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The Cost of Killing Off Real Food Writing

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Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein

The idea of a specialized genre of food writing is both a new and an old one. Old, in that some of us of a certain age once read Craig Claiborne's pieces in The New York Times, collected back issues of Gourmet magazine, or actually cooked from those dusty old Gourmet cookbooks, the ones that now look vaguely like the OED. New, in that not too very long ago nobody knew what a food blog was, much less read them -- or had her own blog on Wordpress, updated with iPhone shots of last night's meal at the newest xiao long bao palace.

All this is to say that the concept of food writing is itself a moving target. And one that keeps moving faster and faster, as demonstrated by the news that the much-lauded stand-alone food section of The San Francisco Chronicle is ending, to be folded into some sort of "lifestyle" section. That this was reported by The New York Times, one of the last great newspapers and one of the very few that still has a stand-alone food section itself, is unsurprising. It's also ironic, because although the NYT still publishes a great weekly food section, the paper closed down its food blog in July.

Here in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times ended its stand-alone food section in March 2012, also folding it into a Saturday mash-up of food and health and garden furniture. At the same time, the daily also added both a paywall and Jonathan Gold, formerly the critic at this publication, presumably to give readers something excellent to read while sitting on all those lawn chairs.

As what we read about food has changed in the print sections of our newspapers, the food magazines have been playing musical chairs, too: Gourmet closed in the fall of 2009, and Bon Appétit, long based in Los Angeles, moved to New York a year later with an entirely new look, something like a hybrid of those two Condé Naste magazines, a two-fer with cassoulets.

In the blogosphere, there's been so much shuffling and reshuffling that it's often difficult to remember that most of us didn't even know what a blog was a decade ago. When Eater L.A. launched in November 2006, it occasioned a feature piece in the L.A. Times' Food section, which did not then have a food blog, about the very nature of food blogs. I know because I wrote it, interviewing many local food bloggers and actually writing a sidebar that listed prominent L.A. food blogs. I believe there were 23 of them, including Eater; I also remember that it took some time finding the good ones, not because there were so many food blogs in this town (there were not) but because so many of them were just digital versions of somebody's personal diary. Now I guess we have Tumblr for that.

Yet even as food blogs and sites have expanded exponentially, they've also contracted. Grub Street shut down all of its sites except its prime New York City edition in May, including its popular Los Angeles site. Gilt Taste, the extraordinarily pretty, high-end food site that offered editorial content, as well as prosciutto and cheesecakes, shut down after two years, despite having Ruth Reichl as editor and content by some of the best food writers in the business.

As food sections, with their expense accounts and staff positions, make way for more freelancers and aggregated content, you see a lot of the same bylines -- and a lot of the same stories. Not literally the same stories, but almost. We all get the same PR releases, and that content moves like barium through the bloodstream of a city's food sites. We all eat at the same restaurants, follow the same chefs from kitchen to kitchen, read the same blogs, spill our macchiatos over the same last pages of newsprint.

This is not necessarily a condemnation. We read the same things because we care about them; we eat at the same restaurants because it's those chefs that are making the most creative food and serving it in places that they've built with sweat and sawdust and hot sauce. And if we know (or read) the same people, it's simply a modern version of living in Dublin in the '20s, when the same dozen writers got drunk every night at the same bar. It's small-world syndrome, as applied to the same few taco trucks.

But, in the midst of all this expanding and contracting, it's worth asking, and asking again: Why do we want to read about our dinner in the first place? What is it, amidst the chatter of banging pots and chopping knives, that makes us want to sit down and read about our food instead of eating it?

What's on the page, with or without Instagram, is changing. Maybe, instead of being passive recipients (or readers, or bloggers), we should decide what we want to find there. Because there's a lot that's not there. With the exit of stand-alone newspaper food sections go most of those long-form stories that writers used to spend weeks reporting (and days cooking), the recipes being tested and retested not only in the kitchens of the writers or their subjects but in the newspaper and magazine test kitchens, which now have mostly closed down, too.

Take away the long-form food journalism, the test kitchens and the fact-checkers, the layers that go into the narrative as well as the layers of the narrative itself -- take all that away and you get some flattened cake of newsprint, a totally different genre from those Craig Claiborne–era towers. You get untrained freelancers and unpaid interns, writers who can afford to write because they're hobbyists rather than journalists or authors -- the Alec Baldwins of the kitchen.

If that's what we want, then so be it; we get what we pay for. But before we reduce all our news to disguised press releases, our restaurant reviews to celebrity soapboxes or high school English reports, our cookbooks to vanity pieces, maybe we should think about what's behind all those doors we're closing because we think they cost too much. Maybe we should think about what exactly it's costing us.

Disclaimer: This writer is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times' Food section. She actually prefers reading crime fiction to cookbooks.

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