Thank you for your call to arms regarding Frank’s blog post “Out of Season,” but let me warn you ahead of time that in this case I see no need to call Frank a boob, or his behavior buffoonish, rather in this case I find I may be of assistance in translating Frank. I see why this post is confusing; since he is one of the key food writers at The New York Times and since Frank primarily writes about food you should be safe assuming he has a basic understanding of food and the verbiage regarding it. But you must realize that he writes for the Dining & Wine part of the Style section.
So, sadly our assumptions have made posteriors of us. Frank’s reviews are quintessentially about current style and the way it makes him feel. Think of Jack from Will & Grace, there is no need for accuracy or comprehension on his part as long as at the end you understand whether Frank and his cohorts were shown a good time or not. Food has the smallest amount to do with it, which is fine as long as we keep in mind that this section is called Dining & Wine, not Food & Wine. Frank says as much in his recent Le Cirque review. If you read what he wrote, it is clearly not a two-star place, but since he was the restaurant reviewer for the Times and the restaurant’s behavior around him changed accordingly each time they figured it out, it gets two stars because, “On the right night, for the right diner, it can muster a magnificent performance.” Frank neither reports as an everyman, nor bases reviews on his perceptions of the food, unless two stars means one good dish for every bad -- “It does a superb foie gras terrine, a sorry risotto Milanese. Its ethereal Dover sole meunière makes you believe that this fish was put into the seas to await its appointment with butter and lemon. Its drab lobster salad makes you question the crustacean’s gastronomic calling” -- rather than the published definition “Very good.”
Trust me and take for granted that Frank cares little and knows less about food, and that it is not germane to his position. If you want to read about food in the Times read Fabricant, or Pollan, or the other writers learning and living as they go through the process. When Michael Pollan wants to write about GMO potatoes he gets some and grows them in his home garden and it is in the Times Magazine; when Frank wants to do some investigative journalism he pops in the car for a road trip to Atlantic City or a tour of burger outlets in America, and it is in the Style Section. It is probably all best summed up when you wrap your head around the fact that on the third day of Diner’s Journal, Frank’s blog, he used his new freedom in this interactive forum to let us all know how good Hooters really is.
In the case of your referenced entry in Frank’s blog “Out of Season” I see where you might get confused, because in three simple steps Frank moves from his declared topic to talking about something almost like his declared topic:
First step: “If there’s an adjective that appears more often than any other in the press releases I get, it’s “seasonal.” Here Frank is establishing what trend he will be addressing, which is why it is his purview and not that of a food writer.
Second step: “Chef X is reaping the seasonal fruits of the Greenmarket. Chef Y is doing a seasonal menu. Chef Z is cooking dishes that use only the freshest seasonal ingredients. All are proclaimed deities of seasonality. The betting seems to be that this religion plays especially well with discriminating diners.” Here Frank is letting us know that it can be very pesky writing about food trends for the paper of record, especially when the kids not currently deemed hip are vying for your attention, the woes of being the popular kid with final say on who is in or out. He hints that if it is your job to promote restaurants you should be careful how much you pester Frank because you, too, may receive misguided wrath in the future. If he has just had a bad science class, or feels yucky about the way he looks that day, you may just get branded un-cool while Frank lives out his lifelong dream of being a Heather. More than anything else, though, he separates himself from those that are “discriminating.”
Third step: “And then there were the menu items whose heaviness seemed at odds with these long, steamy, sticky days: grilled German sausages; pieces of toast slathered with smooth chicken liver; a hanger steak with not only a rectangle of concentrated marrow atop it but also, on the side, a creamy horseradish dip and a potato gratin.” Here Frank’s emotions take over his accuracy: he is not discussing seasonal ingredients, he is discussing seasonal fare.
You see sausages have no season and neither do chicken livers or beef. As far as horseradish, it is one of the last things harvested in late fall and is cherished for its preserve-ability and use throughout the year. As for potatoes and milk (for the gratin) a short trip to the greenmarket will let you know if they are currently seasonal (they are).
You see what Frank means by “eating out of season” is eating un-seasonal fare rather than un-seasonal ingredients. Sure he starts you off by talking about the greenmarket and that is confusing, but if you put young Jack from Will & Grace back in your head you will see what he means is he is being naughty and eating hearty winter-type foods in the summer.
Of course what the chefs and the publicists that keep sending Frank all the news are suggesting is that seasonal food in season tastes better, and they are right. Because Frank has taken a contrary tone you are thinking Frank is suggesting tomatoes taste good in January. (That’s not what he means look at his rave reviews of these out of season meals: “Those sausages were flabby, and dull in flavor” and “Most of it was satisfying in its way — no doubt about that”). What Frank is suggesting is that because there are foods that fare well through the non-prolific seasons and we tend to eat them in the winter, he is assuming them out of season in the summer, autumn, or spring, when of course what makes them winter food is that they are not seasonal at all.
I am sure that if the Times thought their customers wanted a guy who could truly evaluate food and its preparation writing about restaurants and their service they would hire one (ahem). But as long as what the consumer wants is the simplicity of stars to decipher what is being written, the writer seems unimportant. As long as they do not encourage tackling topics like estrogens in soy, and keep the focus on whether or not people on an expense account (I have read the position affords low six figures a year) can have fun at said place, Frank seems the best man for the job. Just go to Chinatown Brassiere and see how “a stylish new uniform for General Tso” makes you feel, just keep in mind that while it is “slightly chewy” the important thing to remember is, “with dining as with so much else, knowledge is not always pleasure’s friend.”