Old hookers, cheap laughs and wild accusations – Anthony Bourdain weighs in on the James Beard Awards
Yesterday, author and No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain took to his Travel Channel blog to criticize the James Beard Foundation. Most days, that'd be akin to announcing that there was a slight chill in the air at the Vostok Station, but this time, I think the shot was cheap and the intended mark was missed. It hit elsewhere, and messily.
Bourdain has a longstanding beef with the James Beard Foundation. He asserts that the group - which among other functions, doles out prestigious annual awards to chefs, restaurateurs, restaurant designers, cookbook authors, television and radio producers and journalists in the food world - is an insular, elitist organization more interested in an ego-stroke than the well-being of the people it purports to honor. He has been, in his own words, "loudly peeing on this organization at every opportunity for years," and he's more than entitled to his opinion.
But did he really have to splash it all over the whole food writing community?
Bourdain (Anthony, not Ruth, but maybe her, too) is far, far more well-known, wealthy, influential, beloved, important, ad infinitum than I will ever be. He and his hundreds of thousands of devoted readers, viewers and well-known friends could at a moment's notice soundly ignore me or crush me like a scribbling little bug.
That doesn't mean that I've got to sit in the aforementioned complicit silence while he makes a hoary whore joke about my entire profession. He sure wouldn't.
Before I plunge further into the chum vat, I'd like to note that I'm actually the person who, as the Journalism Committee sat slicing, dicing and filleting the new structure for the 2011 awards, said, "Humor. We need to have a Humor category."
In the back of my head, I had a wacky notion that wouldn't it be delightful if Ruth Bourdain - a fictitious, anonymous Twitter-based character who's an amalgam of Mr. Bourdain and erstwhile Gourmet Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl - made it to the medal round. It's not, however, as if any of us were under the impression that food writing humor was born unto this world the day that RuBo belched forth her first 140 characters - or even with the publication of Bourdain's gritty, witty, bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
This was a room full of people who'd grown up giggling over A.J. Liebling's Parisian dispatches, Seymour Britchky's acid-penned, howl-inducing restaurant reviews, R.W. Apple's expansive and amiable accounts of global dining and Calvin Trillin's mouth-stuffing, gut-busting travelogues. Food is high-goldanged-larious. We all know it . No one's knickers are especially bunchy. We just didn't have a chance to reward it before now.
The other accusation - that of promiscuous freebie-grabbing and inconsequential subject matter amongst the entire food writing world - made my humorless little hooker heart sink. First of all, because Anthony Bourdain, a writer and food authority I've always held in great esteem, believed it enough to write it, and second, because many of his fans will think this to be gospel.
Every barrel of pros has its bad apples. We've got our swag hags and hacks, to be sure, but they're not stinking up the green room in which finalists like Barry Estabrook, Tom Philpott, Corby Kummer, Joe Fassler, Rachael Moeller Gorman, Katharine Shilcutt, Brian Halweil and others are standing.
The work these, and many writers who were not nominated or didn't enter (Kim Severson and Marion Nestle spring right to mind), put into the world improves the welfare of tomato farmers, effects change in school lunch policy, helps push through food safety legislation and shines a floodlight on the people and practices that are making a real world difference and saving lives. If they also teach us to make a bitchen pie crust along the way, I fail to see the harm.
If I thought there was a chance Mr. Bourdain was listening, I'd offer up a deal. He's a TV pro, host of a cable network show where he gets to travel hither and yon, exploring the foodways of faraway places, right? He's not the only one who does something akin to that. I'd ask him to dust off his reading glasses, take a gander across the new horizons of food journalism, and perhaps stop showering the whole profession in his acidic assessment. In exchange, I'd promise not to lump him under the same umbrella as that other guy. Sounds like a golden opportunity to me.
*As a Journalism Committee member, I don't actually have a say in who wins. Judges submit votes to an outside accounting firm, and we just make sure everything is properly categorized and gets in on time. Full disclosure: we also get sandwiches and the occasional cookie if we've done a really good job.