A fine kettle of fish
By now, many of you have probably read or heard about the blockbuster article in the Tampa Bay Times by food critic Laura Reiley, who spent two months investigating the misleading claims made by the city’s farm-to-table restaurants. Among the discrepancies she discovered were “local” shellfish that turned out to be from the Indian Ocean; “homemade” cheese curds that came out of a box; “fresh grouper” that was actually tilapia in disguise; and “wild Alaskan pollock” that was really frozen fish from China. In many cases, the farms that the chefs claimed to use hadn’t even heard of the restaurant, hadn’t sold anything to them in a long time, or had supplied something other than what was being advertised. As Reiley told All Things Considered:
I think that there’s a powerful incentive to tell a story. We all want that story—it’s a big part of why we go out to eat. If a restaurant can give you that story about that pork chop that lived a happy and delightful life from the beginning to its very last minute, that’s great. And sometimes they’re actually serving you commodity pork.
There’s enormous pressure, in other words, for restaurants to serve up what Reiley calls “a fairy tale”: that the food is fresh, ecologically friendly, and socially responsible. And many of the chefs, when confronted, came up with the same lame answer: “I guess that should come off the chalkboard.”
And I’m struck by how similar it is to many of the literary scandals that I’ve discussed on this blog in the past. When a writer is confronted over ethical lapses, like plagiarism or fabrication, it leads to a cycle of grinding familiarity. First the allegations are met with a straight denial or silence; then with an acknowledgment of what the author claims was an innocent error or oversight; and finally with a more comprehensive confession and apology. And that middle stretch, in which the guilty party seems to be trying on various excuses for size, is all but inevitable—you rarely see anyone confirm the initial accusations off the bat. Instead, you hear many of the same justifications used by the restaurant owners or chefs in Reiley’s article. They say that the discrepancy was an honest mistake; that it was the result of sloppy notes or records; or that it was an inadvertent holdover from an earlier version of the menu or manuscript. We’re asked to attribute the problems to carelessness, rather than to outright dishonesty, which is an odd defense in itself: both writing and cuisine are professions that are founded on the conscientious management of tiny details. An honest mistake may be preferable to a lie, but it’s still suspicious, particularly when so much hinges on such errors not being discovered. And it doesn’t look good when the culprit only makes the necessary changes when faced with the looming threat of exposure.
What all these cases have in common is the cognitive gap between what we can verify for ourselves and what we have to take on trust. For a book or article, we can judge qualities like craftsmanship, clarity, and quality of thought; for a meal, we’re concerned with flavor, preparation, and presentation. In an ideal world, we’d base our opinions solely on what we can personally perceive—and there’s nothing wrong with a restaurant, like Alinea, that appeals as much to the brain as to the five senses. But of course, it isn’t that simple. A Million Little Pieces was turned down by countless publishers when it was sold as a novel, but it became a bestseller when marketed as a memoir, without a single word being changed. Books that are positioned as true stories are read differently than works of fiction, and we can’t help but be influenced by such factors as the author’s biography, the book’s physical packaging, and its cultural provenance. In much the same way, we’re likely to feel one way about locally fished grouper and another about factory-farmed tilapia, even if the flavors are the same, and many diners take greater pleasure in a meal if it makes them feel like part of a continuity of values that stretches from the farm to the fork. Even if we’re indifferent to social or ecological considerations, we at least assume that restaurants that take pains in sourcing their ingredients will be equally meticulous when it comes to preparation, just as we give more weight to a writer’s opinion when it comes backed by an intriguing personal story or the right apparatus of footnotes and citations.
But all too often, it’s easy for the appearance of authenticity to take the place of the real thing. Reiley points out that many chefs lack the time to deal with farms directly, or the ability to sell locally sourced dishes at a price acceptable to diners, so it’s tempting to take shortcuts. The writer who makes up a quote or fudges the facts to bolster an argument is doing much the same thing. A few years ago, in an essay that I wrote for The Rumpus on the travails of the science writer Jonah Lehrer, I said that when you expect writers to become nonstop marketers of themselves, you encourage them to cut corners. With social media and promotion consuming so much of their time, when something gives, it’s likely to be in the places where only a diligent investigator would uncover any problems. And the real tragedy is that such ethical lapses come at the expense of those who have concerns other than managing their personal brands. Reiley quotes the farmer Rebecca Krassnoski, who concludes, after crunching the numbers to show how hard it can be to make a living selling naturally raised pork: “I think a lot of times farmers with a good story are used as a billboard.” Restaurants, in other words, leverage somebody else’s hard work to generate goodwill for themselves, often with no benefit to the farmer or fisherman whose efforts are being exploited—which isn’t all that different from plagiarism. No one sets out to lie or mislead for its own sake: it emerges, instead, from the collision of an ideal with the real world. Sometimes the result is art. But it can also be a fish story.