Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"The Tastebuds of Critics"

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THE TASTEBUDS OF CRITICS

Most people read restaurant reviews solely to find a place where they can get a good meal. That’s just as well, because if they paid attention to the critic’s writing style it would permanently put them off their feed.

To adapt a phrase coined by Henry Fowler, the great writer on English usage, restaurant critics are prone to the inelegant variation. A reviewer I follow (names are withheld to protect the guilty) indulges in the fake idiomatic, using words unknown in ordinary speech, like “‘shrooms” and “‘za.”

Do you like ‘shrooms on your ‘za?

This kind of would-be folksy reviewer thinks the sky will fall if he fully spells a word. Bacchus forbid that he write “old” instead of “ol’,’ and “vegetables” instead of “veggies.” Truckling to health fiends, almost no reviewer can resist calling any fatty or oily dish, usually a delicious one, “artery-busting” or a “heart attack on a plate.” Damn noble of him to risk a coronary for our sake.

You know you’re at the mercy of someone suffering from the reviewer-knows-best syndrome when she writes that something, usually fish, is “barely cooked” or “barely there.” (She means it as a compliment.) What’s going on is that she’s trying to casually trumpet her expertise. Likewise, reviewers drivel on about “properly lumpy” mashed potatoes. In my view, lumps are for chumps.

Restaurant critics and menu writers must have graduated from a school where they were taught to combine environmental sensitivity with active verbs: Reviewing, say, the Catfood Café, one will declare: “Chef David Domino drizzles kumquat emulsion on line-caught sustainable squab, and layers it with sassafras-piqued organic kamut gingerbread, then primes our appetite for more with an ethereal ameuse guele of Pepto Bismol-spiked mini-beignets.” By contrast, some years ago I faithfully read a long-time, big-newspaper critic who spent half her restaurant reviews describing décor. As for the food, she often complained that the portions were too large. Was she on a diet?

Another type of reviewer has sex on her brain, not tastes on her tongue. Something staring up from a plate is “seductive” or “erotic.” This woman chronically and hopelessly confuses the distinction between food and sex. After she spends time rocked in the arms of love, she likely compliments her partner, “Oh, that was just so retro citrusy.”

Some critics are sufficiently taste-challenged and tone-deaf that they remind me of someone employed by Manny Drukier, author of Carved in Stone and proprietor of the illustrious Idler Pub, which is regrettably no more. One night at the pub, a customer bitterly protested that the meat he’d ordered was way too spicy. Storming into the kitchen, Drukier confronted the cook. “Didn’t you taste the meat before you sent it out?” he indignantly demanded. “No,” said the cook, “I’m a vegetarian.”

6 comments

There is very highly rated (by me) film - Dinner Rush; just for illustrating this topic, with brilliant Sandra Bernhard as a restaurant critic. Her line is not the primary one in the film, but still shows the specifics of this job.

Oleg, I think that a restaurant review by Tolstoy or Joyce would be worthwhile. (Joyce should not be trusted about wine, though: his favourite was Swiss white.)

Good writing is welcome in any form, no?

As for my expectations, it was indeed naive of me to suppose that a critic with an expense account could be sober.

Expecting a food critic to be Tolstoy or Joyce seems to be a bit too naive - for good reading we already have a whole world of literature. As per food reviews, indeed, I'd rather read sober, well-balanced report with fair conclusion, than a weak attempt to write something "stylish" and "special". Why do they do so? Well, there might be some reasons.

"American Idol Cowgirl" was taken...

Thanks, Karaoke (or do you prefer to be called Cowboy?)for your thoughtful comments: I yield to your professional expertise, and share your implicit admiration for the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher. Perhaps I was too sanguine about the motivations of review readers. I concede as well that foodie bloggers may be more influential these days than print critics. However, I chose not to write about the former lest I be accused of kicking the verbally impaired.

Fraser Sutherland- admittedly one of my favourite non-professional chefs- seems to think that people give credence to a prominent food reviewer's opinions about a restaurant because it will help them on their holy quest to find a good meal. Today, restaurateurs read them out loud to their staff for a good (cynical) laugh, and the average restaurant-goer, usually with some aspirations to being a hipster, reads them to find out where the latest flavour-of-the-month is located. As for the "followers" of prominent reviewers, well, they can barely summon up the energy to make their way to the grail any more.

The truth is that those who have any influence these days are the so-called "foodies", who write blogs that offer little by way of literary craft, but in their earnest efforts to understand their own palettes are helpful to many like them. And there are many. Foodies have sprouted everywhere like dandelions and most of their "food writing" goes to the wind like its fur-ball seeds, but it points to a singular fact: bad writing about food is usually what you want to read if you are in search of a good meal in Toronto. You work your way through the maze of sincerity and hope to have, if not an epiphany, a more muddied clarity: "Hmm, sounds like he's saying the food might not be that bad".

Like many other restaurateurs with an inclination toward the finer things in writing, I too await the second-coming of a great food critic. Yup, that's me, Searching For M.F.K Fisher.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Fraser Sutherland

At last count, Fraser Sutherland has published fifteen books: one of them short fiction, four nonfiction and ten poetry, His most recent poetry collection is The Philosophy of As If. A freelance editor, he may be the only Canadian poet who is also a lexicographer. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he lives in Toronto.

Go to Fraser Sutherland’s Author Page