#18 | What Will the Restaurant Be?

Recipe philosophies, the future of restaurants, and more

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This is the eighteenth edition of In Digestion, a weekly survey of the best food media on the web, and why you should care about it. If you like this newsletter, please follow @in_digestion and @jameskhansen on Twitter, and forward it to a large number of people. It should feel like too many. It won’t be enough. Thank you.

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Elasticità | Umberto Boccioni, 1912

Welcome to the first In Digestion of 2021. Let’s get to it. Each of these pieces traces a curve towards the future, whether in establishing a manifesto for cooking, meaningfully redistributing inequality in restaurants, or getting a New York City fave taken down several pegs.

In so doing, they necessarily look to the past: in asking what the restaurant will be, as Aaron Timms and more abstractly Khushbu Shah do, they also ask what the restaurant has been. Who it has been for, and who it has failed. This has been a key failure as food media organisations try to respond to 2020, as inadequate words like “reckoning” hang over the pieces and people that never got to fulfil themselves. Admitting, as New York Times critic Pete Wells did in a piece in part responding to Hannah Selinger’s essay on David Chang’s ‘Eat a Peach,’ that hearing from restaurant workers is now a priority is not enough. Saying it’s now a priority must come with acknowledgement that that means, for the longest time, it wasn’t, and in that time, that unhearing did harm. [Selinger’s essay is published on Eater, which is where I work.]

This volte face can take place over years and months or it can take place over hours. Joe Rosenthal’s assembling of a catalogue of racist responses at Prince Street Pizza has seen the restaurant’s social media pivot dramatically from belligerent defiance to piety, now that its fame, its profits, are threatened. Whether spineless Republicans disavowing the fascist storming of the Capitol they fanned for four years or legacy editors having feeble epiphanies over the politics of food in the death throes of their tenure, belatedness always betrays the truth: that they felt there would never be consequences. Whatever the restaurant, and with it, food media will be in 2021 and beyond, the future can’t ignore the past that has shaped it.

Mieke Weismann lays out a recipe philosophy to live by for Dorothy Porker. Mantras don’t have to be pious, they just have to work, and here are just so many: “Ovens are assholes and everyone of them is different, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to get to know yours and adjust the temperatures according to your personal asshole.” With publications like the LA Times and Epicurious restating their functional and philosophical commitments, this is a signal example of how to do it well.

Khushbu Shah challenges a restaurant truism for Food and Wine. “The customer has always right” has always been wrong, an axiomatic insult to the impulse to take care of someone. As in Aaron Tims’ assessment of the restaurant before, during, and after coronavirus, Shah is clear that COVID-19 hasn’t proven this at all; it’s just exacerbated its poisonous at a time when restaurant workers are even more vulnerable than they already are. When she writes that “It is about what the diner wants, when they want it. It does not matter what is happening at the restaurant” the absurdity rings clear like a bell.

Aaron Timms puts the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on restaurants in its causing context for N+1. There’s an awful lot in this piece: links between food supply crises; the ways in which Gordon Ramsay is like Tony Blair; a scathingly funny, remorseless takedown of service spiel. But as its core is the theme of this week: a knowledge that to even consider what the restaurant will be, projectors must understand fully what it has been, and how the two exist on a continuum, not apart. It also strikes at the banality of “food is political,” by showing that many of that sentiment’s acolytes have never really considered that like any politics, food politics can be used for evil as well as good.

Pia Koh finds the complex history at the centre of Hungarian plum dumplings for W Journal. The “soft liberalism” of food media has a lot to answer for, but one of its most stubborn cataracts is the idea that culinary traditions carried by immigration are always balms to those who carry them. Koh shows how, actually, people might not want to maintain culinary traditions weighed down by traumatic memories: “it’s understandable that older immigrants have little desire to uphold a culture they were fleeing.” But pain and fondness are often enfolded together, like dough around a filling: “Szilvás gombóc is not a food, it is a vice. Grown men daydream and reminisce about plum dumplings they have known; they brag about how many they can eat at one session. They feel gloomy and deprived if the season passes without a plum-dumpling orgy. In earthbound reality, a szilvás gombóc is a potato dumpling with a pitted purple plum inside it, and a melted sugar cube inside that. To the initiate, the moment of revelation comes even before the first bite, namely when he jabs his fork into the dumpling and hot plum juice squirts out.”

Joe Rosenthal opens the closet of a famed New York City pizza restaurant, and a whole lot of racist skeletons fall out. The details are in his highlights and an article, and it suffices to say that the ownership of Prince Street Pizza, and a frequent media unwillingness to peek behind the curtain of faves has a lot to answer for. Instagram’s status as a media platform has grown more complex in the past twelve months, with praise for the visual tools and rapid dissemination tempered by the air of Authority they lend to often uncited, unsourced, unverified information. The Stories function in particular allows people to “show their working” in real time in ways articles can’t, but only accounts that surpass a follower ceiling can share links. Corrections are often clearer than editors’ notes, but expectations of ephemerality make erasing things people would rather people forget easier. It feels increasingly illiterate to compartmentalise digital media and social media, and that divide is likely to be further blurred and challenged this year.

An interview with Joe Rosenthal on this investigation, its resonances, his wider work, and its relation to food media will be the sixteenth paid post on In Digestion, going out 09 January 2021. Thank you again for being here.

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