Food for thought
Earlier this week, The A.V. Club, which is still the pop culture website at which I spend the vast majority of my online life, announced a new food section called “Supper Club.” It’s helmed by the James Beard Award-winning food critic and journalist Kevin Pang, a talented writer and documentarian whose work I’ve admired for years. On Wednesday, alongside the site’s usual television and movie coverage, seemingly half the homepage was devoted to features like “America’s ten tastiest fast foods,” followed a day later by “All of Dairy Queen’s Blizzards, ranked.” And the reaction from the community was—not good. Pang’s introductory post quickly drew over a thousand comments, with the most upvoted response reading:
I’ll save you about six months of pissed-away cash. Please reallocate the money that will be wasted on this venture to add more shows to the TV Club review section.
Most of the other food features received the same treatment, with commenters ignoring the content of the articles themselves and complaining about the new section on principle. Internet commenters, it must be said, are notoriously resistant to change, and most vocal segment of the community represents a tiny fraction of the overall readership of The A.V. Club. But I think it’s fair to say that the site’s editors can’t be entirely happy with how the launch has gone.
Yet the readers aren’t altogether wrong, either, and in retrospect, you could make a good case that the rollout should have been handled differently. The A.V. Club has gone through a rough couple of years, with many of its most recognizable writers leaving to start the movie site The Dissolve—which recently folded—even as its signature television coverage has been scaled back. Those detailed reviews of individual episodes might be popular with commenters, but they evidently don’t generate enough page views to justify the same degree of investment, and the site is looking at ways to stabilize its revenue at a challenging time for the entire industry. The community is obviously worried abut this, and Supper Club happened to appear at a moment when the commenters were likely to be skeptical about any new move, as if it were all a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But the launch itself didn’t help matters. It makes sense to start an enterprise like this with a lot of articles on its first day, but taking over half the site with minimal advance warning lost it a lot of goodwill. Pang could also have been introduced more gradually: he’s a celebrity in foodie circles, but to most A.V. Club readers, he’s just a name. (It was also probably a miscalculation to have Pang write the introductory post himself, which placed him in the awkward position of having to drum up interest in his own work for an audience that didn’t know who he was.) And while I’ve enjoyed some of the content so far, and I understand the desire to keep the features lightweight and accessible, I don’t think the site has done itself any favors by leading with articles like “Do we eat soup or do we drink soup?”
This might seem like a lot of analysis for a kerfuffle that will be forgotten within a few weeks, no matter how Supper Club does in the meantime. But The A.V. Club has been a landmark site for pop culture coverage for the last decade, and its efforts to reinvent itself should concern anyone who cares about whether such venues can survive. I found myself thinking about this shortly after reading the excellent New Yorker profile of Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of the New York Times. Its author, Ian Parker, notes that modern food writing has become a subset of cultural criticism:
“A lot of reviews now tend to be food features,” [former Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton] said. She recalled a reference to Martin Amis in a Wells review of a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn; she said she would have mentioned Amis only “if he came in and sat down and ordered chopped liver.”
Craig Claiborne, in a review from 1966, observed, “The lobster tart was palatable but bland and the skewered lamb on the dry side. The mussels marinière were creditable.” Thanks, in part, to the informal and diverting columns of Gael Greene, at New York, and Ruth Reichl, the Times’ critic during the nineties, restaurant reviewing in American papers has since become as much a vehicle for cultural criticism and literary entertainment—or, as Sheraton put it, “gossip”—as a guide to eating out.
If this is true, and I think it is, it means that food criticism, for better or worse, falls squarely within the mandate of The A.V. Club, whether its commenters like it or not.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold The A.V. Club to unreasonably high standards. In fact, we should be harder on it than we would on most sites, for reasons that Parker neatly outlines in his profile of Wells:
As Wells has come to see it, a disastrous restaurant is newsworthy only if it has a pedigree or commercial might. The mom-and-pop catastrophe can be overlooked. “I shouldn’t be having to explain to people what the place is,” he said. This reasoning seems civil, though, as Wells acknowledged, it means that his pans focus disproportionately on restaurants that have corporate siblings. Indeed, hype is often his direct or indirect subject. Of the fifteen no-star evaluations in his first four years, only two went to restaurants that weren’t part of a group of restaurants.
Parker continues: “There are restaurants that exist to have four Times stars. With fewer, they become a kind of paradox.” And when it comes to pop culture, The A.V. Club is the equivalent of a four-star restaurant. It was writing deeply felt, outrageously long essays on film and television before the longread was even a thing—in part, I suspect, because of its historical connection to The Onion: because it was often mistaken for a parody site, it always felt the need to prove its fundamental seriousness, which it did, over and over again. If Supper Club had launched with one of the ambitious, richly reported pieces that Pang has written elsewhere, the response might have been very different. Listicles might make more economic sense, and they can be fun if done right, but The A.V. Club has defined itself as a place where obsessively detailed and personal pop culture writing has a home. That’s what Supper Club should be. And until it is, we shouldn’t be surprised if readers have trouble swallowing it.