Archive for January 7th, 2021

How did restaurant critics become “insult comics”?

Thursday, January 7th, 2021
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Is it really that bad? “Promiscuous hyperbole has consequences.”

I’d been alerted to check out Theodore Gioia’s review of restaurant reviews over at The New Republic.  It’s good. Check it out … even if, like me, you are a vegetarian and can’t eat half of what’s on any menu, anyway, whether or not it’s “oleaginous” or “dessicated.” Gioia’s writing is spunky and sassy, and his  spirit thoughtful and generous as he describes the current fashion of “smackdown reviews.” (And yes, he is Dana Gioia‘s son – don’t get them confused.)

Why no trophies for glowing reviews? Gioia concludes that “entertainment comes from cruelty.” No argument there. He continues: “These gladiatorial takedowns are not really excellent writing about food—but rather about pain. Cuisine is merely the vessel of vitriol, the muse of literary malice.” He compares restaurant reviewing to “insult comedy.” Here’s why: “Negative reviews often read like a standup act, with dozens of disconnected puns and laugh lines that entertain for the moment but rarely culminate in a larger argument.”

He begins:

Last February, I had the honor of being publicly snubbed by Jay Rayner, the fiery restaurant critic for The Guardian, who dismissed my essay about the “crisis” of the American restaurant review as “staggeringly parochial.” Apparently, my essay did not say enough about the British restaurant review. Rayner sketched a broad distinction between the somber American critic driven by “civic duty” with a “respectful and solicitous” tone (not adjectives commonly associated with the Stars and Stripes) and the Brits, who are the “writerly equivalent of bare-knuckle fighters.” While tame Americans write descriptions such as “creamy slips of uni” or “a fragrant lake of oil,” the English understand the simple joy of comparing a rude waitstaff to an “unlubricated colonoscopy.” Rayner ended his column with an appeal to un-seriousness: “Learn to relax a little. After all, we’re not war reporters. We’re only writing about lunch.”

Gioia: smacking the “smackdown reviews”

Then the pandemic hit. As restaurants across the world were forced to close, the value of Rayner’s style of blitzkrieg criticism became a fraught question. While American reviewers reacted to the shutdown with broader assessments of the state of the restaurant industry and its future, the major British critics spent the lockdown taking “trips down Memory Lane” and “becoming emotionally attached to frying pans.” Then in June, Rayner declared an indefinite hiatus from negative reviews, announcing, “If I can’t be broadly positive I simply won’t be writing anything,” even though the shift “risks making me less readable.”

Actors who play for applause lose their subtlety and daring. In the same way, self-indulgent hit pieces make bad writers, eventually:

Promiscuous hyperbole has consequences beyond provocation and imprecision. At the literary level, these grotesque metaphors and overcaffeinated insults are the linguistic equivalent of junk food. While there’s nothing wrong with a little bathroom humor in moderation, a steady diet of car-bomb and condom similes will ruin any author’s expressive palette. Left unchecked, food critics often develop an unhealthy craving for offensive, high-conflict imagery and start to seek out extreme comparisons over more balanced options. For instance, you find Rayner describing a mussel that “looks like the retracted scrotum of a hairless cat,” a croquette “the size and color of a cat’s turd,” and a puree that makes him wince “like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles.” After getting hooked on such Red Bull rhetoric, reviewers gradually spoil their taste for subtler flavors of thought and feeling.

Why does it matter? Because the restaurant industry is crumbling as we speak, thanks to COVID.  “This pledge of blanket positivity comes at a moment of unprecedented hardship and uncertainty for the restaurant industry. Now is not the time for phony optimism or mandatory applause but righteous rage and indignation—yet redirected from problems in table décor toward problems in kitchen culture. Contemporary dining teems with contentious issues crying out for serious discussion: widespread unemployment among food workers, sexual misconduct allegations in top kitchens, hazardous labor laws, a lack of diversity in food media, record food insecurity in the U.K. and the U.S., to name a few. Any of these questions would benefit from a critic’s incisive intellect and informed reporting. Yet traditional reviewers remain trapped in the simplistic binary of barbaric putdowns or mindless praise.

Read the whole thing here.