Everyone knew this was coming.
When the San Francisco Chronicle hired restaurant critic Soleil Ho to replace 30-year veteran Michael Bauer, the question wasn’t so much “Does this indicate a sea change?” as much as “Will they be emptying the contents of the Mediterranean and dumping them into the Sea of Tranquility?”
Ho’s insistence on contextualizing restaurants and examining them through the lenses of cultural appropriation, labor exploitation, environmental degradation and the like has its champions and its detractors, but it certainly put her on the map from the very beginning. (It probably didn’t hurt that she started off with a takedown of Chez Panisse that was so thorough Alice Waters had to Marie Kondo her whole life three weeks later.)
“She doesn’t even write about the food!” has been the consistent refrain from the aggrieved, whether they be restaurateurs over a lackluster review or foodie aristos put off by millennial wokeness. Ho definitely does write about the food, but a backlash has probably been simmering for eight months now, and it came to a boil this post-Election Day morning in the form of an “ok boomer” faceplant from Marina Times editor Susan Dyer Reynolds.
Reynolds’ article “Cirque du Soleil” is a cri de coeur against political correctness, and a very tired one, a colander leaking streams of anger over the direction of the wider culture. It’s the pernicious kind, the kind that delegitimizes someone without substantively critiquing their words. It contains lots of adjectives like “rambling” and “tortured,” all without marshaling any evidence that Ho rambles or tortures — because Reynolds’ real point is that having to read about cultural appropriation when you prefer to read about moules frites is torture. Worst of all, it insinuates that Ho’s hiring was strictly a political decision by the Chronicle’s “politically correct management.”
That’s the red line here. You can critique someone’s judgment without also calling into question the legitimacy of a major newspaper hiring a young, queer, woman of color. For too long, the dwindling number of places to write about food have been occupied by white dudes — among them me, and I’m waving bye-bye pretty soon — and major institutional course corrections are urgently needed. Reynolds recognizes that Bauer no longer fit into “the new normal,” but she seems pretty dead-set on inveighing against it herself.
Her point-of-no-return appears to be Ho’s recent dissection of racist anachronism Le Colonial. She juxtaposes a leaden description of salad from Bauer’s prior review with Ho weaving in the perspective of a historian—and a Vietnamese-American with a French name at that. “The rest of the article is devoted to why the restaurant shouldn’t exist,” Reynolds writes. Well — maybe it shouldn’t, just like other ill-conceived Asian restaurants shouldn’t.
But strictly in terms of a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to picking your battles, this is the hill to die on? An orientalist dinosaur with “clumsily plated $36 entrees and nigh-undrinkable $15 cocktails”? The name alone suggests that Le Colonial is woefully out-of-step with the times — but then again Hayes Valley still has a boutique called Plantation so we’re not there yet.
In the section titled “Hypocrite Ho,” Reynolds takes the reviewer to task for not slamming Thomas Keller’s Yountville Mexican restaurant La Calenda. “Cultural Appropriation Done Right” was Ho’s verdict, a headline that would seem to indicate she’s not some rigidly doctrinaire killjoy hellbent on sweeping the world clean of everything she deems slightly problematic. Serving really good food still counts. Would Reynolds honestly prefer a more dogmatic critic? It doesn’t look like it.
But this isn’t putting “Cirque du Soleil” in its proper context, which is an enraged string of tweets from Reynolds this morning. Anyone who bemoans how Christmas comes too early is sure to love a pinned tweet that begins “Ho Ho Ho! The holidays are coming, so I’m taking a break from politics to talk about #politicallycorrect #SoleilHo, the @SFC_FoodHome #woke #foodcritic who never talks about food. She hates #culturalappropriation — unless it’s done right!”
Coal is about as un-PC as it gets these days, but I’d rather Santa Claus bring me a sulfurous lump of anthracite than dump some racist puns down my chimney.
As with Chez Panisse, “woke culture,” however you want to define that [and it would be nice if it wasn’t the thinly veiled anti-Black way most knee-jerk critics of wokeness do—Ed.] isn’t sacred. But just as you should never kiss the poisoned tip of your javelin just before you chuck it, it’s important not to snort your way into a K-hole of righteous outrage that begins to undermine your initial point.
Not content with getting ratioed, Reynolds went on a social-media tear responding to critics of her article, interspersed with opinions about yesterday’s election. She accused a writer who didn’t call her racist of calling her racist, then all but encouraged people to get him fired. She got offended about the presumably classist accusation that she goes to dinner parties in the Presidio an hour after tweeting about how it’s relaxing to hang out with mini horses in Montana.
She leaned on absurd dot-connecting and put forth an odd belief that newspaper advertising is tied to food journalism. There’s the requisite “why-does-everything-have-to-be-about-race-and-by-the-way-my-nonwhite-friend-agrees-with-me” and (of course) some “grow a sense of humor.”
The most surreal tweet involves Reynolds calling someone “clownist” in response to being called a clown, then adding “no seriously” so that we know she’s actually not kidding. (Reynolds’ forebears worked for the circus, apparently. But remember, the title of her piece is a circus pun.)
One thing that Reynolds is absolutely right about is how under-reported the issue of labor exploitation is. As #MeToo engulfed the food universe, taking down Mario Batali and other predators, it seemed as though more commentators would draw connections between sexual harassment and other forms of abuse — like, say, outright stealing employee wages.
But that didn’t really happen. It’s frustrating that the owners of demonstrably malevolent restaurants like Burma Superstar haven’t been banished to the outer darkness with Ken Friedman. As Reynolds observes, the fact that La Taqueria retains its cachet is also pretty glaring. But if anything, that’s the failure of the food writing establishment to be consistent, not evidence that political correctness run amok has ruined everyone’s collective ability to sit down to a nice meal.
Still, nobody who fondly remembers a wonderful anniversary dinner that cost their significant other a lot of money wants to read that some self-anointed tastemaker has decreed the restaurant to be trash. And food writers take a lot of heat, partly because the job inevitably entails yukking other people’s yum like that.
But a self-contradictory grievance-vortex bedazzled with racist jokes is never the right position from which to launch an assault on someone’s right to be in the profession. Ho, ho, ho, the holidays are coming. Maybe take that break, but from the internet.
man!! scorpio season, am I right?
— Soleil Ho (@hooleil) November 6, 2019