Friday, July 10, 2020

Best American Food Writing 2019

Best American Food Writing 2019.
Published October, 2019.
We are living on a completely different planet now than we were around two years ago, when the works in this collection were written. Samin Nosrat selected these short pieces, most of which were actually published in 2018, but it takes time to publish. Since then, the world of food and food writing has been utterly changed, along with much else.

To take a pretty extreme example from the essays in the book; Burkhard Bilger wrote "Bean Freaks," for the New Yorker; it was published in April, 2018.  This essay describes the life of Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, a business which specializes in a number of varieties of heirloom beans. The background of the article includes a description of how Sando became a recognized expert in all things bean, creating a niche for a specialty product for foodies — at least for the few bean-lovers among them. Rancho Gordo has a brick-and-mortar location in Napa, California, and also ships online orders and runs a "bean of the month" club. Among other things, Bilger accompanied Sando on a visit to a remote farming community in Mexico, the source of many types of beans offered by his company, and provided details about the history of bean cultivation in the Americas.

Yes, it's a well-written article, typical of the New Yorker, covering a highly specialized and obscure food product. But how things have changed! Last March and April Rancho Gordo’s beans became an incredibly hot commodity because pandemic panic caused demand for all types of beans to skyrocket. A large number of feature articles covered the huge explosion in new orders beginning in March and how Sando handled them. There were articles about Rancho Gordo in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset Magazine,,,,, and more. By mid-March, orders increased from an average of 200 per day to over 1000, then to over 1600. Rancho Gordo's response time to fill orders increased, of course, from around a day to several weeks; according to the Rancho Gordo website, it's now around a week. Strange times we live in!

In Best American Food Writing 2019, editor Samin Nosrat also included a few articles about Big Agriculture and Big Food Processors. There's an in-depth study of the billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick — "A Kingdom from Dust" by Mark Arax covers their enormous farms in California growing pistachios, almonds, and pomegranates; their dubious marketing techniques (including paying for medical research to show the health benefits of POM Wonderful, their pomegranate juice); and their even more dubious acquisition of water rights for irrigating their vast tracts of land. Another article, "Bison Bars Were Supposed to Restore Native Communities and Grass-based Ranches. Then Came Epic Provisions" by Marilyn Noble has a title that reveals its subject about contrasting big and small agriculture. In our new utterly changed world, concentration on these types of industrial food producers is still interesting, but the focus has changed; most articles on this general topic would tend to cover instead the impact of coronavirus on the workers in meat packing plants and chicken packing plants.

Articles on food and health cover various topics. An interesting one is "Why Do Poor Americans Eat So Unhealthfully? Because Junk Food is the Only Indulgence They Can Afford" by Priya Fielding-Singh. In our new, sad, food world even this indulgence may be too much for the subjects of this study: these days far fewer "poor parents ... could almost always scrounge up a dollar to buy their kids a can of soda or a bag of chips" (p. 101) The topic of food and poverty is more important than ever, but the subject now is the much more pressing desperation of needing to provide for families affected by job losses, the spread of the pandemic, and the lack of medical care. 

The article "Black History at Harlem Hops" by Hannah Goldfield describes a lively bar scene at the Harlem Hops Bar, "a thoroughly modern establishment... and a mostly young, hip crowd." Goldfield tells about all the great beers and whiskies and "snappy skinned bratwursts... served on griddled pretzel buns" that you'll want to try. I hardly need to point out what's changed since that was written!

Goldfield’s review of a bar/restaurant is in fact the only restaurant review in the collection — the introduction explains “People often assume that food writing is just another term for restaurant criticism. But as a food writer myself, I couldn’t be less interested in writing about restaurants.” (p. xix) However, the final essay in the book is a sad appreciation of the career of food writer Jonathan Gold by Benjamin Alders Wurgaft, written soon after the untimely death of the famous LA Times reviewer, an article that includes some very interesting thoughts on what makes restaurant criticism difficult. Unfortunately, the communal spirit among restaurant goers that’s most expertly described by Wurgaft is what’s totally missing from virtually the entire world right now! Even more tragically, the early death of beloved public figures has become so much more commonplace.

Collectively at this moment, we may be obsessed with food and may be occupying ourselves with cooking as we never have before — but our interest in the world of food may be completely different. Does the detailed study of Japanese Kit Kat flavors and specialty chocolate bars for the tourists, described in “Big in Japan” by Tejal Rao, hold one’s interest now as maybe it did last year? Or the article on salty licorice in Finland? Can we still muster any indignation at the scientific frauds of Brian Wansink as revealed by writer Stephanie M. Lee? And Samin Nosrat's insightful remarks about the exclusion of non-white-male food writers now seem only one detail in the larger framework of indignation about exclusion of non-whites from our society.

My frame of reference has changed, and these seem less important now than they may have seemed “before.” This is an excellent anthology, well worth reading, but as I said, seems to be about some other planet than the one where we live now.

Review © 2020 mae sander.


Debra Eliotseats said...

Very interesting review. Yes, how times have changed. I haven't thought of Rancho Gordo for years. There used to be a specialty food shop here that carried their beans. I am still trying to finish the 2018 edition. I am sure I will read that with a different set of eyes now, too.

Jeanie said...

Your last paragraph -- so true about so many things. I was thinking about those writing novels set in today's environment. If the writing is done, they may well have to change a bit because of distancing, dining out, masks, and just the general climate. ALl of a sudden what seemed like relatively contemporary writing seems of another age.

Iris Flavia said...

A former friend of mine went to Florida for a holiday and she (being German, too, living in Braunschweig) told me how salad and things healthy were expensive compared to fast food.
Germany is a copy-cat-country and the same starts over here.
A hot dog for €1 at IKEA!!! That cannot be of quality.
We do not call "Burger King" "Würger King" for no reason (würgen aka gagging), though it´s better than Maccas.
And having lost my job I learned how easy it is to cook healthy, too! And cheaper.

Yay for books on good cooking. And for people like you telling of them.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

What an amazing blog post. I seldom think of food in the same regard as the author and obviously you, do. Although I try to eat healthy, I eat what is available in the veggie and fruit aisles that my friend picks up for me.

I was especially interested in the restaurant "critiques." It was a sad commentary on Planet A. Thanks for this nice review.

Lavender and Lime ( said...

Thank you for sharing your insights. As always, a great and informative read. Nothing will ever be the same again. But hopefully the new normal will eventually be better.

judee said...

We truly are living in a whole new world. I sometimes wonder if we will ever go back to large gatherings and feeling comfortable to travel abroad. At the beginning of the pandemic (being Vegan) I loaded up on all kinds of beans whenever I could find them. Well, now the heat of the summer set in and I just don't feel like cooking or eating beans. We eat much lighter in the summer and thus I have a pantry full of BEANS!! Sounds like an very interesting read. Thanks Mae

Beth F said...

I always enjoy a good food anthology and look at them as a reflection of their time. I'm no less interested in such books written in the 30s or 50s just because we don't look at food the same these days.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Regarding the article about "Why Do Poor Americans Eat So Unhealthfully? Because Junk Food is the Only Indulgence They Can Afford" by Priya Fielding-Singh - I can't tell you how many people believe that the poor tend to be more obese because they are somehow morally compromised rather than the fact that healthy food costs so much more. I think people who don't do the grocery shopping are especially subject to forming such erroneous prejudices. And for that matter, fresh foods have gotten even more expensive since the pandemic.

Tina said...

Rancho Gordo was recommended to us by my sister in law last time we visited in Tampa. She had been cooking with them for years and was introduced to them when she lived in Mexico. I didn't know that about POM and their business practices. Enlightening book.

Jackie McGuinness said...

It is too true about fast food being less expensive than healthy. Add in the time to cook for a single mother working two jobs and fast food seems to be the way to go.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

What a difference a couple of years can make.....

Marg said...

it does seem like we live in a completely different world, even if we compare January to July! It will be interesting to have a look at this book in the 2020 version

Laurie C said...

Beans are a staple in this house but I'd missed that New Yorker article and had never heard of Rancho Gordo. Sounds like an interesting collection of essays and a peek back at the world that was. My husband and I were saying this morning, though, that the big flu epidemic in 1918 was followed by the Roaring 20s, so the new normal may not last too long after the pandemic ends. People have short memories!