Why Read About Food?

It’s a curious thing, to me, why people read about food. Food isn’t something you read about, it’s something you eat. You can’t experience food by reading about it, the same way you can’t experience the squishy, hot sand on your feet by looking at a picture of a beach or the crusty, hard calluses on your fingers by watching a video of a guitarist. Still people look at pictures of beaches and watch videos of guitarists. I am guilty of living to eat more than eating to live, I cook professionally and I dine playfully. But despite my love for all things food, even I don’t particularly enjoy reading about food.

Restaurant reviews are to find out if you should eat there. Why not read the menu? Well the menu is just like a product description in a brochure. Of course it’s going to sound good; the people who wrote it are paid to make sure it does. Food critics and restaurant reviewers are paid to do the same thing but without bias. They will condemn as easily as praise, sometimes with increased enthusiasm, because it’s fun to write and to read. Either way, all too soon, I want to abandon ship. I am a tough critic, not because I have an extraordinarily sensitive palette or unusually high expectations, but because I grow bored of things quicker than I can finish eating them. I know that if a dish or a meal retains my interest, it’s noteworthy. No amount of food writing, biased or not, can tell me if a dish can do that.

Like a movie critic walking into a movie without knowing the title or cast or watching a trailer, you’ll never have a more raw encounter than dining with no more information than what your past experiences have provided. Then fill in the blanks as you go.

Cookbooks are also a practical tool to learn from but the ingredients list is often enough to work with. No method. No instruction. No fluff. Just the ingredients saying, “We are good together so make it work.” And have fun! You need to approach it with a little more knowledge and technique up front, but you will become more innately aware of the ingredients and what to do with them. It’s a wonderfully spontaneous way to connect with food and it can be a hell of a lot more fun than following directions.

Other kinds of food writing are fascinating. Bourdain exposes the cutthroat chaos that is commercial kitchens. Nestle analyzes the great dilemma that is one’s food choices. Pollan uncovers the truth behind industrial and commercial food production. This writing has merit. It can open your eyes to things you may never have known and wouldn’t know just by eating or cooking or buying. The dedication and passion that restaurant cooks must have, for example, might inspire you. But the fact that a free-range chicken still spends most of its life in confinement, on the other hand, might dishearten you. Positive or negative, it alters your impressions. I learn about food every day and am better at what I do as a result, but my personal eating and cooking is often done with some of that knowledge left under the table, so to speak, for the sake of my own joy and pleasure. I’m not going to let the knowledge that McDonald’s food is shit for my body get in the way of my enjoyment of it when I do choose to indulge.

When it comes down to it, I’m interested in food, so I eat it. I want to discover it, so I cook it. There is value in food writing and there is value in reading it, and I do write it and I do read it. But there is considerably more value in experiencing it. The reality is that what someone says or writes about an experience is never as valuable as the experience itself. So I intend to experience them myself as much as humanly possible.

It’s still a curious thing, to me, why people might spend their time reading about food more than they spend their time truly experiencing it. The real challenge is to read enough to know what’s out there but then put the book down and go.

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