The New York Times this weekend dipped into a discussion that's always swirling around the practice of food criticism: Why write about restaurants where many readers can't afford to eat?
"Times reviews create the illusion that indulging in expensive pleasures is common and normative," reader Ishwar Bridgelal complained in a letter to the public editor.
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Newspaper reporters, who fancy themselves the last hard-nosed everymen still toiling in media's grubby trenches, are especially sensitive to charges of elitism. And it can be hard to square a rhapsodic description of caviar with journalism's democratic principles. In the Times, that task fell to dining editor Pete Wells, who explained: "A good restaurant critic is a consumer advocate, and part of the job is looking for restaurants where a lot of people can afford to have a lot of fun. But another part of the job is to evaluate the exceptional places, the ones that try to stand out from the rest. Very often, that kind of effort costs money."
I've often been asked why I don't devote more reviews to greasy spoons and ethnic joints where the priciest dish on the menu costs as much as a movie ticket. To be clear, I'm a great fan of folk food. But faulting a restaurant critic for failing to write up every no-name diner is a bit like condemning a music critic for skipping out on piano recitals and high school band concerts. There might be talent there, but there's also a disheartening amount of mediocrity. It's usually efficiency, not elitism, which propels reviewers of all kinds to focus primarily on the pros who invite -- and are situated to withstand -- serious criticism.
The trouble with food is it's almost impossible to experience it cheaply. If a music fan can't afford a concert ticket, she might be able to buy the band's album. If that's too pricey, she could download a single MP3. Or she could save her money and listen to the radio.
Food doesn't work that way. There are countless events where celebrity chefs serve up bite-sized portions of their dishes, but those functions usually cost more than a meal in their restaurants. It would be wonderful if food was recognized as art, rather than a commodity; if cultural programs underwrote school children's field trips to great restaurants and offered tastings for regular people. But until that happens, I don't believe it's fair to shortchange creative culinary practitioners by ignoring their work -- even if it is expensive.