Lucky Peach and the Surplus of Food Writing
"Is this really necessary?” I emailed to ask a friend last week. I’m all for David Chang— his pork buns and crack pie would definitely make a personal Last Supper shortlist— but the dude has projects upon projects, four or five restaurants in Manhattan and one he’s developing in Australia, a cookbook and a handful of TV appearances: basically, his name is out there. And (especially when you have a professional interest in it, I’ll admit) the world of food writing can often seem over-saturated. Amateur recipe bloggers and restaurant reviewers jostle against their professional counterparts for pageviews and page space, special interest magazines competing with special interest blogs and sometimes specialized pages on general interest blogs. You have to appreciate the array of voices, but it gets exhausting, and eventually starts to seem like wasted energy: so many small projects where one or two very good ones might actually do just as well.
I had my doubts, but I’m a Chang enthusiast and bibliophile at heart; I’ll take almost any excuse to own something in print. The first issue arrived last week, and lo and behold: it is actually very good, stocked with intricate, interesting design, smart articles, and an all-too-rare sense of humor. It’s not all that surprising when you look at the food world heavyweights Chang’s dialed up out of his contacts list (Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and YSFP Advisory Board member Harold McGee all have pieces in the magazine; Peter Meehan is a co-creator), but it’s probably ultimately more of a matter of subject than those authors per se.
The issue’s focus is on ramen, a long-standing point of culinary obsession in Japan, a subject with a deep background and a wide range. This allows Lucky Peach plenty of room to move without feeling scattershot or haphazard: the magazine ranges through the complexities of a single topic, zooming in and out, so that you end up deeply educated rather than entertained and overwhelmed.
Chang’s dude-bro language can grate a little; his machismo sometimes seems self-conscious and wearing. Luckily, lightness of tone is balanced by the details of the physical product, the sense that someone took care to make it well. In this way it’s reminiscent of Chang’s cooking, which has proven over and over that the humble, simple and sometimes zany can be delicious (and become much beloved) if it’s put together with thoughtful care.
This fall we’ll be bringing a number of food writers to campus to speak as part of our Chewing the Fat series; with the Farm bill up for renewal and activist efforts on the rise, it seems important to discuss how we talk about food, in the media as well as in the political arena. Lucky Peach is a nice reminder that food and its study can be a means of cultural exchange; Chang is a Korean-American who lived in Japan and studied ramen under its masters, and the magazine profiles a New York Jew, an expat restaurateur who makes his noodles with rye flour— and manages to keep native customers coming back for more. Food can be academic, an art and a science as well as meal; the communal table invites shared tastes and shared stories. And when the subject’s as deep— and deeply beloved— as ramen, you get something like the best broth: intense flavors smartly layered, playing off one another, creating something subtle, complex, lingering: nourishing, and good.