2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: The Simple Joys of Food and Film


In his 2009 book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham presents the hypothesis that humanity was born when food met flame. Cooked food was easier to metabolize, giving us more energy and more time, but our evolution was also hastened by the emerging culture growing around the hearth. While long forgotten, the first stories of our ancestors no doubt took place over food and fire, signaling a major shift in consciousness. As chefs become our new superstars and food writing flavors the New York Times bestseller list, our relationship with eating remains a stronghold of culture and the stories we tell around the dinner table are an integral social practice. Writing about food has reached a new golden age, so what can film writers learn by reading the best food writing?

As a writer, you cannot directly evoke taste or smell on the page (in the same way that you can’t directly translate images and sounds). Different food writers take different approaches to overcome these problems.

Some writers work through flavors and textures, describing foods as sweet, acid, smoky, toothsome, crispy and silky. Others, like Jeff Gardiner in his piece “In Search of the Perfect Taco,” translate flavor through metaphor writing (“as far from the flavor of Mexican food as Speedy Gonzalez is from Emiliano Zapata”), and some use visual descriptors (perhaps knowing we eat “with our eyes”), letting the reader bridge the gap between image and flavor. Pete Wells, for the New York Times, has a particular talent for this. In a recent review, “Pondicheri Makes Indian Flavors an All-Day Affair,” he wrote, “the masala eggs, firmly scrambled with fennel, onions, peppers and spices, and then spread out over a wedge of spiced carrot paratha.” 

Writing for Outsider magazine, Rowan Jacobsen penned “The Perfect Beast” about a new vegetable meat-product from California. Rather than merely frame the discussion around science and figures, Jacobsen builds the story around his own relationship with veganism and his struggle with “time-sucking whole-food preparation and cardboard-scented food products.” His own journey offers a relatable, human component to a technological food revolution. The bookends of his personal experience invite the reader to consider a possibility they might not otherwise be open to, and it also grounds the dry and relative evolution of technological advancements in simple and relatable language.

Jacobsen had his work cut out for him in this article, facing off against meat-eaters, a segment of the population that is notoriously inflexible when it comes to trading in their steak for any kind of vegan alternative. Yet, as a vegan who yearns for meat but is ethically opposed to meat production, Jacobsen makes a compelling case in favor of the Perfect Beast by rooting his logic in the concerns and preferences of meat-lovers rather than preach to the already converted. Part of the reason his story works so well is that he’s clearly the person to tell it. What about your experience and knowledge makes you the right person to tell a particular story? Keep this in mind when pitching — make it clear why you are the best writer for the job.  

The sensuality of one writer versus the simplicity of another represents, ideologically and subjectively, different approaches to food. The writers we love invite us not only into their kitchen, but into their soul. Food writing and film criticism, at least the best of it, transcends mere consumer reviews as it surveys the experience, the relationship and the context of its reception. While some take the personal too far (no one wants to know where you parked your car or listen to you whine about your privilege), the personality and passion of authors can be as much as an attraction than the subject itself. The personal has long been a stronghold of food writing, from Julia Child’s cookbooks to Gordon Ramsay’s empire. While the cult of personality can sometimes overwhelm the ingredients, we are most attracted to the writers of whom we can build a relationship with.

It’s hard to imagine encounters with your favorite film critics without imagining what food or drinks you’d share with them. Do you dream of sipping wine with Pauline Kael or having a stiff beer with James Agee? Arguments have been made in favor and against food in the cinemas, but that neglects the joys of the post-movie coffee or drink, whispering about flickering joys and unbearable horrors. Aspiring writers are told they need to read if they want to get better, but those that isolate themselves in the echo chamber of their own field often emerge as a verisimilitude of a real person. Reading about food might not be a prerequisite for the film writer, but food criticism offers similar challenges and joys, making it an opportune situation to better yourself and your writing.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.