Writing about food gets complicated

Restaurant critics wonder: can they serve readers good taste and health?

By Emily Hiltz

This large piece of chocolate cake is a common dessert at high end restaurants. (Photo: Emily Hiltz)
Chocolate cake is a common dessert at high end restaurants. (Photo: Emily Hiltz)

Restaurant critics wonder: can they serve readers good taste and health?

By Emily Hiltz

As far back as Lesley Chesterman can remember, she has loved to eat. The Montreal Gazette food writer and fine dining critic says that, as a child, she could eat whatever she wanted and never gain a pound.

When Chesterman turned 40, something changed. She suffered from stomach aches, and felt sick every time she ate too much. Finally she decided to visit a spa, sign up for a detox, and write a story about her experience.

Chesterman wrote Detox: Taming her inner glutton in August 2013 because she wanted to share a realistic story about losing weight. “It’s something we should all… have in our conscience,” she says. She insists it’s important to think about food writing realistically.

The columnist says one of the biggest problems with food writing today is that it presents an elitist story. Even as a “major foodie”, she couldn’t afford to eat in many of the high-end restaurants food journalists write about.

Today we live in a society of excess – bigger is almost always better. Car commercials promote vehicles that run like race cars. New technologies – like iPhones and tablets – advertise a simpler life. Clothes are presented to create the perfect image. Even food is marketed to people of all ages on the premise that if you eat it, you’ll feel better.

Chesterman says the societal push toward excess can’t be accepted or ignored. She and her boyfriend, a wine writer, often discuss the issues of writing about excess. She says writing stories about alcohol pushes people to drink, which isn’t always healthy. Her partner writes beautiful stories about drinking; still, his sister is an alcoholic.

She says stories about food push people to eat, which isn’t always good for them. Chesterman’s health has suffered because of food, but she says society still pretends the downside of eating doesn’t exist. “There’s an elephant in the room with food writing,” says Chesterman, “which is obesity.”

In the last 25 years, Canadian obesity rates have risen astronomically. According to a 2012 report by Statistics Canada, 19 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women are obese. Obesity increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s also been linked to cardiovascular diseases, strokes, arthritis and cancer. It shortens your lifespan, can cause infertility, asthma, and can lead to sleep apnea.

Millions overweight

The same report found more than 40 per cent of men are overweight, and the rate for women is nearly 27 per cent. The rates for overweight Canadians, combined with the rates for obesity, totals nearly 60 per cent of the adult population: 7.7 million men and 5.8 million women with increased health risks because of their weight.

When the media write stories about decadent meals, are they supporting an unhealthy relationship with food?

[pullquote]

“If you look around at the shape of people’s bodies, most people aren’t likely to (eat) sprouts and cucumbers on whole grains”

– Bill Spurr, Herald restaurant reviewer [/pullquote]

Social media plays an important role in the growing foodie movement. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest give people the opportunity to post photos of their meals and drool over pictures posted by other foodies. On a list of most used Instagram hashtags, #food is ranked number 22, with more than 61 million photos currently tagged.

Chris Nuttall-Smith believes society’s obsession with food also has benefits. The food writer and restaurant critic at the Globe and Mail says foodies are thinking critically. They’re reading food journalists like author Michael Pollan and the New York Times‘ Mark Bittman, listening to Jamie Oliver, and slowly creating a progression toward optimistic and healthy eating.

“People have always been obsessed with food,” says Nuttall-Smith. “It’s just that our obsession has grown a little more broad and a little more irrational in recent years.”

He says says the rise in quality meat – farmed ethically, not pumped full of antibiotics – and the rise of organics are positive signs. He realizes people purchasing organic products are urban and wealthy, but finds that’s changing too. Overall, he says, our relationship with food is “fairly healthy.”

Bill Spurr believes it’s celebrating an occasion, like a birthday or anniversary, that brings people out to eat. The restaurant columnist for Halifax’s Chronicle Herald says people are looking for a fine dining experience instead of a “run of the mill family place.” He doesn’t believe nutritious items are what people want. And in his experience it’s a rare combination when food is “really healthy” and tastes amazing.

“If you look around at the shape of people’s bodies, most people aren’t likely to get sprouts and cucumbers on whole grains,” says Spurr.

 Grim or entertaining?

When Chesterman wrote about detoxing she was looking for a contrast with the way she’d led her life. At  the Eastman Spa outside Montreal, she swore off dairy, wheat, sugar, meat and alcohol for five days.

In her  article for the Gazette she writes about cringing at words like “celery”, “quinoa”, and “mung beans.” It took Chesterman a year to write the story: she felt guilty for not turning into the “perfect person” at the end of the detox.

When she sat down to hatch her story, she thought about the men and women at home on Saturday morning with their cups of coffee and newspapers. She says when you have a Saturday column, it’s important to realize the reader actually has the time to read. “If I was writing on the effects of canola oil on cholesterol, I would find it a little grim,” says Chesterman. “I’m doing this to make them think, but I’m doing it in an entertaining way.”

Chris Nuttall-Smith believes an important part of food writing is vicariousness. “Most of the people who read my column are never going to go to the restaurant I’m writing about,” he says. “A big part of it is to take them there and show them, so they can see it and smell it and taste it.”

Food blogger Simon Thibault spends between two and three hours a day reading about food. (Photo: Emily Hiltz)
Simon Thibault reads about food daily. (Photo: Emily Hiltz)

Simon Thibault agrees people like to live vicariously through others. The Halifax food blogger and writer thinks meals are the most immediate and visceral way to do it. Eating, says Thibault, is a tangible experience everyone knows, and the possibility of creating excellent food fuels society’s current obsession. “Food is the new porn,” says Thibault.

People joke about food porn, but Thibault believes looking at food as pornography isn’t a good or bad thing. He  thinks people need to realize the food they look at on television and in magazines is meticulously planned, sometimes inedible and typically unnatural.

Chesterman says food writing needs to be realistic – even if it means writing about healthy food. “I find healthy people have a very weird, sanctimonious approach, that I tried to avoid with the spa story,” she says.

Chesterman would prefer someone talk about eating bacon for two weeks, and how it made them feel, than someone say they’re “vegan and proud.” She says eating has a lot to do with control, and talking about how much control people have over their food creates a superiority that leaves Chesterman unimpressed.

Food as comfort

According to Dr. Michael Vallis, people enjoy eating for two main reasons – socialization and emotional comfort. A psychologist with Capital Health in Halifax, Vallis helps patients identify and overcome addictions to food.

He says there isn’t a culture on Earth that doesn’t use food as part of their celebrations. Anywhere people come together, you’ll see food. Vallis says this is partially because food is associated with comfort, relaxation and being taken care of.

According to him, food brings us emotional comfort because it stimulates the limbic system of the brain – in other words, the pleasure centres. “Sugar has the same effect on the limbic system as cocaine,” says Vallis.

The psychologist compares food to noise. Healthy food would be quiet, while unhealthy food have the “loudest” signal strength. “If your limbic system is the pleasure center of your brain, your frontal lobe is where you do your reasoning,” Vallis says. “What’s really important to understand is that for most people, the limbic system always wins.”

When people get addicted to drugs, it’s because drugs stimulate this part of the brain. So does food.

Dr. Younes Anini says obesity isn’t the only problem resulting from an addiction to food. The Dalhousie University professor of physiology, gynaecology, obstetrics and biophysics says studies have found clear links between obesity and numerous diseases. Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems are the most common diseases associated with obesity.

Anini says weight gain and weight loss is an equation – what you eat, plus the energy you expend, equals what you burn. If an athlete eats a big piece of cake, it affects them differently from someone who sits at a desk all day, because the athlete uses more energy.

Anini says it’s also important to incorporate different foods into your daily routine. “That doesn’t mean you can’t eat anything that’s called junk food,” says Anini, “But it’s a balance.”

No magic drug can reduce body weight. Fat cells can’t disappear; they can only shrink. This is why it’s so easy for people who have lost weight to gain it back.

A friend recently admitted to Simon Thibault that when she goes out to eat she gives her iPhone to her boyfriend so she won’t take photos. Thibault says this woman has stood on chairs at restaurants to take “the perfect photos” of her dish.

Chesterman doesn’t believe food writers are being irresponsible by writing about food excess – unlike food television. She says the level of food quality on some Food Network shows – like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Food Truck Wars and Cupcake Wars – are “bottom of the barrel.”

When the fine dining columnist used the word “glutton” in the title of her article on detoxing from food, she says she was admitting defeat before anyone had even read her story. Readers may have been caught off guard by  her confession, but she believes honesty – combined with bringing stories to a human level – is crucial to food writing.

She says a lot of people might say, “I’m a gourmet, I’m a foodie,” but Chesterman begs to differ.

“I’m a glutton. Let’s be honest.”

Edit/Layout by Nicolas Haddad

King’s Journalism Review, January 2014.