Why Food Critics Don't Always Say Everything They Think



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.

A similar dilemma exists regarding chicharrones. In the southwest, chicharron is a broadly defined term that refers to a spectrum of deep-fried pork possibilities. Chicharrones come in all sizes, with varying ratios of meat to fat. Some chicharrones are made from sections of belly flab normally turned into bacon. Others are made from chewier chunks of shoulder meat. Chicharrones can be boogie board-sized sheets of waffle-textured pig skin, or even whole pork chops. At any particular restaurant, my readers will want to know if the chicharrones burrito is best smothered in red or green chile.

If I were paying my own way, and eating my way, I'd at least ask them to hold the cheese on that burrito, because in addition to hating the thought of where the cheese came from, it gives me heartburn. I'd eat those chicharrones because they're so irresistible, while whining softly to myself about how much better the chicharrones would probably taste if they were made from local pork.

The same basic conflict appears when I review fancy restaurants that drench everything in butter, thicken it with flour, and sweeten it with sugar. Even if they braise the pork belly with five-spice rather than deep-frying it, it's still from the factory farm.

Food criticism is all about desire. If I describe the way one place adds chicharrones to its posole, New Mexican mouths will water.

Lecturing my readers about how much better a restaurant's fajitas could have been if only they were made with local beef would get very old, very quickly. Readers want to know if the enchiladas are flat or rolled, or if the carne adovada has cumin. Telling the world that the cook needs to start a garden and shop at Whole Foods would be like a music critic deciding a song can't be good if it has no redeeming social value.

The distinction between art for its own sake and art with an embedded agenda is the difference, according to James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, between "proper and improper art." Improper art, Joyce says, aims to impregnate you with an idea or desire, while proper art shows you a glimpse of truth.

Food criticism is all about desire. If I describe the way one place adds chicharrones to its posole, New Mexican mouths will water. If I were to muddy that picture with my feelings about the health, ethical, and environmental consequences of the industrial food system, it would compromise the aesthetic of the piece.

And if my pieces weren't aesthetically satisfying, the boss would hire someone else for the job, and I wouldn't get to review sushi joints, where at least I can point out that wild-caught mackerel is on Seafood Watch's "Best Choice" list, unlike, say, hamachi, which is usually farm-raised on an unsustainable diet of fish feed.

That means I'll have to suspend my disgust at the shameful wastefulness of flying raw fish around the world. But if I don't inspect the red dragon rolls, green tamales, and chicharrones of Albuquerque, somebody else will. So I guess it might as well be me.