Today I awoke in the pre-dawn hours and decided to make insomnia productive by culling through and recycling two years’ worth of magazines I’d shamefully hidden in corners of my living room. Though they cost only a dollar or so an issue – like a frugal, Depression-era miser – the word-lover in me felt immeasurable guilt for letting them linger, largely unread, for so long.
Burrowing deep in my stacks, I efficiently cut articles I’d flagged and covers from Sunset, Seattle Magazine, Whole Living, and The Week. As I scoured the issues, I was struck by the similarity and monotony of their feature articles. Staring into the face of a twenty-something Sunset writer and “food blogger from Seattle” as she waxed poetic about the fare at Altura – and some other local, “must check-out” and certainly “check-in worthy” food haunts – I wondered, what makes her credible? Why is this even interesting?
From Yelp reviews to social media snatches of a person’s life captured via smartphone, suddenly everyone’s a photographer, a critic, and the sharer their mother taught them to be. Though I love it unabashedly, media often looks a bit fatigued. But like a dowager on her deathbed, there’s still some fight left in her. There continues to be a pervasive feeling of opportunity surrounding media as people try, and often succeed, at capturing that never-before-seen angle on everyday life.
In an effort to contribute my voice to the cacophony of mass media, I once wanted to be a food writer. Knowing I needed to school myself on that which I knew nothing about (coming from the girl raised and plumped on a steady diet of beef stroganoff and tuna casserole), I devoured every culinary memoir I could get my hands on. Reichl? Bourdain? Fisher? Child? Jones? Severson? Bruni? Yes to ‘em all! Reflecting back, I see that I had a naïve sense that if I could get in the head of a chef or food critic (for at least a novel’s-length period of time) then by some sort of osmosis, I could be a better cook. Through reading, I wanted to learn to appreciate food in some magical new way and share my findings with the masses. Sadly, it was hard (and expensive!) to coax my training-wheels-encumbered palate along for the ride. Food writing was officially a flop; I had nothing new to offer.
Along the path of seeking to write about food, I did discover something else. What I found when I went rooting around to find the lead (or the story’s lede) was that I became distracted and energized by its supporting actors. Sitting in Ethan Stowell’s famed Seattle restaurant “How to Cook a Wolf” on a recent evening, I was less interested in the food and uncomfortable crowded scene of the place, and more interested in my date and the server. Lingering at the table near closing time, Marcus the waiter became “Marco,” as he shared stories about living in Florence for a semester. If I had to tell you under duress right now one dish that I ate that night, I couldn’t. But I could write to you about Marco and his partner, his family that goes to movies on Christmas, and how he kindly handed us a to-go bag filled with gratis, handmade Stowell pasta as we headed out the door. I would definitely recommend going to Wolf, but it would be to sit in Marco’s section, not fetishize the food.
For a time, I also thought that I wanted to write about cocktails. But like the food writing, I soon discovered that I was less interested in the ingredients in my glass and far more interested in the person serving it to me. I’ve found that if you treat the staff with simple courtesy – like they’re your server and not your servant – you’d be amazed at the things you can learn from them. A little industry secret: your server often has a better education than you do! Be nice and always remember The Golden Rule.
Andrew McCarthy said, “In travel writing there’s the story you’re sent to report and then there’s the story behind the scenes, and the latter is always vastly more interesting.” When we travel, we purchase flights, book hotels, and figure out transport to a desired location – the pyramids, the domes, the ruins, the beaches. But when looking back on the trip, do you remember the target destination or the people you met along the way? When you’re local and dining out, are you the person that keeps your phone in your pocket while you engage with your date, the staff, the stranger on the stool next to you? Or are you the person that is busy trying to be “seen” on the Internet while surrounded by a myriad of interesting people you have rendered virtually invisible by your virtual fixation?
In the New Year, there will be no new resolutions for me, merely a continued resolute goal of simply paying attention to the cast of characters in my life and on my adventures
Cheers to 2013!