In the near future, when climate change has reduced Minnesota to a drought-ridden wasteland of starvation, survivors will look back at the present period of culinary excess with woeful nostalgia. (I was just reading the latest dire predictions in InsideClimate News. Yes, we’re doomed.) In the meantime, we sure do love food, and reading about food, and listening to people who write about food talk about food.
Last week, two different Twin Cities groups had meetings featuring professional food writers: one was the MN Society of Professional Journalists, and the other was a Twin Cities Media Alliance “Brown Bag Lunch with a Journalist.” The food writers were James Norton of Heavy Table, Kim Ode of the Star Tribune, Stephanie March of Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, and Rachel Hutton, late of City Pages, now freelancing.
Based on these two events, I can make the following overgeneralizations about professional food writers.
1. They are somewhat better-looking than average.
2. They are smart and well-educated, to the degree that you wonder if maybe they should be doing something more constructive with their lives, such as halting the global warming-induced decline of Western civilization.
3. Their infatuation with eating seems tinged with weltschmerz.
I drew the weltschmerz conclusion after about the fifth time the food writers responded to a question with, “Oh, no, I never know how to answer that question!” You get the impression that they’re so bombarded with requests for restaurant recommendations that they want to hide. They’re writers, after all, not vaudevillians.
Thus, I will do everyone a favor and summarize the panelists’ comments, so that when you run into them you can talk about something other than food, such as the fact that the increasing number of severe weather events is bringing on the apocalypse in short order. The questions were ably posed by MN SPJ’s Alyssa Ford and TCMA’s Jeremy Iggers, a long-time food writer himself.
When Craig Claiborne popularized food journalism in the 1950s, he established some rules for critics: dine anonymously so you’re not treated better than other customers; don’t accept free meals. What are the rules you follow these days?
All the panelists seem to have assimilated the list of critics’ guidelines by the Association of Food Journalists, even if they don’t follow them to the letter.
- They respect the anonymity idea (and that’s why you’re not seeing a photo right now) but they’re not too concerned about it in this blog-happy everyone’s-a-critic era. Stephanie says that when she wants to be invisible at a restaurant, she takes her kids with her and she’s thoroughly ignored. Sad.
- No one would be caught dead accepting a free meal, but James mentioned the “ethical minefield” they tramp through daily: If you’re interviewing a chef, and he gives you something to eat while you’re chatting, and you don’t pay for it, is that the same as accepting a bribe? Nah, probably not. But the main point is transparency: don’t keep any secrets about who gave you what.
- The rule of thumb used to be to wait a month after a restaurant opened before visiting it, and then to eat there three times before reviewing. The Strib and MSP Mag hold religiously to this, and Rachel does too, whereas James thinks that if a restaurant is taking your money, it’s fair game from day one. Most agreed that it’s good form to try the place more than once, although it’s not always possible in the mad rush to weigh in on new restaurants.
What’s unique about the Twin Cities food scene?
The first thing that came up was the “coastal inferiority complex” that we suffer from and also resent suffering from. We worry that people in New York and California don’t think we’re as cool as we think we are, which is not very cool to begin with, because we have an inferiority complex, see. Much head-nodding ensued as these points were made:
- One major strength of the local food scene is the proximity to agriculture, making the “farm to fork” trend easier to accomplish here than in other parts of the country.
- People on the coasts want to believe they thought up things like canning parties and pies all by themselves, but no! Those things are Midwestern! As the fascination with local, home-grown food continues, Minnesota is building a base of respect, and that’s what’s making our sous chefs shine and the food scene grow.
- It’s annoying as hell that most national “best restaurant” lists skip the Midwest. Do people seriously think that this is an unpopulated outback? Until global warming causes all the lakes to dry up and raging fires destroy everything (none of the food writers said that — I’m interjecting here), it is totally unfair that Minnesota restaurants are generally ignored on national “best” lists.
- There’s a strong camaraderie of local chefs who work, play, travel, and hang out together. Their sharing of techniques and willingness to experiment will continue to evolve into a stronger culinary community. We will all be proud, like the food community in Portland (not to bring up one of those coastal cities again, damn them).
Where do you love to eat?
This question was presented in a variety of ways: where do you eat when you’re not reviewing, where do you go for a special occasion, etc. I’ll just list the restaurants whose names were uttered with fond affection:
I believe that Bachelor Farmer was the restaurant most frequently mentioned, but that could be because it’s brand new and people are still waxing eloquent. Masu and Heidi’s also came up a lot.
What restaurants have closed that you miss?
- Town Talk, Auriga, The Inn.
(Editor’s note: Only four of the 20 restaurants mentioned are in St. Paul. Is this some sort of Minneapolitan snobbery, equivalent to the coasts’ blithe disregard of the Midwest?)
Lastly, a few random comments.
- Trifle is the latest trendy dessert. Future trends: Japanese pub food; non-alcoholic drink menus.
- A high-profile female chef will be opening a restaurant downtown.
- We need the following in the Twin Cities: a Burmese restaurant; the kind of Korean barbecue where they grill everything on a big grill in the middle of the table; some really fabulous ramen places.
If you can’t get enough of reading what people write about food, mnfoodbloggers.com has an excellent list. You might as well read, eat, and drink like there’s no tomorrow…just in case.
Image courtesy of Creative Commons.