The New Republic published an essay yesterday titled “How Food Media Created Monsters in the Kitchen;” that headline is a maybe a bit much, but I agree with what I think is author Kate Telfeyan’s thesis: food media “is for the most part an uncritical hype machine.”
She goes on to address claims that Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese is verbally abusive and says that “now that serious allegations have surfaced about him, the response from the same journalists who’ve invested years in boosting his profile? Nothing.” (There was coverage of his behavior in 2018 when he was sued for racial discrimination and illegally underpaying employees.) But Telfeyan lays the sin of lack of coverage at the feet of individual writers, which, says me, is incorrect.
Most food media today is created by independent contractors. As we all know, newspaper budgets are at an-all time low, and a big money-saving measure is to keep full-time staff as small as possible. So articles are outsourced to freelancers, who mostly have not benefitted from formal training or mentorship. This is obviously not their fault. This is because full-time jobs, where those practices are standard, essentially do not exist for food writers.
Editors who are employed at newspapers and magazines would love to provide as much guidance as needed, but they’re so overworked that there’s no way to conduct a 101 seminar for every contributor. There are posting quotas to be met.
(Overworked, and also overtired. I had to have a second job when I was food editor at LA Weekly three years ago. Guess how much I got paid there. Guess. $39,000.)
A common scenario is that a freelancer who sticks to fluffy topics will be published regularly because their copy is always “clean.” It is quicker to work with a boring but grammatically-correct story than a possible piece of genius written by someone who can’t construct a sentence. This is humiliating and dispiriting for editors, but that’s how those quotas get met.
Very few publications reimburse food writers. So the freelancers, doing a little math on the $75-$300 they’re going to get for a story, will likely take advantage of any free meals offered. (Food writer Keia Mastrianni wrote in depth about this phenomenon.) The chef, knowing that they’re in the restaurant, will come out and talk to them, and at that point, what are you gonna do, write something horrible about the food made by someone you know now personally? That’s just bad manners. Does that sound silly? Yes, I think so. But I also truly believe it to be the dynamic.
Back inside the office, editors have to worry about defamation and libel. Often media-watchers will get mad about publications not publishing stories of health-code violations and abusive chefs. But publications have lawyers, and those lawyers will always take a conservative stance on anything litigation-worthy. So you’re not posting an accusation without multiple sources and, probably, people going on the record. Can a freelancer work that hard on one article? Nope! Not if they’re paying their own rent.
The idea of focusing only on stories that will “get clicks” - I promise you, those with access to the reader stats are constantly surprised by what does and does not do well. Editors haven’t been cynical about “chasing clicks” for about 10 years; it is simply a waste of time and energy. (Executives, maybe. But executives are also obsessed with Facebook and videos; their employees don’t take them seriously.)
Finally … these non-hype pieces that commentators are clamoring for actually do exist. Nicole Taylor on food and African-American history on Martha’s Vineyard, and Juneteenth and Black-owned restaurants. Nneka M. Okona on Cognac, and Savannah’s butchery history. Hannah Selinger’s articles. Cynthia Greenlee’s and Hanna Raskin’s work as both writers and editors. Southern Grit magazine. Here is what the LA Times food section, which has an enviably large full-time staff, featured yesterday. (Amazing what you can do with eight full-time-with-benefits-writers.) Frankly, I sometimes wonder if the people complaining that food media is sheer fluff are clicking on anything besides listicles. There’s such good stuff out there.
Food media does need to change. But that should not be the responsibility of the writers. It’s the institutions that must burn themselves down and start again. If journalists are paid an actual living wage, they can write more of the stories we really want to read.
Please forward Smart Mouth to someone who likes reading about food!
“Kaffee und Kuchen” at Zuckerbaby Cafe & Deli
“Kaffee und Kuchen” isn’t just the literal German translation of the words “coffee and cake” — it’s the long-held German tradition of gathering in the afternoon for a relaxed snack break. Think along the lines of teatime in England, fika in Sweden, or merienda in Argentina, and you’re on the right track. Those in Berlin have no shortage of options for enjoying Germany’s leisurely ritual, but Zuckerbaby Cafe & Deli is the way to go if you want the reassurance that no matter what cake you choose, it’ll be among the best you’ve ever had.
Opened in 2014 by sisters Jill and Tanya Hennicke, the cozy café is in the charming community of Rixdorf. This quaint area, situated in the center of the bustling, urban district of Neukölln, is a surprise to visitors who suddenly find themselves amidst narrow cobblestone streets and historic buildings erected when the village was founded by Bohemian refugees in 1737.
There’s other food on the menu, but it’s Zuckerbaby’s daily selection of cakes, beauties beckoning to you from their glass case by the front counter, that we’re here for. For a taste of true perfection, go for the carrot cake, a moist creation with a thick layer of vanilla cream cheese icing that checks all the boxes for what a carrot cake should be. Other favorites include the “Love Bug,” a rich, flourless chocolate cake with raspberry jelly and white chocolate, and the extremely popular cheesecake. Don’t forget to pair your slice (or two or three or whatever) with a warm beverage (perhaps a latte macchiato or cappuccino—both highly recommended) and head to the back for a seat by the fireplace. Richardplatz 21, 12055 Berlin, Germany. - Cindy Brzostowski
More Interesting Food Stories
A nice little story about a sandwich and an old Italian man.
I was obsessed with Judge Dee mysteries when I was a kid, which is why I knew that fake meat is Chinese and goes back to at least the Tang Dynasty. But for everyone who wasn’t that kind of weird 10-year-old, here’s an explanation.
Government officials looking to ban “wet markets” in the US don’t, you know, know what a wet market is or why they want to ban them.
This marketing victory is so dark. We don’t eat what we eat just because we want to.
A TableCakes Production.
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