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I KNEW I didn't like Grimes

  • t
  • Tom Steele Jan 10, 2001 03:49 PM

But now I know why: The man is a total food snob! His piece on comfort food in today's TIMES (1/10) is shockingly elitist, supercilious, and way wrong, factually. "Comfort food" is very much a part of American history, and it DIDN'T start in the 1950s. Even a cursory glance at a survey of American cooking will take some comfort dishes back well over a century.

As for the much-maligned meatloaf, its origins are OBVIOUSLY in pate, for god's sake. And most western cultures have their own spin on macaroni and cheese,

Is it going to kill Grimes if Manhattan kitchens make mashed potatoes because MOST PEOPLE LOVE MASHED POTATOES? What is his problem?? And people also love grilled steak, particularly if it's restaurant-quality prime meat--that's why people order it in restaurants, Grimes!

He was way off on District, too. He makes it sound like Romper Room. He gets several theatrical references wrong. (Eg. The tape on the floor "that dancers use as reference points"? As a former actor/director, and not a dancer, every production I was involved in had tape on the floor for set placement, actors' light cues, any number of reasons. "More theater motifs than there are Ninas in a Hirschfeld cartoon" They're not cartoons, and there are seldom more than three Ninas--sort of like YOUR star system, Grimes!) And comparing DeMarco's cooking to Lloyd Webber! Jesus!

Fact is, I can rarely connect with the man's writing. He doesn't evoke food very well. He's a very good wine-and-spirits writer who should return to that realm.

Meanwhile, he has today insulted chowhounds everywhere. What is to be done?

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  1. I think you're just over reacting to it.

    Personally I don't think there is anything wrong with being a food snob or an elitist -- Its what prevents this society from degrading completely into a population of bottom feeders. I'm an elitist bastard and I am damned proud of it (although my recent interest in bad polynesian food is a dead giveaway I am probably full of shit in this respect).

    As snobby as he is, Grimes has a point -- frankly when I go out to a fine restaurant I dont want to be served comfort food either. I can eat that stuff at a diner.

    There is chowhounding and there is bottom feeding.

    19 Replies
    1. re: Jason Perlow

      >I can eat that stuff at a diner.
      Well, yeah...but that's not really the point, is it? I can get mashed potatoes at the Donut House, and I can get them at the Smith St. Kitchen. But you'd have to pay me to eat them at the former while I could happily eat a double order at the latter. And don't get me started on the goodness of lobster pierogies at Lola in Cleveland. But hey - guess I'm a just a bottom feeder, right?

      1. re: Lauren

        I'd have to agree with Jason on this one, and no Laura just because you choose to eat Lobster Pierogies at one of Cleveland's best restaurant's doesn't make you a bottom feeder it makes you prone to hyperbole.

        Although there isn't anything at all wrong with "comfort food", whatever that might mean, there is something wrong with seeing it poorly prepared--and I think that's what "Grimes" was talking about. Ever had a bad steak or bad mashed potatoes or a bad pot pie? Dollars to donuts you have. Comfort food is very similar to haute cuisine in many respects; if the person preparing the food (you know, the chef) buys good products and pays loving attention to their preparation then there isn't much of a difference between a geat burger & fries and your local three star restaurant's bouef a la ficelle. BUT, let's say the burger is made with lean, flavorless, old meat and cooked just the way you didn't order it then it will suck. Same for the bouef a la ficelle.

        Believe it or not, I think Bill Grimes would love to find a place that makes truly great fried chicken and ethereal mashed potatoes and write about it. It's just that places that serve such food are few and far between, just as it is in the "elevated" world of fine dining. To paraphrase something someone said about wine, life is to short to eat bad or poorly prepared food.

        1. re: Dan

          Actually, that's not what he was complaining about at all. Grimes was carefully and distinctly damning restaurants that serve pork chops and mashed potatoes, no matter how well prepared, instead of licorice-parsley broth with salt-cod beignets. It was a manifesto.

          1. re: Pepper
            y
            yvonne johnson

            I'll admit Grimes's definition of comfort food isn't that great. Last week macaroni gratin appears to be a "comfort classic", but this week "macaroni cheese" the awful "comfort food". But maybe his main point is he's scared that, soon, mashed pots is ALL we'll get, that we'll turn away from being adventurous, and reject the new, the foreign, the unknown. I don't think he was anti-chowhound. In a way he was advocating for variety, but maybe overstated his case. What really made him sick was the "toxic waste" Cherry Coke Jell-O at Hudson Cafe last week. And to be honest I don't want a Swanson tv dinner when I go out to eat, even if it is deemed "trendy".

            All this is unrelated to the main reason I quite like Grimes. I think he is more discerning than Reichl who tended to give everyone high marks. I began to take her reviews with a pinch of salt. I like his sense of humor too. But he didn't seem to be laughing much when wrote about comfort food.

            1. re: yvonne johnson

              I kind of like him too. I burst out laughing when I read that article. But my intuition is exactly the opposite from Dave Feldman's: I think seeing a safe, predictable, boring movie rather than an interesting, risk-taking one is exactly the same as ordering pork chops & mashed potatoes. It's been done to death. Grimes is saying that we shouldn't be elevating mashed-potato cooks to the level of people who are innovating, taking risks, and challenging diners and themselves.

              To ramble just a little, I think this has a lot in common with the "jazz is dead" thread in Not About Food: will we all patronize restaurants that serve up only canonized, fossil recipes and consider this the only food that's worthwhile? Will we look at all the new, trendy comfort-food palaces and decide that nobody is cooking interesting food anymore, while ignoring anybody doing interesting stuff?

              1. re: MU

                "I think seeing a safe, predictable, boring movie rather than an interesting, risk-taking one is exactly the same as ordering pork chops & mashed potatoes."

                There are a number of differences that I can see. Two of the most relevant are 1) how often you eat vs. how often you see a movie and 2)The amount of effort involved in preparing a meal vs. a movie.

                You probably eat 2 or 3 meals a day, every day. Say 900 meals a year. Who wants to be challenged 900 times a year? OTOH, you see far fewer movies. Maybe a really dedicated movie goer would see over 100.....Also, going to the movies is, for most of us, entirely a choice. Eating is a necessity.

                In addition, while even the best meal probably takes maybe 10 man/hours to prepare (something on that order, anyway), a movie takes thousands of man/hours.

                1. re: Peter

                  I think that going to eat at a restaurant, for people anywhere but NYC, can be pretty analagous to going to a movie -- we do it for the change of scenery and the entertainment value. Otherwise, we can stay home and make macaroni & cheese.

                  However, people in New York don't tend to cook for themselves very much, so they are a ready market for boring, everyday, non-challenging stuff. For a critic, whose livelihood depends on describing quality and variety, seeing sameness everywhere, no matter how successful and profitable it is, must be pretty discouraging. We now have overwhelming numbers of places serving food that might as well be from The Gap.

                  1. re: Peter
                    y
                    yvonne johnson

                    Are we missing something here? Grimes is not talking about the food we eat as a matter of necessity. He's talking about the food at the so-called higher-end, yes, expensive usually, restaurant. That's the type he reviews, and I think MU's analogy works rather well. It sums up Grimes's point nicely: Grimes sees as fraudulent the raising of "the status of comfort food" into a cuisine offered at higher -end places. So it IS like the passing off of a safe and predictable movie as high art.

                    Also, I don't see the relevance of the respective lengths of time spent making movies and meals. This wasn't a literal comparison!

                    1. re: yvonne johnson

                      The problem I have with your arguement is that often the difference between "Comfort Food" and "High End Cuisine" is really just the marketing. The diferrence between Mac & Cheese and Gnocchi with Caduta di Formaggio...or between grits and polenta...is often just in the name and our perception.
                      Besdies, why cant making Mac & Cheese or Mashed Potatoes be art?

                      1. re: Ari Ariel

                        More analogies:

                        Aren't you a little outraged when Armani charges $150 for a tee shirt, no matter how nice it is, but less so when they ask $1500 for a suit?

                      2. re: yvonne johnson

                        OK, I agree my point about time spent making movies was a little obscure; I was just trying to say that, since a lot more time is invested per movie, perhaps we should have higher standards for them.

                        But I disagree about art and comfort food. What is comfort food to me is challenging food to someone else. For instance, for me, chicken soup with matzoh balls is comfort food. For someone who's never eaten a matzoh ball, this is challenging food. Foe me, Pasta con Sarde is challenging food: Unfamiliar flavors and unfamiliar combinations; in some parts of Italy, it's comfort food.

                        Also, there is art to doing ANYTHING well. And the better artists, IMHO, deserve to get paid more than the worse artists. It is just part of our ethnocentrism that delegates certain foods to "not art" and others to "art".

                        1. re: yvonne johnson

                          The following does not constitute a thorough defense of Grimes'piece/position since I do believe that food done well, no matter how familiar, is art. However, the analogy that strikes me as most apt in this context is music. Imagine a world where everyone plays a limited repertoire of music - say the Beatles. There would doubtlessly be good and bad versions of the songs, different orchestrations, even bizarre interpretations. The music would still be essentially the same and essentially missing some dimension of inventiveness. Sameness introduces an element of complacency which in the long run winds up being stultifying, however comforting it may be.

                          This logic actually does apply to the current state of "classical" music. The same pieces performed over and over again. We never get tired of them but they do tend to eclipse adventurousness in our tastes. At the moment, there must be over 100 versions of the Beethoven fifth symphony. To my mind it is legitimate to yell ENOUGH ALREADY. But then again, there's always room for another good one. There decidedly is not enough room for another bad one.

                          So, regarding comfort food - staying with what is comforting does not stretch us, or comfort food chefs, in a meaningful way. My sense of "the sense" of Grimes' argument is that the customer bears some responsibility for exploring something beyond the familiar and comforting, same as a listener must not sit and listen to the Beethoven fifth exclusively for the remainder of her/his life.

                          That said, I depart from Grimes in the firm belief that sometimes Beethoven/comfort food is the only thing that will do. For the record, I admit (somewhat embarassedly) to owning at least 20 versions of the Beethoven fifth as part of a large collection of music. I think I'll go listen to one with a bowl of mashed potatoes.

                          Andrew

                          1. re: weinhen
                            y
                            yvonne johnson

                            interesting take.

                            For me, "a world where everyone plays....say the Beatles" would be absolute hell on earth! No amount of mashed potatoes would comfort me.

                      3. re: MU
                        y
                        yvonne johnson

                        In Margo Jefferson's article in today's Week in Review section she writes about the new movie "The Family Man." She writes that Capra in his "It's a wonderful life" was at least looking "at real struggles and emotional crises". In contrast, "'The Family Man'....is spiritual *comfort food* for movers and shakers who are rich, white and male-and maybe just a bit anxious. It says: Hey, everything is taken care of..." So MU was on to something afterall.

                      4. re: yvonne johnson

                        I know this is not the main criteria for a food critic -- but does anyone else here notice that Grimes has a wicked sense of humor? Most evident, I think, when he 'slices and dices' a place. He has the ability to 'turn a phrase' in a way that often makes me laugh outloud. I don't find him mean and derisive (a la John Simon), but he's got a bit of the 'edgy New Yorker" in him. I like that in a New York food critic! Which brings me to a thought I had the other day. How do those of us with a passion for food (chowhounds!) rate re a sense of humor? Can we be too literal? Or is there a correlation between taking food seriously and seeing the world with a touch of irreverence? (This is NOT part of the Survey. lol.)

                    2. re: Dan

                      Thanks, Dan, for pointing out to me that my likes and dislikes are no doubt dictated by whatever trend is being hyped at the moment. I thought I enjoyed foods due to factors like flavor, texture, freshness, and skilled preparation. Thanks for setting me straight.

                      1. re: Lauren

                        It's okay, Lauren. He spelled your name wrong, agreed with Grimes, and somehow confused boeuf a la ficelle, which is THE classic working-class dish, with something from Escoffier. Your reputation is still jake with us.

                      2. re: Dan

                        Hey, dood--there is plenty of "truly great" fried chicken and mashed potatoes around, even if you or Billy can't find it, or, even worse, can't imagine that it exists. Let's see, if someone who doesn't appreciate it hears someone crunching great fried chicken in the forest, can it be said not to exist?

                        Go to Harlem, go to Brighton Beach (where it's called chicken tabaka), go look for it and you'll find it.

                    3. re: Jason Perlow

                      "There is chowhounding and there is bottom feeding."

                      are they mutually exclusive? is finding the best donut, home fries, or grilled cheese bottom feeding or chowhounding? seems like just as much space on this site is devoted to blue-collar food as it is to fine wine/cheese/French cuisine. Whether i post about cheese or ramen, the reaction is about equal in quantity and enthusiasm.

                      People often argue passionately on where to find the best pizza or hot dog. does chowhounding embrace all food or just gourmet? I think the answer is easy. chowhounding is whatever you like, be it cheeky chinese food with lumpy gravy and bright red sweet and sour sauce or taleggio and asparagus tarts in puff pastry with a fine wine.

                    4. Thanks for starting this thread -- after reading that preposterous article, which seems to delight in pushing the buttons of the reader -- I was looking for some place to vent.

                      I agree with everything you've said, and more. His logic, his argument is so...milky and soft.

                      He defines comfort food solely to meet his objectives: comfort foods (like mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese) are bad because they are milky and soft.

                      Except grilled steak is a comfort food too. And it too is bad. Except it isn't milky and soft. But bannana cream pie is good. Except it is milky and soft.

                      For me, Grimes' closing line summarizes his ignorance: "And when they go out to a restaurant, they are not looking for solace, they're looking for a good meal."

                      Excuse me? How does he know what "we" are looking for? Besides, if cuisine is, as we all likely believe, a form of art, isn't art designed to generate emotions? If this food that he so derides actually does provide consolation, conjuring up memories of security and happiness, wouldn't that be an incredible feat?

                      Furthermore, what the heck is a "good meal?" Isn't a "good meal" the very thing that he should be railing against -- a meal that neither achieves greatness nor falls into failure? If, after all, everyone dining out is looking for some kind of Ayn Rand test of the human spirit, isn't a "good" meal the worst sin of all?

                      1. Good points all, Tom. I found the Grimes article dismaying, too.

                        This discussion does raise an interesting issue, though. I don't think anyone would take a movie critic to task for criticizing a movie that was formulaic, "safe," and as eager to please the audience as a puppy at the pound.

                        But somehow, to me, there is an intuitive difference between eating and movie-going (or participating in most other arts). I just see absolutely nothing wrong with someone eating macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes for dinner. In fact, I can't see anything wrong with someone choosing to eat mediocre mac and cheese in the same way that it disturbs me to see folks flocking to a horrible movie when a much better one is available next door at the megaplex.

                        Sure, I feel passionately that the folks going to the mediocre restaurant are making a big mistake, but I don't feel they have "sinned." I feel sorry for the better restaurateur who might be struggling. But I agree with Jeff Shore. Somehow, it just seems wrong for anyone, even a Chowhound, to feel the compulsion to challenge herself, to stretch her culinary wings, every single meal.

                        1. I've just read Grimes' piece and I agree; the man is an egregious snob. If you read very, very carefully however, you will find a tiny nubbin of a kernel of a valid point under all his pretention. A chef should not just hide behind a "comfort food" - or any other catagory of food for that matter - without putting his or her very best effort into it. Nobody needs bad mashed potatoes.

                          The point he misses of course, is that the best meatloaf or macaroni and cheese is a sheer joy. His point seems to be that "good" food has to be a) exotic or b) so subtle that only a trained pallate can appreciate it. He does mention that there is a backlash against very esoteric, fru-fru foods like sea urchin custard (his example, not mine - I've never had it) and I think that's a valid point. Unfortunately, having brought up that valid point, he abandons it.

                          If you are to take any good from this piece, it might be this - any food (perhaps especially comfort food) should be made as well as possible. If a chef is going to make scalloped potatoes or turkey pot-pie, he should make is phenominally well. I think any of us would be behind that.

                          Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/10/liv...

                          1. I totally agree that Grimes was being pretentious and I am really baffled that some people here seem to sympathize with him. Why in the world is Mac & Cheese considered lowly but some funky pasta "quattro formaggio" the height of European Cuisine?

                            Just two more comments:
                            1. Tom, as a former dancer I can assure you that dancers do use tape on the floor as reference marks.
                            2. Dan, I hate to tell you this but "the Chef" is not the one preparing the food.

                            1. I had a slightly different take on the article.

                              I agree that he was sloppy with his definition of what he considers "comfort food" (and this took up much space in the article), but I thought he was making his main point here:

                              "The actual food is not what bothers me. There's a place - a small place - for insipid old favorites ... But the all-out effort to raise the STATUS [emphasis added] of comfort food is a sentimental fraud, swaddled in a thick layer of pretense and nostalgia, a very bad combination."

                              I don't think he was knocking the food as much as the venues in which it's being served.

                              Here's a guy who gets paid lots of money and has a huge budget to eat out at EXPENSIVE places ($25 and under goes to Asimov), and he's sick of seeing comfort food (whatever it may be) on so many menus. As a trend (if it is one), comfort food doesn't make for the most interesting writing. And maybe deep down he's really bummed because he can't order mashed potatoes more often since it's probably not what most people would be going to Le Next Big Thing for.

                              Additionally, maybe he's having trouble accepting the fact that in NYC these days there are an awful lot of people -- adults, even -- who can afford to go to "statusy" restaurants so often that half the time they're not looking for much more than a nice dish of mac and cheese.

                              1. j
                                Janet A. Zimmerman

                                Whether you agree with Grimes or not, you guys are all ahead of me. I don’t even understand what his point was. Am I the only one? Granted, I did my graduate work in philosophy, so I might have unusually high expectations for arguments, but he’s so vague and contradictory that I can’t even figure out what he’s saying. Let’s start with his supposed definition. His definition (soft and milky) doesn’t cover all his examples (steak? Pot pies? Meatloaf?) and clearly covers lots of foods he leaves out of the “comfort” category: polenta, ice cream, and what to me is the quintessential soft and milky food – custard. I’m fairly sure he would place pudding in the reviled comfort category, yet he explicitly excludes banana cream pie, which, let’s face it, is basically pudding in a crust. Then, to confuse matters further, he drags in method of preparation (a steak is comfort food because it’s unimaginative and easy? What happened to soft and milky as the criteria?). But wait, there’s more. Now it’s any food from the 50’s. All of these inconsistencies and vagaries make me think that what he’s really saying is just that there’s a lot of foods that he doesn’t like, or at least doesn’t want to see treated seriously, and he calls these “comfort foods,” and disparages them.

                                I’ve read his article several times, and I’m still not sure if I’m missing his point, or if it’s just that there’s no substantive point to miss. He makes a few minor valid points, none of which are particularly new or interesting. I mean, if the point was that some foods are safe and familiar and some are challenging, well, that’s true, but it’s hardly news. If his point was that a lot of what Americans ate in the 50’s wasn’t very good, that’s not going to win any Pulitzer prizes either.

                                But if his point is, as it seems to be in his last paragraph, that restaurants should only serve the challenging foods, and that we should always, without fail, eat “adventurously,” then he is a poor student of human nature, and if he thinks his dream will ever be realized, he is delusional. Being human entails striking a balance between a desire for the safe and familiar, and a love of the unknown and exciting. We all find our own balance, and it’s different for everyone. What we eat is no different from any other aspect of life; there are times when the comfort of the familiar is what we need, and there are times when we want the thrill of the new. Some of us want more adventure than others, and some of us simply want our adventure in different arenas of life.

                                Second, Grimes talks as if “comfort food” and “adventurous food” are absolute and eternal categories, failing to take into account two facts: first, what is new and adventurous depends on who’s doing the eating and when, and second, most of the food we eat is a combination of the familiar and the new. I think the one of the marks of a true genius in the kitchen is the ability to balance the two elements. For instance, one of the best dishes I’ve eaten out recently was a pork loin with mashed potatoes. But the pork came with an intriguing sauce that I never did entirely figure out, and the potatoes were exquisitely silky, yellow sweet potatoes (the not so sweet very pale type) and were unlike any sweet potatoes I’d ever had before. Familiar and new at the same time, and fantastic because of it.

                                For me, the mark of a chowhound is not that we always seek out the new and unfamiliar, but that we approach all types of foods, both familiar and new, thoughtfully, with a discerning palate, and with high standards.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman

                                  "for me, the mark of a chowhound is not that we always seek out the new and unfamiliar, but that we approach all types of foods, both familiar and new, thoughtfully, with a discerning palate, and with high standards"

                                  and with full respect. Because deliciousness is deliciousness. I think most of us agree that there are no intrinsically good or bad dishes or cuisines...just good or bad renditions. To dismiss "macaroni and cheese" a priori strikes me as just plain silly. Same for Grimes' puzzling condemnation of mashed potatoes, and his REALLY bizarre explanation that the basis of comfort food is milk and thus childhood(!)

                                  I think Grimes might have written this one a bit too quickly. It reads like the bluster of food writers from a much earlier era, who had a bad tendency to express arbitrary personal predilections and prejudices as universal truths. There are one or two who still do this, but it's not usually Grime's speed; I really doubt he intended to come off that way on this.

                                  ciao

                                  1. re: Jim Leff

                                    Wow! If this many chowhounds are this worked up about that idiotic piece, imagine the letters the TIMES is getting! It really felt great to see so much corroboration, but then, that's one of the glories of this site.

                                    Just a couple of re-reactions:

                                    Janet Zimmerman for Attorney General!

                                    Jim Leff for President!

                                    Oh--and Ari Ariel, you misunderstood my remark about the "tape on the floor" at District. I certainly realize that dancers use tape on the floor, but Grimes wrote as if dancers are the ONLY performers who use tape on the floor. A very minor point, but I think Dr. Leff is absolutely correct: Grimes wrote this in a big Spanish hurry! But then, the bizarre discrepancies that Zimmerman so eloquently delineated are extremely common in his writing.

                                    Sometimes all I can do is have a good cry over the sorry state of editing in newspapers and magazines today. It's one thing not to edit Grimes, it's another to put his glop on the front page of the Dining section.

                                    Well, I for one look forward to those letters next Wednesday--if the loopy section editors run any!

                                    1. re: Tom Steele
                                      y
                                      yvonne johnson

                                      Any chowhounds among the writers in letter page in NYT dining in, dining out section today (in response to Grimes)? Many of the points covered in the letters were raised here during the previous week.

                                  2. re: Janet A. Zimmerman

                                    That was a beautiful post, Janet. And I don't think you missed a thing.

                                    Grimes isn't my favorite critic, but I'm inclined to agree with the Alpha-Hound on this: the column was a particularly poor one. If baseball players get a hit 30% of the time, and bring in seven-figure incomes, maybe we should allow a newspaper critic an occasional three-bad-swings strikeout of a column.

                                  3. Are you people seriously becoming indignant over matters of pure taste? One person's "comfort food" is so obviously another's haute cuisine. Chowhounders should be the first to subscribe to the ancient Chacun a son Gout maxim.

                                    1. I think he missed the point. Comfort food, to me, is food that makes me feel good. There is a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood, not spectacular, but very good. They make a dish of basil noodles with chili, with a choice of chicken, seafood, etc that is wonderful. I am usually there once a week, and order that 90% of the time. It does not have any of the things Grimes listed as being part of comfort food (soft, bland, milky, etc) but it is comfort food to me because I always feel good after eating it.

                                      Sometimes going out to a restaurant is an EXPERIENCE, but not always. Sometimes you just want food that is good, familiar, filling, soothing, warming, whatever. You don't necessarily want to have to analyze it, or even think about it too much. You want to know what to expect in the food you order, and not get any surprises. You don't want to think about how talented, or creative or brilliant the chef is.

                                      Much of what is now called "comfort food" is what used to be considered ordinary home cooking. When people only ate out for special occasions, they ordered special food. Now, there are may people who rarely, or even never cook. So if they want things like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, roast chicken... they order them in restaurants. In the formerly booming economy, they didn't go to coffee shops and diners, so they wanted to be able to order this type of food in whatever restaurant they are in, even a "fine dining, white tablecloth" restaurant. Since businesses need to provide what customers want, they include these kinds of dishes on their menus.