We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in food writing.
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I would read anything by Kathryn Schulz, and this story makes a perfect case why. Ostensibly it’s the story of a man named Zarif Khan, who in 1909 found his way to Wyoming from the Khyber Pass, and made a name for himself selling tamales (the name: “Hot Tamale Louie”). Khan was a recognizably curmudgeonly chef (God forbid you put ketchup on his burgers!) of the sort writers reliably profile today. But “profile” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this goosebump-inducing story is. Woven into this tale are captivating tangents—about Wyoming’s inclusive beginnings, the various histories of naturalization (and denaturalization), tamales, and Muslims in this country (a history that goes back so much further than Trump would have you believe)—that turn out not to be tangents at all: the heart of this story about tamales and burgers is a story about America, and the immigrants that make it. In Schulz’s hands it’s skilled and quietly hilarious. The story felt fitting when it was published in June; in feels even more essential now.
I read this story about food fraud slack-jawed. Laura Reiley’s basic premise is this: when you go to a restaurant advertising “local” or “farm to table,” it’s not only possible but highly likely(!) you’re being lied to. Years of working in restaurant criticism made Reiley rightly skeptical of menu claims, and suspicious that more was afoot than frozen cakes passed off as homemade. For her story she systematically investigates restaurants in the Tampa area that make declarations about their ingredients—sometimes embarrassingly high-mindedly—that don’t exactly see through. A lot impresses me here, like Reiley’s persistence, guts, attentiveness, commitment, and spy moves (she kept ziptop baggies her purse to secrete away fish to lab-test later). The piece’s focus is on restaurants in Tampa, but it makes a broader statement about our convoluted food supply chains, and what it means to be an eater and consumer living in our increasingly weird world.
It’s a tired old saw by now, the idea that the real trick with great food writing is that food isn’t food, it’s a lens — but that doesn’t make it any less utterly true. What made me fall into such electrifying, jealousy-inducing love with this L.A. Mag piece by Jesse Katz is that it takes so many non-food elements that, individually, could be engines for an incredible story — urban planning, real estate, gentrification and displacement, history and nostalgia, immigration and assimilation — and weaves them together into a piece that not only vividly sketches the ordered-chaos of Grand Central Market, but also meticulously and immersively establishes both the emotional and cultural stakes of the whole place. And god, what a sampler of technique: It’s beautifully reported, rigorously researched, and dips into first person at exactly the right times and in the right ways, all while juggling an expansive cast of characters and a half-dozen micronarratives, which orbit the particular story of one stall hawking nouveau bagels and lox. It’s one of the most perfect food stories I’ve ever read.
Joshua David Stein is an emperor of extravagantly florid prose. For most writers, high diction is suicide; for Stein — especially in this hilarious, joyous, absurd, deeply loving profile of Jonathan Cheban, Kim Kardashian’s best friend and the self-proclaimed “Food God” — it’s a precision instrument. Stein doesn’t play it straight, but he also doesn’t give in to easy targets; he relates his evening with Cheban at a Manhattan clubstaurant with brilliant sincerity, titrating his snark to the microliter and shining the spotlight on a particular sort of mainstream celebrity and consumer culture that, in the world of food media, is usually sniffed at, if it’s acknowledged at all. But really, honestly, it’s just a flat-out privilege as a reader to read words and sentences this exuberantly deployed.
I’ve always loved the flexibility of food writing. Travel, culture, policy, environment, crime, and just about everything else can fall under its umbrella. It does, however, make it difficult to narrow down my favorite essays. Though there was plenty of excellent food writing in 2016, few pieces touched a nerve like Amanda Kludt’s article on the lack of options for mothers who work in the restaurant industry.
Before I became a food writer, I spent five years as a hostess and then a server in New York City restaurants. This article spread through former coworkers’ social media pages faster than a Sunday brunch rush. With so much food writing to choose from, it’s extra important to give credit to pieces like this one that spill out of the insular world of foodies and food writers. People often complain that women are underrepresented in the upper levels of the food world–whether as writers, chefs, or restauranteurs–but this article explores some of the policies that created the situation in the first place.
Sports editor for Rolling Stone; author of the memoir Searching For John Hughes.
I reread Marian Bull’s brilliant Eater feature on Sqirl, “the quirky, punky, small-but-scrappy indie star of LA’s restaurant scene,” while sitting at Sqirl. I ordered too much: the crispy rice bowl and the famous ricotta toast with jam smeared atop. There I was, a New Yorker sitting there pondering my own “undying, sun-soaked fantasy of Los Angeles” as the subhead puts it, thinking about how rare it is that a long piece that ponders our current, almost cultish obsession with specific restaurants and the people that run them would actively make me want to try the food. It wasn’t a review or some short piece on one specific dish. No, Bull made me feel like I needed to be part of the story. And yes, I’m happy I went.
This isn’t very long, but it was one of the great events of 2016. Pete Wells walked into the Per Se kitchen, left nobody alive, and dear god it was beautiful.
Honestly, the world needs more pieces like this one. “You drive into the darkness underneath the D tracks, searching for moments from your South Brooklyn childhood, when things like cancer and terrorism weren’t part of reality.” What do you drive for? Sliders, of course.
Contributing editor to Longreads; essayist and journalist; author of the essay collection Everything We Don’t Know.
Changing of the Tide: The Galician Sisters Chipping Away at the Patriarchy, One Barnacle at a Time. (Matt Goulding, Slate)
It’s too easy to dismiss food as a simple, surface-level topic. I live in a food-obsessed city where the topic of conversation is often whether you’ve tried the new Korean street-style sandwich cart or tasted the clam butter cocktail at Bar So-and-So. It grates on me. Can we talk about politics or books, please? Enough with the fancy sandwich. But food can function as a gateway to deeper understanding. As one of the first expressions of a culture that we encounter, food frequently peaks our interest enough to learn more about the ways other people live, and can provide a window into deep, serious topics.
In this piece about four Galician sisters who gather gooseneck barnacles in Spain, Matt Goulding uses food to discuss something bigger. By profiling these percebeiras doing their job, he not only shows readers a lesser-known facet of the coastal economy, he reveals how woman still struggle for equality and respect, not just in the male-dominated seafood industry, but in society. As a reader, the parallels are pleasing. While these Spanish women pry barnacles from wet rocks amid dangerous crashing waves, women at large still have to pry the tough, barnacle clutches of laws, sexism and misogyny from themselves. Barnacles as food, barnacles of oppression; prying chitinous arthropods and weakening the status quo ─ abstract concepts make a lot more sense when readers can put a face to them. Human stories like Goulding’s drive home important ideas. Crushing the patriarchy remains one of the great subjects of modern time. Nearly one hundred years after women’s suffrage in America, forty-four years after Roe v. Wade, women STILL fight for equal rights and equal pay, and they still fight for their right to manage their own bodies. It’s insane, but that’s where we’re at. As one sister said after pulling a macho fisherman from the frigid water: “Imagine that: A raging chauvinist saved by a couple of women. It will be a long time before he lives this down.”
Longreads Senior Editor and Editor at WordPress.com / Automattic.
Carl’s Jr., and the Thing That Happened There (Chris Onstad, Eater)
Why is Carl’s Jr. not a global fast-food juggernaut to rival McDonald’s? It might be Chris Onstad’s fault. I’ll read any essay Eater publishes in its excellent “Life in Chains” series exploring the role chain restaurants play in our lives and cities, but I’ll happily re-read (and re-re-read) Onstad’s chronicle of a fateful encounter with his younger brother in a Carl’s Jr. restroom in mid-1982.
It’s got everything: french fries, Jimmy Carter, urinals, brooding Bulgarian piano geniuses. It may be only tangentially about food, but it describes the kind of shenanigans that can’t happen anywhere but the bathroom of a fast-food restaurant, and is a kind of beautifully perverse (and funny) paean to chicken nuggets and childhood.
This piece delivers in more ways than one. Written by an essayist and novelist whose work I’ve long admired, is equal parts cook book review, personal essay and humorous social commentary. Now that she’s married with a kid, Emily Gould’s passion for cooking has been curbed. In her quest to revive the domestic fantasy she entertained pre-motherhood of effortlessly making and serving deicious meals to her family, she road-tests cook books by two very different American “domestic goddesses”: Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy, and Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings.
A ranging profile of New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. It offers insight into how he formulates the reviews that can make or break restaurants, and how restaurateurs like Momofuku’s David Chang and Per Se’s Thomas Keller are affected by those sometimes scathing reviews.