Best Food Writing 2017


By Holly Hughes

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“Browse, read a bit, browse some more, and then head for the kitchen.”–Hudson Valley News

From small-town bakeries to big city restaurants, Best Food Writing offers a bounty of everything in one place. For eighteen years, Holly Hughes has scoured both the online and print world to serve up the finest collection of food writing. This year, Best food Writing delves into the intersection of fine dining and food justice, culture and ownership, tradition and modernity; as well as profiles on some of the most fascinating people in the culinary world today. Once again, these standout essays–compelling, hilarious, poignant, illuminating–speak to the core of our hearts and fill our bellies. Whether you’re a fan of Michel Richard or Guy Fieri–or both–there’s something for everyone here. Take a seat and dig in.



The showstopper of the evening—the “ta-da!” course—was no doubt meant to be the lobster. The waiter presented it with a flourish, in a shiny copper vessel on a pillow of tangled seaweed, atop gleaming coals. The concept (there’s always a narrative) was an homage to the New England shore dinner. The dainty lobster nuggets that landed on our plates were succulent indeed, and yet… well, I was still marveling over the previous course, the ecstatic silkiness of thin-shaved scallops marinated in leek and potato. Another new wine was being poured, and, perched on our banquette—more like theater seats than the setting for a romantic tête-à-tête—my husband and I were still trying to figure out which of the bevy of servers was officially “our” waiter. We were on gourmet overload.

Granted, I knew what I was getting into. I asked for this for my Christmas present, after years of jonesing to try out Eleven Madison Park. We’d been saving it for a special event, and then realized the meal itself should be event enough. We lucked out, as it happened; only a couple months later, the restaurant closed for renovations, coincidentally (or not?) just after it won the 2017 title of Best Restaurant in the World. And while I secretly hoped that the storied Dream Weaver (see Best Food Writing 2016) would deliver some soupçon of special treatment, I respect the fact that we got NO extra treatment that night. My husband and I had an exquisite meal. We came home with EMP’s trademark jars of granola, just as promised. Done and done.

And yet…

I asked myself, am I too jaded to be thrilled by an experience like this? I’m not a professional dining critic; I cook at home more often than I eat out. While I’ve been editing this culinary anthology for eighteen years, I don’t exactly haunt New York City’s dining hotspots. So when I finally do visit a temple of gastronomy, I should be easily wowed, right?

Or is it because I don’t dine out for a living that I can’t completely enjoy an experience so over-the-top expensive? In today’s politically charged economy, do I really want to embrace the dining habits of the 1 percent?

Truth to tell, if I could point to one transcendent meal I’ve had this year, it would probably be a one-pot dish I cooked last summer, a real clean-out-the-refrigerator special. That night, I threw together a random bunch of vegetables with the right spices and a long slow simmer—and the result was orgasmic (and alas, irreproducible). I sat in my own kitchen and marveled at how the marriage of ingredients worked. No recipe, no meal kit, no Food Channel video—just a knife and a pot and a low flame. Magic.

That high-low dialectic—that contrast between gourmet palates and elemental appetites—informs Best Food Writing 2017. Because here we are, in 2017, struggling to define our national food conversation. In some weird way, all bets are off. While restaurants at the culinary forefront generate plenty of buzz, the chatter around artisanal and casual and regional restaurants is more robust than ever. Trophy dining has somehow mutated, with under-the-radar finds scoring more cachet than the entrenched four-stars. Meanwhile, even though home cooking is said to be in serious decline, the domestic kitchen has been cast as a battlefront, with no-fuss convenience warring with the imperative to show off mad culinary skills. After all, if Gwyneth Paltrow can do it so effortlessly, why can’t we?

In an era where the 24-hour news cycle keeps our heads spinning, culinary trends change so often, and so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. Avocado toast supplants pork belly, which supplanted kale; the meal-in-a-bowl will soon enough go the way of foraging and foams. Consider some of the fringe-ier elements profiled in “The Way We Eat Now” (starting on here): The meatless hamburger (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, here) and kelp greens (Rowan Jacobsen, here).

On the other hand, heightened political sensitivities make food justice more relevant than ever, from Jane Black’s profile of a chef bringing whole-food dining to an underprivileged community (here) to Greg Rosalsky’s breakdown of the glaring price gap between the haves and the have-nots of New York City’s restaurants (here). The vexed topic of cultural appropriation has roiled the food world this year, just as it has in the fields of film and literature. In “Whose Food Is It, Anyway?” (beginning on here), the debate over America’s ethnic cuisines ranges far and wide, including African-American cooking (John T. Edge and Tunde Wey, here), Mexican-American cooking (Gustavo Arellano, here), and Asian-American cuisine (Luke Tsai, here, and Tim Carman, here). Sometimes it seems there’s quicksand everywhere.

Why should things be so tricky? Food, after all, is one of our most basic needs; the simple act of breaking bread together has always bound families, friends, communities. But over the past decade, our food choices have also become a matter of personal identity. From Appalachian down-home meals (Ronni Lundy, here) to Vietnamese pho (Rachel Khong, here) to South Carolina barbecue (Kathleen Purvis, here), several writers in this year’s book drill down on the food traditions they hold dear. And if these foods provide roots, it’s only natural to try to bring them along when we’re transplanted to another time and place. Witness Julia Moskin’s attempt to re-cast the chicken potpie of her childhood (here), or Joe Yonan’s repurposing of his mother’s Texas Salad (here)—and John Kessler’s dogged quest for authentic Southern eats after being uprooted from Atlanta to Chicago (here).

Not so many years ago, the badge of foodie sophistication was a global outlook, a world traveler’s ease with foreign cuisines. Nowadays, you score bragging rights for how well you’ve navigated the regional American food map, the blue highways of local dining. Several of this year’s writers do a deep dive into the essence of their hometown food culture, trying to pin down why Nashville hot chicken (Danny Chau, here), Maryland crab (Bill Addison, here), the Reuben sandwich (Elizabeth Weil, here), Seattle teriyaki (Naomi Tomsky, here), or San Francisco Mission burritos (John Birdsall, here, and Anna Roth, here) so potently convey an ineffable sense of place.

Meanwhile, the essays in “Personal Tastes” (beginning on here) focus on the central role food played at crucial points of the writers’ lives. It might be the birth of a child (Eric LeMay, here), the death of a beloved parent (Bethany Jean Clement, here) or grandparent (Elissa Altman, here), or the emotional limbo of a child lost in a family crisis (Floyd Skloot, here). And then there’s Paul Graham’s book excerpt (here), a poignant elegy of sorts for food itself, or at least a certain type of food he can no longer eat.

Of course, gifted chefs have always been able to buck/drive the trends, as amply demonstrated by the pieces in “Someone’s in the Kitchen” (beginning on here). Here, you’ll read about newcomers like Kyle and Katina Connaughton (profiled by Tienlon Ho, here), scene-setting star chefs like Sean Brock (profiled by Brett Martin, here), and past masters like Michel Richard (memorialized by Todd Kliman, here). But these days, it’s not all about the culinary elite—so why not revise our view of TV personality/chef Guy Fieri (Jason Diamond, here)? In our drinks section, “Down the Hatch” (starting on here), there’s a similar underlying sense that all bets are off, with the craft beer scene getting downright weird (John Wray, here) and the wine scene going off script, with stratospherically priced bottles now being poured by the glass (Ray Isle, here). Anything goes.

Which brings me back to the gifted chefs and high-end wines of Eleven Madison Park. That evening, I didn’t fully appreciate the ultimate act of hospitality—the fact that the tab had already been paid by credit card weeks ago, tactfully bypassing the awkward ritual of check-paying and gratuities. (We couldn’t have figured out which waiter to tip, anyway.) I also wasn’t aware that the EMP geniuses were also soon to open the much lower-priced Made Nice, a casual counter-service spot with the same creativity and focus on quality. Another act of hospitality.

So maybe our national food conversation is simply evolving, moving past that contrast between high and low cuisine. Rather than a face-off, perhaps we can see it as a dance. We all eat differently on various days of the week, after all; we each love different foods, for different reasons. Sharing the hospitality of the common table is what’s important, even if we order different dishes. With that in mind, I value the wide range of voices in this year’s book, piping up not only from hefty cookbooks and photo-rich magazines, but from scrappy websites and blogs, from local papers and regional magazines. More and people are finding their voices at the table—let’s welcome them all.

The Way We Eat Now

The Benefits of Eating Without a Map



Through various senior editor stints at Saveur and Serious Eats, NYC-based food writer Keith Pandolfi has plenty of “insider” knowledge of elite dining scenes and hyper-connected gourmet trends. But sometimes, as he muses here, it can be liberating to go off the grid.

A few weeks ago, an old friend who was traveling to New Orleans for the first time emailed to ask me for restaurant and bar recommendations. I sent him my usual list—some personal favorites from the time I lived in the city, pre-Katrina, from 1998 to 2003: Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Restaurant August, Molly’s at the Market, and Dante’s Kitchen—as well as newer places that have opened since I left for New York, like Cochon, La Petite Grocery, and MoPho. I told him to go to Shaya and Domenica, because everyone tells everyone to go to Shaya and Domenica these days, though I haven’t been to either. I strongly advised him to grab a Grasshopper at Tujague’s, and a Sazerac at The Roosevelt, then I reluctantly hit send.

The reason I say “reluctantly” is because I really didn’t want to send him any recommendations at all. Instead, I wanted to send an email back that read something like this: “Go anywhere that looks good to you. Then let me know what you find.” In other words, discover your own places to eat. Eat without a map.

It’s something people just don’t do anymore.

Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Yelp—as well as the countless magazines, TV shows, and websites dedicated to food (this one included)—we are constantly being told where to eat. We can find out what the hottest restaurant in San Francisco is by simply Googling “What’s the hottest restaurant in San Francisco?” There are hundreds if not thousands of city guides, top-10 lists, best-restaurants-in-America lists, and best-restaurants-in-Dayton-Ohio lists to abide by, whether we’re traveling to a city for the first time or going out to dinner in our own hometowns. It takes just a click or two to find someone’s take on the best hot chicken joints in Nashville, the best chowder houses in New England, or the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago. It’s all so easy, so convenient. But are we missing out on something?

I’ve spent a good part of my career working as a writer and editor for various food magazines and websites. Part of my job is to tell people where to eat, and where to eat well. That’s not a bad thing. I take a certain pride in letting people know, for example, that one of the best dishes in Manhattan is the estrella pasta coated with sautéed chicken livers at Justin Smillie’s Upland; that any visitor to New Orleans would be a fool not to tuck into a meat-bomb pho of tripe, pork shoulder, chicken thighs, and smoked greens at MoPho; that one of the best fish dishes in the Boston area is the swordfish pastrami at Puritan & Company.

But, while I’d like to think all the virtual ink we food writers spill on great restaurants, talented chefs, and go-to food destinations benefits everyone, practically guaranteeing you’ll never have to endure a bad meal again, I also worry that it takes some of the fun and the adventure away from traveling and eating. That it detracts from your own sense of discovery; your ability to throw caution to the wind. To make the best out of an ordinary meal at an ordinary restaurant. To screw up. Or to find something truly special—completely on your own.

If I’d been honest with that friend of mine, I would have told him that the best meal I ever had in New Orleans was at a restaurant that I would never in my life recommend to him, or anyone else for that matter. It was eaten in 1998 at a tourist trap just off Bourbon Street (I’d give you the name, but it never occurred to me to write it down). It was only my second time in the city, my first visit as an adult, and all I remember about the place is that it was mostly empty, that a kind old man in an old polyester tuxedo led me to my table. And, while the food was nothing more than passable, I’m still thinking about it 18 years later.

Part of the reason I remember that place so fondly is that it’s the first place where I ever ordered red beans and rice, a dish, I would later learn, that’s a staple of the city’s traditional cuisine. A dish that, years later, would make me weep when I tasted it at a Katrina fundraiser in New York just weeks after the storm had passed. The beans at that restaurant were undercooked, and the rice was overcooked, and there were specks of spicy andouille sausage that I will never forget because they were the first specks of spicy andouille sausage I ever tasted. Yes, the restaurant was a solid C+ at best. One star. Maybe one and a half. I remember looking out the window at a crumbling French Quarter building across the street. I remember that it rained. I fell in love with New Orleans over that crap-ass meal. And I wanted my friend to fall in love with New Orleans over a crap-ass meal, too. I just wanted him to discover that meal on his own.

These days, whether I’m traveling for work or for pleasure, I try to make a point of spending at least a day or two doing cold visits to places I know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes it’s a bust. Other times, it’s just fine. But sometimes, I get my mind blown. Take, for instance, the gumbo fries I wolfed down late one night in Memphis a few years back. I had just arrived with a fellow food-writing friend of mine, and we were dashing around the city, frantically looking for good places to eat. We were Googling and texting people. We were searching the websites of the very publications we worked for, hoping for guidance. At some point, we gave up and settled on what looked like a touristy nightmare on Beale Street, called Blues City Cafe. Sitting in the booth, I glanced at the menu, smirking at one of the items. “They have gumbo cheese fries,” I said, laughing. “And yes, I’m getting them.”

Who the hell would ever think to pour seafood gumbo over cheese fries? Well, the folks at Blues City Cafe (which I later found out was once a branch of the famous Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi), that’s who. And, holy shit, were they good. The steak fries were golden brown and slightly crunchy, just thick-skinned enough not to disintegrate beneath the heavy weight of the gumbo ladled over them. There was ranch dressing on the side! Digging into the dish, I lifted up what I now consider the Holy Trinity of late-night dining—a forkful of French fries, gumbo, and gobs of stretchy melted cheese. My friend snapped a photo of me, looking perplexed as I dug in, a picture that remains on my Twitter profile to this day, because that dish signified everything I love about being a food writer. It signified the discovery of absolute perfection in the places where you least expect it.

Those gumbo fries reminded me that it pays to take a chance now and then. If not, we’ll all just end up writing about the same dishes everyone else does—the same places. The same chefs. Sometimes I fear that’s already happened.

Traveling without a map has also made me realize that there is really nothing wrong with a mediocre meal every once in a while. In fact, once the expectations of a great meal are lifted, it’s possible to enjoy that meal even more. Recently I visited Los Angeles for a culinary awards ceremony, along with some of my favorite writers in the business. All of them had strict itineraries to visit every buzzy, of-the-moment restaurant they could. On a shared cab ride from LAX to our hotels, I listened as two of those writers ran through a laundry list of restaurants they needed to visit.

“Are you going to Gjelina? You definitely need to go to Gjelina.”

“I’m meeting so-and-so at Petit Trois for breakfast tomorrow. Are you in?”

“Are you coming to Osteria Mozza tonight?”

“What about Night + Market Song Saturday? Will you be there?”

I was overwhelmed. Still, I went to almost all of these places, and while they were spectacular, I will save my praise and superlatives for another time. (Note: A solo breakfast over a crusty baguette and a café au lait at Petit Trois is among the most subtly beautiful experiences on earth.) What I want to talk about right now, though, is what was no doubt my favorite meal in Los Angeles. Yes, it was at a place I’d never heard of before; a place that didn’t look the least bit promising, a place where the food was, like the children of Lake Wobegon, simply “above average.” The most surprising part? It was at a Best Western.

After two days of palate-pleasing, gut-busting meals at God knows how many of the city’s finest eateries, I decided to have a quiet supper at the diner located on the first floor of the Best Western where I was staying. Socially anxious by nature, I was in the mood to be alone. And I wanted to eat at a place where I wouldn’t feel the pressure to be wowed by a plate of wilted water spinach or sour fermented pork sausage. I didn’t have the mental energy to tweet about my croque monsieur, or Instagram a plate of oysters. I know what you’re thinking. Tough life, right? I get it. Still, travel can be tough for the medicated.

While I expected little more than a hotel lobby–style restaurant, with bad carpeting and equally bad food, the diner was surprisingly cool-looking for a hotel chain. It had stone walls; schoolhouse lights; a long, Edward Hopper–style counter; and plush, 1960s-era leather booths. Sitting down in one of those booths with a pile of magazines, I ordered a chicken po’ boy with trepidation, since, to me, a po’ boy isn’t a po’ boy unless it’s made with Leidenheimer’s French bread from New Orleans. Probably more of a chicken sandwich, I thought to myself. But I was wrong.

When it arrived at my table, the po’ boy was piled high with blackened chicken, crisp lettuce, and some damn fine-looking tomatoes. Biting into it, I recognized something familiar. Really familiar. That crunch. That pull. It was Leidenheimer’s bread! It turns out that the chef had grown up in New Orleans. It turns out that the restaurant was pretty well known, too, having been featured in the final scene of the movie Swingers. So good was the po’ boy that I almost—almost—Instagrammed it. But, while scrolling through filters, trying to decide between Juno and Amaro, I decided against it.

Instead, I chatted up the waiter. We talked about po’ boys and New Orleans, why Los Angeles is a wonderful city, and why I should pack up my wife and kid and move there lickety-split. She said she thought she knew me, even though I was sure we’d never met before. Once I was finished, I stayed for a while, reading some magazines and drinking some coffee. I kept getting texts from my friends. They were headed to Venice for dinner at Gjelina, and asked if I wanted to join, but I told them I’d already eaten. If I’d told them I’d already had dinner at the Best Western, I’m sure they would have laughed, wondering why I’d wasted a meal. But nothing was wasted at all. I was content eating at a place no one had told me about. I was happy to be discovering something on my own. Because, when it comes to dining experiences these days, that’s a pretty rare thing.

The Curious Appeal of “Bad” Food


From The Atlantic

In today’s Instagrammed, Yelped, blogged-to-exhaustion foodie world, perfection seems to rule. Or does it? Canadian essayist Irina Dumitrescu (a professor of medieval literature at the University of Bonn) homes in on the defiant online rise of junk food and ugly food photos.

We live in a time of food perfectionism. Experts shout culinary commandments from every direction: Daily meals, they say, must be ethically sourced, organic, raw, gluten-free, meat-free, dairy-free, protein-rich, low-fat, low in sodium, carbon neutral, dirt-encrusted, pre-soaked, and fair trade. It can be hard to keep track of all these contradictory gastronomic rules. On the one hand, cooking should be simple and traditional, something our great-grandparents could recognize. On the other, food should be chef-inspired, executed with masterful knife skills in a professional-grade kitchen. One should eat with family, clinking wine glasses over a long table in a Tuscan garden. One should eat alone, undistracted, carefully controlling for portion size. We ought to eat like cavemen: nuts, roots, and seeds. We ought to eat like spacemen: foams and sous-vide. And by no means should anyone eat sugar, because sugar is poison and grandma is trying to kill us with those cookies.

At the same time, there appears to be growing interest in food that breaks rules. On blogs, in Facebook groups, in listicles and Tumblrs, people are celebrating “bad” food—dishes that are disastrous, unattractive, or just unhealthy. Some poke fun at the mishaps of chefs, bakers, and cookbook authors, like the website Cake Wrecks, with its pictures of tragically ambitious professional cakes. Other online collections, like the Gallery of Regrettable Food and Vintage Food Disasters, are filled with scans of disgusting-looking concoctions from old cookbooks. Websites like Someone Ate This celebrate the failures of home cooking in triumphantly unappetizing photos. Even Martha Stewart, who made a generation of homemakers feel inadequate, has been tweeting revolting photos of her meals, to general delight and horror.

Why has bad food become so popular? Didn’t Julia and Alice and Jim and Marcella teach modern home cooks to draw on the best that continental cuisine had to offer, to buy fresh, local ingredients and treat them with respect? Which part of the culinary revolution was it that led to deep fried lasagna rolls or Mac n’ Cheetos? At a time when blogs, YouTube videos, and specialized cookbooks can help even a novice produce respectable results in the kitchen, why are folks turning to 1960s recipes to make jellied chicken and Busy Lady Beef Bake? Often, the more stomach-turning the dish, the more gleeful the prose about it, as if making terrible food somehow maintained the noble tradition of human ingenuity and experimentation. Once, humanity asked if it could walk on the moon. Now, it aims to re-create the nightmare of Tuna and Jell-O Pie.

The current Rabelaisian relish for outrageous food is, at least partly, a playful rebellion against the excesses of gastronomic prescriptivism. After decades of being warned against butter, salt, coffee, chocolate, wine, and anything else that makes life on this miserable planet worth enduring, food lovers learn that they are healthful after all. (In fact, it was the foods people replaced them with—margarine, energy drinks, artificially sweetened desserts—that were deadly. Oops.) In the face of rapidly changing scientific recommendations, it feels liberating to throw caution to the wind and deep fry a Big Mac—or to at least fantasize about doing it.

Then there are aesthetic standards. It’s one thing for magazines and cookbooks to have polished photography and food styling. They are professional productions, and most reasonable people do not expect what they cook in their home kitchen to turn out looking exactly like it did in Bon Appetit. But food blogs, Instagram, and Pinterest are also filled with glossy, sunlit photos of organic mason-jar meals and caramel-drizzled cupcakes. Theirs is a dark beauty. They suggest that home-cooked food could look that luscious, that perfect, given a little care and knowledge.

In most cases this is impossible. The majority of people who cook do so under limiting conditions: tired after a day’s work, in haste, on a budget, to please a child’s picky palate, using leftovers, with processed ingredients, without the special oil or herb that would have required a trip to a distant supermarket. They serve their meals on actual plates, not on slate slabs or rustic chopping boards. Their food is tinged yellow or blue depending on the light bulb they eat it under. Real homemade food often looks like failure, but it’s not. Feeding yourself or others is a success, an act of love, even when the meal resembles unappetizing brown mush. This is why it’s sometimes necessary to celebrate culinary disasters. They reveal the reality of cooking: tedious but necessary chore, creative outlet, daily ritual.

There’s also something deeper to the current fascination with bad food, whether it’s unhealthy, inelegant, unpopular, or just plain ugly. Food serves a variety of purposes, only one of which is nutrition. Shared meals strengthen communities, while food restrictions serve to keep groups of people apart. Culinary preferences signal one’s class, ethical stance, or outlook on the world. The foods we eat, and especially the ones we talk about eating, tell others how we understand our bodies: sensitive or resilient, hardworking or overflowing, rebellious or disciplined. In short, food offers ways of telling stories about who we are and where we come from. And bad food does this better than good.

Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, recognized that terrible food makes for good narrative when he collected his harshest reviews into a slim volume titled My Dining Hell


  • "[An] always-entertaining annual collection."
    Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • "A lively and appealing discussion highly recommended for any culinary fan who likes literary reflections and food insights."—Donovan?s Bookshelf
  • "So good you can literally taste what you are reading about."—Pure Grain Audio

On Sale
Oct 17, 2017
Page Count
368 pages

Holly Hughes

About the Author

Holly Hughes, former executive editor of Fodor’s travel publications, is the author of Frommer’s 500 Places for Food and Wine Lovers. She lives with her family in New York City.

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