Sam Sifton on the Role of Media in the Future of Food

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What do you imagine the life of a food writer to be like? Does it involve going to a lot of restaurants and writing reviews?  

This vision isn’t wholly inaccurate, and restaurant beats do matter. They’re hardly the only popular way to write about food, though, and the explosion of food- and drink-related media in recent years makes this obvious. You could say the existence of our own decade-old Edible magazines is proof.

This genre has taken off for different reasons, and as former restaurant critic and current food editor of the New York Times, Sam Sifton observes and navigates these trends. At the newspaper’s Food for Tomorrow conference last fall, I had a chance to chat with Sam about the role of media in the future of food (watch an excerpt from the event above). He riffed on slow cookers and the power of food TV while briefly musing on the potential of restaurants to affect America’s food culture. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation that’s been edited for clarity and brevity:

Edible Manhattan: What role in general do you think the media plays in the future of food?
Sam Sifton: Well, I hope a really important role. I hope that food media in general, and The New York Times in particular, can do two things at once. On the one hand, document what’s happening as the future becomes the present. There’s that great old line about journalism being the first draft of history, and I would like to think that our food coverage at the Times will be that first draft—that we can be the ones bearing witness to changes on the farm, changes in the restaurant [and] changes in the home kitchen as well.

That home kitchen component of journalism is something that I think media can play a role in and I hope that the Times can play a big role in. [I hope that] Cooking—our website and app that comprises our 17,000 archived recipes—will help serve as a way to inform readers about how we have cooked in the past, how we cook in the present and how we will cook in the future—and help make it a little easier for home cooks to move forward on this journey toward the future, whatever it may hold.

In our recipes you’ll see grand classics, or terrific recipes that I hope will be destined to become classics, [and] you’re also going to see the flavors of the age as those flavors change. You’re talking to me about the future of food, but looking toward the past, I can also see how the Times documented the rise and fall of the microwave as a gourmet item, the rise and fall now of say a juicer, the rise and fall of the sous-vide machine and the rise and epic continuance of the slow cooker, which everyone has loved since its introduction.

EM: The slow cooker seems like a useful element in my home kitchen, but I don’t use it as much as I think I could or should.
SS: Yea it’s a very, very odd machine. It in no way improves upon your stove, but Americans in particular have a real fear of having their oven on unattended. Somehow this electric element on the counter top doesn’t freak them out as much, though, which is one reason why the slow cooker has endured in our collective imagination.

EM: I grew up in a family with five kids and two working parents. It’s unsurprising that my mom, a nurse, relied heavily on the slow cooker, which allowed her to cook for us while also saving money at the end of the day. She was not about to leave the oven on, and we got scolded when we did, so I think you hit on something truthful in that she could put pork loin in there and forget about it.
SS: She could let it go, go, go. I mean there are lies to the slow cooker, and one of the lies that the slow cooker advertisements tell us is this myth of set it and forget it—that really a working mom could put a piece of protein into a slow cooker and 14 hours later it was going to be perfect. That’s true if it’s a dress shoe, if that’s a form of protein—put that loafer in there and it’ll be pretty good in about 13 hours. But a lot of other things, chicken for instance and vegetables, put them in there for that amount of time and they’ll break down. But, you know, in my reporting with home cooks, and with my experimentation as a cook for the paper, I’m seeing that the use of it for over a four- or five-hour period—use of it as a warming oven, so to speak—there’s a lot of good to come out of the slow cooker, particularly with people who are working parents or are people who want to feed others.

And isn’t it amazing that that’s what the New York Times is thinking about? Well, not amazing, but I do think it’s notable since the Times is sometimes seen as this sort of raised-pinky outlet, particularly when it comes to food. We are the four-star restaurant reviews, so you’d think that all of our recipes would be for petit-fours and y’know, truffle-soaked this and that, and the fact of the matter is, we, as journalists, and our readers as subscribers, face this—everybody’s got the same pressure, everybody’s working hard.

EM: My friend actually makes a vegetarian version of barbecue in the slow cooker. He uses jackfruit since, according to him, it can imitate the texture of what he misses in pork, which is a whole other conversation.
SS: Wow—well that sounds disgusting, but it might be awesome.

EM: I mean, I was skeptical, but it is kind of awesome, though. Anyway, especially given the tone of this conference, do you think that the media has any sort of responsibilities when we talk about the future of food?
SS: Well we have the responsibility to get it right. We have the responsibility to report as widely as we can on the subjects that are before us and to do so fairly and accurately. We don’t have a role in cheerleading—that’s not our job. But our responsibility is as always, in food journalism as in conflict journalism, to bear witness and to tell our readers what’s actually happening in the world that we cover, on the beat that we cover.

EM: Why do you think that the popularity of food media has seemed to have skyrocketed in the past couple of years?
SS: Um, I’ll give you two answers. The first is phew—so glad it is! I’m so glad it is. It certainly makes going to work more fun. But you asked why food has become so popular—I think it comes from a number of places.

Taking the longest view back, television has done an enormous amount to bring focus to food in America. Food Network, the Cooking Channel, these heirs to PBS—the heirs to the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child and the like—have exploded our understanding of what constitutes good food in America. So we can go from Guy Fieri and his diners, drive-ins and dives, which, you can like or dislike Guy Fieri, but it’s a terrific and watchable show that millions of Americans see and when they see it they are exposed to good (if unhealthy) food all across the United States.

Our responsibility is as always, in food journalism as in conflict journalism, to bear witness and to tell our readers what’s actually happening in the world that we cover.

And on the other end of the equation, here is Anthony Bourdain traveling the globe and Andrew Zimmern traveling the globe and exposing people to new and exciting food. That sense of travel and deliciousness seems to have hit a chord in American television viewers and that kind of took off. And at the same time contest culture led by mainstream television, not food television—so like Amazing Race and all this sort of voting people off the island—it was easy for reality television producers to change that into food programming. So food everywhere across the TV and people all of a sudden responding to it. Why? Because it looked pretty cool. Because it had engaging storytellers, because in fact if you did have access to one of these places it was delicious maybe and you got excited about it.

And still there was a drumbeat of cooking shows, like actual hands-and-pans-type cooking shows, which raise the kind of culinary literacy of American youth in particular, and that youth is now involved in the production of what? Media, so the stories start going. At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in the understanding about healthy eating and sustainable agriculture, the rise of organics—those conversations, which have radiated out from the posts, are now happening in cities across the United States, which is having an effect on the market, which means that there are better ingredients available at more supermarkets and there are more farmers markets all across the U.S., and so people are beginning to cook more.

It’s been legitimized. It’s no longer something that a stressed-out working mother who needs to get to her shift at the hospital needs to do in the slow cooker. It can become part of a glorious weekend of foraging and markets and whatever and then creating this delicious tableau on a Saturday night. So, that’s pretty lucky if you’re a food editor. I mean, I’m overjoyed every day because all around us we see that people are interested in this. This is what makes the Edible franchise work—there’s no way at the beginning of Edible you’re going to think, like, oh yeah we’re going to have an Edible East End or Edible Portland—that should have been at the beginning sort of an inconceivable notion, but of course it isn’t because there are populations in each of those places that wants to read about that hippie down the block who’s got honey.

EM: Personally, how might you like to see the discourse around food evolve in the future?
SS: I would like to see less of a divide between our understanding of restaurant culture and our understanding of home cooking. I think that there is too often a giant divide between these two—that one is seen as kind of an upper middle class, artistic cultural expression of wealth or whatever, “Let’s go to this restaurant, it’s the new in thing.” Conversely, we see huge swaths of the culture where this same restaurant culture doesn’t really exist. I realize that contradicts this notion in some sense that I was saying earlier that there’s never been a better time to eat in America, and I can tell you, I was national editor for The New York Times for a number of years and traveled widely across the U.S., and there are plenty of places where there is no real restaurant culture.

Cooking’s been legitimized. It’s no longer something that a stressed-out working mother who needs to get to her shift at the hospital needs to do in the slow cooker.

That’s not to say that there isn’t real food present there. And I would hope—I would like, my goal is, my dream is—that somehow, through a lot of reporting and a lot of storytelling, we can see a bridge between these two things that are a vibrant restaurant culture even in a tiny town, which supports vibrant home cooking and vice versa, and that that works as well in lower income situations as in middle class ones. We’re all in the midst of this sort of time famine—I don’t want to mix metaphors, but we talk a lot about food deserts, there are also time deserts. There are a lot of people who are desperately overworked, and restaurants play a role in feeding people during those times. I would like, I would hope that the future will bring us toward a kind of parity of understanding of how awesome restaurant culture can be.

EM: Growing up in the rural South, I’ve seen strong examples of off-the-beaten-path restaurants that aren’t only bringing all sorts of business to their communities and national attention, but are also great collaborators. By no means is this a totally new phenomenon, but it seems to be growing.
SS: And that’s extraordinarily good for the U.S. You see it across the South, you’re beginning to see it in western Massachusetts and we’re seeing it in eastern Long Island of New York. You can see it in rural parts of Quebec, and Appalachia in your case and this is very much to the good. It’s almost reminiscent of what life was like in Europe, right—like when you think of the birth of the Michelin guide, that was a road map, it was like a driving destination. And all the words that they would use in the guide like “worth a detour” and the like, and people were driving through France and visiting restaurants in largely rural settings that were incredible. We’re seeing that more and more happening in the U.S. You can drive across the South and eat at great restaurants every three hours—it’s cool.

Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren is the former editor-in-chief of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.

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