Women, Men & Food Criticism: Why the Disparity?

Cover of Harper's Weekly, December 1897
Cover of Harper's Weekly, December 1897

Last week, Eater announced the hiring of three new restaurant critics, a first for the food site, which up until now has eschewed criticism of any kind. In keeping with Eater's ambition as it turns to criticism, the three names were established critics who already have dedicated followings: Ryan Sutton, who comes to Eater from Bloomberg, Robert Sietsema, formerly a critic for the Village Voice, and Bill Addison, who racked up a bunch of awards as critic for Atlanta Magazine and before that the Dallas Morning News.

They are also all men, a fact pointed out in a blog post on The Oregonian's website asking, "Is Food a Man's World?" 

As blog posts are wont to do, The Oregonian's put forward a few facts and asked for comments without much context, beyond comparing the hires to the recent outcry over Time magazine's "Gods of Food" issue, which included no women chefs. There was no mention that the person responsible for hiring these critics is a woman, Eater editorial director Amanda Kludt.

Kludt responded quickly on Twitter, naming a number of respected female food writers and editors around the country, of which there are certainly many. And yet, very few of those names are critics.

To claim that one instance of three hires illustrates a bigger problem seemed a little over-reaching, but it got me thinking about the food-writing divide. I did a little research, and of the papers and magazines I found that listed a restaurant critic on the masthead, either as a dedicated freelancer or a full-time employee, 19 were women and 43 were men. The number of male critics is more than double that of female critics.

For the record, it's not an easy task to get these numbers. Many newspapers outsource restaurant reviews to freelancers or other members of their staff. But when it came to the daily newspapers, alt-weeklies and city magazines of major American cities that do list dedicated critics, the trend was clear. And it's especially striking given the fact that a vast majority of food editors are women, and non-critic food writers also skew female. 

Interestingly, smaller Midwestern markets have done a better job hiring female critics, as have the papers in Texas, where the critic's game is ruled by women. But the major positions at legacy papers in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and California are all held by men. New York City is especially low on women, in all publications, not just the big newspapers: I found eight critics covering that city, all of them men. 

So why is there such a small percentage of female critics, especially in high-prestige positions? As with many things to do with gender inequity, the question becomes: Does society not want to give women positions of power? Or do women shy away from taking them?

"This is a profession where you have to be willing to be hated," says Leslie Brenner, current critic at the Dallas Morning News and former food editor for the Los Angeles Times. "The thinking would be then that women are less likely to be willing to take that on, but I think that's a crock." 

Historically, Brenner points out, female restaurant critics have often been the most influential. "If you think about Ruth Reichl, and Gael Greene ... Ruth did as much to forward the medium as anyone ever did. Sherry Virbila [at the L.A. Times] has been hugely influential. Caroline Bates at Gourmet was the most powerful critic in the country for decades."

And yet, Reichl left The New York Times in 1999, and was the paper's last female lead critic. If anything, it appears the trend is moving away from female critics. While I don't know whether the percentage of women critics has gone down over the years, I do know that the percentage today is even lower when it comes to the younger generation of critics. Most women in critic positions today have been there for a while — there are far fewer of us who came into this profession in the last 10 years.

Brenner also commented on the fact that two of this year's James Beard Award nominees in the criticism category are women — the Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook and me — and one man, Alan Richman. But over the last 10 years, only two women have won the Beard for criticism: Tejal Rao last year for her work in the Village Voice, and Rebekah Denn in 2007 for reviews in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Brenner cites the "swagger and bravado" of publications like Lucky Peach and writers like Anthony Bourdain — neither of which are criticism-based, but both of which have a huge influence on the culture of food writing in general. 

This resonates with me. I'll never forget my welcome into the food-writing world as a young critic — my first time at the James Beard Awards. At an after-party at Momofuku, I remember being introduced to a group of men in their late 40s, all established names in the food-writing world, all wearing tuxedos and looking dashing. I was thrilled to be in such company, these men whose careers I aspired to emulate.

And then one of them glanced at me, saw my "nominee" badge still affixed to my dress, and scoffed, "I think you can take off your badge now." All four or five of the men standing around guffawed. The message was clear: Go home, little girl, and let the grown men talk. 

It's not Eater's fault that the pool of critics to choose from when looking for impressive new hires is overwhelmingly male. But next time someone goes on a critic-hiring spree, wouldn't it be great if there were more women to choose from?

Follow Besha on Twitter at @besharodell. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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