"The world has changed so much so fast since the pieces in this volume were written and published that I’m convinced the book will read like a time capsule." -- Silvia Killingsworth, Foreword to The Best American Food Writing 2020, published November 2020.
Reading this year's Best American Food Writing is indeed like looking at a time capsule. The book has a lot of great articles, though I was frustrated by the large number from the online magazines Eater and Serious Eats because I have already read them. Although it's a very good collection, it really does reinforce my sense that I am in some kind of terrible purgatory, alienated from the world that I have known most of my life.
The republished essay that most totally brought home my alienation was about grocery stores, and an effort (pre-pandemic, of course) to make them more attractive to shoppers. Many people have been switching to big-box stores like Walmart, to farmers' markets or boutique-type shops, to online shopping, or elsewhere, and store owners feel the pressure to do something. Author Joe Fassler wrote "The Man Who’s Going to Save Your Neighborhood Grocery Store" about Kevin Kelley, an architect who was redesigning the grocery-store concept for a few ambitious grocery owners. Fassler explained the challenges to the traditional grocery business -- for example how "Americans started cooking at home less and eating out more" (p. 86). Then he described how Kelley proposes to save their bacon. First, a summary of experiential shopping in a variety of venues:
"Kelley says, grocers can’t be satisfied with providing a place to complete a chore. They’ll need to direct an experience. Today’s successful retail brands establish what Kelley calls a 'brand realm,' or what screenwriters would call a story’s 'setting.' We don’t usually think consciously about them, but realms subtly shape our attitude toward shopping the same way the foggy, noirishly lit streets in a Batman movie tell us something about Gotham City. Cracker Barrel is set in a nostalgic rural house. Urban Outfitters is set on a graffitied urban street. Tommy Bahama takes place on a resort island. It’s a well-known industry secret that Costco stores are hugely expensive to construct— they’re designed to resemble fantasy versions of real-life warehouses, and the appearance of thrift doesn’t come cheap. Some realms are even more specific and fanciful: Anthropologie is an enchanted attic, complete with enticing cupboards and drawers. Trader Joe’s is a crew of carefree, hippie traders shipping bulk goods across the sea. A strong sense of place helps immerse us in a store, getting us emotionally invested and (perhaps) ready to suspend the critical faculties that prevent a shopping spree." (p. 92).
Am I real? Frequent grocery shopping maybe contributed to my sense of being real. Yes, grocery stores may have to change, but before the predictions started to materialize, most of us found ourselves unable to shop anywhere, because of the pandemic. Fassler writes:
"The world existed before supermarkets, and it won’t end if they vanish. And in the ongoing story of American food, the 20th-century grocery store is no great hero. A&P— the once titanic chain, now itself defunct— was a great mechanizer, undercutting the countless smaller, local businesses that used to populate the landscape. More generally, the supermarket made it easier for Americans to distance ourselves from what we eat, shrouding food production behind a veil and letting us convince ourselves that price and convenience matter above all else. We let ourselves be satisfied with the appearance of abundance— even if great stacks of unblemished fruit contribute to waste and spoilage, even if the array of brightly colored packages are all owned by the same handful of multinational corporations. But whatever springs up to replace grocery stores will have consequences, too, and the truth is that brick-and-mortar is not going away anytime soon— far from it." (p. 103).
Doesn't this seem odd and alien in our current situation with its abrupt changes to all shopping?
Certainly the articles in Best American that describe various restaurants should also seem unreal and unrelatable. To me they don't seem all that disconnected from my current reality because famous food writers like the ones represented here write about restaurants that I would never patronize anyway (the only exception is a description of Sparky’s in Hatch N.M. a famous diner where I once ate a chili cheeseburger). My favorite writers in this collection deal with the concept of “authenticity,” and what it really means, which I might write another post about. Articles about appropriation of ethnic foods by profit-seeking and better-funded mainstream entrepreneurs are interesting as well, and I wish I could go to a nice Mexican restaurant somewhere in the Southwest, or to an Asian restaurant in Fairfax, VA. But it’s going weekly to grocery stores that I really miss.
It's only been a few months since I read The Best Food Writing 2019, edited by Samin Nosrat, and I had much the same feelings about it. (Blogged here: Best American Food Writing 2019)
The year 2020 really is like no other!
blog post © 2020 mae sander.