When the chefs and food writers we worship overshare online, it’s hard to keep them on their pedestals, observes the Amateur Gourmet (a.k.a. blogger Adam Roberts).
On a sunny day in New York City’s West Village, Calvin Trillin rode past me on his bicycle. To most passersby, he appeared to be a friendly man on two wheels, but from my perspective, I was witnessing the movement of a god. The iconic New Yorker writer, who inspired my own career after I read his book Feeding a Yen, is one of the last vestiges of a pre-digital era. Trillin doesn’t blog; Trillin doesn’t Tweet. If you’re looking to interact with Trillin, you’re more likely to do so on the streets of Manhattan than you are on the Web.
He is a rarity. Today, the chefs and food writers most of us revere—everyone from Mario Batali to Ruth Reichl—are only a click away. We know more about them than we ever did before (Amanda Hesser: “Organized my husband’s clothing closet by color”; Sara Moulton: “Home alone, going to order sushi for dinner...”); we can even quantify their “hero” status with Twitter followers, Facebook friends and website traffic. And though I’m grateful that these heroes are now so easy to reach, I’m afraid that something’s been lost along the way. We’ve traded in our idols for real people, just like us, whose email gets hacked (as Dorie Greenspan revealed via Twitter) and who forget to return the movies they rent from Netflix (Jonathan Gold, Born in East L.A.).
You may find it strange that I feel this way. I’m a food blogger, and my people are the ones to blame for this trend. If food blogs hadn’t taken off the way they did, and if there weren’t an obligation now for public figures to have an online presence to compete with the likes of us, the divide between everyday food people (bloggers, home cooks) and food heroes (cookbook authors, four-star chefs) would’ve remained firmly in place. But now the line has blurred: Food bloggers (Homesick Texan, Smitten Kitchen, 101 Cookbooks) are writing books, and food legends are starting blogs (ruthreichl.com).
And as glad as I am to know that my heroes are just like me on the Web and Twitter (Eric Ripert: “Earthquake in NY & I’m about to take midtown tunnel…not fun”), part of me dislikes the oversharing. If we’re all leading ordinary lives, who is left to push us toward the extraordinary?
I enjoy the image of Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey—both giants in their fields (food journalism and French gastronomy, respectively)—squirreled away on Long Island in the 1970s and systematically writing recipes for the New York Times on a typewriter. When MFK Fisher went to Mexico to visit her siblings in 1941, she didn’t Tweet updates from her journey or share a photo album on Facebook; instead, she wrote the memorable final chapter of The Gastronomical Me. This is the stuff of which heroes are made: a sense of mystery, a sense of being somehow apart. By evoking unreachable worlds, they spark a desire in many of us to reach anyway.
Away from the mindless chatter of the digital arena, the great among us still carefully craft meaningful dispatches to the world. It’s no coincidence that Gabrielle Hamilton of New York City’s Prune—whose book Blood, Bones & Butter was anointed by Anthony Bourdain as “the best memoir by a chef ever”—doesn’t have an online presence. She understands the virtues of keeping her lesser thoughts to herself and saving the good stuff for the work she plans to publish.
Same for Calvin Trillin, whose work never feels slight or irrelevant. Unlike so many of us today, he makes his words count, which is why I’d trade the opportunity to interact with him on Twitter or Facebook for another chance to see him on his bicycle. His quiet presence is a reminder of why so many of us entered this field in the first place.
Adam Roberts is the creator of The Amateur Gourmet blog and the author of the cookbook Keys to the Kitchen, out this fall.