The Language of Food Writing
Robert Peyton is out this week, so please enjoy this post, originally published June 15, 2010, on his personal blog Appetites.
New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton, in his review of Takashi, a restaurant that specializes in “raw offal and Korean-style Japanese barbecue,” wrote the following paragraph:
Cubed raw liver comes to the table as well, a chilled, lumpy stew dressed with salt and sesame oil. It tastes of lightning storms on the high plains, of fear and magnificence combined. It is faintly metallic, rich with blood.
You know, I read a part of Anthony Bourdain’s book, Medium Raw, and I agreed with something he said therein. I don’t have it in front of me, so I’ll paraphrase: there is a limited vocabulary available to folks who write about food. It becomes difficult, after you’ve done it for a while, to come up with a new way to describe bacon. I feel this particularly acutely, because I find myself reading things I’ve written six or eight months apart, and finding too little to distinguish the way I described what I was eating. And if I have this problem? I have the vocabulary of a gifted 12-year-old! You know it’s got to be tough out there for a food writer.
So I am charitably inclined towards an author who tries to stretch the limits of the language to evoke what is ultimately a very personal, very visceral experience. That said, I want someone to tell me what a lightning storm on the high plains tastes like. I do not want anyone to tell me what fear and magnificence combined tastes like. That’s a flavor of Mountain Dew, I believe.
When I saw the excerpt for the Times piece in my newsreader, I honestly thought it might be a joke. I mean, a place that specializes in raw offal and Korean-style Japanese barbecue? Not Korean barbecue. Not Japanese barbecue, but Korean-style Japanese barbecue. Lest I sound entirely parochial, when he’s not comparing liver to a thunderstorm, Sifton makes the place sound pretty damn good. Unbelievably pretentious, but pretty damn good nonetheless. I love both Korean and Japanese barbecue; I love offal, and I love less popularly appreciated cuts of meat. I bet I’d have a great meal at Takashi.
But I could not help thinking, as I read Sifton’s review, that he is writing for an audience that doesn’t really include me. That’s fair enough; he’s the restaurant critic for The New York Times, after all. But Jesus, Mr. Sifton, did you really have to conclude your review with this:
Takashi is probably not for everyone: too do-it-yourself and odd. But its eccentricity is honest, its atmosphere winning and its food quite good. So there is large intestine on the menu. You are not in New York to play on the junior varsity, are you?
Presumably if you consume large intestine, you’re on the varsity team? Or wait, are you on the varsity team by virtue of living in New York City? Everyone has limits where food is concerned. As I said, I love offal; liver, sweetbreads, and tongue are all favorites. I’d rather eat a good piece of skirt steak than a fillet. But I don’t think I’ve earned some sort of food credibility because I happen to enjoy things that some other folks find distasteful. By the same token, when I tried stewed pork intestines with mushrooms and tofu at a local Chinese restaurant not too long ago, I didn’t feel like some sort of junior varsity bench-warmer because it wasn’t for me.
I don’t know, maybe it’s beautifully written. Maybe it’s poetry; and maybe I just don’t get it. But Jesus, people: a lighting storm on the high plains?