On Wednesday, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet sent out a staff memo about changes to the newspaper’s food section. Baquet’s note began with some very peculiar instructions:
Take the Dining section. Add the new NYT Cooking site and app. Mix the ingredients together—a vast menu of easy-to-search recipes, restaurant and wine reviews, food and restaurant news—and you have a great buffet of offerings for Times readers. That is why we are combining the two enterprises in a new department bearing the name it had in the days of Craig Claiborne: Food.
Hold it right there. The “ingredients” include a “menu”? And isn’t a buffet, by definition, a bunch of discrete ingredients, rather than a bunch of ingredients mixed together?
Setting Baquet’s mixed metaphor aside, it turns out that the Times food shakeup isn’t much of a shakeup at all. Yes, all of the Times’ food-related coverage—including its newly released, well-received Cooking site—will now comprise one multimedia section, headed by former restaurant critic Sam Sifton. But the Times’ food coverage won’t change much. “The section front for Dining will be rebranded as Food, and will deliver articles devoted to cooking, restaurants, wine and spirits, and of course to general food news,” writes Baquet. Cooking, restaurants, wine and spirits, and general food news are what the Dining section already covers. From a reader’s perspective, it looks like the new name will be the most noticeable result of the editorial reorganization.
And a fine new name it is. The New York Times food section has had the word “Dining” in its name since 1997, and it’s long been an ill-suited title. For one thing, almost no normal middle-class American uses “dining” as a verb in everyday conversation. (“Do you want to dine in or out tonight?” sounds like a line of dialogue from The Great Gatsby.) For another, “dining” connotes ritual, conviviality, social interaction. The Times certainly covers these aspects of breaking bread—Pete Wells’ restaurant reviews, for instance, often touch on service, ambience, and clientele. But like the food culture at large, the Times Dining section has taken increasing interest in ingredients and their provenance, their preparation, and their popularity. It’s the food itself, and not the conventions by which we consume it, that primarily interests modern foodies.
The New York Times food section name change isn’t a big practical change, but it is an important symbolic shift. Dining is dead. Long live Food.