Takedowns are the Internet’s bread and butter, a mainstay of critical journalism. It’s easy to see why: They make for fun reading with a frisson of righteousness, a feeling that yes, finally, someone is calling bullshit on this. Negative reviews provide the necessary counterbalance to the publicity machinery in place to convince you every movie, album, meal made is superlative, the absolute best thing ever. There is gossipy glee in watching someone take a pin to the PR puffery. They’re also things that people love to quote, to click on, to pass around.
But too often the temptation to deliver a critical lambasting leads to the exact kneejerk hyperbole it is attempting to contradict. All nuance falls down the chasm between rounds of applause and sneers. Take, for example, Joshua David Stein’s review in the New York Observer of Montana’s Trail House, a newly opened restaurant off the Jefferson L stop.
“Montana’s Trail House is a very bad place,” Stein wrote. “Its rottenness is both inherent and cosmetic; it is culinarily insipid and morally insidious … One need not be from Appalachia to object to the fetishization of that impoverished region for the blithe consumption of faux Brooklyn frontiersmen and women.”
This is a review (zero out of five stars) that is meant to incite the populace, to stir moral indignation against the agenda of a restaurant that would dare claim to represent Appalachia. The food is almost an afterthought. Stein devotes only a couple paragraphs to the offerings, and his conclusion is, basically, that it’s OK but not great. Some things are even tasty—try the master fat fried potatoes—but the dishes, even when they are good are “morally hazardous.”
Why? Because Appalachia is traditionally a poor region, Stein writes, and therefore opening a restaurant celebrating its folksiness is an affront. “Appalachia is not rural Shambala or evocative coffee table book source material,” he writes. “It’s not just a place to buy old barns. The misery is human and ongoing.”
What Stein identifies here is undoubtedly a real problem. There is the tendency to treat certain regions and groups of people as if they were figments of the culture’s collective imagination rather than actual humans with real difficulties and struggles. No question that the trappings of rural poverty are currently in vogue. Twine, Mason jars, roughly hewn wooden tables, washboards—things that were once required for subsistence are now lifestyle objects and Pinterest fodder, hand waves towards the idea of a “simpler” way of existence. Nor is this unique to rural areas. Just look at the ongoing struggle to prevent festival goers and magazine covers from using Native American headdresses as adorable props meant to invoke some sort of addled mysticism. Things have weight, meaning, and history. Ignoring where they came from allows us to continue down the road of stereotyping and solipsism. It seems to proclaim that if people are not like us then they are simply the stuff of storybooks, not communities who might take offense.
But Stein’s outrage is also based on a fantastical vision of Appalachia, an other-ing of the people that live there. (The tip off is his repeated use of the term “mountain people,” as if everyone in the corridor is a cartoon lumberjack.) He is guilty of the exact same phenomenon that he’s identifying here. Appalachia is not, as Stein writes, simply “as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak.” Appalachia is vast region, covering several states, populated by many different kinds of people of varying socio-economic conditions. It is not a Walker Evans photo come to life. It is not just a well of continual human suffering. They are not just strip miners and Kentucky hee-haws, and it is unfair to tar the entire place with the brush of “poor, poor, and damned poor.” In the rhetoric of his argument, he also leaves out the experiences of actual people living in Appalachia today, never stops to consider that Appalachian residents might not appreciate his crusade to defend their honor as an impoverished population. His patronizing of the “mountain people” is just as offensive.
Let’s put into context the statistic that Stein cites about Appalachia, that “of the 420 counties that make up the region, 107 are classified as high-poverty.” More than half of New York State’s 62 counties qualify as economically distressed. In fact, according to the New York State Community Action Association, New York has the fourth highest number of individuals living in poverty in the country. Buffalo, New York is America’s third-poorest city. Are Buffalo wings therefore also morally hazardous?
For that matter, should we avoid consuming other cuisines from regions that experience poverty or violence? How about the rash of Brooklyn restaurants selling $18 plates of fried chicken and collards even as Mississippi remains the state with the highest poverty and lowest income? Are they equally bad places? Should we narrow our culinary selection until it only represents regions that we are comfortable with? Should we pass out copies of Of Mice and Men to farm-to-table restaurants? Introducing the “moral hazards” of food is a concept that has much further reaching implications than Stein’s review can support.
This is the problem with mixing identity politics into restaurant reviews. And the problem with cranking the lever of the outrage machine: The inflation of your argument inevitably rips holes along the seams. Montana’s Trail House may not be a very good restaurant (I haven’t been), but hanging the full burden of socio-economic injustice and cultural appropriation on it hardly seems fair. It is an equally reductive agenda as the one he thinks the Trail House has. What is lost, in both cases, is subtlety.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby