When I heard myself say it aloud, the words sounded unaccustomed and strange.
“I’m a food critic for The Valley Advocate.”
I’m not from around here. I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I’ve spent a grand total of 75 minutes farming. According to any reasonable standard, I’m not the person who should be writing about the Pioneer Valley restaurant scene. I have nothing against microwaves. On Tuesday, I ate Sour Patch Kids for dinner. It was a great day.
Where I’m from—let’s call it The South—food is largely appreciated for its tastiness. If you’ve never heard of chicken fried steak, I encourage you to spend a few minutes poking around on Wikipedia. There are countless numbers of homey Southern establishments that serve the most delicious mac and cheese and pulled pork in the known world. I personally believe you’ve never sipped lemonade until you’ve sipped it on a creaky Georgia porch just before sunset, 110 percent humidity.
Though I occasionally enjoy a side of biscuits and gravy with my biscuits and gravy, indulgent tastiness comes at a real cost.
Farm-fresh vegetables, whole grains, organic ingredients, nutritional self-awareness: these are not the culinary priorities for your average United Statesian diner. When I first moved to the Valley in 2009, I’d never visited a garden. The idea that food could be as much about feeling good as it is about tasting good was entirely foreign to me. One thing is for sure: there’s nothing average about a Pioneer Valley foodie.
In the past five years, my palate has expanded in ways I’d never anticipated. I now know that almonds can be milked, that yogurt can be unflavored, and that flour is an umbrella term. And while I’ve distanced myself from the triple-fried foods of years past, we’re not altogether divorced. Nourishing, feel-good food is a beautiful thing. But I don’t want to live my life without occasionally indulging in pure tastiness. Just now, I designed tomorrow’s breakfast pizza in my mind.
My favorite part about eating is getting to choose what I eat. As an individual, I feel empowered when I decide to eat pizza for breakfast: it’s a decision I make for myself. I don’t want to feel criticized for my food choices. I don’t want to criticize others for their food choices. Which makes me wonder: what is my responsibility as a local food critic? How can I write interesting, informative pieces that simultaneously acknowledge the vast diversity of dietary preferences, taste buds and budgets?
Apart from my glaring lack of credentials, I think it’s both difficult and disrespectful to make arguments about food. It’s entirely unclear to me what properly cooked rice is supposed to taste like. I’m not even sure if it’s important for you to enjoy properly cooked rice more than improperly cooked rice. I’m even less sure if it’s important for you to enjoy rice at all. Who am I to make these decisions on your behalf?
What I do know is that people choose to eat at restaurants for all manner of reasons. Some dine out to celebrate special occasions, others because they’re exhausted after a full day in the office and can’t imagine cooking for themselves. Some prefer eating at the fanciest restaurant once a year; others prefer to eat at the least fancy restaurant once a month. Eating out is as much about the experience as it is about the food itself. And in the Pioneer Valley, eating out can be about so much: politics, independent business, local culture, community.
I hope my writing will give you a sense of what it’s like to be experiencing a restaurant in its entirety, from arrival to departure: the sights and smells and people, how it all seems. What you do with my documented impressions is up to you. I might tell you what the menu looks like, but I’m surely not going to tell you what to order. That’s for you to decide.
I’ll have the chicken fried steak.•