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Free Food: Our New National Food Media Column
A new weekly newsletter that brings you the country's biggest restaurant reviews, features, news stories, awards, and other delicious stuff
Free Food is a weekly LO Times column that reports on some of the biggest (and smallest) stories in food from across the country, with a focus on restaurant reviews, features, and op-eds, all from your favorite authors.
Before the pandemic, I started a little tradition that involved listening to live Latin music, drinking strong rum cocktails, and reading lots of good criticism.
This routine occurred on Thursday night. My weekly deadline was a day later, and so I’d have a few hours to unwind after finishing my draft. I’d grab a seat at my local Cuban restaurant, order a tall, grassy mojito, and read as many restaurant reviews, movie reviews, urban design essays, and food features as possible. The goal was to hit the reset button on my brain after spending way too long staring at a computer screen. So instead, I’d stare at another screen — my iPhone’s, and try to find a dose of inspiration from my peers.
Sometimes, I’d tweet about what I was reading. Sometimes, I’d plot a mention (or rebuttal) in a future Sutton column.
And sometimes, I’d just wrestle with all the ideas in my head — about food, politics, criticism, what we’re eating too much or not enough of. And I’d see if I could build on (or tweak) an argument that my counterparts were making — folks like Soleil Ho, A.O. Scott, Brett Martin, Bill Addison, Tejal Rao, Jenny Zhang, Pete Wells, Patricia Escárcega, Marian Bull, Ligaya Mishan, Robert Sietsema, and Hannah Goldfield.
Then, after a while, I’d put down my phone and listen to a jazz musician from Miami making improvisational magic with his flute.
Free Food, a new weekly LO Times newsletter, is an effort to make my routine of grappling with the works of fellow arts and culture journalists (but usually food writers!) a more public endeavor.
This will be a hub for you to read (and read about) some of your favorite writers, alongside those you’re maybe less familiar with. There will be a bit of original reporting and analysis as well. My hope is that you’ll find everything here as delicious and entertaining as it is thoughtful.
Think of this column as a throwback to when food media sites used to regularly round up restaurant critiques from around town. I loved those blog-y snippets, as they fostered introspection and conversation among both writers and readers — while helping lesser-known reviewers (like me, lol!) share a bit of the spotlight with established critics. With that in mind, I’ll do my best to seek out voices that don’t get as much nationwide attention. Please do ping me with recommendations if I’m overlooking anyone!
Free Food, incidentally, will have more of a national focus than other critical roundups — albeit through a NYC lens.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a space where we can reliably find a slew of food reviews from outside of our own cities? We might read critiques of “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer” in any given paper (if that paper still exists), and that’s understandable because we can see those films in any nearby multiplex. But since you can’t eat at a particular restaurant from 1,000 miles away, without travel, we don’t always look for (or know about) what a Bay Area critic might be writing about, say, Mexican panaderías. Free Food will help with that sort of thing.
Free Food will also be longer and more probing than the assorted “what we’re reading” sections at the end of many excellent newsletters.
Sometimes, I’ll tease out the best one-liners from an incisive review. Other times, I’ll (respectfully) push back against the assumptions of fellow critics.
Every now and then, I’ll just find a nice Helen Rosner description of chocolate cake being cut. Like this one: “Watching the slice fall and hit the plate was like witnessing a glacier calve: a slow separation intensifying toward collapse—a visual thunk.”
Or maybe, I’ll occasionally look for a good Cesar Hernandez metaphor, like this one for a tasty coyota. It’s a “filled pastry reminiscent of a flying saucer that’s a cross between a cookie and an empanada — essentially a Mexican Pop-Tart.”
To be clear, I won’t be limiting this column to restaurant reviewing. Some of the sharpest thinking in the larger food space has, for quite some time, been coming from a larger class of reporters, culture critics, feature writers, bloggers, esteemed Substack writers, and others. I want to make sure we are all truly in conversation with one another, rather than putting critics in an exclusive category of their own.
So that’s my plan! I hope you find that Free Food is a useful, curated, critically-leaning compendium of what happens in any given week in food writing. There will also be occasional forays into the larger world of arts, culture, and politics. And let me give a particular shout-out to a few of the columns and newsletters that have inspired this one: The Bloomberg Businessweek Jealousy List, Longreads, The Other Critics by Grub Street, CNN’s Reliable Sources, and Family Meal.
That’s it for now. See you later this week with issue No.1 of Free Food. Try to get some good chomps in before then!
p.s. Don’t worry; we’ll still have a full slate of regular restaurant reviews, best of lists, and other fun material after Labor Day.
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