Maintaining the spider rage

Ten miles out of town, my guide pulls up at a little shack on a winding roadside. This is real boondocks Cambodia. Little kids are staring at me like they’ve never seen a white man before, which they probably haven’t.

From “Man bites frog

I miss the days when I used to rant about the Cambodian spider story of the week, where a Western journalist, parachuted into a strange land, proceeds to take the local food completely out of context. It gave me a regular windmill to tilt at. Now when I pitch articles about the possibility of Cambodian food being a varied and delicate cuisine to magazines, I’m sure that the grim thought lurking in the back of every editor’s mind is “They eat spiders, don’t they”. Sean Thomas’ recent article in The Independent is a tour-de-force of the culinary racism that does me out of business.

What can you say about the decidedly unlovely tarantulas of Skuon? Except that they aren’t very lovely. Certainly, they are much prized in Cambodia – anyone who goes to Skuon is expected to bring back a bag of big roasted spiders for the kids. When told that these rancid, sugared arachnids are less than popular in the West, Cambodians are shocked and surprised. They find western cheese-eating equally repugnant, of course.

None of that is true apart from the spiders being manky. My Cambodian friends are cheese freaks. He finishes off by eating a dried frog in Phnom Penh, which is something that Cambodians don’t treat as food. Dried frog is for medicinal purposes and occasionally, a rice wine additive. Complaining about the way it tastes is a little like eating a few spoonfuls of straight cloves, then writing them off as useless as a foodstuff.

This is not to say that you can’t write about a food that you don’t know as a local: a perfect example of covering Cambodia well is Robyn and Dave from EatingAsia’s recent posts from Cambodia – they might not speak Khmer, but they can put the food into the context that they know well: similarities with Vietnamese and Isaan food; familiar herbs in an unfamiliar dish; photos that set the food in the real environment. It is a reminder that food is about tradition and memories, even if those traditions are not your own.

Props to Maytel for passing on the article.

15 Comments Maintaining the spider rage

  1. Towser

    Yeh I have to agree, sure that article was mostly rubbish fact wise. But this (common) type of travel/food writing style basically targets a home western (general, not foodie) audience and armchair travellers for a little sensationalism and a few giggles, though of course it continues to feed a skewed view of eastern cuisines. I wonder how many ‘cultural’ snippets of bbq rats and scorpions we’re going to be subjected to during the TV coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Um, I’m also left wondering how many “unhygienic dead mermaids” the author has tasted. Do I detect a sexist undertone in there too? LOL though of course I’m just having a go.

  2. Robyn

    Aaaargh! Thanks for the post (and the plug) Phil, you’ve now got me going now to the point I don’t even need the cup of coffee sitting next to my computer.
    Gawd, what can you say about this sort of food journalism except that there really and truly seems to be no end for it. How many stories have been published on Cambodian spiders, bugs in Thailand, bull penis soup in Malaysia, ant eggs in Lao … As an experiment perhaps I should rip off a pile of pitches to various publications on every weird food item in SE Asia I can think of, just to see how many come back positive.
    Then again, maybe not. I draw the line at how low I’ll go for a paycheck.

  3. Robyn

    Wait – that sounds much snottier than I meant to be. Not to diss the folks who write these articles … I just find that they touch on the least interesting facets of various cuisines and they reinforce stereotypes of the ‘exotic East’. But what can you say, there’s an audience for it.
    You might comment on the assertion that’s been floated about, Phil, that to truly ‘know’ a culture you have to eat its most bizarre bits. And that locals respect you more if you do. I don’t buy it, myself.
    And now I’ll shut up.

  4. Austin

    I agree with you all that the article is rubbish for a host of reasons, but reading the blog and comments have inspired me to think critically about the phenomenon of ‘food journalism’ and the fact that, other that, other than Steingarten, I honestly can’t think of another single writer who writes about food in a truly interesting, engaging and entertaining way. Am I simply not well read and stand ignorant of the dozens of other talented people out there writing about food, or does this say something about food writing itself?

    I have a feeling it might be the latter, and that food writing, more than any other genre, seems to give writers the liberty to manhandle the topic while neglecting the way its presented–a lot like the article in question. (Could another writer get away with a story about, say, driving several of the world’s ‘craziest’ cars, or living in the world’s biggest houses? Well, yes, probably…).

    Regardless, when was the last time you read something written specifically about food and thought, ‘That was extremely well written and fun to read’?

    What are some examples of ‘good’ food writing?

  5. Phil Lees

    “I honestly can’t think of another single writer who writes about food in a truly interesting, engaging and entertaining way.”

    Thanks for your support, Austin. But seriously – I think that you’re right and I’m still not sure what I should do about it.

    The bulk of my traffic hits the jackass posts that have been designed to attract that sort of traffic on my site. Writing on the web doesn’t seem to proportionately foster or reward quality. It disproportionately rewards the writing that attracts either the daft people who click ads; or just massive, lowest common denominator audiences.

    On my grimmer days, I get the feeling that food writing online is just an adjunct to attractive pictures. You’ve just got to look at something like tastespotting: no meaningful text; no original content owned by tastespotting; massive audience. Judging from some of the stats that I’ve run on clickthroughs from there to my sites, the clickers rarely read the article that supports the pic on my site. They take a quick look at the full size image and move on. I’m not sure if this signals a crisis in food writing but it does show that a good proportion of the audience interested in food media on the web are not interested in the writing (or maybe, not interested in my writing). I do wonder though, if editors of large, quality newspapers do not hold food journalists to the same standards that they do when they write on other topics because they know that the words don’t matter much at all compared to the photos.

    Steingarten in Vogue reminds me a little of running “quality” articles in Playboy magazine. You can always defend the whole publication as highbrow if there is the most cursory element of highbrow-ness. Having a gigantic budget to chase aspirational food stories certainly helps his career along (e.g. “the best x in whatever country” story). They’re not the sort of stories that you can consistently chase as a freelancer without some other source of funds (in his case, a prior legal career). You can do it in your own region though.

    I’ve been thinking that I should try changing the format of The Last Appetite for a while now to one well-researched post per month rather than the random weekly scattering of posts, even though it will be bad for my audience in the short term. It goes against everything that I know about high-traffic blogs. The norm is very frequent updates with short posts, supplemented by the occasional longer article. Then again, I know that I’ve got nothing to lose because deep down, I don’t care if my blog isn’t the biggest in the world. I just want the occasional but committed reader and I may as well be writing about whatever the hell I feel like.

    Maytel – yeah, we’re snobs.

  6. Robyn

    Gee, thanks Austin, and Phil. But seriously – I don’t think there’s any crisis in food writing. There’s plenty of crap out there because that’s what really really sells. But there’s also lots of good stuff. A few things I’ve read recently and somewhat recently (though not are all newly released) that interested, entertained, and engaged me:

    -Fuschia Dunlop’s memoir ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Peppercorns’
    -‘Salt’ by Mark Kurlansky
    -‘The Art of Eating’ by Edward Behr and in fact ever single thing in every issue of his quarterly publication ‘The Art of Eating’
    -Plenty’ by that Australian woman (you know, don’t you Phil? don’t have the book handy)
    -quite a few articles in Gastronomica
    -‘Sarap: Essays’ on Philippine Food by (the late) Doreen Fernandez and Ed Alegre
    -an article on cocktails in Tokyo in the recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine (which is usually just – so – yucky)
    -most anything on food the New Yorker runs, except last year’s Calvin yawner on street food in Singapore, which has only been written by different writers about 25 times

    There is, however, a crisis in food writing reading.

    What most popular food mags look and read like these days is completely down to what readers want. This was confirmed by an editor at one of the US ‘Big Four’ when I was in NYC last spring. ‘People just don’t have the attention span,’ he told me, to read more than a couple paragraphs and look at photos. We’re fairly certain that most of our features are never read. And it means we’re running less substance.’

    So where does that leave writers who want to write intelligently about food AND make a living at it? In search of a book deal, I’d suppose. Or perhaps looking to branch into travel writing….

  7. Austin

    Obviously no personal attack was meant here; I also earn much of my money by writing about food. But to be brutally honest, I’m a mediocre writer at best, and write about food because a) I’ve somehow been able to convince people that I can do it, b) it’s relatively easy, for the reasons given above, and c) I’m interested in it and know a bit about it.

    Phil: Is that why you bought a digital SLR? I like your blog idea–reminds me of what we chatted about before. I’ve been thinking about that idea a lot, actually. Let’s chat about it again sometime soon…

    Robyn: I’ve heard about the Dunlop book, I’ll check it out. What Australian woman? I saw Salt at the English-language library in Bangkok, but it didn’t grab me after a flip through. Maybe I’ll try again. I’m not sure any of the others are available in Bangkok, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

    Re. your last para, it seems to me that anybody keen on writing about food and not publishing books is working themselves into a very tight corner indeed. I like writing about and photographing food, but really only see it as a way to gain experience and get my foot in the door of greater journalistic/photographic endeavours. I don’t want to be photographing bowls of noodles for the rest of my life…

  8. Phil Lees

    Austin – I bought the DSLR because it’s the first thing that I wanted to do as soon as I was earning a Western wage. I was getting really tired of the limitations of my point-and-shoot. I missed my old film SLR too.

    Robyn – is it Plenty by Alisa Smith? I thought she was Canadian?

    Isn’t a crisis in reading much the same as a crisis in writing? Writing your coruscating thoughts into the void isn’t much fun.

    You are right though: there is no shortage of books to read and I’m still reading your blogs and not complaining about them. Over the last few months I’ve read:

    – Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence, on the UK’s horrific food system
    – Remembrance of Things Paris, Ruth Reichl (ed), essays from Gourmet mag about Paris – good stuff on pre- and post-WW2 dining, a bit patchy otherwise
    -reread Michael Pollan’s books and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and The Ethics of What We Eat

  9. maytel

    Kittens and babies Austin, I told you that’s where the money is…..

    Perhaps there are no seriously good food columnists out there in the broadsheets but holy crap there is a whole lot of academics chasing the “foodie dollar”

    I’ve noticed that the new thing with many academics is to write those single food commodity books which appeal both to an academic audience and to the wider public

    I think it may have started with Sidney Mintz’s book on Sugar, “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”, but since then its exploded just off the top of my head there is
    – the banana book “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World”
    – the oyster book “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell”
    – the cod book “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World”
    – the sushi book “The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy”
    – the coffee book ” The coffee paradox: Global markets, commodity trade and the elusive promise of development ”
    – the rice book “Rice and Man”
    – and a forthcoming book on the matsutake mushroom

    I’m sure there are more

    It sometimes makes me want to yell “argghhhh…we get it food is symbolic of wider economic, political, social and environmental issues”.

    But then I realise that I am essentially doing the same thing with my thesis albeit with rice seed, organic rice, vegetables and chilli sauce

  10. kinakoJelly

    oh I must say I do not notice a dearth of good (journalistic) food writing….
    i often enjoy pieces written in the New York Times or Village Voice… R.Sietsema is a really great restaurant reviewer.
    And agree that Fuschia Dunlop can be very engaging (even if, at times, simpering).
    Also London’s Time Out has some really good writing (or at least, worthwhile opinions) at times.

    I don’t think the problem is any new lack of good food writing in specific, it’s journalism in general –
    You should try finding good music journalists, now there’s a depressing subject.

    I guess it gets even worse outside of London and NYC – because it gets more provincial.
    I’ve dealt with all kinds of block-headed editors in NZ (and I don’t mean Brock-headed).

  11. Robyn

    I think maytel is right and I’m going to attempt to prove it with a kitten post today. (But don’t forget dogs and puppies – William Wegman is a multi-millionaire.)

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  13. Jennifer

    Southeast Asian native living in the USA, and my rant for today is:

    NBC primetime:
    1. Mary Carrillo eating scorpions on a stick in Beijing.
    2. Mary Carrillo bringing back scorpions on a stick for Bob Costas in the studio. Bob Costas shrinks back.

    Next morning, NBC Today Show:
    1. Al Roker goes with Ming Tsai to eat scorpions on a stick (same place).
    2. Scorpions on a stick magically appear on table in front of cheering crowd and Matt Lauer scrunching up his nose at them.

    This is the kind of coverage about Beijing we’re getting here, and being ethnically Chinese, it makes me sad.

    However, for the discerning, I do think there is lots of good food writing around, if you look for it — in newspapers, magazines, and books (many mentioned here). There are also some really good blogs written by the person-in-the-street (or -kitchen) — and I’m also glad I found this place, thanks to Robyn’s kitten post! I enjoy reading about food from a more intimate, “plebian” perspective, and have enjoyed blogs in particular for this reason.


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