Edited by Holly Hughes
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Like your favorite local grocery store, with its sushi bar, fresh baked goods, and maybe a very obliging butcher, Best Food Writing offers a bounty of everything in one place. For seventeen years, Holly Hughes has delved into piles of magazines and newspapers, scanned endless websites and blogs, and foraged through bookstores to provide a robust mix of what’s up in the world of food writing. From the year’s hottest trends (this year: meal kits and extreme dining) to the realities of everyday meals and home cooks (with kids, without; special occasions and every day) to highlighting those chefs whose magic is best spun in their own kitchens, these essays once again skillfully, deliciously evoke what’s on our minds-and our plates. Pull up a chair.
Victoria Pesce Elliott
Andrew Sean Greer
L. Kasimu Harris
The Way We Eat Now
Brooklyn Is Everywhere
BY JOHN BIRDSALL
From Bon Appétit
Though he lives in Oakland, California, John Birdsall’s wide-ranging food writing—Saveur, Lucky Peach, Eater, Chow, Serious Eats—covers trends across the country. So he knows you’ll know what he means when he calls something “Brooklyn,” even when it’s nowhere near New York.
The local beer is “craft.”
It costs $8 for a small plastic cup of stout that tastes like chocolate porridge. I set it on the bar and watch the liquid heave and crater from waves of feral folk-rock thrashing the packed room, coming from a bandanna’d blond kid onstage with a guitar, hair pasted to his pink face by righteous sweat.
Band stickers cover random surfaces of this old building like scales on a half-scraped salmon. Upstairs it’s open studio night, and women in wool beanies and art bros in Woolrich snowflake pullovers hustle past the galleries, cocking their heads to ponder installations referencing Star Wars circa ’77.
It’s my first time in this place. Maybe like you, though, I’ve been here before—anyone who’s walked through Williamsburg or seen an episode of Girls has. It’s a landscape of under-35s, bristling with locally brewed IPAs, restaurant pop-ups, and new kinds of mustard. And everybody—literally everybody—is flaunting freestyle forearm ink.
But tonight I’m not in Williamsburg. I’m in Indianapolis. And what’s playing in Indy, on this raw December night in Fountain Square, is a specific language of food, style, and cultural appreciation now spoken all over America and, damn, all over the world.
Go to Roma Norte in Mexico City, where you’ll stroll past guys with waxed mustaches and women in ’80s jumpsuits, nibbling expensive paletas from a mod turquoise cart. In Old Town Bangkok, around the corner from an illicit cockfight on the street, there’s a young Thai dude who set up a tiny Third Wave coffee bar. If you ask, he’ll tell you it’s modeled after San Francisco’s Blue Bottle. North, in Chiang Mai, a couple of Thai hipsters preside over the kind of barbershop that’s the anchor tenant of any Brooklyn block—in the chair, you can throw back a shot of whiskey.
It was less than a decade ago that urban America first got into this revived notion of homesteading, raising Ameraucana chickens and wearing overalls to take all-day butchering classes or make things in their tiny home kitchens (so many mason jars full of so many pickles). The Brooklyn Flea launched in 2008 with its mix of food and vintage, and by the next year an editor of Edible Brooklyn described a new demographic to the New York Times: “It’s that guy in the band with the big plastic glasses who’s already asking for grass-fed steak and knows about nibs.”
In Oakland, California, where I live, neighborhoods like Temescal are mourning braiding salons and African-American fried-fish shacks. You can buy vegan Earl Grey ice cream, or a terrarium of succulents, then head to the boutique for $129 hand-dyed shirts that aren’t so different from those at Le Bon Marché, the Paris department store, during last year’s “Brooklyn Rive Gauche” pop-up.
None of these objects is definitively Brooklyn, but the sum total nudges certain enclaves—Chicago’s Wicker Park, Los Angeles’s Silver Lake, and Stockholm’s SoFo—or cities like Austin and Portland (Oregon and Maine) into places where a near-spiritual reverence for anything “local” and a resolutely dialed-in personal style can tip into caricature. One that, astonishingly, looks and feels the same no matter where you are.
You see it even in smaller cities like Tulsa and Indianapolis, where I’m pushing through the crowd at The HI-FI before I head out to taste Indiana-distilled Backbone Bourbon at another bar. It’s late when I start to think about whether this city can hit all those Brooklyn notes and still feel distinctively like Indianapolis. In other words, once you look beyond the throwback cocktails and cheesemongers, can our seemingly universal food codes act as a shortcut for cities to hit on their real potential? That’s what I came to Indianapolis to find out.
Just up Virginia Avenue is a car-strafed condo strip called Fletcher Place. That’s where Milktooth is.
It’s best to sit at the counter at Milktooth, kitty-corner from chef and owner Jonathan Brooks as he works the sauté pans. The restaurant does brunch daily—opens at seven for coffee, passes out menus at nine, and closes at three—inside a rehabbed garage. It’s bright and open; looks like it was decorated by a thrifter with a good eye.
Brooks is 31, though he could pass for younger, wearing an apron with strings that pinch his back. He has a rooster tattooed on his hand, a pig’s skull on his neck, and something on his upper arm that resembles a fat ear of shucked corn.
For the next 40 minutes, he hands me plates from the line: a warm, delicately crumbly biscuit made with wild-rice flour, topped with a thick, cool disk of persimmon butter that tastes like raw Christmas-cookie dough; a Dutch baby pancake with craggy bits of oatmeal-dukka streusel, dabbed with spheres of puréed parsnip so smooth it’s like the whipped butter at IHOP; a grilled cheese sandwich of Indiana raclette. The bread is black—Brooks took it astonishingly far in the pan—and it’s perfect that way.
A cocktail arrives: Del Maguey mezcal and poppy-seed liqueur, shaken along with some egg white. It has tannins that filter up through the mousse-y cloud—like smoke through a bong’s diffuser, it’s been deharshed. It’s the best egg-white drink I’ve ever had.
Everything I taste that day at Milktooth shows off tight technical skills and an easy, loping confidence. The food is brilliant.
Then I begin to ask him how a kid in Indianapolis has the life experience to produce food at this level, then wonder to myself whether I’d be asking the same of a 31-year-old chef in L.A. or Chicago. I must look like a total snob, because as I hustle into my coat, making plans to meet up with Brooks later that night, I stop to tell the cook who made the cocktail how perfect it was.
He says thanks and asks where I’m from. “New York?”
“California,” I say.
“Here’s what I always wanted to know,” he asks: “When a magazine tells you they’re sending you to Indianapolis, are you like, ‘Damn, really? Indy?’”
Later that evening, Jonathan Brooks interrupts himself and points behind me. “I think that’s Sleater-Kinney!”
I turn to see the backs of two women leaving the restaurant, Bluebeard. It’s attached to Amelia’s bakery, which produces very good fennel seed–sprinkled semolina bread.
A smiling man is looming above our table. If any one person bears responsibility for the Brooklynization of Indy, it’s probably this guy, Tom Battista.
Battista, who looks like he’s settled softly into his 60s, used to manage tours for big acts. He got his start on the road with David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, and now he’s into seeing that other kinds of young artists—Brooks and Bluebeard chef Abbi Merriss, to name two—are giving his city an identity beyond pork tenderloin sandwiches and the Indy 500.
He acquires evocative old buildings, then rehabs and leases them to young restaurateurs who promise to do something interesting. That’s one huge difference with Brooklyn: There, restaurant owners struggle to make rent. In Indy, Tom Battista plays benevolent papa.
That’s what happened with Amelia’s too, and with Black Market, where I ate delicious hunks of roasted beef heart, and with Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company, a chilled-out café nearby. Battista bought the old garage where Milktooth sits, then got in touch with Brooks to tell him he had a place he should check out.
Over drinks and a plate of Parmesan-loaded spaghetti, Brooks tells me he used to hate Indianapolis. He followed his older brother, a college professor, to Missoula, Montana, a place he liked for its hunting, fishing, and lack of bullshit. He’d sometimes drive the eight hours to Portland or Seattle just to eat in solid restaurants. Cooking’s call was too loud to keep Brooks in Missoula, so he moved to Chicago, staged around for a while till he was broke, then did the thing he swore he wouldn’t: He came back to Indianapolis.
That sort of migration helps explain why things that once defined Brooklyn—pottery studios, mead distilleries, or millennials selling their crafts—have turned up all over. Folks like Brooks read about them online, or got into them while traveling or while living in Brooklyn proper, then decided there was no reason their hometowns shouldn’t have them too. It helps that a greater percentage of young people are moving to cities than ever before. And why would they choose Brooklyn itself, where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for more than $2,500 monthly? That doesn’t even include a garden for growing stuff.
Brooks and I move on to Pioneer, where we swab toast through a smooth pink puck of chicken liver mousse. The bartender is saying something quietly to Brooks, who nods. “What did he say?” I ask. Brooks explains they’re talking about Sleater-Kinney being in Fountain Square, but only two of them, without Carrie Brownstein, the one from Portlandia. It’s never the famous ones who show up, he jokes.
Our last stop is Marrow, where John Adams, who used to be at Bluebeard, is the executive chef. It’s after ten on a weeknight, and we down old-fashioneds made with bone marrow–infused rye whiskey as Adams delivers chitlins fried crisp, delicate as curls of sloughed-off snakeskin, in a shallow bowl with red chile mash. It’s fantastic, if a bit overwrought.
At some point, I tell Brooks how I’m in Indianapolis to find Brooklyn, and to see how America’s dominant food trends play out in a place with an emerging restaurant scene. I see his face drop, like I’ve delivered the ultimate insult, regarding these young chefs as cartoon characters.
I worry he’s going to get up and bail. Instead he tells me, basically, that I haven’t looked hard enough.
“We have people who come into Milktooth and say, ‘This feels like New York,’” Brooks says. “I’m like, it’s not f*#%ing Brooklyn. It’s Indianapolis.”
As I try to smooth things over, telling him I think what he and chefs like Adams are doing is amazing, I feel like the lamest guy in the room. These young people distilling gin and smoking elk—for a lot of them, Brooklyn is the Disney version of their lives. It’s a gesture, but not substantial. Few of them have their sights on moving to the coasts, because the real achievement isn’t getting out of the place where you were born to build a new identity for yourself. It’s better to stay put and change the culture—genuinely transform—where you are. And while it’s easy for visitors like me to grouse that all these restaurants in all these cities feel similar, the fact that you can eat this well in Indianapolis is alone worth celebrating.
“The moment I knew something was going on,” Brooks says, “was when I looked and saw there were more people ordering chicken livers than waffles.”
From the backseat, my Uber driver is just this wall of long auburn hair. “I haven’t been in this part of Indy in a long time,” she says. “It’s changed.”
Chris and Ally Benedyk opened their sandwich spot, Love Handle, less than six months ago. It’s inside a former Subway franchise, complete with fake wood-grain tiles and bolted-down benches. The Benedyks grew up in Indy, left for Milwaukee for a while, and now they’re back with their own place, pioneering on the Near Eastside, which looks like it has a way to go despite the food co-op.
I order the Darger, a roast pork belly sandwich: pale, tender slices of meat, with chips of rose-colored turnip that have been pickled in pink lemonade. It comes with popcorn dusty with nutritional yeast mixed with pork fat and fennel butter. “Darger,” Chris tells me, is a reference to Henry Darger, an outsider artist whose work was discovered after he died. Chris likes to name his sandwiches for misunderstood geniuses, he says.
As I finish the sandwich, I’m curious if the rawness of a place like Love Handle—the energy of young chefs, the grand narrative built from little pieces of this and that—is how actual Brooklyn used to feel before Paris pop-ups and million-dollar condos. What if it isn’t so much Indianapolis trying to be Brooklyn, as Brooklyn wanting to capture something of Indianapolis? I think of the kid I saw onstage at The HI-FI, who told me that it was his first paid gig. Maybe someday, if everything falls right, he’ll be playing Brooklyn.
Then I recall my night at Marrow, where a young bar-back hovered just out of speaking range before coming up to Brooks with obvious deference, his head a little bowed. “Dude,” he managed above the music, “I have to say: I love your trilobite tattoo.”
It’s on the back of Brooks’s arm, the one I thought was a chubby ear of corn.
“Trilobite?” I asked.
“Eh,” Brooks said. “It’s kind of a Midwest thing.”
On Chicken Tenders
BY HELEN ROSNER
Like many food writers, Helen Rosner—a veteran of New York magazine, Saveur, and Eater, where’s she now executive editor—has spent plenty of time in the temples of fine dining. But for the arts magazine Guernica, she voices a seldom-admitted truth: The kids’ menu is where all perfect foods live.
I know this about you: you love chicken tenders. You love them. You might not ever eat them—you might be a vegetarian or a vegan, or not consume birds for whatever reason, or not want to deal with the carbs, or not think it’s okay for adult humans with serious opinions about fracking to dip a toe into the children’s menu—but that’s a choice about ingesting them. It’s not you not loving them. Because you do. You love chicken tenders. Everybody does.
This is because chicken tenders are perfect. They’re perfect in flavor, perfect in aroma, perfect in shape, perfect in color. They’re salty and savory, crisp and juicy, easy to eat with the hands but absolutely okay to go at with a knife and fork. Their ubiquity on kids’ menus isn’t a mark against their perfection, but rather proof of it: the kids’ menu is where all perfect foods live. Pizza, hot dogs, spaghetti. But king of all perfect foods is the chicken tender.
Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland. It’s a circle. A cloudless sky. An unmarked page. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s glorious, and it usually comes with fries.
In 2009 I began eating professionally. This isn’t as common among food writers as you might think. Food is a topic, not a practice. Researching and reporting on chefs and restaurants gives you access to an unending feast, but very few people in the food-writing world have jobs that demand the consumption and consideration of actual food. But when I began reviewing restaurants, I become one of them: eating became a job requirement.
This was very weird. Any leisure activity loses some appeal once it becomes mandatory, and eating dinner at New York’s cool new restaurants isn’t an exception to that. The civilian pleasures of dining out are largely connected to ideas of novelty and choice. At a restaurant, you’re getting something you wouldn’t normally get at home: a fully funkadelic dry-aged tomahawk ribeye, a soul-warming bowl of bún bò huế, or the undivided attention of a balletic thirteen-person service team. And you get to make a lot of decisions—what restaurant to go to, what food you want to eat, when and how often you want to go out at all.
When you’re eating a meal for a paycheck, all of that is stripped away. And what remains? A miraculous adaptation, the inverse of the receptive adjustments we perform when faced with unpleasantness: just as we naturally tune out familiar noises or lingering foul smells, we can also become inured to delight. In a months-long barrage of sensory spectacle, enchantment rapidly gives way to tedium. Restaurant reviewing is a parade of the extraordinary, a half-dozen special-occasion meals each week. You hear a hundred explanations of how to order, smile your thanks at a thousand amuse bouches, read a million back-of-the-menu culinary manifestos. I texted to my boyfriend on my way from the office to a review dinner: I’m so tired of foie gras. He replied: Read back to yourself what you just typed. You can have too much of a good thing.
But the truly oddest part of being a restaurant critic was what happened to me when I was off the clock. You don’t get into food writing without loving food, loving to eat. I’d always been an adventurous and ambitious eater, ordering the most outlandish things at restaurants and swinging for the fences with my kitchen experiments. And I still was—as long as I was working. But on my own time, ordering delivery or cooking dinner or out with friends, I reverted to the palate of a suburban six-year-old. All I ever wanted was toast with butter, pasta with the thinnest-possible coating of red sauce, or—my salvation, my obsession, the only thing I ever reliably wanted to eat—chicken tenders.
A true connoisseur of the chicken tender knows that there are three immutable rules.
The first is the rule of physical integrity. A tender has a proper shape: flattish, oblong, and gradually tapering from a wide front to a narrow end. Unlike nuggets, which are largely made from processed, re-formed scraps, the chicken tender takes its name from an actual piece of the chicken: the pectoralis minor, a muscle located under the breast, against the sternum. The tenderloin. It’s rare nowadays to get actual tenders when you order them (hence the rise of “fingers” and “strips,” terms of art that veil all manner of creative butchery), but integrity demands that a wedge of breast put at least some effort into mimicking the actual part of the chicken it is trying to be.
The second rule of chicken tenders is that, contra any advice your mother may have given you, what’s on the outside matters infinitely more than anything on the inside. A chicken tender lives or dies by its exterior: batters, breadings, the disappointing faux-sophistication of panko. The subtlety or intensity of its spice and salt. The crispness of the exterior is what creates the tenderness of the interior, its structural cohesion when submerged in hot oil helps the chicken inside stay juicy and good. But it can’t adhere only to itself: a good chicken tender’s breading stays connected to the chicken inside once you take a bite, not slipping off like a silk stocking or the bullshit batter on an onion ring.
The third rule of chicken tenders is that sauce is a last resort. You shouldn’t have to dip your chicken tenders in anything. If you want a vehicle for ranch dressing, order the crudités.
I wasn’t a big-deal restaurant critic; you wouldn’t know my byline. I was writing capsule reviews for the weekly magazine where my day job was covering restaurant news and gossip. But I brought up my curious change in palate with a friend who is a big deal, the kind of guy whose photo is pinned up in restaurant kitchens like a wanted sign, and he nodded with recognition.
“Why do you think every chef says his favorite food is roast chicken, or oysters, or a steak?” he asked. So much complexity makes simplicity appealing. Spending your days trying to one-up your own palate is exhausting. Stepping away from the wood-grilled matsutake mushrooms with nasturtium agrodolce, and towards an uncomplicated hunk of meat is the gastronomic equivalent of collapsing into your bed at the end of a long day.
It’s true that ribeyes and oysters and even pizza and tacos share a soothing simplicity, but nothing is more nothing than a chicken tender. A roast chicken has a certain dinner-party elegance to it, and you know at least the sketch of an origin story for your pizza or your taco—but a chicken tender is a chicken tender is a chicken tender. Some restaurants might try to gussy them up, gently carve each tender from the breast of a bird that lived a happy life and lovingly dust them in a custom spice blend, but a true chicken tender comes out of a five-hundred-count freezer bag. They come from nowhere in particular—when you eat them, you could be anywhere.
Even the other kids’ menu stalwarts have more history to them than the chicken tender, a relatively new addition to the gastronomic landscape that only reached deep-fryer ubiquity in the 1990s. (This itself is a fascinatingly rare phenomenon: when was the last time something truly novel hit the culinary zeitgeist that didn’t have a trademark appended to it?) It takes more than one generation to develop the intricate root system of nostalgia that anchors the ballpark pastoral of hot dogs or nachos, the picket-fence vignette of fried bologna sandwiches, or the dusty-road Americana of a burger and an icecold Coke. Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.
This deliciousness without backstory was liberating for me when I was reviewing restaurants. I don’t do much of that kind of writing anymore—for the most part, my meals are my own again—but I still need the kind of relief chicken tenders provide. It’s exhilarating to be part of the food world as it rockets from fringe interest to massive cultural force, but there are times when I want to step off the ride, to make a food choice that doesn’t double as a performance of my identity.
Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe. Instagram means that once-private pleasures can be even more pleasurable when they’re broadcast to an audience of thousands. I may love the garlic scape pesto I whizzed up at home yesterday, or the peppery buttermilk panna cotta at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, but more than that, I love broadcasting that love, a narcotic combination of “but it’s my job” rationalization and the validating thrill of a push notification. Every picture of food is a selfie.
Not so with chicken tenders. There’s no narrative to chicken tenders, there’s no performance. That is the substance of their allure: If you’re ordering them, you don’t have to look at the menu. You don’t have to think about whether you’ve been posting a lot of pasta lately or whether it’s kind of passé at this point to go for a kale salad. Chicken tenders aren’t cool. They’re not retro. They’re not funny. They ask nothing of you, and they don’t say anything about you. They are two things, and two things only: perfect, and delicious. That’s enough. That’s everything.
In Praise of Ugly Food
BY KAT KINSMAN
Kat Kinsman’s writing beat covers food and drink—at CNN, Tasting Table, Time Inc., etc.—as well as mental health. (Look for her new book Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves this fall.) So she’s got to wonder—what does the Instagram era’s obsession with exquisite food shots say about our values?
Let’s start with chicken and dumplings.
Few dishes come closer to what I imagine the cafeteria rations in heaven will mercifully taste like than perfectly executed chicken and dumplings. Then again, perhaps no other dish looks quite so, well, regurgitated, either. So, at a recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, when world-renowned chef Sean Brock served up a batch he’d cooked—with his very own mother—some of my fellow diners were in a visible tizzy about what to do.
Throughout the event, we’d all been posting hundreds of images of each course to our Instagram accounts. The slice of golden skillet cornbread, the glistening bowl of butter beans, and the Technicolor-green pickles were all objectively lovely. But chicken and dumplings, it seemed, was the whiz kid who couldn’t find a date. And as people wavered and then lowered their cameras without snapping a shot, I found myself downright upset. I mean, this was a rare privilege: An A-list chef and the woman who’d pretty much taught him how to cook, putting their down-home dish on a pedestal in front of some of the biggest names in the food world. And we were shying away because it was homely? Screw that, I thought. This is honest food, and it should be honestly portrayed. I steadied my phone, clicked, and posted. The caption: “Some food isn’t pretty and does not need to be.”
Praise for the Best Food Writing Series
With this typically delectable and eclectic collection of culinary prose, editor Holly Hughes proves her point made in the intro that the death of 68-year-old Gourmet magazine a year ago didn't lead to the demise of quality food journalism There's a mess of vital, provocative, funny and tender stuff in these pages.”USA Today
Some of these stories can make you burn with a need to taste what they're writing about.”Los Angeles Times
The essays are thought-provoking and moving This is an absolutely terrific and engaging book...There is enough variety, like a box of chocolates, that one can poke around the book looking for the one with caramel and find it.”New York Journal of Books
What is so great about this annual series is that editor Holly Hughes curates articles that likely never crossed your desk, even if you're an avid reader of food content. Nearly every piece selected is worth your time.”The Huffington Post
Stories for connoisseurs, celebrations of the specialized, the odd, or simply the excellent.”Entertainment Weekly
This book is a menu of delicious food, colorful characters, and tales of strange and wonderful food adventures that make for memorable meals and stories.”Booklist
This collection has something for connoisseurs, short story fans, and anyone hungry for a good read.”Library Journal
Browse, read a bit, browse some more and then head for the kitchen.”Hudson Valley News
The finest in culinary prose is offered in this new anthology these pages delight and inform readers with entertaining and provocative essays This book ultimately opens readers' eyes to honest, real food and the personal stories of the people behind it.”Taste for Life
Longtime editor Hughes once again compiles a tasty collection of culinary essays for those who love to eat, cook and read about food A literary trek across the culinary landscape pairing bountiful delights with plenty of substantive tidbits.”Kirkus Reviews
A top-notch collection, Hughes brings together a wonderful mix that is sure to please the foodie in all of us.”San Francisco Book Review
An exceptional collection worth revisiting, this will be a surefire hit with epicureans and cooks.”Publishers Weekly, starred review
If you're looking to find new authors and voices about food, there's an abundance to chew on here.”Tampa Tribune
"There's something for everyone in the compilation, and because the stories are blog or magazine length, there's not much of a time commitment. If you only have 15 minutes to sit outdoors and read, you can finish at least one piece from beginning to end."
—Mother Nature Network
- On Sale
- Nov 8, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books