The Digest

The Restaurant That Wasn’t There & Other News

10th December 2017

Words: James Hansen

The Restaurant that Wasn't There & Other News

In this week’s online round-up: the best food writing of 2017, the eventful marriage of ham and pineapple, and the lengths restaurants go to impress critics

We begin with some decidedly meta self-promotion: The Best Food Writing of 2017. Over 12 months, 43 digests, or 250 pieces – whichever measurement is preferred – some truly astounding articles, essays, podcasts, videos and photo-essays have featured in this weekly column. A round-up of round-ups was inevitable, narrowing down to 25 of the most striking, thoughtful and brilliant pieces of 2017: a constellation of diverse, inclusive, vibrant work. Here’s to another extraordinary 12 months.

Without further ado, Oobah Butler fools a very particular community of reviewers for Vice. The community: TripAdvisor, home of furious confrontation and critical opprobrium. The hoodwink: Butler listed his shed on the platform, passed it off as a restaurant offering tasting menu experiences guided by mood, and made it to the #1 spot in London, duly serving ready meals to willing guests on “opening night”. It’s a compelling exploration of truth, lies and trust on the internet: the voracious race to the top/bottom of influencer culture, and very funny to boot. “I realise what it is: the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense. They’re looking at photos of the sole of my foot, drooling.”


Kenzi Wilbur narrates the history of one of food’s most controversial flavour marriages for Taste Cooking. Pizza friends (according to some) and pub companions (in certain quarters), ham and pineapple is a taste combination subject to more than average scrutiny. “In my grandmother’s dining room, baked ham with pineapples wasn’t treated as a novelty or hidden away, tucked behind the gelatin salads and hotdish. It wasn’t a relic of the past, either. It was tradition.” Between its origin story – “Columbus was pissed to find, instead of gold or silver, pineapples” – and the ingenious marketing of the pineapple ring – “well-baked ham with pineapple was a tropical destination stopgap” – lies a story about family, eating round the table, and maraschino cherries.

Jessica Sidman tracks the extraordinary lengths restaurants go to monitor reviewing for The Washingtonian. Stories of critics’ photos pinned up behind bars, repeated dishes and nervous cooks are ten-a-penny; so too are fables of New York Times critic Ruth Reichl’s disguises and Marina O’Loughlin’s tenacious anonymity in the UK. Sidman goes the other side of the pass to see how Le Diplomate, Washington DC, set out to tailor critic Tom Sietsema’s experience: “At one point, Sietsema noticed a table to his right filled by a smartly dressed couple having the best time of their lives. Hundreds of meals later, Sietsema still remembers how the blond woman kept looking over and smiling. Le Diplomate had purposely seated regulars who it knew would be having a good time within the critic’s vicinity.” Following the truth/lies/trust thread of Oobah Butler’s piece above, Sidman descends into the “vast and complex Underworld” of cloak and dagger criticism.

At Edible Manhattan, Soleil Ho profiles Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad whose “culinary work exists in service to her activism”. Ahmad is clear on her pitch: “Activism can be aesthetically unappealing, assaulting or preachy in a way that inhibits engagement,” she says. “Maybe that’s superficial, but if people aren’t attracted to the work, they won’t pay attention. I want to show them a solution they can be attracted to” – fighting the erasure of Palestine’s contributions to its region’s cuisine. Ahmad’s cooking is rooted in the assimilation food that Ho has previously agitated for: “taking on Palestinian culture and cuisine from a distinctly Palestinian-American perspective, yet finding curious intersections as, Ahmad says, ‘someone who grew up eating Hot Cheetos’.”

Olia Hercules counts the ways of borscht at The New Yorker. In her childhood, the borscht she knew involved oxtails and tomatoes and “only the light-colored borshevoy buriak” beetroot (as her grandmother Louisa demanded), to produce a soup “that must be thick, so the spoon stands up straight”. Working on a study of the soup’s history as a translator leads Hercules to the realisation that borscht contains multitudes: an accretion of histories, cultures and recipes from memory or scraps of paper, all in one nourishing bowl. “Variations are dictated by the land, weather, and local traditions,” she writes, “but also by circumstance: people from different cultures intermarry; families are both willingly and forcibly moved.”

Image: Theo McInnes / Vice

Posted 10th December 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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