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The Absence Of Women In Food Criticism Is No Mystery

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Apr 18, 2014 3:30PM

On its face, the fact that men dominate food criticism seems like a mystery. Walk into any food writing event and there are plenty of women. Why is this particular subset of casting judgment upon food, restaurants and chefs such an exception - especially since it sounds like such a cool and interesting job? I mean, who wouldn’t want to get paid to eat at restaurants and then talk about what they liked or didn’t? Is there any reason to believe that women are somehow less opinionated about the food they eat, or less articulate at explaining those opinions - or at least deemed so by society at large? A few publications, such as LA Weekly and Grub Street, have explored the issue by speculating about gender differences or whether discrimination plays a role.

But if you were at a food writing event and looked around a little more and talked to some of the women there, the mystery would likely fade. First of all, a large number of female food writers are young. When was the last time you saw an ad for a food critic position? There aren’t many jobs in the field, and many of the most prestigious publications don’t accept applications from just anyone. They recruit, and they don’t seem to look very far.

For example, The New York Times has picked its most recent restaurant reviewers from their already established staff. Eater’s newest food critic hires are long-established critics, many of them refugees from moribund print publications. If you wanted to fossilize the past’s inequalities and prevent diverse new writers from gaining prominence, you couldn’t chose a better method. It’s no coincidence that they aren’t particularly diverse. It’s not just that they are mostly men- they are nearly all white and from similar middle-class backgrounds as well. For all the talk about what’s missing if women’s voices are absent from criticism, where’s the soul-searching about other voices that just aren’t there?

Of course there are are entry-level food writing positions out there, but making lists of the latest restaurant openings or restaurant specials for some PR-invented “National Pretzel Day” isn’t exactly the best way to prepare people for thinking critically. Most entry-level pipelines at major publications seem like pathways to nowhere and many of them are even unpaid internships, further limiting the kinds of people who can enter them. They’d do better to open the restaurant reviewing playing field up to people from other backgrounds and judge people on their writing rather than their resumes if they want truly diverse perspectives.

What are the few available food writing jobs like? High quality data doesn’t seem to be readily available. The few salary numbers out there seem high, but don’t appear to account for the fact that many review positions are no longer full-time jobs. A lot of publications use freelancers for reviews. Many of the food critics I know make this work by having other jobs that provide high-quality health insurance, a 401K and other benefits. Or they have a spouse with such a job.

But more people working an extra job might struggle to make the extra efforts that critics from the golden age of food writing were able to do, like Ruth Reichl with her elaborate disguises. Making time to do multiple visits is also a challenge, as is paying for all these meals. Many publications have slashed or completely cut budgets for reviews. And those that do still have food criticism often require that review meals be expensed, which involves paying out of pocket for the meal and then filing for reimbursement, which may be a struggle for young people on tight budgets. Which might be why so many of these positions are filled with people who are able to get money elsewhere- from other jobs or from their parents.

Tight budgets are common enough in the field, but many food writers enjoy non-salary benefits like free media dinners and drinks. Some publications have a policy against reviewers taking advantage of these benefits for ethical reasons. It makes sense, but it could be hard for a writer to cover a culture where $200 tasting menus are extolled when they have to subsist on boxed pasta for most of their meals.

And then there are tight budgets at the publications themselves, which have left the few young people in these jobs without mentors. People complain that some of the reviews from young writers don’t follow any sort of particular standard, but what else can we expect from a job where there is no training or mentorship? And when someone is lucky enough to have a mentor, it’s likely they came from that aforementioned golden age when writers didn’t have to freelance aggressively to make ends meet or worry about hit counts and search engine optimization.

In addition, it’s the non-reviewer food writers who get all the perks. They often have inboxes full of offers for free stuff, and find that restaurants welcome them with smiles and free drinks. Reviewers meanwhile might have inboxes full of hate mail, and find some restaurants unwelcoming - occasionally to the point of unceremoniously kicking them out. Some reviewers are even blamed for destroying businesses.

It’s easy to choose not to be a food critic. The jobs aren’t available. And even if they were, there are plenty of great reasons to avoid them. It’s not a mystery. It’s a job that sounds great, but the reality is very different except for a very small number of lucky people, most of whom got into the field when there were more stable jobs to be had. Sexism plays a role, but the bigger issues are harsh economic realities and the fact that the big publications seem to make little effort to bring in new voices.