Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tip of the tongue

One of the odder things to have happened to me in the last few years is that I’ve been reinvented as a food critic. I deliberately use the passive voice there: I never made a conscious decision to become a food critic; it wasn’t that I discarded the tired, caterpillary things I’d been doing before, and retired to a chrysalid state with copies of Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything and AA Gill’s Table Talk, only to emerge three weeks later as a sarcastic butterfly with a tongue dipped in wasabi. No, it was all rather more banal: a friend asked me to take over some editorial work on a restaurant guide after some personal differences had hastened the exit of the previous incumbent; and then I did a few of the reviews themselves, because there was a looming deadline; and before you could consume a waffer-thin mint, CNN had decided that I was a “writer and food critic” and suddenly people were inviting me to oyster tastings and giving me free cheesecake and well, that was that.

I’d always liked food, and like anyone, I can offer a list of Proustian rememberings that transcend mere taste: sardines on toast while watching Doctor Who; disappearing strawberry tart and budget-sapping lobster on family holidays to France; chilli dogs in Montreal and warm pretzels outside Penn Station; a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji market. But I’d never really felt so passionately about the subject that  I thought my opinions might be of interest to anyone else.

And then I realised that the food wasn’t entirely the point, and that for most of my adult (if you can call it that) life, I’d been a critic of something or other. At university, I spent three years pressing my thumb into books to see how ripe they were; later on I swirled music around in my mouth before spitting it back into the face of readers, when, of course, I wasn’t biting into of universities to check that they’d been cooked al dente. I had, without quite realising, devoted my existence to an analysis of exactly how many levels something worked on. Indeed, this blog was originally conceived as a vehicle for my supercilious pokings of books and music and film and art and other stuff that could probably have been done better if they’d only asked my opinion in the first place.

But now isn’t a great time to be a critic. No, that’s not entirely true. It’s rather a good time to be a critic, and very easy to put your criticism in a place where someone might want to read it. But it’s a bloody lousy time to be a critic if you want lots of people to pay attention to what you say, and take it seriously and allow it to affect their own behaviours. Even more so if you want someone to pay you for your efforts. Many professional critics have taken to grumbling about the fact that their privileged position is apparently under threat from the massed ranks of bloggers and Amazon reviewers. I don’t share their paranoia, but neither do I believe that one opinion on a book/song/restaurant is equally as valid as another. And obviously everyone is entitled to express an opinion. I just think that critics should be judged on merit, rather than on the basis of the particular platform from which they hurl their opinions. There are thousands of food bloggers, for example, the best of whom are undoubtedly far better than some of the bloated hacks who might pontificate over the profiteroles in the mainstream media. But for far too many, the model of a restaurant review is “WE WENT TO [RESTAURANT X] AND AFTER WE WERE SHOWN TO OUR TABLE I HAD THIS [INSERT PHOTO] AND IT WAS NICE AND SHE HAD THIS [INSERT PHOTO] AND IT WAS SORT OF OK AND THEN FOR MAINS WE HAD...” until you want to eat your own eyes rather than read another bloody word.

I have thought – and have said so — that what distinguishes decent critics, whether bloggers or paid journalists or poncy dilettantes in art galleries is their knowledge of the subject matter. And that’s still part of the deal. But then I came upon this passage from The Gourmet, the first novel by Muriel Barbery (better known for The Elegance of the Hedgehog). As France’s greatest food critic lies dying, his reminiscences and those of his family and acquaintances (he appears to have few friends) intertwine. His daughter remembers a ghastly holiday in Greece, when he made her eat the fried, honey-drenched pastries called loukoumades:
‘Do you like them?’ he asked, in his grating voice.
Panic and disorientation. Next to me Jean was breathing quietly. I forced myself.
‘Yes,’ I muttered timidly.
‘Why?’ he pursued, his tone increasingly dry, but I could see that in the depth of his eyes, which were actually inspecting me for the first time in years, there was a new spark, something I had never seen, like a little speck of cautious anticipation and hope, inconeceivable, harrowing and paralysing, because for so long I had been accustomed to his not expecting a thing from me.
‘Because it’s good?’ I ventured, hunching my shoulders.
I had lost.
Criticism requires more than opinion: it needs argument, analysis, elucidation. If a few soi-disant critics realised they were expected to go somewhere beyond “because it’s good” or “it was sort of OK” then maybe they’d be taken more seriously.


Annie said...

This reminds me of Nora Ephron in Heartburn, her main character is a food writer (not critic) who says she thinks food criticism is silly because you only get sentences like "the [noun] was [positive adjective] but the [noun] was [negative adjective]"

Got to admit that food critics annoy me (except for you, dear Tim) because I think "most people in the world can't afford much food you selfish picky pretentious ungrateful baaaastard. And here you are moaning because your gold-leaf wrapped truffle is undercooked. They'd be first up against the wall come the revolution. Even AA Gill, who makes me laugh.

Chris said...

The no-analysis thing applies to politics too, doesn't it? 'Because it's good' is not so far from 'Because it's the right thing to do'. Conclusion: everything ever is Tony Blair's fault.

Tim Footman said...

I know what you mean, Annie. But surely food critics aren't the only offenders? Most people can't afford the best seats at the opera, or a new Porsche. But it doesn't stop them being interested in reading about them (and surely there's an element of schadenfreude when they find out that Alain Ducasse's latest multi-starred eatery really isn't all that). And someone like Jay Rayner often checks out relatively humble Indian or Italian places because the food sounds interesting, even if he's not as hilariously horrid as Gill.

But Chris, whose fault is Tony Blair? Clue: she's not quite dead yet.

brokenbiro said...

I like your style, Tim, and would probably read anything you chose to write about... perhaps because you have a wider knowledge of 'other stuff' that adds value to your witterings.

I wonder if I could get away with being a food critic: 'Talisker is both smoky and antiseptic... like cleaning your house after a fire.' (Burns Night)

Tim Footman said...

Thanks BB. I've long held that most worthwhile creative offerings are *about* something else. So at least a passing knowledge of *other stuff* is essential, or most food reviewers would be reduced to "it does(n't) taste nice". Do like the Talisker line, can definitely taste what you mean.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

'a sarcastic butterfly with a tongue dipped in wasabi'?

Drizzled surely?

Must say I don't get this modern obssession with food. Fresh and simple is all I ask.

Yours, lolling on a bed of lollo,