We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in food writing.
James Beard Award-winning writer and Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
The Chef Who Can Teach Us a Thing or Two About Grit (Julia Bainbridge, Heated)
I tend to agree with most criticisms of using the first-person in profiles: Who cares about the writer? Why the throat-clearing about yourself? Who asked about you when I’m just trying to read about Rihanna? It takes a writer of real skill, and very little vanity, to pull off this first-person trick. I marvel at the way Julia Bainbridge gently, unobtrusively inserts herself into this Heated profile of chef Iliana Regan. In doing so, Bainbridge allows the reader to understand the subject in fuller, more generous terms.
There is a current of melancholy that runs through Bainbridge’s piece, pegged to the release of Regan’s National Book Award-longlisted memoir, Burn the Place; you get the sense that the writer understands her subject intimately. (I should note that Regan’s memoir inspired a number of very fine pieces, including those by Deborah Reid and Helen Rosner. Read those, too.) Certain details — the nervous tug of a sweater, the smell of cigarette smoke and beer wafting from a bar — could’ve read like strained flourishes in a lesser writer’s hands, but Bainbridge uses these observations sparingly, bringing Regan to life. She works carefully, sentence by sentence, with some turns of phrase that stop me dead in my tracks. “The alcohol is gone,” Bainbridge writes at one point, “but the -ism remains.” Bainbridge shows that the first-person, when deployed correctly, can showcase a profile writer’s empathy, not their ego.
Alexa van Sickle
Writer, senior editor, Roads and Kingdoms
Death, Migration and the Loss of Culture (Janelle Bitker, San Francisco Chronicle)
There is no shortage of food writing that illuminates the many ways we keep ties to the food of our families and cultures. Often, stories come with an assist from older relatives who serve as the custodians of recipes for future generations to discover and preserve. But as Janelle Bitker explores in this personal essay, what if that’s not your family’s story? What if, through migration or other ways, we lose “our” recipes?
Framed by a visit to her Chinese grandparents’ grave in Fremont, California, Bitker traces how her own family’s food traditions have faded, in some cases after a single generation. Bitker’s family has broad cultural roots: Hakka Chinese, Hong Kong, Russia, the American South, the Bay Area. Her maternal grandparents fell in love in Hong Kong but ended up in San Leandro. Bitker didn’t grow up eating Hakka or Hong Kong cuisine, and her mother, who has lived longer in the U.S. than in Hong Kong, only cooks one Hakka dish. Bitker feels an even bigger cultural loss on her father’s side. Her grandfather was Russian and Jewish but born in Japan. The war brought his family to Shanghai, China — which at the time was one of the safest places for Jews, until it wasn’t — and eventually her grandfather got stranded in the Philippines as a prisoner of war, after he tried to flee to the U.S. Her father remembers piroshkis and beef Stroganoff on his table when he was growing up, but those dishes didn’t make their way to Bitker.
She wonders, “How many generations does it take to become another culturally ambiguous American family? Is migration the death of traditions?” Of course, the answer is that it’s quite the opposite: We create our own new ones. But in tracing her remarkable family history, this piece also shows that there are plenty of stories to tell about how we lose food traditions, not just about how we preserve them.
The Paleta War (Serena Maria Daniels, Eater)
Over the past 15 years, Mexicans across the United States have looked on in quizzical pride as ice cream shops under the name “La Michoacana” (“The Woman from Michoacán”) or variants sprung up wherever Mexicans were — the Southwest and big cities, yes, but also Omaha, Des Moines, and even Bethlehem (okay, Belen, New Mexico). The La Michoacana brand is the Baskin-Robbins of Mexico — but almost all of the American stores that use the name are independently run shops that have nothing to do with the decades-old Mexican company. So how did La Michoacanas become so ubiquitous in el Norte, and so quickly? Tostada Magazine editor Serena Maria Daniels tells a fabulous story that involves lawsuits, immigration, and history, and that will make you want to spread chile-mango ice cream across your keyboard afterward.
Writer, The New Yorker food correspondent
Toward a Theory of American Festival Cusine (Meghan McCarron, photos by Gary He, Eater)
The amazing team of writer Meghan McCarron and photographer Gary He have been killing the Presidential Candidate Foodstuff beat this year. Despite the differences in their respective mediums, they share a distinct and tremendously exciting style: sharp-edged, slightly removed, warmly analytical, with an almost formalist sense of romance. Of the many pieces that came out of their time together at the Iowa State Fair (including the riotous “Why We Never Tire of Politicians Stuffing Their Faces”), my favorite was McCarron’s clever assessment of the mobile fried food economy, and the slippery notion of “real America,” deepened and made more golden with He’s almost surreal photos of funnel cake and turkey legs.
The Great Regression (Jon Bonné, Taste)
I love it — I LOVE IT — when great writers apply their critical lens to restaurants as cultural phenomena, rather than just talking about them as places where the food is good or bad and the prices are low or high. In this scathing, beautifully written piece, Bonné dissects the mini-trend, at the high end, of restaurants that more or less cosplay a mid-century notion of masculinity. He makes the case that the mahogany prime rib carts and sleek martini services and all that jazz are just dazzle camouflage for a truly distasteful core of retrograde and exclusionary values — white male fragility, restaurant edition: “Keep your Noma sensibilities and edible flowers,” he writes, explaining these restaurants’ sales pitch. “Stick them into the part of a cow not served on a silver trolley, and let us dine in a time before tofu and Title IX.”
Freelance food and agriculture journalist
Competitive Oyster Shucking Is Real, Decadent, And China’s Best Party (Noelle Mateer, Deadspin)
I fell in love with food writing when I learned that to write about food is to write about anything. Food is wrapped up in personal memory and heritage, politics and history. Noelle Mateer’s piece for Deadspin proves why readers would be bereft if food writing were restricted to recipes and graded restaurant reviews. (It would be as sad as if sports writing decided it was better off “sticking to sports.”) This story reeled me in right away with an image of 60 people shucking oysters on the Great Wall of China. How oysters, which filter impurities from the water, came to be served raw in China, and who can afford to eat them, are a few of the pearls of this story.
Who’s Considered Thin Enough for Eating Disorder Treatment? (Virginia Sole-Smith, Elemental)
When I talked about this story with a friend, his first question threw me off: “What is an eating disorder exactly?” But the question of what an eating disorder is — and not what someone with an eating disorder looks like — is the heart of this overdue story by Virginia Sole-Smith. Insurance companies and doctors often use low weight as a benchmark for diagnosing and treating eating disorders, even when anyone who dangerously restricts food intake is at risk of physiological complications. This article shows a particularly harmful example of how diet culture has made it seem acceptable to starve yourself—as long as you’re big. Sole-Smith’s deftly handled reporting and writing on this immensely complicated subject makes for one of the most memorable pieces I’ve read this year.
Le Colonial Is an Orientalist Specter (Soleil Ho, San Francisco Chronicle)
The image of the food critic as a stodgy white man or woman with resting jerk face here to maintain the Eurocentric status quo came to a stunning halt with Soleil Ho’s review of the Vietnamese restaurant, Le Colonial. Soleil, an accomplished and controversial, smart-dressing intellectual whose interests extend into food, visual art, writing, and cultural critique, challenged the restaurant’s proprietors beyond food. As a Vietnamese American and self-described queer woman, she challenged the French colonial decor, the yearning for colonial-era nostalgia in light of what those signifiers mean to a descendant of the colonized, as well as to those uninitiated in the socio-political world of Southeast Asia. Without losing the disciplined gaze of a food critic, this review put face forward to the reader ideas about culinary justice equal to questions about plating, taste, and concept. Would you want to eat in a space that reflected and honored the path to an unshakable trauma in the history of your family or peoplehood? In a time when diners are thinking about the “position” and packaging of their food, Ho modeled, in the hottest days of the culture wars, the fine line between concept and convenient stereotypes that unwittingly create a divide even before we dine.
Writer, memoirist, assistant editor Houstonia
The Grill That Gave ‘90 Kids Their Kitchen Training Wheels (Aaron Goldfarb, Taste)
In the late ’90s and early aughts, my father broke out the George Foreman Grill every evening, placing several slices of fluffy, buttered (well, margarined) Publix bakery French bread on the grill, and held the lid down for a good minute. He loved to have these little flattened, greasy pieces of toast with dinner. That’s pretty much all he used his George Foreman for until the device faded into retirement in the garage, along with his kayak and 17 awful, outdated printers before it. Aaron Goldfarb’s ode to the George Foreman sent me back to the flattened-toast era and gave me a good chuckle, which is necessary in these trying times. Also, it’s wild to think that the contraption is the second-most purchased home appliance of all time. The George Foreman was advertised for its ability to drain fat from food; meat grease would slide off it into a little vat. But how many other garages are now burdened with these vessels?
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