very year, it seems, there's more wonderful, rigorous, thoughtful, serious stuff out there to read — here on Eater, to be sure, but beyond our borders, out in the wide world of the rest of the internet (and the occasional printed page), there are extraordinary journalistic riches to be found. These twenty-one stories are the most exciting, most fascinating, most memorable reading experiences I've had this year.
These pieces (presented in alphabetical order, by author) were chosen using a highly subjective rubric: I read them, and I loved them. It's an imperfect accounting — inevitably there are more stories that I didn't read than did, and some stories that I did read and did love aren't on here for various reasons. (Like Lauren Collins' hilarious, rigorous excoriation of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in the New Yorker, easily as wonderful as anything named below, which sadly can't have a place on my own list because Collins made the fatal error of quoting me in it. Or literally every one of the Eater features we ran this year, about whose brilliance I can't even vaguely gesture at feigning objectivity.)
In any case, here's my list of the best long-format stories published in 2015 about food, drink, restaurants, and all that surrounds them. —Helen Rosner, features editor
"Its recipes weren’t written to appeal to the palate. Their instructions were designed to make the Teenage Fondue or Party Sandwich Loaf look a certain way: theatrical, performative, misleading. The focus on tuning precise colors and shapes — the shocking green of 'Lime Ribbon Delight' or the perfect heart shape of 'Cherry Berries on a Cloud' or simply the persistent symmetry of concentric circles and shingles — is here, as in all arts and crafts, a means for triggering observation."
"Displaying any sort of appetite felt somehow deeply unattractive, and demonstrating restraint felt right."
Such a brilliant pairing of writer and subject: Tamar Adler, champion of naturalistic cooking, coming out in praise of lurid midcentury gelatin salads. (Also not to miss: exquisitely unsettling images by Italian photography duo Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari.)
"During my self-conscious and anxious teen years, I would never be caught eating something so heavy or meaty in front of boys; I would bring little more than rice and carrots for lunch to the high school cafeteria and nibble on bowls of sliced cucumbers in the college dining hall. Displaying any sort of appetite felt somehow deeply unattractive, and demonstrating restraint felt right."
The intersection of women and meat is jam-packed with rich topics — feminism, femininity, eating disorders, celebrity, the male gaze — and Andrews goes at all of them with fists raised.
"Why there? Because within a three-minute walk there are a clinic that dispenses methadone, the substitute opioid used to treat heroin addiction; two outpatient substance-abuse programs; and a needle exchange. The neighborhood has few cheap options for hanging out. The White Castle allows only paying customers to use the restroom. The management at a Subway and two Dunkin’ Donuts claim their bathrooms are out of order."
At a McDonald's in the middle of New York City, tourists, nuns, and office workers rub shoulders with a crowd of regulars who might, without this powerful, important, tremendously humanizing story, go willfully unseen.
"Look at the menu of just about any fast food restaurant, whether it’s a big franchised operation or a small mom-and-pop affair. If they have a 'chicken club' sandwich on the menu, it basically means they took their regular chicken sandwich and stuck bacon in it"
"You can use transparency — visibility — to change the culture of the kitchen, even a forty-five-seat modern Indian place like Mistry’s."
An exhaustively researched, guffaw-inducingly no-bullshit history of America's foremost triple-decker sandwich, from the nineteenth century to today, complete with taste tests.
"My mother meant an interlude in our afternoon, a pause for cake. But there was also an interlude in our eating. A pause for a photo, then a pause to share it. This pause is an act in itself. Like many rituals, it is strange, until — after enough exposure — it is not."
Sharing photos of what you're eating isn't quite as intimate as actually sharing a meal, but it's still something — and this essay fluidly unpacks what exactly that something might be.
John Birdsall / Jarry (complete version only available in print)
"You can use transparency — visibility — to change the culture of the kitchen, even a forty-five-seat modern Indian place like Mistry’s, sharing a strip-mall lot with a check-cashing place and a shitty taqueria, near the freeway in north Oakland. Not exactly the grandeur of the queer food capital I’d imagined, but it feels like home."
An expansive, honest conversation with and about gay cooks at all stages of their careers, anchored on issues of identity, sexuality, visibility, and power.
"'Most people want community more than cocktails, and that’s what neighborhood bars offer,' Schaap told me recently. 'Great neighborhood bars aren’t an antiquated idea; they’re timeless.' Yet these bars, where you go once a week to see your friends or shoot the shit with the bartender who gives you a buyback after a couple rounds of Jameson, are becoming harder to find. And when you do find one, you just worry about its inevitable demise, or worse, the wrong people discovering it."
Equal parts requiem and call to arms, this is a melancholy look at the economic and social forces that threaten — but also, paradoxically, could maybe keep afloat — the disappearing American dive bar.
"Beyond the region (and, if we’re being really honest, within its cultural bounds, too) fried chicken does not play like a complicated icon of black expertise, entrepreneurship, and stereotype. Instead, it’s now a meme to be mimicked, a trend to be exploited. Like bluegrass music in Japan or a Thornton Dial assemblage pulled from his Bessemer, Alabama, garage and hung at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the craft benefits from the remove and the framing but loses something in the translation."
"Food gives life; sex gives humanity. That is sex’s singular power. I made a crippling mistake conflating the two."
With the food of the American South now a bona fide national trend, it's often presented as a dreamy fantasy of the antebellum era. Edge finds that to be just the latest installment in a long history of translating the violent, racially turbulent history of the South into diner-friendly menus.
"The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI now contend, in effect, that the theft of genetically modified corn technology is as credible a threat to national security as the spread to nation-states of the technology necessary to deliver and detonate nuclear warheads. Disturbingly, they may be right."
Turns out, the world of genetically modified corn has as much international intrigue as arms dealing or drug trafficking. This brilliantly plotted story reads equal parts dystopian agricultural fantasy and high-stakes spy procedural.
"It doesn’t feel like a place where anyone is trying to change the way the world eats. There is an unmistakable tourist-baiting grandeur to the main complex of the seventh-century Baekyangsa temple — gilded Buddhas, a gargantuan drum and a bell-like gong that are used to rouse the complex’s 58 monks for prayer — but the area where the nuns live has the slightly lonesome feeling of a summer camp after all the kids have gone back to school."
After being introduced to New York's food elite by chef Eric Ripert, a Buddhist nun who cooks only temple cuisine is quietly ascending as one of the most influential figures in modern food.
"Food gives life; sex gives humanity. That is sex’s singular power. I made a crippling mistake conflating the two. I thought that sex, stripped of love or even affection, could be utilitarian, a trade and nothing more. I tried to find my humanity in food: I mistook the distracting hedonism of good food as the answer to my other primal urges."
Hocker reveals a knack for unflinching honesty in this quiet, beautiful essay, his memories of a summer spent turning tricks in Washington D.C. in order to make enough money to indulge his then-new love of high-end restaurants.
"When food obsessives cite their heroes, they tend to invoke a particular canon: MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl for their heady, evocative prose; Gael Greene for her saucy wit; R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin for their bonhomous wanderings; Anthony Bourdain for his honed and hungry swagger; Jonathan Gold, because he is Jonathan freaking Gold. Britchky's people are in it for his acid tongue and gimlet eye — the way he etched a menu, a moment, a space, a feeling, an era in dining when not every plate was Instagram-ready, every interaction Yelp-able to the world."
"Gone are the days of subsisting on cheap fish patties at the end of the month. The status of the food rose but not the people. They just had less to eat."
This posthumous profile resurrects the legacy of self-made restaurant critic Seymour Britchky, an iconic denizen of an earlier model of New York, the sort of person who should never have been forgotten in the first place.
"It’s rare enough to have an aggressively creepy character on television, and even then the writers will normally make some effort to make the character somehow relatable or sympathetic. Yet The King has no back-story, no mitigating factors. He is sheer creepiness embodied, all the more so given his unexpected irruption into a genre that normally makes every effort to pander to the viewer."
Burger King's latest attempt at a mascot is horrifying, of course, but it turns out it's also a point of entry into the very idea of uncanniness, of creepiness as "displaced sexual energy," an unpleasant window on our own identities.
"Lewis took the story of rural black people, formerly enslaved black people, and owned it as a story of confidence and beauty. She didn’t have an easy life, even in her Freetown years. Her family suffered through two stillborn children and two more who died young of pneumonia. But she chose to see, and to show us, beauty; and under the shadow of oppression and slavery, that is a political act."
It's obvious why Edna Lewis, the great figure of African-American culinary history, merits a profile of this depth and nuance. What's surprising is only that it took this long to happen. It was worth it, though — Lam makes a gorgeous, vital case for Lewis's eternal relevance.
"What I noticed most, though, was how completely Pépin was granting me his attention, how present and engaged he was, despite the banality of my questions. It was a simple thing, but weirdly magical, allowing the rest of the world to fade away as we chatted."
Every writer has that one improbably personal interview that bleeds out into their real life. Here, the great Jacques Pépin helps heal Brett Martin's broken heart, and bring him out of an anhedonic funk.
"Hagar’s madeleine moment came in 1975 while he was in London, touring to support his first solo album. There, the husband of a family friend treated him to a meal that paired Château d’Yquem with peaches and prosciutto, a ’61 Latour with rack of lamb, and a ’27 Martinez port with blue cheese. 'It just changed my life,' he recalls."
One of the most wildly enjoyable profiles this year, pegged to the release of the former Van Halen frontman's cookbook — Sammy Hagar has, as the kids say, zero chill, but in a way that's incredibly human and disarmingly appealing.
"When I was a kid and money was tight, my mother mixed a can of tuna with pasta and vegetables. Our family of six ate it for two days. Gone are the days of subsisting on cheap fish patties at the end of the month. The status of the food rose but not the people. They just had less to eat."
A blisteringly angry, beautifully framed meditation on the social mobility of the food of poverty, and how easily and brutally it can undermine the class alignment of the people it feeds.
"While the line between traditional fast food and fast casual can be blurry—quick, is Five Guys Burgers and Fries fast food or fast casual?—the telltale sign is the holistic-sounding descriptions used to describe the fare. Chipotle’s slogan, 'Food with Integrity,' is certainly the most famous, but at almost all these restaurants words such as 'fresh,' 'natural,' and 'organic' abound."
"He is sheer creepiness embodied, all the more so given his unexpected irruption into a genre that normally makes every effort to pander to the viewer."
The rebranding of high-end fast food as "fast casual" has allowed certain high-profile, highly beloved chains to avoid the same kind of scrutiny of their labor practices that less perceived-to-be-virtuous restaurants are regularly subject to.
"The worst part of this new-found obsession is that it isn't even an affectation. I don't drink cheap coffee to be different. I don't boast of my love for Cafe Bustelo, which has become the PBR of the bearded Brooklyn set. I usually buy Maxwell House. There is nothing cool about Maxwell House."
A terrific example of the food story that's not really about food: turns out, the great thing about bad coffee is that it disappears, and everything happening around it is what matters.
"Sitting atop the filing cabinet was a special-edition white-colored can of Coke, introduced in 2011 to raise funds for endangered polar bears. It was withdrawn when consumers complained that Coca-Cola had also changed its secret formula. For Spence, the can is evidence of the power of a package’s color to alter the taste of the contents."
The always magnificent Nicola Twilley profiles Charles Spence, a professor who studies how sensory inputs affect perception — particularly when it comes to the effect that colors, shapes, and sounds have on taste.
"Take a deep right, Larry Griggs says, and we do, driving slowly into Baptist Town, a longtime African-American neighborhood in Greenwood, Mississippi, dating from the 1800s. I’ve never heard that term before but know exactly what he means—not least of which because I am here on the hunt of a deeper right, tracing the poles of a story involving food and civil rights that took place in Greenwood."
Booker Wright was a black waiter working in a white restaurant, who in 1966 spoke honestly on camera about his experiences, and became a civil rights hero. This is a two-in-one: poet Kevin Young's oratorio for an opera about Wright, preceded by Young's moving account of his time spent in Wright's hometown.
Header photo: Shutterstock