for free. They are a little pricey for the quantity, but the quality is so so good that it's a worthwhile treat–and a good thing to have in an experimental kitchen, I'm sure. 🙂

    As to Food52, I've had periods when I've really liked the site, or at least certain articles (I think Emiko Davies is a wonderful food writer and I enjoy her articles about Italian food; I also like Genius Recipes, although I think the very concept of genius is itself problematic. That said, Kristen Miglore is a wonderful “curator”–another problematic world–of recipes), although besides the two writers I just mentioned, I find a lot of the writing there to be gimmicky and, in some cases, just plain overwrought. I suppose the one saving grace I've discovered in the site is that 1) the recipes are often good and they work (there is something to be said for their rigorous testing) and 2) though I see the site more as a clique than as a welcoming community (this is a problem I have with a lot of blogs; you can't respond to the comments of your friends and ignore everybody else), its very premise has led to a wide variety of people submitting recipes, some of which I've been pleased to try (Louisa's Cake, a ricotta and apple affair that is fluffy deliciousness itself, is one such recipe; I made it when Kostas' parents were here in the fall and it was a huge hit). I'm currently in a period of Food52 detox, however–no longer following them on Instagram, Twitter or even visiting the site. I don't know if I'll be back, either. I do get tired of the one-note-ness of it all.

    I so much prefer the blogs that I stumble upon, blogs of people I know ;), or even some of the more established blogs that I never read but that I then randomly come across. It's such a treat to read through an archive of a blog that's been around for a long time, to get a sense of somebody's story. I think that no matter how hard Food52 tries, it will never have that, especially now that it's nothing more than a marketplace: of recipes, of luxury goods and wares (some of which, full disclosure, I've either coveted or bought in a few cases). There's now a podcast too, which I can't bring myself to even want to listen to (in my opinion, the only acceptable food podcast is the British Food Programme, which is smart journalism that tells a story and doesn't seem to be about promoting anything but knowledge). It's funny because I really liked Amanda Hesser's book about her relationship with Tad Friend and I also think the Essential New York Times Cookbook is a quality tome; I think it's the splashiness of the internet–that need to generate, generate, generate new content– that makes it hard to remain humble. This is why I like to remind myself that, at the end of the day, I'm doing this for myself. Maybe also for family and friends, but largely for myself. Any success that comes from it is purely the icing on the cake.

    Speaking of which, your Friday evening plan sounded wonderful–envy-inspiring even. I'm also dying to see your recipe for naan bread pudding; I've been on a real Indian food kick lately. Sometimes it's all I want to eat.

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