Why Food Critics Don't Always Say Everything They Think

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Reviewing restaurants for a newspaper in a city with good food is what many people would call a dream job. I won't deny the obvious perks of subsidized restaurant inspection, but as I live this dream I'm finding it often puts me at odds with my own values about food, and if I'm not careful it will take years off my life. As it stands, a packet of Alka-Seltzer inhabits the spot in my wallet where a condom once lurked. The antacid sees a lot more action.

If I listened to my gut I wouldn't eat half of what I swallow in the line of duty, and if I listened to my heart, I'd eat even less. I'm much closer to being a militant locavore than most readers of my restaurant reviews would ever suspect, but as a critic I have to judge the dishes on their own terms, evaluating them according to criteria that a majority of readers can relate to.

As I've grown older and wiser I've realized that I don't always have to swallow, and I can learn everything I need to know from just a bite or two.

Were it not for this job I'd usually order vegetarian in restaurants, forgoing the ubiquitous mystery meats. The only meat I really want to be involved with is the kind that's in my freezer: deer from last year's hunt that lived a happy life and was dead before it even heard the bullet; beef and pork from farmer friends who raise clean, humane meat; the occasional store-bought organic chicken.

Alas, this job has me eating more fried fat and grease than I'd otherwise choose, and sometimes even loving it in spite of myself. But as I've grown older and wiser I've realized that I don't always have to swallow, and I can learn everything I need to know from just a bite or two. My dog, who ends up eating ribs on a regular basis with no evident angst, may be my professional dilemma's happiest beneficiary.

Albuquerque, where I review restaurants, has more New Mexican restaurants than any city in the world—a distinction worthy of note in culinary circles. After all, how many gastronomes get excited at the mention of Florida-style food, Idaho cuisine, or the delicacies of New Hampshire? The mere mention of green chile can induce visceral pangs of longing, in and outside of New Mexico.

New Mexican food—at least what they serve in restaurants—epitomizes my love-hate relationship with restaurant criticism. At its best, New Mexican food is an expression of this region's landscape and culture, a song of corn, chile, and pinto beans. But in the American economy, the selling of food is greased by the insertion of commodities like cheese, flour, pork bellies, and sugar.

Still, I can see profound elegance in a green chile cheeseburger. But all too often I also see potential unrealized. Most cheeseburgers, even expensive ones, amount to patties of industrial feedlot meat on bleached white buns stuck together with melted squares of orange-stained cheese made from the mammary secretions of incarcerated, drug-addicted cattle. Even a green chile can't change that.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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