Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please: to sell ourselves for a high salary, a home in the suburbs, and idle weekends. But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.
–Wendell Berry, “The Hidden Wound”
A few months ago—in an entirely different era, that is—I met my friend Eve Abrams, a fellow journalist, for coffee. As we chatted, she surprised me: she told me she didn’t think much of the food in our neighborhood. We both live in New Orleans, in the Upper Ninth Ward, where a French-style bistro, a nominee for a James Beard Award this year, was named one of GQ’s best new restaurants.
It’s the sort of place where the chefs deliver each course directly to the tables so they can explain which trendy technique has been employed. My partner and I ate there for our one-year anniversary. The food was flawless, from a crepe served alongside a tiny cup of hot broth to a thin, breaded Japanese-style pork cutlet. The bill came to $400. “Who is that for?” Eve, my friend, wondered, when I told her how much it cost. For me, I guess.
That night was steep for us, a splurge, but not orders of magnitude beyond a typical outing. Every weekend, it seems—or it seemed, until we had to lock ourselves inside and work our way through our perfectly bourgeois pantry—my partner and I headed out to sample the buzziest new New Orleans restaurant. Just a few plates each night, but over time that accumulated into a decadent smorgasbord. Homemade pasta flecked with fresh-caught crab. Sous vide lamb. Stewed goat, stirred into curry. Oysters in delicate shells of batter, dusted with fish eggs. Duck breast cooked slow in olive oil, until it all but melted from the bone. Cocktails stirred up with foraged local flowers, or shielded under a glass cover, which, upon being lifted, revealed a haze of dry-ice smoke. Then, finally, a bill—$150 or so for each night’s selection.
I could only barely afford it. But such, I told myself, was the cost of good food.
I am a food writer—or at least a writer who sometimes delves into food—and, like most food writers, I began as an eater. As a seven-year-old I fell in love with fresh-caught seafood, whole fish grilled beachside in Costa Rica. Later, it was fresh churros dipped in thick hot chocolate in Andalucía. My family kept giant tubs of Vermont-fresh maple syrup in our basement for Saturday pancakes.
Food was an adventure, a quick dip into other ways of living. I was particularly attracted to what I saw as authenticity. At some point in my pre-teen years, I discovered a cowboy-themed barbecue warehouse near our home in suburban Connecticut called W.B. Cody’s. It became my consistent choice for birthdays and other formal occasions After a platter of smoked pork ribs, I always ordered its signature dessert, a lump of ice cream dusted in a layer of cinnamon so thick it looked like a baked potato. Soon, under the tutelage of my travel-loving father, I embarked on my first food quest, sampling all the state’s best-reviewed barbecue restaurants.
I dredged up this memory as proof of my blue-collar taste in food, and as a hedge against my white-collar privilege. Then, trying to factcheck my memories of W.B. Cody’s, I came across a twenty-five-year-old interview with its owners. “This is no yippy-ki-yay cowboy,” one said. “It’s meant to be for the Easterner.” Barbecue ribs in suburban Connecticut? The only person I was fooling was myself. What I was really learning was the thrill of the chase.
Even back then, I wanted to be a writer—novels and short stories, I figured, though I had no clear sense of how to make that dream come true. So, over my first six years out of college, I wandered, from South Dakota to suburban Philadelphia to Washington, DC. I was a teacher, then a small-town reporter, then the website editor for an industry trade journal. Eventually, as a twenty-five-year-old, I moved to the rural Mississippi Delta for a job coaching teachers. There, food offered a path to my dream.
My first published magazine story was one of those back-page essays in a local glossy, reflecting on the experience of settling in Mississippi after too much rambling. After the essay was published, the editor told me she needed short write-ups of local restaurants. My food-world qualifications were minimal: just that I liked to eat. I had kept up my food quests, sampling backroad soul-food joints and gas-station fried chicken, making the rounds of local bistros in search of the best shrimp and grits.
And that, she decided, was enough. The pay was negligible, which reveals two further qualifications, albeit ones I failed to recognize at the time. I had a job with flexible hours and, thanks to my parents’ wealth and largesse, I had no college debt. I could afford some time dabbling in writing, building a portfolio that might one day open doors.
And it did: After a few months as Delta Magazine’s de facto “food writer,” I convinced a national website to let me write about regional traditions that were largely overlooked by the rest of the world. I dug into Mississippi’s version of hot tamales, a recipe likely borrowed from Mexican migrants a century ago, now carried forward by entrepreneurial Black families. I sifted through the history of the catfish, once a lower-class foodstuff that has risen to regional icon. (Belzoni, Mississippi, claims to be the “Catfish Capital of the World,” and hosts an annual “Miss Catfish” pageant.) For these stories, too, I was paid just a few hundred dollars. But I told myself I was telling thoughtful, important stories—“woke,” we might call them today—and, besides, I was happy to have words in the world.
After a few years of writing, Mississippi Magazine, another local outlet, asked me to write a travel column about the state’s small towns. Not much money still, but a bit of ballast as I quit my job and began to write full-time. As a bonus, the magazine arranged the red-carpet treatment for me with the local tourist boards. It was a thrill to be doted on, plate after plate, by small-town chefs determined to be mentioned in the piece.
As writing turned from a sideline into a career, I began to attend conferences and award dinners. Once, at a panel in Birmingham, I listened to Bill Addison—now the critic at the LA Times, then at Eater, compiling the “Essential 38” list—and decided I could never be a critic. I was incapable of deciding whether a $700 wagyu steak was actually worth $700. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be capable. I had stumbled into food as a way to tell stories, a way to dissect culture—a way to get to know my home. But if a magazine wanted me to a eat a good, free meal, who was I to say no?
Few readers knew my name, not that they should have, as a regional writer with a few decent bylines. But I was useful to press agents, and they found me. I was taken to media dinners, offered exclusive interviews. I was once invited to fly to Norway (though I couldn’t actually go) to dine on ecologically farmed halibut prepared by a chef who, after working at the US’s most acclaimed restaurants, had returned home to invent “neo-Fjordic” cuisine.
Other writers found my name, too, including the critics. When people at national newspapers were compiling top-ten lists and needed something Southern, they might email me for advice. When big, prestigious prizes are handed out, I’m sometimes asked which restaurants in Mississippi rate a look. Wanting to have all the answers, I began to seek out the contenders. I didn’t have time for the barbecue shacks anymore, or tamales sold from the trunks of cars. I needed to focus on the best chefs, however high the price of their food. I told myself that this was an investment—that perhaps the next one would yield the story that would advance my career.
Two years ago, I left Mississippi. A protracted breakup sent me to New Orleans, where for three months I slept on the lumpy couch of a friend and fellow lovelorn ex-Mississippian. Eventually, before my welcome grew as worn as the couch, I scraped together my savings and bought myself a house.
This set me apart in the food world—not from my fellow diners, but from the people inside the kitchens and walking the dining room floor. Restaurant workers made 17 percent less than their peers in similar fields, according to a 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute. Two in five could not “make ends meet” before the coronavirus pandemic. Not that I considered any of this as I toured the city, seeking its food.
I like to think that at least some of what I write is speaking truth to power. After I moved to the city, I won a James Beard award for an investigative story about an ill-conceived and environmentally damaging farm chemical produced by Monsanto. Next, I began to dig into the exploitative policies of a New Orleans “food hall,” exploring its economic model and what it said about how we eat today.
One of my sources for that story was Tunde Wey, who once ran a stall there. He is known now for his radical critiques of capitalism, staged through food. At a Nashville pop-up, he served fried chicken to Black diners for free, but charged white diners exorbitant prices: a whole chicken with sides could be had only in exchange for the deed to a property.
After my story published, Tunde asked if he could interview me. He was working, speculatively, on a pilot for a television show. He pointed out that I profit from my stories. That I profit from my home ownership. That I am a white man, building wealth while surrounded by struggling Black neighbors. The problem was not one greedy food hall owner exploiting his vendors. The problem was an economy constructed to tamp and steal Black wealth. He told me that if I wanted to do my part to undo our broken system, I should give him my house.
I declined, though I struggled to say what was wrong with his argument.
Then came a virus.
Or, let me back up: then came a long unspooling, a dribbling out of my lackadaisical comfort. Two months after I talked to Tunde, in January, I met with Eve for coffee. It was just by happenstance that our conversation turned to food. My mother was coming South to visit, and I was contemplating where to take her for dinner. Eve indicated her distaste for our neighborhood restaurants. She’s lived here for more than a decade, watching it gentrify. The restaurants trade on the Ninth Ward’s reputation as offbeat and artsy, she said, with little intention to serve its longtime residents. I had just published a cover story with an in-flight magazine, steering jetsetters into our neighborhood.
Then came a virus. The newspaper tickers, counting up the death toll. The shuttering of restaurants. What would come next?
Something new and better, some people—even some very successful people—hoped. “I started my restaurant as a place for people to talk to one another,” chef Gabrielle Hamilton wrote in the New York Times Magazine, in a story that went food-world viral. She wanted Prune, her restaurant, to offer “a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder on the table to keep the conversation flowing.” That ambition has proved hard to sustain, she said. And, as she put it, “if this kind of place is not relevant to society, then it—we—should become extinct.”
Prune had become too famous, been sucked into a manic vortex of Instagram influencers and culinary festival promoters in need of panel headliners, and “fetishistic foodies” who arrive at the restaurant because Hamilton won a James Beard Award and because Bill Addison named it one of the nation’s 38 essential places to eat. It had been swallowed up by people like me, chasing what they were told was the very best food.
I am not just a consumer, however. I am also a gatekeeper, with some small say in what the world sees as good food. That comes with responsibility, or at least it should. As I explored Mississippi’s traditions, I tried to trace the tangled history that created its cuisine. Yet when it came to the hip and glossy modern American restaurants I’d come to frequent, I had little understanding of the history they represented.
So, as the pandemic settled in, I called up Paul Freedman, a Yale professor and the author of American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way. The concept of the restaurant is tied to the rise of the middle class. It began with the French elite, who, as the importance of both church and court waned, turned to public dining as a new medium for flaunting their status. The middle class, as always, began to ape their ways. The kind of dining out I practiced before the lockdown—casual and gourmet at once—emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, Freedman said, along with the rise of bohemians. Bohemians became yuppies. Yuppies became hipsters. Middle-class people signaling their status through their taste. These days, he said, it seems everyone is a bohemian—at least everyone who has enough cash.
I asked Freedman about my own growing sense of discomfort, my sense that by telling the stories of certain restaurants I was just helping this unequal status quo to persist. “To me it’s a little bit like being asked about automobiles and exhaust fumes,” Freedman said. “Of course restaurants increase inequality.” Restaurants are only possible in an economy where some people serve and other people eat.
“Let it die,” Tunde Wey declared in a ten-part essay posted to Instagram, referring to the nation’s restaurant industry. To bail out the nation’s independent restaurants, he argued, simply means propping up white wealth. The money paid to servers and bartenders and dishwashers is turned over, immediately, to landlords, where it settles in an ever-growing pile. There’s no point in rescuing an unequal system. If real change is the goal, then we need to radically redesign our economy, so everyone has a chance.
When I began this essay, I thought I would end by posing a few questions, a slight rethinking of food and its goodness. What if we celebrated not just farm-to-table dining, but table-to-neighborhood connections? What if, that is, we cared as much about economic justice as organic ingredients? What if we celebrated not just ground-breaking cooking—a metaphor that, in its violence, demonstrates our unending reverence for extraction—but food that exhibits care and continuity? What if we gave up on the idea that there are best chefs and best new restaurants, that in such a vast and varied country any one superlative can stand out? Where might we be able to put our money and attention if we stopped chasing fashion and accolades?
These ideas aren’t useless, but they’re also a dodge, I know. I haven’t given up my house, and I can’t imagine doing so. Which is not to suggest that I think doing so wouldn’t help, or that Tunde is wrong. It’s just that I am scared.
I suspect Tunde knows that. By now, he’s probably heard the same questions I posed, once the cameras were off and we were drinking Manhattans, a hundred times: Do I have to keep on giving until I am out in the streets? Isn’t some of my success mine, because I am hardworking and talented—and not just because I was born into a family that had some money, and moved to a suburban town where the schools were very good (and also very white), and because we live in a country where other white people open all the doors?
I’ve spent too much of my adult life trying to find not just good food, but the very best. Which is exhausting, and expensive, and has warped my own thinking. There have been days I’ve caught myself scheming ways to make more money, just so I can afford to keep eating the meals of my dreams. There have been years where I believed, happily, that it was possible for me—a white man completely untrained in cooking—to be an expert on what food someone else should eat. That I could package the quirky South and sell it to magazines, and that in doing so I was building a more tolerant and well-informed world.
I live in a city where, according to the latest data, nearly 40 percent of small businesses are owned by minorities, but those businesses take in only 2 percent of receipts. A city where—as in the rest of the country—Black workers in the already precarious food-service industry tend to hold the lowest-paying roles, while white workers sit at the top. How much of every dollar that I spend at a glitzy new restaurant goes to some far-off landlord, who is doing nothing but inflating property values and driving poor people out? How much goes to the busboy, the dishwasher, the cashier? When the night is over, what can they afford to eat with their wages? Meanwhile, I’m tossing and turning in bed, too full of food to sleep.
Food media, like so much else in this country, is undergoing a belated reckoning. I have to admit that, as white man, a freelancer perched on its edges, I was far too oblivious to how bad things were. But the changes are necessary. People like me have been in charge too long. No one needs my recommendations—and recommendations, at least, are something I can give up.
But that is not enough, of course. This gulf is too wide. People need money, wealth, property—things they have been denied for generations, even as my own ancestors thrived. People need medicine and secure jobs and, yes, houses. I think that Tunde’s question—How much are you willing to give?—wasn’t entirely honest, because he already knew my answer.
And my answer—another question, or set of questions, which all boil down to How much is enough?—wasn’t honest, either. I didn’t want him to tell me what to pay, or where to draw the line. I wanted him to tell me, No, no, it’s okay, it doesn’t need to hurt. You are good and talented. You are among the few who deserve.
Tunde didn’t answer my questions—he just laughed—but I had answered his. How much was I willing to give? Not nearly enough.