What a Critic Is Good For

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In a post today, Clay Risen asks what the point in describing a liquor you'll never be able to taste could be, when you'll only be annoyed that it's beyond your reach. He extends this to wondering what the role of a food critic could ever be, when you won't be able to taste exactly what the critic does. Not as honorable as books, film, theater, or dance! he says. Or, at least, not as useful or helpful to a reader as a piece of cultural criticism.

I'm compelled to disagree, of course. And I do write restaurant reviews. But I also believe that a restaurant critic has an enormous field to write about, including the farmers, cooks, and food producers around it, the cultural life of the city, food fashions, the role of small businesspeople versus large corporations ... the list is long.

And, unlike Clay's $760-for-a-few-sips snifter, I do think readers can and will have meals similar to the ones I review. That's the idea, even if, as is almost always the case, a critic is recognized. Food doesn't change that much between the time a critic writes and a reader tries a place; with luck, restaurants get better at what they do and things go more smoothly, and of course chefs are always working on dishes, often for the better. Any night's meal is different from the last.

But I do think the food critic has a real role to play, and is at the service of the reader, all aimed at the decision of whether it's worth spending the money or not. And, unlike Clay's $760-a-few-sips snifter, we pick meals the reader can buy!

When Sam Sifton came on last year as the New York Times critic, I wrote a defense of critics in the Internet age, in which I said that the paid single critic, as opposed to crowdsourced opinion sites, serves as a love-him-or-hate-him benchmark:

You may love or hate a critic, but you know you can use that critic's taste as a yardstick for your own, especially after the critic has been writing awhile. And that you can learn more about a restaurant in one article than you would without spending a long long time browsing sites to get an aggregate opinion and figure out if that place is right for you.

I'm always glad to have Clay's marvelously lucid thoughts on the site—and, maybe because it's my greedy nature when reading about something that sounds really good and in fact incomparable, I'm dying to experience one of those hundred-dollar sniffs.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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