Oh, hello. Welcome to Eater’s third annual compilation of the best longform food stories of the year. Here you’ll find our picks for the most exciting writing of the year on food, drinks, restaurants, chefs, and the culture and economies that surround them — from investigations into Chinese-restaurant labor, meal-kit delivery services, and the collapse of the restaurants at the Trump DC hotel, to a look inside the cultish training program at a major chain restaurant, a mathematical dissection of deliciousness, and a star-studded oral history of the lobster roll.
The inclusion criteria for this list (ordered alphabetically by author) are spectacularly unscientific: To appear here, a story needs to be “longform” (of course, no one really knows what that means exactly), it needs to be about food (then again, it is our firm institutional belief that all stories are food stories, if you squint your brain hard enough), it needs to have run in a publication other than the one you are currently reading (we’ve gathered a sampler of the riches of Eater’s 2016 longform stories from this year here), and most important of all, it has to have been sincerely beloved by at least one of the three people who have their hands in the longform (?!) food (!?!?) stories that run right here on Eater: features editor Matt Buchanan, senior editor Meghan McCarron, and yours truly.
So here you have it, our favorite food writing of 2016. Have fun. —Helen Rosner, executive editor
“In the wine catalogues that I have taken to eagerly reading and re-reading, a review of a Barolo ends with the helpful suggestion “Drink 2018-2040,” as if this is an appropriate span of time to consider for a thing you consume and not better suited to, say, forestry. Too much is contained in such terse, simple instructions—as if it doesn’t immediately conjure, in the mind of the perpetually broke and hopeful, a dark wooden cellar, a tasting table, and a time decades into the future in which a life replete with no end of sensory pleasure finds a moment of rest, a reason for joy, and thus spills out a purple liquor into fine glassware and, before the first sip, a knowing look at a partner to acknowledge the waiting, the accumulation, the sheer span of the years that has led to this point.”
Yes, friends, a wine story. But it’s not really about wine, it’s about a whole mess of wonderful and sorrowful and and ephemeral things, including the universal ache of hoping to become a person you aren’t yet. —HR
“I had my first drink at 16 in Lahore, where I also live today. Since it’s against the law, there is no legal drinking age. The drink was a blended Murree Brewery whisky called Vat 1. It comes in a balloon-necked bottle shaped much like the iconic blended Scotch, Vat 69. The legend goes that distiller William Sanderson made 100 batches of whisky and picked the number that tasted the best, the eponymous 69. Murree, apparently, got it right in one.
“The spirit filled my room, and my life, with a pungent, mildewed odor. My cousin and I consumed the entire bottle between ourselves and proceeded to take turns throwing up in the loo. Vat 1 has been discontinued since, possibly because all its consumers are dead.”
A sharp, funny sketch of the art of getting drunk in Pakistan, where the Murree brewery/distillery has a near-monopoly and other alcohol isn’t easy to come by — at least, not the good stuff. —HR
“To me this is what separates the good dishes from the truly slap-yourself-on-the-forehead ones. When you eat something amazing, you don’t just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported back to another moment in your life. It’s like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats a fancy version of the titular dish and gets whisked back to the elemental version of his childhood. The easiest way to accomplish this is just to cook something that people have eaten a million times. But it’s much more powerful to evoke those taste memories while cooking something that seems unfamiliar—to hold those base patterns constant while completely changing the context.”
Do I mostly love this story because it improbably combines two of my favorite things: chefs massively overanalyzing how food works, and Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer-prize-winning mathematical logic opus Godel Escher Bach? Probably, yes. But isn’t that enough? —HR
“There are photos on Yelp of people passed out on Prince’s tables trying to finish their food. Purcell once took a coworker to the restaurant for lunch. The woman behind the window shook her head. His coworker was visibly pregnant. ‘She can’t have hot chicken,’ the employee said. ‘She’ll have to come back after the baby is born.’ Of course, there are also tales of pregnant women who have asked their partners to fetch Prince’s hot chicken for takeout in hopes of expediting the delivering process. Pain is pain, I suppose.”
A dreamlike, nearly hallucinatory portrait of the writer, of Nashville as both a place and a metaphor, and of the human drive to punish our bodies with ever-hotter peppers. —HR
“What happens when a $100 billion global giant suddenly finds itself in a crisis—and everything it does to get out of it only sinks the company further into the morass? It’s an epic narrative of a powerful corporation brought low by an obscure food-safety agency in India and a handful of local government functionaries. And it’s a case study in irony about a company that, after a humiliating and existential scandal over infant formula, tried to reinvent itself as a paragon of corporate do-gooding and transparency—only to discover that no matter what positive, world-bettering things it did, it couldn’t quite escape its tainted past.”
Did you read that excerpt right there above this line? Yeah, this story is very good. —HR
“Stroll through the pricier areas of Brooklyn, or take a deep dive into those giant Blue Apron boxes filled with tiny plastic bags of purple basil and frozen slabs of minced lamb, and you’ll discover that mere commoners now hope to feast like kings and queens every single day of their lives. But at this late date on the planet Earth, humans shouldn’t be eating rare or exotic or far-flung foods. Not only shouldn’t we continue eating most of the animals we’ve overbred and forced into short, filthy, miserable lives, but we also, very specifically, shouldn’t be relishing the choicest cuts of lamb or just the tender centers of artichokes. Given the state of the globe, not even the aristocrats among us should be eating like aristocrats. We should all be eating like peasants.”
A too-rare gut check from Heather Havrilesky at the Baffler on what it means to dine like so many us have been lately. —MB
“There were cobalt-blue seeds that no one knew the name of that looked like alien river rocks. Clugston cracked one open with a vise, and it tasted like a coconut from Mars. ‘Everything is so completely new!’ Redzepi said. ‘We should read up on some of these so we don’t end up with holes in our stomachs.’”
Tienlon Ho’s sharp-eyed chronicle of Noma Australia’s test kitchen captures the restaurant at work far from the land of moss and cloudberries. In the process, she makes the case Redzepi’s true genius might not be for “new Nordic” cuisine, but for the obsessive embrace of local ingredients wherever they’re found, whether in fjords or the outback. —MM
“Two restaurants meant two incomes, and a better future for these three children. So what if it meant living apart? She and the children moved to Fogo, and her husband stayed in Twillingate. For 15 years, they’ve lived like this, apart.
“‘How many times each week do you see your husband?’ I asked.
“Her eyes widened, and she laughed. ‘One week? You should ask me how many times I see him in one year. About 10.’ Visits mean closing one of the restaurants, which neither likes to do.”
This story is a sprawling odyssey in the most sincere way: writer Ann Hui drives across Canada from west to east, roughly following the path of railroad expansion, tracing a jagged horizontal line of small-town Chinese-Canadian restaurants all the way out to farthest Newfoundland. Woven in are the rocky histories of Chinese immigration and assimilation, a primer on hybridized North American Chinese cuisine, and an unexpectedly deep emotional wallop. It’s one of the best things I read all year. —HR
“‘We’d found a big antique cast-iron sign that was 3 feet wide that said ‘Beware of Trains,’’ Scoggin says. ‘We thought it’d be funny to hang it over the urinals in the men’s bathroom. Some drunk guy went in there and cried out, ‘How the hell am I supposed to pee when I’ve got to worry about the trains?’’”
In the same way that ahistoric Western movies featured deeply reserached Western costumes, TGI Friday’s and their imitators are packed with genuine antiques “picked” from across rural America in the 70s and 80s. Read this exhaustive account of their orgins as Victorian nostalgia for singles to shopping mall arks of Americana before the chain’s minimalist transformation is complete. —MM
“On the other hand, if you have any history with Grand Central—if it stands in your memory for something more utilitarian, the kind of place where foreign-born entrepreneurs translated their culinary traditions into an American livelihood—then what you find today can feel like the front lines of L.A.’s new demographic wars. The meat, the coffee, the produce, the seafood, the booze, even the falafel: the market’s updated stalls tend to offer exactly the product their predecessors sold, only bougier, the replacement aimed at a clientele more concerned with aesthetics than efficiency. And if you happen to be one of those former tenants, an immigrant shopkeep ousted in the makeover, the feeling runs even deeper.
“‘It’s humiliating,’ says Soo Hwan Kim. ‘If I was younger, maybe it would hurt a little less.’”
I’ll just paraphrase what I said to Longreads when they asked me to share my very favorite food stories of the year: This story takes so many non-food elements that, individually, could be engines for an incredible story — urban planning, real estate, gentrification and displacement, history and nostalgia, immigration and assimilation — and weaves them together seamlessly. —HR
“We were in a Travel + Leisure article in 2003 or 2004, and the interviewer said, “It’d be cool if you could get the makings of this thing and have them shipped to you.” Well, I said, we could do that. Lo and behold, she put in a sidebar like, ‘Get the makings for your Maine lobster roll from The Clam Shack!’ I didn’t even have a FedEx account. So subscribers get this magazine, the phone starts ringing, and I have a market manager saying, ‘Steve, I just got my third phone call for a lobster roll kit. What are these people talking about?’ I went, ‘Oh shit! Are you kidding me? Take the order! Take the phone number!’”
This isn’t just a well-deserved comprehensive celebration of the Maine lobster roll, it’s also a vivid, brilliantly constructed oral history, complete with wickedly funny editorial juxtapositions of quotes from A-list interviewees, including Ruth Reichl and Jasper White. —HR
“On the one hand, this was the confirmation he and Noe had feared for nearly two years: There is no cure for MG, and at its worst it can be fatal. On the other, there was finally something to do, action to be taken. Brock quit drinking. He cut gluten out of his diet, and most sugar. ‘All of a sudden, I was springing out of bed at 6:30 in the morning. Everything started pouring out,’ he says. He was filling notebooks with ideas, dreaming of dishes and then waking up in the middle of the night to scribble them down. ‘I couldn't stop cooking. I couldn't stop creating. It was like I had superpowers.’”
Today, in the age of Instagram, a chef losing his sight is a tragic irony. On the eve of reopening his flagship restaurant, Sean Brock talks to Brett Martin about creativity, the body as an instrument, and saving his vision, both literal and figurative. —HR
“All told, interviews with 14 former employees describe a chaotic, stressful environment where employees work long days for wages starting at $12 an hour bagging cilantro or assembling boxes in a warehouse kept at a temperature below 40 degrees.
“‘You put honey in a small container. We would put small peppers in little small bags,’ said Glenn Lovely, who worked as a temp in the Richmond facility for three months. ‘And it was cold — cold as hell.’”
How can a business built on fresh ingredients and tight deadlines scale as fast as meal kits have? This stunning investigation by Caroline O’Donovan uncovers the rash of threats, accidents and other human costs at a Blue Apron warehouse. —MM
“‘We’ll pay $2,000 a month. Food and housing is on us,’ he says. ‘Everyone sleeps at my house. It’s very nice. You can sleep upstairs with the girls. Or, if you want, you can sleep downstairs with me and the boys.’ I wince.”
Amelia Pang's two-part investigative series on a network that supplies cheap immigrant labor to Chinese buffet restaurants is a stark reminder of the human cost of routinely not asking why and how some things can be priced as cheaply as they are: The answer is universally usually because there's someone being exploited on the other side of the equation; it's just a question of how harrowingly. —MB
“They stay with Chili's until it is as inextricable from their DNA as the nucleotide bases. As comfy in their hearts as family or faith. I totally get this. For a period—a short period, but a period that felt consequential to a 16- and 17-year-old, just as all short relationships do then—I felt the touch of that place. The touch was both localized and wide, personal and universal. You worked for something that was a shared experience of people everywhere, but you happened to hold the keys to its secrets.”
I’m endlessly, ravenously fascinated by the operational logistics of major chains, so for me, this story was pure dopamine: Daniel Riley embeds with the Chili’s super-trainers, a team of true believers who travel the world opening new Chili’s locations and spreading their razzle-dazzle to the folks on the ground. —HR
“Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Son, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.”
Seemingly every restaurant menu right now touts its local, small-farm sourcing, which when you stop to think about it seems slightly logistically implausible. In this extraordinary feat of reporting, Laura Reiley goes out and fact-checks the menus at a slew of Tampa restaurants. The results, as a more shameless headline might say, will not surprise you. —HR
“Sheridan in 1919 was still the kind of place where businesses posted signs saying ‘No Dogs or Indians Allowed,’ but Native Americans were welcome at Louie’s. Some of them, in consequence, became strikingly loyal customers. Joe Medicine Crow, the scholar and Second World War hero, who died this past April, at a hundred and two, loved Khan’s burgers so much that, on his way home to Montana after the war, he hopped off the train during a thirty-minute stop in Sheridan and was still down at Louie’s eating when it pulled out again—much to the dismay of his mother, who had organized a town-wide celebration at his home station.”
There’s nothing more American than a man named Zarif Khan immigrating from what is now Pakistan and slinging tamales Sheridan, Wyoming. But Kathryn Schulz resists flattening him to a symbol, and instead presenting his full story, rich with the best and worst of America at once, a story Khan’s fellow Americans repeatedly refuse to accept. —MM
“After the divorce, he started drinking too much, he said. He indulged his sweet tooth, which leans toward peanut M&Ms. The result was an extra 20 pounds. He had lost a significant amount of weight a decade earlier, and was in no mood to return to what he called his chunky monkey period.
“He quit drinking. He worked out, which he says he can sometimes do to excess.
“‘The problem with being so skinny is now people are like, ‘How’s the chemo?’’ he said. ‘When you get older, skinny is not really your friend. You get the turkey neck.’”
Everyone is best friends with Alton Brown. But Kim Severson’s no-punches-pulled profile of America’s favorite kitchen mad scientist pulls off the wonderful trick of revealing a lot of darkness about the man, and making it feel like sunlight. —HR
“‘I recall telling my brother to make sure that he got a good guarantee, because I had heard from a partner of mine that Zakarian had treated him very badly in a deal,’ Ivanka said in her deposition. Ivanka’s partner, Moshe Lax, whom she knew from the jewelry business, was also a partner of Zakarian’s in Country—and had been embroiled in another legal battle with the chef. ‘Moshe certainly feels that Geoffrey is not a very good human being.’
“Then last summer, when Zakarian’s team presented interior-design concepts for the National, Ivanka wasn’t impressed. She wanted something more luxe than the casual look Zakarian envisioned. ‘Ivanka came in and said, I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I don’t like this, I don’t like that,’ Zakarian said. ‘I put up a stink like, this is ridiculous, she’s second-guessing everything. I’ve forgotten more than she knows about fabrics.’”
There are certainly scarier, more urgent, more heart-wrenching stories about the Trump family than their seemingly doomed attempts to attract top restaurant talent to their DC hotel, but this spectacularly reported story from Jessica Sidman — which draws extensively on depositions and court documents from the Trumps’ battle with chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and Jose Andres, who pulled out of the Trump DC hotel as the tone of Trump’s presidential campaign became increasingly bigoted — reveals (or, okay, confirms) the steely manipulations the Trump organization relies on, and how helpless they are when they don’t work anymore. —HR
“‘I love Tao,’ he says, slipping into the large booth that overlooks the room. ‘I think, it’s like, I love places.’ A waitress approaches our table, offering us leather-bound menus that seem almost talmudic. ‘They always order for me here so I never look at this menu,’ he says, looking at the menu. Quickly scanning the pages, his eyes alight on lobster soup dumplings. ‘This is what I do. I need to read it and then smell out what’s going to be amazing. It’s a talent. Like I can look at the menu and just look at the ingredients and be like, This will end up being amazing.’”
Jonathan Cheban is maybe the hero that a certain segment of New York City restaurant culture in 2016 (unambiguously decadent, unapologetically capital-extracting) so richly deserves. —MB
“By World War II, the J.R. Simplot Company had become the nation’s largest shipper of fresh potatoes; by 2005, it was said to be the source of more than half of all McDonald’s French fries. This 750-acre feedlot resulted from a realization by its billionaire owner, John Richard Simplot, that he could also use the waste products of his potato operation to fatten cattle.”
I spend a lot of time ruminating about the inconceivable scale of industrial farming (I’m fun, invite me to your parties). This photo essay took my breath away by making that scale visible in all its terrible and inhuman beauty. —MM
“Among the men drinking at the bar that night with bulges in their jackets was Albert Circelli, ‘a made man’ in the Lucchese crime family, who was not pleased. He made insulting remarks. Louis ‘Lump Lump’ Barone, a numbers runner and a guy from the neighborhood, shushed him. Circelli threatened him. Barone shot him with his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and killed him. “I lost face,” Barone, who died in prison three years ago, said in his confession. ‘I had to defend my honor.’ The incident inspired a Law & Order episode called “Everybody Loves Raimondo’s,” starring Dietl as the shooter.”
New York’s old-guard restaurant institutions are falling like flies lately. Thank heaven for Rao’s, the famously impossible-to-get-into restaurant in East Harlem — even if, as Alex Witchel vividly explains, it was almost brought down by intrafamilial legal agita over the legacy (and product lines) of the iconic spot. —HR
The Antarctic Ice Sheet Is on the Verge of Collapse and We Evaluated This Season's Freshest Pumpkin Spice Offerings
“The question of the personhood of babies extends further than the abortion debate; indeed, philosophers and early-childhood experts have complex and nuanced discussions on the matter, and various cultures throughout the ages have differed on when, exactly, to confer the status of personhood on a newborn who cannot survive autonomously: What, after all, is a person? At what point does human agency kick in, and the formerly helpless infant become her own moral being? Is grace bestowed by God automatically or as the reward for good works? Is pumpkin spice a notion that babies should encounter so early in life, even secondhand?”
Three nearly-impossible-to-write-well story rubrics: Pumpkin spice thinkpieces, readable consumer product rankings, political humor with a nontrivial food hook. Somehow, magically, this pulls off all three at once. —HR
“Another West Coast Creeker says [Just Mayo CEO Josh] Tetrick was like a religious pastor who inspired his charges—many of them women under 35 like her—with his vision of fixing a corrupt corporate food system. ‘He was such a dude—really raw, such a presence, entirely authentic,’ she says. He made this Creeker feel like she could make a difference in the world. ‘I honestly felt blessed to have met him,’ she says.”
A million points for one of the most provocative interactive web graphics of the year — a vegan mayo bukkake that the reader is invited to clean up. Bloomberg Businessweek's investigation into the rise and fall of Just Mayo is a forensic blow-by-blow what can happen when a charismatic leader proffers a world-changing vision, then instantiates it as a company with end-justifies-the-means culture, all enabled by over a hundred millions dollars of venture capital. A story as old as Silicon Valley. —MB