Alan Richman, described by GQ as “the most decorated food writer in history,” reviews ZZ’s Clam Bar, the latest New York venture from the wildly successful restaurateurs behind Torrisi Italian Specialties and Carbone, for the men’s lifestyle magazine this week. Richman takes issue with the cramped venue and exorbitant prices, but he likes the décor: “The room is as ornate, startling, joyous, and ridiculous as a blonde popping out of a birthday cake,” Richman writes.
Comparing a restaurant to an exotic dancer is unlikely to go down in history as the most controversial thing Richman has ever done. (He once disparaged the cuisine and citizenry of New Orleans while the city was still cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina.) In fact, according to the norms of mainstream food writing, it’s not controversial at all. Comparing food to women is, rather, an extremely popular rhetorical device among food writers and restaurant critics—and not just in GQ, a men’s magazine not known for its sensitive and nuanced portrayals of women and female sexuality. Scroll through the recent archives of the New York Times dining section and Bon Appétit—two of the best respected, most widely read mainstream food publications in the country—and you’ll find a trove of analogies between edible substances and female humans.
An article about ramps asserts that the allium “has gone from a Southern belle to a big-city starlet,” while a chocolate pie is said to be “the belle of the ball.” “Gingerbread isn't the prettiest sister home for the holidays,” a 2002 Christmas article declares. “She is plain and pensive, preferring family and close friends to fancy parties … The makeover of gingerbread from stay-at-home to ‘it’ girl took little effort.” Salt expert Mark Bitterman writes, “Dissolving salt in water to taste it is like putting a supermodel through a mulching machine and appraising her beauty.” Pinot noir is “the proverbial femme fatale of grapes.” (Meanwhile, chocolate pudding is “less family matron than femme fatale,” while candy corn are “Halloween's true femme fatales.”) A restaurant’s “chicken is the uncontested prima donna, and heads swivel when it goes by.” The cronut is “a flaky, sugary ingénue.”
I could go on. And I’m sure I could find thousands of other, less tasteful examples in less illustrious food publications. Comparing food and drink to women is so de rigueur in food writing that it frequently appears in headlines above articles that don’t otherwise make the comparison. (See “A Prima Donna, in Root Form,” about black salsify.) These metaphors let writers get creative, inject a little sexiness into their writing, and signal a certain devil-may-care attitude. And they need to stop.
The main reason food writers resort to comparing food to women, I’m convinced, is that food writing is boring. There are only so many times you can describe a food as “rich” or “light” or “creamy” before you want to stab your keyboard with a fork. It’s understandable, then, that food writers turn to metaphors to enliven their copy.
Why metaphors about women? It’s a short hop from a more forgivable food-writing tic: comparing eating to sex. This kind of metaphor makes an obvious kind of sense, as both eating and sex are sensually enjoyable activities that inspire longing and involve tongues (usually). Plus, sex sells—there’s no easier way to make a standard chocolate dessert seem exciting than to tout its seductive texture and orgasmic flavor. Whether or not you like sex metaphors in food writing is a matter of taste, but it is, for the most part, inoffensive, at least: Virtually everyone has experienced sexual desire, so the metaphor is accessible to basically everyone.
Woman metaphors are a different story. One major problem with the woman metaphor is the assumption it makes about its audience: To fully appreciate the comparison between a room and a stripper, or between a wine and a femme fatale, one really has to be sexually attracted to women. If you’re a straight woman or a gay man, tough luck—the metaphor sends the message that you’re not the person this article is intended for.
But the main problem with woman metaphors in food writing is the way they reinforce the objectification of women. All of the analogies cited above involve female archetypes: the femme fatale, the matron, the ingénue, the supermodel, the prima donna, the “it” girl. These archetypes convey little information beyond the sexual appeal of the woman in question. And food writers repeat the pernicious belief that women are valuable only insofar as men want to look at them or sleep with them: matron bad, “it” girl good. Most writers know better than to convey a woman’s appearance or personality by comparing her to a piece of meat, but food writers accomplish the same end—treating women as objects to be consumed—in reverse. Taken to an extreme, we get horrifying imagery like Bitterman’s “putting a supermodel through a mulching machine”—a grotesque analogy that not only reduces supermodels’ human worth to their looks, but also treats them as being as disposable as a tablespoon of salt.
I am guilty of the occasional lapse in judgment when I’m using metaphors to talk about food. (My apologies to Lana Del Ray for exploiting her sex appeal in my description of apple chutney.) But I try to be careful about the implications of my analogies, and I wish other food writers would be more careful, too. There are lots of ways to describe a restaurant as being “ornate, startling, joyous, and ridiculous” without objectifying women in the process.