By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
The other problem was my husband Michael. My editors thought that his feelings about the class politics of our adoption situation made him unsympathetic. They wanted me to “soften” him, make him be more on my side in the fight. I tried. But when I showed Michael the changes, he insisted that I go back to the original.
On a different note, Michael Kinsley inSlate (and theWashington Post) takes you to task for being politically insensitive in the book. He was incensed about a scene when you were in China and delivered a letter to a 70-year-old chef who once was famous but had been re-educated by being forced to dig a lake by hand. Now he was beginning to cook again, and be appreciated in his own country. He read the letter you handed him and asked you if he should go to America. You said you’re not sure if Americans would understand or appreciate thefineness of his cooking — that, for example, he peels his shrimp in ice-cold water. Kinsley felt that you were advising the man against Western freedom because of a trifle.
Yes, when Kinsley was writing the article, he sent me an e-mail and asked if I was certain I remembered the incident accurately. The truth is, I don’t know if the chef was even invited to America — I hadn’t read the letter I carried to him. I didn’t attempt to persuade him — it would have been presumptuous of me to give him advice. And for all I know, the old cook may have come anyway!
But I might have told him America is a deeply racist country and that this is reflected in the food culture here. Americans aren’t open to great Chinese cooking. There are no great Chinese restaurants in America, for this reason. We won’t pay for them. Chinese chefs say, “Why â make great food in America, where it’s not understood or appreciated, when you can cook in Hong Kong and Taipei, where people will happily pay $1,000 for a meal?” Nobody in America will spend that for food that isn’t French or American.
I was not making a political point in my book, but Kinsley extrapolated the politics from what I wrote. Now, an interesting argument could be made, say, about cooking and art. If you think of cooking as an art, do you expect a great artist to trade his art for a perceived political freedom? A man in his 70s? When he was watching his own country awakening to his own talents, would it make sense to come here to be unappreciated?
A good thing, though, is that a small book by a food writer engendered a political attack in one of the nation’s largest newspapers.
When I was a new restaurant critic, you gave me a bracing talk on preserving my anonymity: I should always pay my own way, accept no free food, go on no junkets, have no friends who were chefs or restaurant owners. Yet so many of the stories inComfort Me With Apples involve consorting with insiders.
I was really lucky. I started writing about restaurants in the Bay Area for a magazine [New West] where I couldn’t make or break anything, and nobody ever would have guessed I was a critic. I got to learn on the job. And my friends, who later became famous, weren’t at the time. I was doing most of the reporting on restaurants (i.e., Michael’s, Chinois) in a city where I was not a critic.
The time I spent behind the scenes was really valuable later on. But it was also a handicap when I moved to L.A., and was suddenly reviewing the restaurants of people I knew. It was one thing to write about the opening of Chinois — a year later, though, I was the critic at the L.A. Times, and that was hard. I don’t think you can be a good critic when you can envision the people you’re writing about reading your review. You pull your punches. You can’t help yourself. It was much easier when I got to New York, because I didn’t know anyone. And I made sure to keep it that way.
So much of the best food is saved for the “back of the house,” for the friends and regulars of the chefs. A restaurant critic, almost by definition, should never have access to such food, but critics should also be educated and knowledgeable . . . You’ve had it both ways.
You’re right. The best food, the best treatment, is saved for the back of the house. But a critic needs to know what will happen to the people she’s writing for. So the training to be a critic should be in another city. That said, one of the great joys of not being a critic in New York is getting to hang out with chefs. I got into this business because I liked them, enjoyed them, respected their generosity, joie de vivre, work ethic. And I missed them.
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