Eyes on the prize

Pub date May 1, 2007

The recent news that a food writer from Los Angeles won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism puts us on notice that food writing at its best is an art form – also that LA is a serious food town, loath though we may be to admit it. The southland has access to all sorts of local agricultural bounty, a nearby wine country (in Santa Barbara County), and a polyglot population that represents much of the world. It also has something we don’t have – an international border just miles away, with a genuinely different culture on the other side. This must be massively stimuutf8g.

Criticism is a minor art, secondary and derivative – there must be some larger, primary subject at hand to examine and consider – but its subordinate position doesn’t make it less worthy. Authentic food criticism tends to overcome this limitation anyway, since, handled in a certain way, it becomes a species of social or cultural criticism, a meditation on how people live their lives. As anyone who’s traveled abroad will know, one’s first and indelible experiences of other cultures often have to do with food: what it is, how it is grown or gathered, how it is prepared and presented. If it is true that one feels most American when outside of America, then perhaps it is also true that our industrial-food folly becomes most apparent to us when we are sitting in some cafe in a faraway land, awash in local food habits and practices that are hundreds or thousands of years old, and no one has heard of Velveeta.

The difference between criticism and reviewing is a segment of the border between art and craft, with the former more keenly attentive to wider and deeper meanings. Many of our food-involved locals abide by a credo of living to eat, but because this is true to some extent of every animal on the planet, its meaning seems a little watery to me and appears to involve mainly the hunt for the "best" version of this or that. I have no particular complaint with this, just as I have no quarrel with gearheads or fanciers of pedigreed dogs. But, as with other forms of monomania, it does have a flattening effect, reducing the world to a single dimension. LA is flat, but it isn’t just flat.

Paul Reidinger

> paulr@sfbg.com