Reviewing The Olive Garden, or Bonfire of the Inanities

The Internet has a habit of latching on to innocent phenomena and turning them into A) punching bags, B) cautionary tales, or C) dead horses. Today's checkmark in perhaps all three boxes is the earnest review of the new Olive Garden restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota, by long-time Grand Forks Herald staffer Marilyn Hagerty. Her grandmotherly face is spreading like wildfire across the screens and keyboards of snarkists and the higher-minded consumers of food and food criticism. The poor dear.

A case can be made for the virtue of Ms. Hagerty's review, which is but one of many she has written over the years, covering local restaurants and chains, unique and pedestrian. A town of fewer than 60,000 residents isn't going to have the same kind of tidal surge of new restaurants to cover as even a small city like Madison. If her paper's readers want food coverage, they get to read about what's there. If that means The Olive Garden, then that's what they're going to get. And if they like such coverage, then who has the right to tell them their opinions are wrong? The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants unlimited salad and breadsticks.

But in choosing to submit words, paragraphs, inches, to the larger entity that is food writing, Ms. Hagerty is not immune to criticism on the merits of that genre just because she's a sweet old lady. So if someone wanted to knock her review (or reviews, as this appears to be a common occurrence) for only discussing one trip to the restaurant instead of the customary three, one could rightfully do that. If someone were to point out that there are only a small handful of sentences dedicated to discussion of the actual food -- this The Eatbeat, not an interior décor column, after all -- that person would not be out of place. An unimpressed reader could even argue that the review isn't particularly well-written, but again: if it’s the style that gets eyeballs and clicks in Grand Forks, then there's little reason for rhetorical flourishes and witty wordplay. The world needs ditch-diggers, too, as the man once said.

It's a five-to-one ratio out there (in my circles, anyway), with the majority taking mildly perverse pleasure in the review's weaknesses. I think most of those titterers would probably acknowledge that it's a dark laugh they're having. As someone who has covered the arrival of a shiny-and-new chain shop in town, I can sympathize with the struggle to give such a story integrity and value. So let us all share in Olive Garden's spirit of Italian generosity, and allow for the cynics and the scolds alike.

But not the haters sending shitty emails to poor Marilyn; no hospitaliano for them.

A tale of two faces: George Duran and the Sotto Terra Incident

I'd like to tell you the story of two food personalities. I won't say "chefs", because for different reasons the label doesn't fit either one.

They're both a little portly. They've got an Everyman kind of charm without being either clownish or misogynistic. They each get a television show wherein they interact with innocent bystanders and challenge people to eat things they wouldn't normally eat.

Except one man's show only lasts a single season before being cancelled. The other man's show, which started two years after the first, has lasted for three years and four seasons.

This is the story of George Duran and Adam Richman.

So how unlucky does George Duran feel today? His Ham on the Street for Food Network was this close to achieving the success Adam Richman has with Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. Maybe we should feel empathy for Duran, since his concept was much more focused on sensible, mostly real-world eating, while Richman's show embraces conspicuous consumption and (frankly) overeating. Duran fought the good fight, and lost--no shame in that. And after all, Duran is an actual chef! Richman is an actor who likes food.

But how, then, do we reconcile the latest news? The news that George Duran hosted an invitation-only dinner at a supposed pop-up restaurant in New York, only to pull back the curtain at the end to reveal that the entire premise was a promotion, a focus-group ambush for the benefit of Marie Callender's Frozen Entrees?

What is it about failed TV chefs that makes them think the way back into favor is to endorse frozen food? And in Duran's case, shouldn't someone have thought, Maybe we shouldn't invite a bunch of food bloggers to this deal? It's a PR event, after all. Invite PR people, TV execs. Not snarky denizens of the internets.

Somewhere, Adam Richman is looking down at his 20-egg omelet with a Reuben and two cream puffs inside and smiling. He's being genuine; he's doing what he says he's doing. He's not inviting people to a meal with a promised "surprise" at the end, and then delivering the surprise in a way that undercuts everything else he's said about fresh food, and seasonal food, and good food. That's not what chefs do, but it's what George Duran did.

And when you do that, this is what you get. You get crushed--cah-RUSHED--by bloggers for the dissembling performance, for the two-faced shillery, for the sheer absurdity of the bullshit. And you're going to take every lump, George. Because you've earned it.

Smug, white, hungry -- but enough about me.

I was forwarded a link to an article from GOOD today on Twitter. The article is part of the Food for Thinkers series on the site, and in its own words sounds like the most tired brand of navel-gazing.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

But I like words, and I enjoy good writing, and y'all know I really like food. So despite my trepidations based on the piece's title, I read on. The post is titled "The Rise of White People Food," and those last three words are conspicuously capitalized. The author, Morgan Clendaniel, goes on to describe the emergence of a type of culinary expression limited to people of ample quantities of both liquid assets and smugness.

White People Food has nothing to do with the relative melanin level of the person eating it. ... White People Food does, however, have a lot to do with money. Are you wealthy enough to afford cuts of [insert farm name] [insert special breed of pig] slow poached in [insert another farm name’s] [insert special type of milk] served with greens from [insert urban rooftop garden]? Then you are eating like a White Person. Do you feel really good about yourself while you’re doing it? Then you are a White Person.

Clendaniel goes on to assail a number of foods and techniques that are "White People"-centric. Making jam is White. Referring to tapas by the size of the plate on which its served is White. Sharing a table with strangers is White. Kale is White.

Grandmas make jam and pickle things (another target of Clendaniel's wrath); are they smug White People? Because the balloon Clendaniel hopes to puncture is this apparent smugness, this sense of superiority that he attributes to people who value things like the Eat Local movement, or heirloom vegetables, or who God forbid enjoy a meal in Brooklyn now and then.

After "What's this guy's problem, and is he serious?", there are a couple questions that came to me as I read the post:

  1. Why stigmatize a way of eating for its perceived class-based inaccessibility--thus making it easy to discount as ridiculous trendmongering--when what you would presumably prefer is for all classes to have access to that way of eating in equal measure?
  1. Why introduce race into the discussion, when you acknowledge in the next breath that actual ethnicity has nothing to do with it?

Yes, there is an argument to be made that popularity kills innocence. And I'm fully in the Bourdain camp that believes Alice Waters, with her frequent obliviousness to scale or tact, is a terrible spokeswoman for the locavore crowd. But those positions are different from the thesis that the entirety of the locavore school of thought is fraught with masturbatory tone-deafness.

From the very first beat, this article hints at the phenomenally popular website, Stuff White People Like. With that in mind, a thought (I would never presume to issue a Cardinal Rule) on snide humor. The first person to make a snarky, disparaging, or self-deprecating joke--if it's done well--can be credited for the wit. The second feels cheap, a thin laugh. The third, or fourth, or fifth reveals the meanspiritedness and bitterness at its core. Not only that, but it revels in it.

fainting_couch.jpg

Plus, there's a delicious irony in Clendaniel bemoaning the tendencies of writers in major metropolitan areas focusing on this so-called "White People Food," when there's an expanse between the coasts that appears to go unnoticed in this whiny critique. ("I would challenge the reviewers... Push the envelope a little. We'll follow," he simpers.)

And with the choice of .is as the domain for GOOD's website (making every URL begin with the declaration "GOOD is..."), one wonders whether Clendaniel notices he's writing for a would-be tastemaker.

Race, ridicule, anti-urbanism, and a complete lack of self-awareness. For writing online, these are essential amino acids for buliding what the professional wrestling world calls "cheap pop." You shout the name of the city you're in just to get the crowd cheering, or insult its most famous feature to get them angry. This article smacks of the latter, and for accusing the majority of the food world of smugness, Morgan Clendaniel sure seems certain he's right about all of us.

What's the word for that, again?

An open letter of partial retraction and semi-apology to Vince O'Hern

Wherein the author maintains the Intergrity of his overall Objection

Dear Mr. O'Hern,

In reaction to recent comments made by you in the pages of Isthmus, I may have taken you to task too harshly. Please allow me to explain the offense I took to your statement, and clarify my remarks slightly.

My parents raised me in a dogma-free household. I appreciate that greatly, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. But if there was one spiritual concept instilled by my parents, and perhaps most explicitly by my mother, it is that music is the universal form of prayer.

Music uplifts, and can cause any one of us, regardless of creed, age, or ethnicity to rejoice in our own way. And it doesn't really matter what kind of music it is, so long as it speaks to that need for joy and expression within the listener.

So you must understand that when you made the following remarks, they flew in the face of how I was raised.

One of the traits that distinguish humans from other primates is our ability to create and enjoy classical music. (Rock 'n' roll, not so much.)

A friend posited (on Twitter) as to whether this was moronically offensive, or merely offensively moronic. I chose to co-opt this turn of phrase, without modification. As a writer for your publication, perhaps I would have been better off finding a different way of expressing my displeasure.

For throwing the term "moronic" your way, I apologize. For taking offense at your statement, I do not.

If you meant it as a joke, I'm sorry to say I didn't find it funny at all. If you meant it as the slight I interpreted it to be...well, I'd be very disappointed. I can only assume you meant for the statement to generate a response, or you wouldn't have gone out of your way to include it as a conspicuous aside.

I disagree with your characterization of classical music as apparently the only form of musical expression that elevates us. I meant to disagree with sarcasm, and slipped into verbal aggression.

My bad.

Old guys talk like this.

Until recently, I was a follower of Roger Ebert on Twitter. His political jabs were just that: quick and painful for the recipient. And his essay on losing the ability to eat still stands as a testament to his skill as a writer. But after a while, it was like he turned into a social networking version of Humbert H. Humbert, unable to share in the endeavors of a younger generation, and only hoping to soak it in through his pores while he shuffled slowly through the crowd. He started engaging younger readers in a bizarrely juvenile fashion, and then just wouldn't. Stop. Posting. I had to cut him loose.

Now I see that Roger's gotten himself into hot water with that very same youngish crowd he'd been digitally communing with. He has published an essay titled, "Video Games Can Never Be Art," in which--well, you can guess what point it is that he's making. Video games aren't art because there's user choice; art demands a creative voice that is immutable by the observer. It's obvious he knows very little about video games, but it's his opinion to hold.

I compare this with sports commentator Tony Kornheiser. I've listened to Mr. Tony for years. Since he was on ESPN Radio proper, and not just on a local Washington, DC, affliate. And let me acknowledge: he was old then. But lately, with commentaries on how he doesn't trust ATMs, and how he never even keeps, much less uses, debit cards, and how self-checkout frightens him, and now his relentless ridicule of a science he doesn't understand and therefore cannot value (vulcanology)… Well, I'm not ready to unsubscribe from the podcast, but I'm getting close.

I suspect that Kornheiser would espouse the same sentiment as Ebert about video games. Kornheiser regularly rails against movies with blue people and furry short people, and cannot imagine that animated films could have anything to offer him. His default position, which takes much shaking to dislodge, is that anything drawn is for children. Anything colorful is for children. Anything with children, dare I say, is for children. He is working his way past the wisdom that comes with age, and is now setting up shop inside the unexamined life. It might still be worth living, but it's not as much fun to listen to.

As I sail farther into my 30's, I'm reminded that there's a lot more old ahead of me. I hope it doesn't sink its teeth into me like it appears to be gnawing at these two old newspapermen.

Erin Andrews and stalking, journalism and respect

I'd like to step back from the Top Chef recap for a moment to encourage all of you to do a little reading of a more serious nature. I'm a day off the curve because I heard about this story on the Tony Kornheiser Show podcast.

One of Tony's friends, fellow journalists, and occasional contributor to the radio show is Tracee Hamilton. Unlike Tony's, Tracee's work is still valued enough by the Post to keep her on staff. Or at least, they nominally value her contributions.

Hamilton wrote a piece for yesterday's paper on stalking. It relates to sports in that the hook is the media coverage of--and blogger/sports radio response to--the case against the stalker of sports broadcaster Erin Andrews.

In this piece, Hamilton admits for what appears to be the first time that she was stalked in college over the course of two years. The piece is riveting, intensely emotional and personal. From the column:

I was stalked long ago, before there were reports on stalking, before we even had a name for it. I first met my stalker, a fellow journalism student, when he asked to interview me as part of a class assignment. We sat outside, he asked me a few questions, and that was it -- until his professor pulled me aside about a week later. She was worried, she said, about the tone of his story. She wouldn't show it to me, not because of privacy concerns but because she didn't want to upset me.

I say that the Post perhaps only nominally respects Hamilton's writing, because this story--this private, obviously painful, and extraordinarily well-written piece--was relegated to well below the fold, D1. The editorial thought process that went into this decision is questionable at best, weak and idiotic at worst.

Please go read it. I'll get the recap cranked out in the meantime.