Monday, January 25, 2016

How I Write Certain of My Blogs

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Eastside Road, January 25, 2016—
BUT FIRST A QUICK report on the last two days. In the entire near-five-weeks in Scandinavia and Netherlands, in spite of the dining detailed on this site, we gained not an ounce, my companion and I, owing I suppose to our walking an average of four miles a day.

Last week, on the other hand, on a quick road trip to Los Angeles and Reno, I gained four pounds. We have not been fasting on Tuesdays as is our usual wont (nor will we tomorrow; that will have to be put off yet another day). Nor have we been walking, much.

So these last couple of days we've taken it easy. Saturday we had a delicious posole of sorts at home: hominy, made quite spicy. And yesterday we made due, after our usual weekday breakfast of cappuccinos and a slice of buttered toast, with the hash and eggs you see here, made with corned beef brisket and served with potatoes and kale, taken with a Bloody Mary at the club a friend belongs to.

BUT I WANT TO WRITE a response here to a thoughtful question/comment posted by a reader today:
As I think I've mentioned here before, I perceive a disconnect between the experiences you describe here at Chez Panisse--to which you have clear links--some family, some probably financial--and those you describe at other "eateries."

Chez Panisse is among the most ambitious of high end restaurants. There's really no way around admitting this, given its high prices, and the stream of books and "publicity" which emanate from the operation. It is routinely measured against the most ambitious restaurants locally, regionally and around the world. This means it is under constant scrutiny.

As one of its regular diners, you're in a position to engage in such comparisons.

In your "eating every day" blog, you focus attention not only on Chez Panisse, but you conduct an astonishing full-time survey of eateries both in the U.S. and abroad, though it doesn't seem systematic. It seems to be part of a campaign of constant (restless?) travel, taking notes, recording ingredients and accompanying wines. If this doesn't have an ulterior purpose, it must qualify as an obsession.

What often puzzles me, is that though you constantly return to Chez Panisse as a kind of measure of what you seek, you don't seem to sample the higher end competitors of your "harbor" operation. It may of course be that you do, but you don't talk about those instances. As nearly as I can tell--and I'm willing to be enlightened here--you spend most of your time at smaller, less pretentious places, whose lower prices and less ambitious goals allow for the occasional surprising experience; many of the qualities and characteristics of good dining are not about pretense and ambition, but about a love of ingredients and simplicity--the very qualities which Alice Waters and her staffs have striven to promote over the years.

Whether this disconnect is as apparent to others, as it is to me, I can't say. Since you almost never address the question here, I suppose for reasons related to privacy, it leaves the reader of your blog wondering what the underlying agenda of your campaign is--if indeed it does have one over-riding purpose. You have no obligation to address this question, if you choose, but it's one that--for me, at least--constantly hangs in the air. Your "100 plates" for instance--which I can't recall ever having seen printed out--might provide a canonical framework upon which your personal gastronomic philosophy could be displayed. Is there a tacit connection between the underlying rigor of Chez Panisse and the 100 plates?

All of which is offered in the spirit of innocent curiosity!

The comment was triggered by the recent post here on a couple of dinners at Chez Panisse, in the course of which I thought I made clear my connection to the restaurant.

It gives me an opportunity, in the first month of the new year, again to set out the nature — I won't say "assumptions," or "agenda" — of this blog.

Eating Every Day is basically an online log, written as a personal journal, noting nearly all our dining — snacks, breakfasts, and lunches generally excluded. It is, for me — (and it is for me) — a springboard for musing on cuisine, which I think a basic, perhaps the basic foundation of culture. If it is helpful to others, as a guide to eateries, and to dishes, that's fine; I won't say I don't also have that in mind.

But it is not meant to review eateries. I do write occasional reviews on Yelp, Trip Advisor, and the like; but I do that rarely. I am of course a critic, a retired music and art critic, and I took that profession fairly seriously. I always like to think of criticism as it is defined by Joseph Kerman: "the study of the meaning and the value of art works." (Joseph Kerman: Contemplating Music: challenges to musicology, Harvard University Press, 1986.) Notice he doesn't equate criticism with evaluation: rather, with the study of value.

I prefer to write, especially on this blog, positively, not negatively.

Now to some of the comment's points: We rarely dine in high-end restaurants, even those owned and operated by friends, even those you might call Chez Panisse spinoffs — owned and operated by people who've been Chez P mainstays, and gone on to their own restaurants. (There are many of these: off the top of my head, Quince in San Francisco; Pizzaiolo and Camino in Berkeley…)

I try always to identify such people — Kees at Worst and Marius in Amsterdam is an example — as friends, and the reader should infer that I will not publicly criticize a friend: if I write about him and his work, as I have in the case of Kees (sorry about that) and Sander, also in Amsterdam, it is because I have no fault to find, only enthusiasm, which I want to share.

I think the commenter is correct: there is no system to this survey at Eating Every Day; it is the result of an obsession with travel, with taking note (though too rarely with taking notes!), with recording experience.

We do in fact "spend most of [my] time at smaller, less pretentious places, whose lower prices and less ambitious goals allow for the occasional surprising experience; many of the qualities and characteristics of good dining are not about pretense and ambition, but about a love of ingredients and simplicity…“

And the idea of the Hundred Plates, like that of the Hundred Restaurants, is indeed directed to that principle.

Though I will note my distaste for the word "pretentious." It is not a synonym for "ambitious," and should not be so used. It's a very serious charge, though used casually and lightly.

And at some point in the future I'll try to prepare notes on other ambitious restaurants, and perhaps try to compare their costs. I note, though, that I never mention costs or prices here, for a few general reasons — which belong more to a discussion over at The Eastside View than here.

A final note: This blog receives few comments; I'm not sure why. I think I have never failed to clear them for posting. I have written 2,318 posts to the blog, beginning in March 2008. There have been 173,44 page views over those years. The blog has thirty "followers," whatever that means. As of this morning there had been 43 views today; there were 85 yesterday; over three thousand last month.

There have been 298 viewers in the United States, 22 in Germany, 19 in Russia, 17 in Netherlands, 12 in Italy, 9 in the UK, 8 in Spain, 7 in Poland, 6 in Ireland, 5 in Australia. I suspect most of these people are either friends, family, or colleagues in the restaurant business.

And very few of them, virtually none of them, leave comments. I'm used to this: as a journalist on a daily newspaper, over the course of fifteen years or so, I received only a handful of letters. People don't write, in general; only we obsessed do…

And I close with a quote I posted to Facebook yesterday, from the novel Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector:

(As for writing, a living dog is worth far more.)

Restaurants visited in the last year are listed at Eatingday's Restaurants


louann said...

Well, probably sharing some of your obsession for writing - and that is how I pay most of my bills these days - a couple simple things: I don't think even my dog whom I have grown quite attached to claims greater value than sincere writing - writing that is committed to sharing real, in the moment thoughts about life, what you're doing, what you're thinking.
Second, having the privilege of knowing you as a professor and friend many years ago, what I know full well is that you were very unusual in your published reviews - you made a point of not belittling, of avoiding sarcasm and caustic comments, of resisting the temptation to gain power by pushing someone else down. And I feel you do that in what you post in these blogs, and at least for this reader, it is both comforting AND serves as an example that the growing trend to grind people down via social media and critiques is not something we have to succumb to. You both know much more than I do about food and restaurants, and certainly more about the high end of that world (along with a lot of other topics), but I never feel I have to live up to what you know to have an opinion about your thoughts - which I think is how you offer your ideas about food and life. It could be though that for people reading who don't have as much direct knowledge about how food, cooking, and locally grown/organic eating has made such a mark in this area, including new ideas about making money and supporting oneself, for example, and how health itself is affected by the quality of the food we have access to, including quality of life every day -- the idea that all this is a cultural foundation might be a stretch. Also, I find the choice of the word "agenda" strange - it isn't at all how I read what you are writing. I feel more like a long-distance passenger on a trip to a new place.

Charles Shere said...

Thanks. For a moment I thought of not approving your comment for posting, out of modesty, but then I realized that would be counter to the spirit of exchange that undeerlies the best of blogging.

I do feel cuisine — which is simply the art or technique of nourishment considered thughffully and knowledgably — is basic to human culture. The invention of fire, of tools, of communication, of language — all that must be intimately connected to cuisine.

You say, "real, in the moment, thoughts about life, what you're doing, what you're thinking" — a very nice description of my "agenda" here.

I am a diffident blogger much of the time; I hate the idea that I may be (or may be thught to be) parading privelege, or intellectual or cultural superiority, or whatever — even that confession is dangerous, even though I know that while we are and have been fortunate it has been through luck and good world times and geography, not any intrinsic or acquired merit. But I must say I like the image in your last sentence. I suppose what I do, or hope to do, in this blog and the other, and the books I've worked at over the years, and even in the daily journalism all those years ago, is try to pay my own passage on those trips to new places — which I could never afford otherwise — by reporting on them for the benefit of thèse who, for whatever reason, stay home.

louann said...

Another thing: I have quite a few friends of my age who now have major difficulties enjoying eating. Mostly this gets raised as one of those worries you don't want to talk about and then blown off as we just don't want to cook at this point in our lives. One in particular I worry about -- she has lost a lot of weight in the last ten years, and although health issues are in the mix, particularly for her husband, she wants to eat but just doesn't feel like it. I go through this at times as well. I'm wondering, and haven't seen much in daily internet information (sigh, not an expectation), whether we are disconnecting from the comfort of food and that anxiety and stress have really blown up a problem connecting to this basic foundation of need and comfort. What I'm saying is that if you think, as you are describing, that cuisine/food is at the foundation of culture, and this connection is broken, what is the consequence?