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Gastropodiatry

Puzzling out the personal life of a famous food critic can be hazardous to your cherished impressions. I’ve just tripped over (I’m still not technically savvy enough to have “Stumbled Upon”) Regina Schrambling’s blog gastropoda.com, and it’s a little too revealing. Schrambling recently ended a five-year stint writing a food column for the LA Times, probably (though I’m not certain) in the aftermath of the newspaper gutting its departments and letting scores of award-winning journalists go.  If Schrambling’s column was adamantly butter-laden (and it was), it was also thought-provoking, ecumenical and wide-ranging. Civil in an intelligent way about all kinds of food.

She’s more famous than that, of course–a former editor of the more prestigious NY Times Dining section, and now a guest blogger for epicurious.com’s The Epi Log, with a focus on frugality. But the LA Times articles are where I knew her from.

So Gastropoda is a bit of a shock. It’s a blog with book reviews, short restaurant reviews, all the usual authory showcase kinds of links. But most of all, it’s a blog with quite a run of very short, very pungent entries that are almost too personal in their thinly cloaked vitriol. The editor of the Epi Log introduced Schrambling by calling Gastropoda witty and “famously acerbic”, but I think that’s putting it mildly, and perhaps even charitably. Targets include celebrity chefs who not only don’t write their own cookbooks but don’t ever even test the recipes that have been packaged into them by committee. News publishers who’ve sacked their veteran columnists in favor of wet-behind-the-ears food reviewers with no sense of journalistic ethics. Government officials who can be bought at an astonishingly low and low-class price.

It’s not that I don’t frequently agree with the basic points she’s making on Gastropoda. But in large part I’m embarrassed. The nicknames she provides her targets to avoid direct libel are childish in the extreme (e.g., “Chimpie” for George W. Bush, “The Drivelist” for a popular and successful NY Times food writer). Sometimes they’re too veiled and cryptic and make it hard to figure out who exactly she’s lambasting in these convoluted attacks. Not that I’m curious, of course.

But the tone–I wonder if she’s obsessing sincerely about the sorry state of food journalism today, or bitter toward those who still have solid writing gigs at the major newspapers (I know I am), or whether she just hasn’t noticed how far she’s gone in the direction of the classic rant blog. Throughout, you can discern the deep frustration of someone who does her own homework and legwork, and sees less and less of that career dedication in a field she regards as intellectually worth the effort as the times roll on. 

The obscenities in particular make for rather off-the-cuff reading, and I can’t help reading with a wince (even though I have been known to string a few together, especially while driving around LA in the daytime). I know authors–famous ones, and why should it only be men?–tend to sling the hash pretty freely these days in print, but Schrambling’s frequent use of the f-word in her blog is almost as shocking to me as the painter Andrew Wyeth’s in the interviews he did for his last authorized biography, when he was in his 80s.

I don’t know if I’m the naïve one for thinking an official blog or column should have a professional rather than personal tone, because Schrambling is definitely in demand. What does it mean that she is as much admired for sneering at other food writers who’ve become household names as she is for her own mainstream pieces? Isn’t that an anti-intellectual fad in itself?

Food is about three or four things: nutrition, which requires some knowledge of science to enter the fray without losing credibility; money, which demands some awareness of the sociopolitical realities; craft, which can range from “how to make marshmallow rice krispie squares” to “how to gallantine a duck”, and it’s a good thing because audiences come in all levels of expertise; and pleasure.

Pleasure is that flexible thing that can evaporate when everything on the table is letter-perfect but the mood is sour. Or blossom unexpectedly in a kitchen where the omelet has landed only halfway back in the pan after flipping, and your husband wanders in and starts giggling and tasting whatever’s left. It’s the difference between perfect and perfectly good.

People do like Hershey’s kisses, no matter that, in the recent and rather entertaining words of London’s mayor Boris Johnson, “independent experts” in the UK “have likened their flavour to a combination of soap powder and baby vomit.” Of course it’s not fancy chocolate, not critically good or swoon-worthy chocolate, and it’s definitely not formulated the same as Cadbury’s UK versions. But that’s not the only criterion for pleasure, especially on Halloween. Or the day after. Like candy corn, which I’m not proud of liking on rare occasions (made rarer by age and dentistry) but not especially ashamed of either, some things defy logic. As they say in Israel, “B’taam v’reakh, eyn l’hitvakeakh”–you can’t really argue logically about taste and smell, because everyone has their own preferences.

Pleasure is not a purely intellectual pursuit, and can’t be dictated to. Think of the moment in the movie Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ character opens the standard class textbook and reads the author’s recommendation to chart the quality and completeness of a work in a scientifically prescribed manner. Try that on Keats or Yeats or Yonah Wallach sometime.

Which is why I view Schrambling’s blog with concern–many of her targets are food writers whose main aim is to present something they liked cooking and think the readers will enjoy. It may not be the deepest writing, it may not be scrupulously original, and perhaps at its finest, food writing deserves some practitioners who will work to bring it to the intellectual level of history or mathematics. But for most readers, food is food, not graduate school, and Schrambling’s own work usually takes that approach as well.

I’m not saying that rant literature doesn’t have definite entertainment value and that there’s no meaning or enlightenment possible in concerted negativity. I’m just not sure I’d want to copy someone like Ann Coulter, who took the rant so far she divorced the immediate argument of the moment from all previous positions (of three pages prior) as well as from any baseline facts. When asked about the invasion of Iraq and the like, she started insisting that she’d had boyfriends. That gets a little weird on national TV. A little too personal.

Back from the brink then and back to Gastropoda: What is Schrambling doing here? Is it satire? Not really, because in most of the posts she doesn’t sound like she’s having a very good time, and she frequently laments getting lost and confused in the twittersphere. Mostly her blog makes me wonder if she could use a break or a rethink before her next great venture. If a gastropod is an animal that travels on its stomach, this one seems to have swallowed its own foot.

There is still good stuff here. Schrambling has a gift for clarity when she’s actually talking about food, and a keen eye for well-written and unusual food books that display original thinking. Increasingly her reviews celebrate the vigor of ideas that seems to be welling up out of  Great Britain these days–she points out that The Guardian online is starting to become a refuge for those who’ve given up on the me-tooism and journalistic mindlessness of the major US newspapers. I think she may be a bit optimistic about the reality of life in the UK, but after the last 10 years I can’t disagree entirely–our news has let us down.

If anything, Gastropoda seems to be Schrambling’s Howl. As I read, I see her at a turning point in her work–needing a good vehicle for public consumption but hungry for something deeper in her field. So I can’t help but hope she’ll find her feet with a major project that gives us less of her heartburn and more of her passion for ideas.

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