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Some observers see the ASME bake-off as a sign that magazines have entered the golden age of food criticism, under the careful hand of Ruth Reichl, who became editor in chief of Gourmet in 1999. Indeed, when Gold was a finalist for the criticism award last year, it was the first time ASME had ever nominated a food writer in that category. (The award went to New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane instead.)
This year Gourmet landed three nominationsfor criticism, general excellence for magazines with a circulation of 500,000 to 1,000,000, and best single-topic issue. But the competition is, as always, stiff: In general excellence, the mag competes for the second time with The New Yorker (which won last year), and in the single-issue category, Gourmet's tribute to Paris is up against The New Yorker's historic 9-11 issue. David Remnick's shadow seems to fall in every kitchen.
Asked to comment on the significance of Gourmet's triple nominations, Reichl said, "It shows food has really come into the culture, and magazines are ahead of newspapers in understanding that. There is still no Pulitzer for restaurant reviews." Not yet, anyway. But foodies compete for other awards, including the James Beard, which honors both newspaper and magazine writers.
That GQ and Gourmet are both Condé Nast magazines makes the Gold-Richman competition even more delicious. Richman previously won an ASME. He has won eight Beards in the past; Gold has won two. In 2000 and 2001, the men competed for a Beard (first Richman won, then Gold), and this year they go fork to fork for an ASME and a Beard. The ASMEs will be announced May 1, the Beards two days later.
Gold is slated to beat out Richman for the ASME this year, according to magazine insiders who claim to be in the know. Reichl declined to comment, while GQ managing editor Martin Beiser, who edits Richman, declared, "Let the crankiest man win. That would be Alan."
The other critics nominated for ASMEs this year are Hilton Als, 40, of The New Yorker; Caitlin Flanagan, 40, of The Atlantic; and Lee Siegel, 44, of Harper's. Each is a gifted writer whose book reviews combine the knowledge, persuasiveness, and originality of voice that ASME seeks in a critic. Their work will be addressed in time, after the dinner table is cleared.
But firstwhy the food-writing phenomenon? Reichl gives the genre itself credit, explaining that "a good restaurant review, like a book or theater review, should make you think." Reichl says a good food writer can take the reader somewhere unexpected in a kind of literary bait and switch: "It's an easy way to grab people's attention and then talk about other things if you want to. You feed people the whipped cream and buried underneath it are the peas."
Details senior editor Pete Wells, formerly of Food & Wine, points out that food writing is largely "virgin territory" for American writers, a most accommodating new form that can be done "as straight criticism, travel writing, humor, memoir, or cultural critique."
Asked to describe Gold's writing, Reichl picks up the culture theme. "Jonathan writes incredibly intelligent reviews that bring in politics and culture and embrace a whole world," she says. To illustrate this point, in addition to giving the ASME judges two "high-end pieces" about chefs Daniel Boulud and Paul Liebrandt, Reichl says she deliberately submitted Gold's Whitman-esque essay about riding the 7 train to Queens to discover "30 little holes in the wall." More than just a good meal, she says, such a trip can result in "people's first cultural encounter with places like Cambodia or Vietnam or India."
Reichl also calls Gold "fearless and opinionated," adding, "When you're writing reviews," she says, "you don't have to be right, but you have to feel very strongly about your opinions and have a thick skin, because if you don't piss people off, you're not really doing your job."
As evidence, consider Gold's review of Liebrandt's restaurant, Atlas, in which he dismisses the entire menu as foul-tasting but cleverly concocted "critic bait," the kind of fare "that 95 percent of a restaurant's patrons will pass right over, but which [no critic] can ever resist."
(Full disclosure: Gold's wife, Laurie Ochoa, is editor in chief of L.A. Weekly, which is owned by Village Voice Media and which employs Gold as a contributor.)
GQ's Beiser sees a simpler reason for the appeal of food writing. "Many Americans have done international traveling," he says, "so they enjoy good writing about the food experience, which is at the heart of travel." To highlight that theme, GQ submitted three Richman columns in which he holds forth on the culinary specialties of a particular place: L.A. (sushi), Harlem (soul food), and Naples (bad food, period). One gets the feeling this man will go anywhere and eat anything. He leaves no dish untouched.
"He could start coasting, but he doesn't," says Beiser. "He works as hard as anyone on staff. Plus, he's not a food snob. You'll even see him in the office eating an Egg McMuffin."
Actually, what Richman seems to hate more than anything is dining with badly dressed customers like the L.A. men who wear "white T-shirts under unbuttoned dress shirts with the tails hanging out." He writes plaintively, "If people are going to dress like that in restaurants, is the earth really worth saving?"
Beiser says of Richman's voice, "It combines a cranky, self-effacing sense of humor with great authority. It's a combination of S.J. Perelman and M.F.K. Fisher." Richman also leaves behind unforgettable cultural snapshots: the porn star who frequents Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, or the Harlem schoolgirl who does homework at M&G while listening to rhythm and blues. Beiser says Richman once turned a piece about the closing of a deli into an ode to the Jewish waiter.
Reading the work of these writers, I was reminded of a couple I know who recently toured Europe as undercover spies for Visa, with the job of racking up the highest possible bills at restaurants and shops, then observing the reactions of staff when their credit cards were systematically rejected. Like that job, food writing seems to be insanely demanding. Book reviewers only have to read, but this is Anthony Bourdain territory: Extreme Criticism. In your face.
I asked Beiser if Richman has grown fat on the job. "Miraculously he has managed to stay fit," he said, "though he doesn't work out with any regularity. He's a testament to the French dietif you drink enough red wine, it washes everything away."