A Celebration of Life's Simple Pleasures at the 92nd Street Y
This evening I went to a panel discussion about food writing at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of New York. The title of the program was "A Celebration of Life's Simple Pleasures: Good Food and Good Writing". The discussion was moderated by radio talk show host Leonard Lopate, and the panelists were the Editor in Chief of Gourmet, author of three food memoirs including Garlic and Sapphires, and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl; novelist Ann Patchett; humorist David Rakoff; and the famed authors of several books on American road food Jane and Michael Stern - who have written a memoir about their adventures called Two For The Road.
The main objective of the evening was to talk about the food writing supplement to the August issue of Gourmet Magazine (everyone got a free copy of that issue in a goodie bag), but the conversation, skillfully guided by Leonard Lopate, ranged quite widely over the food spectrum. Some of the topics brought up included:
- Ethical eating, organic eating, and industrially produced food. Michael Pollan and his book The Omnivore's Dilemma came up here, of course. Who hasn't heard of this book lately?
- How we are so removed from our food sources compared to our ancestors, and how we might make better food choices if we knew how it was produced and where it came from. If we could see the animals we were going to consume alive before we ate them we might make better choices... and so on.
- The outrageousness of expensive 'gourmet' foods, specifically the myriad of special salts (I touched on this subject briefly a couple of days ago).
- Foods that you love even if it's not high-brow (Ann Patchett confessed to loving Spaghetti-Os), food that you just can't eat. (Ruth Reichl said she can't stand..honey! I think I understand Michael Stern's unwillingness to stomach chitlins in vinegar a bit better.)
- Since David Rakoff's Gourmet supplement essay is about Pork and Jewish food rules, and also maybe because all but one of the panelists were Jewish, the discussion of "Pork and Jews" as Mr. Rakoff put it, went on for quite a bit. He mentioned a Rabbi X who he interviewed for his article, and said that this culinarically progressive (well, he eats pork sometimes, especially during Purim) rabbi told him that the eating of veal cannot be justified as being kosher, since the way veal is brought up is in no way 'clean' or ethical. I thought this was the most interesting statement of the evening.
- Everyone seemed to agree that Americans are the most adventurous eaters in the world, most willing to accept all kinds of different cuisines. Ruth Reichl declared sushi to be an American food now. I guess I would have said, some Americans are very adventurous eaters...some other Americans are the least adventurous eaters I've ever encountered. Actually...Ann Patchett, who confessed that she was no foodie and that she didn't anything "with a hoof" since been given a pet pig when she was nine years old, is probably not a very adventurous eater. Not that I hold that against her - she was actually quite adorable.
If you follow food blogs most of the topics would have been familiar, but it was interesting to listen to them being discussed nevertheless. I really liked the Sterns, who both came across as being warm and funny. David Rakoff was hilarious, Ann Patchett was, as I said, adorable, and Leonard Lopate was also pretty funny as well as being an excellent discussion leader. I have to say the least entertaining person was unfortunately Ruth Reichl herself, but I think this is primarily due to her speaking style which is sort of slow and laid back. She's probably a writer that's much better in writing - I've enjoyed all of her memoirs.
I did rather disagree with her very last statement though. On the subject of ethical eating, she said that as consumers we can vote with our money by buying organically, but (paraphrasing here) we should avoid buying organically produced non-American food even if it was less expensive. Basically she touted the Buy American line, which sounded a lot like the similar lines uttered in earlier years by the American automobile industry. The subject of ethical/organic eating and food cost is a lot more involved than I can discuss here though, so I'll have to leave it for another time.
Although the content of a few of the articles in the Gourmet magazine supplement were discussed, one topic that wasn't talked about much at all was food writing itself. There was one audience question about 'how to get into food writing', which was answered a bit vaguely by Ruth Reichl with the answer 'you have to be very lucky' and by Ann Patchett with 'do a lot of writing you don't care about, and gradually work towards the kind you do care about'. Probably both statements are very true. The writers who were included in the food writing supplement had to be lucky to have caught the eye of the Gourmet editors, for example, with the exception of the famous ones like Calvin Trillin and the Sterns.
All in all, the 90+ minutes went by way too quickly. A panel discussion about food writing...this is the kind of thing that makes New York a great place. The 92nd Street Y has similar lectures and such on their program throughout the year, so if you're visiting be sure to look up their schedule for the time you'll be here. And to keep up with upcoming food-related events in New York, be sure to check out Josh Friedland's excellent The Food Section.
NB: Prior to this evening, I hadn't really looked at Gourmet magazine in years - if I buy a food magazine in the U.S. I graviatate towards Cooks Illustrated, Food and Wine, and sometimes Epicurious and Saveur. Gourmet just seemed so stodgy to me. Flipping through the free issue we were given, it doesn't seem as stodgy and old-fashioned as I thought...but I think they sure do need a design makeover. The food writing supplement is terrific though.