Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ligaya Mishan's entertaining food writing

Exceptional writing stands out.  That's clear in the daily reading of the New York Times.  It's not at all widespread, but in the arts, feature writing, food, architecture, books, film, and many other areas of coverage there are occasional sparks of near brilliance and at times writers whose work if consistently read builds up a personal zeitgeist of sorts and becomes addictive.  The one-off great pieces are welcome while the consistent fine, thoughtful, observant, or entertaining writers are special.  The news sections rarely have writers in this category, the business section never, and the op-ed section, with a few exceptions, is going through a decline, as if that were possible.

Which brings me to the writing of Ligaya Mishan in her weekly "Hungry City" food column.  She covers mid to low priced restaurants, often ethnic food and mostly off the beaten path.  That gives her a massive amount of opportunities in the five boroughs to find interesting and exceptional food to write about.  As she has said, it's destination food in the sense that one might take a bus or subway to it, not a cross country plane.

Her writing simply has a certain zest to it, a life affirming beat.  There's almost always an edge of humor and the food described is often an education.  In yesterday's column she writes of the chef at Queens Filipino restaurant, "It's a career trajectory that could have easily led him to selling haute free-range kwek-kwek from a Smorgasburg stall.  Instead he's delivering straightforward comfort food - unmodernized, unexalted - with no concessions to Western palates."  That made me smile, but maybe it needs to be seen in context to fully get it.  I look forward to her column each week.

As a one-off, the article in this same week's food section, "A Grass-Fed Pioneer" by Kim Severson is completely entertaining.  White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga. run by the colorful William Harris III is the subject of the article.  The farm that has been in his family for five generations is the largest and most successful purveyor of grass-fed, humanely raised beef in the eastern part of the country.  The writer creatively describes both the history of and the current cultural feel of the farm, and also has the good sense to get out of the way of her subject and let him talk.

The farm has broadened its focus to pigs, chicken, sheep, and goats, and Harris says, "I can't imagine going back to just raising cows, it'd be like watching one channel of black and white TV."  On getting his beef into Whole Foods, he described the process as "harder than me trying to take a calculus class in Russian."  On the possibility of shipping his cattle long distances to get processed, he explains that "it's like raising your daughter to be princess and then sending her to a whorehouse."  Most southerners have known characters like this and the writer let him shine through.

One-off is good enough.  Regular becomes a great part of the pattern of reading. 


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