Dingbat Contrarianism, Felix Salmon Edition
Felix Salmon is a financial blogger for Reuters who occasionally pontificates about wine, as well. A few months ago, he caught my attention with a post that so willfully distorted one of my Slate pieces that I felt compelled to reply (if you go to Salmon’s post and scroll down, you will find my response). Nor can I resist the urge to comment on an article he wrote last week for Grub Street, New York magazine’s food and restaurant blog. Salmon does a regular column for Grub Street on the economics of eating out, and his latest contribution is such a remarkable display of misinformed bluster that to let it pass without a comprehensive debunking would be almost a dereliction of blogging duty. What good is a blog if it fails to fisk things that demand fisking?
In his article, Salmon expresses irritation with restaurants that name suppliers on their menus or otherwise allude to the provenance of the ingredients they use, and he sees this widespread practice as a ploy to get customers to pay more for vegetables than they’d otherwise be inclined to do. And what’s behind this dastardly trend? He blames farmers’ markets. Don’t be deceived, he says, by all those earnest sellers and their glorious produce; these hucksters are just trying to shame you into overpaying. Farmers’ markets “turn thrift into a guilt trip,” writes Salmon. “Anybody looking to pay less money for a pound of carrots must also want to cut the income of hardworking farmers! And when menus name their suppliers, even unto the purveyors of broccoli or scallions, they’re effectively trying to make their diners as price-insensitive in the restaurant as they are in the farmers’ market.”
It is always startling to read an article that bristles with certitude and to realize at some point along the way that the writer actually has no idea what he is talking about—and Salmon, in this instance, has no idea what he is talking about. The practice of giving shout-outs to suppliers is not a byproduct of the farmers’ market movement. Rather, it can be traced back to Chez Panisse in the mid-1970s, when Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower cultivated a network of regional suppliers and began crediting their sources on the restaurant’s menu. Chez Panisse’s emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients and on establishing direct relationships with artisanal producers became cornerstones of the American food revolution, as did the name-checking. Sure, menus that read like bibliographies can be wearying. But it seems to me that if one is going to devote an entire article to denouncing a trend, it would be good to know a little something about the origins of that trend.
Salmon is also annoyed by all the attention restaurants are lavishing on vegetables. Here, too, he detects a scam: he says building dishes around vegetables is a cunning way for restaurants to reduce their food costs. And here, to0, he is spouting nonsense. It’s true that cauliflower is less expensive than lobster, but that’s not the reason vegetables are getting so much love these days. In recent decades, practitioners of haute cuisine have come to see vegetables in a new and more flattering light. Thanks in part to the influence of chefs like Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard, both of whom fervently believe that a great tomato can yield as much satisfaction as any meat, fish, or fowl and is as deserving of inspired effort, vegetables are no longer limited to a supporting role. Now, whether you think the vegetable-focused menu at L’Arpège, Passard’s Paris restaurant, is worth several hundred euros depends on how strongly you feel about vegetables and/or Passard’s cooking. But to claim, as Salmon does, that showcasing vegetables is simply a ruse to fleece customers and boost the bottom line betrays a total ignorance of recent culinary history. I suppose he can be excused on the grounds that he is a financial blogger, but do the editors at Grub Street not know this stuff?
What’s striking, and funny, is how similar Salmon’s diatribe is to the recent Slate article touting $3 wines. The Slate piece suggested that there were no qualitative distinctions between $3 and $30 wines. Salmon is essentially saying the same thing when he writes, “Why should we suddenly gush over a $10 bowl of lima beans in a restaurant when we’d never do so at home?” In other words, whether purchased directly from a nearby farm or purchased from a supermarket, lima beans are lima beans, and you are an idiot if you pay a premium for them. It is possible Salmon has never experienced the pleasure of a freshly picked lima bean, or perhaps the pleasure is lost on his palate. But as with the Slate piece, Salmon’s argument is so silly on its face that I can’t believe it was intended seriously. Maybe I’m being charitable, but my guess is that he was just looking to provoke—how can I tick off some foodies today? Slam farmers’ markets and artisanal veggies! He should learn the difference between incisive, thought-provoking contrarianism and the dingbat variety. And if he is going to comment on culinary fashion, he should make an effort to acquaint himself with the facts.