When the virus broke out, it did not spare any of the restaurants that the food critic had planned to visit and review. Like everyone else, he had to STAY AT HOME.
The food critic was used to going out several times a week, sometimes by himself, but usually in a group, a rotation of so-called friends who understood his strict protocol: that he had to try every dish that was ordered, no matter how delicious or bland; that they could talk to each other but only engage his attention at certain specified intervals; that they would learn when he was deep in thought or recording all he needed for the week’s review… He had had some real disasters with acquaintances who talked too much or too boisterously, drawing too much attention to him. It was not that he needed to conceal his identity. This might have been the case early on in his career, where he could use his anonymity to his advantage, but there was no point to that now, everyone in the industry knew who he was, knew who he had ruined as a result of his reviews, ruined because he had shown not enough enthusiasm or rather too much enthusiasm, turning a mum-and-dad store into a “Must-Visit Restaurant,” a moniker and a reputation none of these hole-in-the-wall restaurants had wanted, and now a food critic, thinking them he was doing them a favour, had actually destroyed the restaurant, forcing the tiny establishment, which was meant for local families and workers, to accommodate themselves to the insatiable appetites of trendy urbanites and tastemakers.
These aren’t the reasons, the food critic thought to himself, that I am glad I no longer have to review restaurants, that I have been relieved of the responsibility in shaping and mandating middle- and upper-class taste. In truth, I had already wearied of eating so much “Good Food,” became sick of going to restaurants, looking at the menu carefully, perusing the wine and drinks list, and hoping that the waiter would spare me the little marketing spiel he had memorised the night before, which tried to advertise old produce as today’s special. When I first started out, of course, I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of so much free food, I would gorge myself on all the offerings and stuff myself so full that I would feel unwell at night. But even if I wished to lie down and sleep, or rather lay out on my couch, half-comatose, watching TV (since I was incapable of doing anything else), I had to think of something that I could write down for the review, which was due to come out that week. So I would force myself to jot down some notes and try out a few sentences before the night was finished; I could never stay out to drink with friends, but always go back to my apartment and sit down and think what I could write, even if the experience was completely unmemorable and therefore, by the time I had set foot into my apartment, almost erased from memory—or what amounts to the same, mingled with all my recollections of other more or less mediocre “restaurant experiences.”
For example, several months or maybe a year before the so-called lockdown I went to a restaurant that I was assigned to review. While I was waiting for my meal to be cooked, I had the uncanny experience that I had been here before. Had I reviewed this place before (and simply forgotten about it), or had the place changed hands and was, effectively, a new restaurant? When the waiter brought out the sides, mini-servings of tofu and beansprouts and kimchi, nothing was confirmed nor denied; and neither was the matter resolved when I ate the unsalted (though perfectly crisped) fried chicken (the wasabi mayo left much to be desired). As I sunk my teeth into the delicious (but slightly too sweet) short rib, braised in thick, dark sauce which had perhaps been too condensed (maybe it had been sitting on the counter a few minutes too long), matters were no better than they were before; maybe I had never eaten here before, but because the setting was so familiar I felt I must have eaten this food before, although none of the dishes—none of the tastes—prompted any vibration in the net of my memory.
Maybe my senses had already dulled by that time. I’m not sure when it began, this dulling. I had an inkling after that experience in the uncanny restaurant that something was wrong with my tastebuds. I was looking at food and tasting food and writing about it, but these activities seemed to be disconnected. I knew a falafel should be crunchy on the outside and give a warm, parsley-tinged flavour when you bit into it, but my adjectives to describe food, of which I had amassed a whole army, to be trotted out for each and every review, started to have no connection to the food I was eating. At a certain point, I felt that I no longer needed to go to the restaurant to write a review. I had gone to enough restaurants for one or two bourgeois lifetimes, but more pertinently I had reviewed more restaurants than almost anyone else in this country. My reviews had, in a sense, not become just an oeuvre but a genre unto itself.
So the fact that I could not try a new restaurant in my neighbourhood or another borough made no difference to me; I didn’t need to visit a restaurant ever again, I had an enviable repertoire of food descriptors that would please any connoisseur that “ate” my pages; I would not be offering them a purely clichéd meal, like those offered by food bloggers, who thought that writing food reviews and acquiring a discerning and sensitive palate was simply a matter of regurgitating the kind of food prose offered up by food critics hired by newspapers; no, my meal on a page would be a very fine meal, with the finest adjectives and the finest adverbs on offer, accompanied, of course, by a selection of metaphors and similes and other tropes, which would multiply the pleasures of the referent tenfold, making the noun and name of the course, whether appetiser, entree, main, or dessert, aperitif or palate cleanser, a feast of the literal and the figurative, all presented in a decorous and balanced rhetoric.
But my editors did not know that, they did not know that going to the restaurant and eating the food was superfluous, almost an afterthought, or rather that it had become entirely necessary for me to depend on my words, on the linguistic universe (albeit a modest one), to correspond to the food that was presented before me. For it was around that time, a year or so ago, it’s hard to say, that I had started to lose my sense of taste. The first thing I noticed was that my generally keen smell, nurtured and trained like a truffle hog’s, started to lose some of its ability to differentiate between odours and scents, eventually coalescing, if I can put it that way, into a singular or monotonous note. With this loss of smell, of severe reduction in sensitivity, I was finding it difficult to taste what was on the plate, demanding more and more salt, even complaining in reviews that chefs had forgotten to taste their food before serving. I only started to realise that my own receptors of taste were faulty when I ate what was supposed to be a very strongly fermented shrimp paste (in a Filipino stew) and it tasted as bland as the food I ate at home. People often mistakenly think that chefs and food critics cook luxurious and delicious food at home, but nothing could be further from the truth. No, food critics like me, whose palate is treated to some of the most decadent and rich food available in the world, must be careful to cleanse their palates—by which I mean we must cleanse our palates for days. In other words, we must eat bland food, food that does not stimulate but cleanses, that gives the tongue a break from all that gorging, so the tastebuds can detoxify and return to a certain neutrality, by which it can again be receptive to taste. A tongue which is already filled to the brim cannot taste anything, it is already full of taste; yet all the “food” we consume nowadays, which is readily available in our supermarkets and our grocery stores and therefore in our pantries, is manufactured as “tasty,” as full of taste; but such tastiness is disastrous for our taste, because it can only result in the degeneration of taste.
And yet I’m afraid this is what happened to me. I was not careful enough to resist this regime of tastiness, I thought that as a food critic I was inoculated from such tendencies, that by avoiding the world of processed food, or junk food that mimicked this propensity for tastiness, I would avoid the debasement of taste that inevitability ensued. Hence, I swore off anything that would interfere with my being-finely-honed palate, I cleaned my pantry of every last packaged junk, crisps and popcorn and all manner of biscuits, artificially sweetened drinks and soft jellies and lolly drops, anything that might sabotage my tongue and tastebuds, which I had to guard with my life. I always bought the freshest produce I could, always going to the local markets to try whatever produce was in season; and when that wasn’t possible, I purchased great quantities of canned goods from Italy and Portugal, and learnt to pickle all my excess produce from a Norwegian chef. I travelled to the forest regularly, weekly if possible, to forage mushrooms and more importantly to train my nose, which had been constantly sullied by the urban air, the stink of industrialisation. I would run along with the dogs and pigs, smelling the flowers and ferns, wood and leaves, herbs and shrubs—anything that the forest could offer to the nose. Of course, as soon as I came back from the forest to my apartment in the city I would forget everything, I would resume my usual routine of cooking and eating out, which over the years became more and more on the side of eating out, as my reputation began to climb and all the new, fancy restaurants were preparing for my arrival, knowing that a positive review, a review with a single compliment, would put them on the culinary map for good—unlike most restaurants, which close within three years, after the initial excitement had worn off and the usual urbanites went in search for an emerging trend. As more and more restaurants opened and shut, I was obliged to visit this never-ending stream of new restaurants, sometimes going an entire week without eating at home. Our society places a limit on the acceptable number of meals we eat a day, and while many eat more than three meals a day, I was sometimes obliged to eat two or three times that amount, I had to condense two or three days of meals into one. Instead of binging on chips or ice cream, I was binging on restaurant food, I was becoming addicted to butter and cream, sugar and salt, duck fat and lard, wine and cheese, I was addicted to them and ate them in copious quantities, almost doubling my weight during that time.
At this time of my disquieting and grotesque growth, when I refused to look in the mirror and indeed tried to avoid any reflection afforded by glass panes and metallic surfaces, anything which could serve as a mirror (no matter how dim), I started to lose my sense of taste—or rather, food had begun its trajectory toward the tasteless. Thus I relied more and more on my linguistic skills, on my vast database of tastes and descriptions, judgments and colloquialisms, by which I could concoct a decently made review of six-hundred words. At a certain point, I was able to write a review based on a quick perusal of the menu, I didn’t even have to draw on the menu’s florid descriptions, I could supply a far greater, subtle, and delicious read from my store of culinary language. Needless to say, going to the restaurant became a sort of affectation, a superstitious ritual which set into motion the writing of the review, as connected to the words as a shot of espresso or whisky is to the writer who pens a short story.
Anyway, this is my version of what likely happened: I began losing my taste, my ability to taste, and my verbal and linguistic dexterity came to compensate for it, eventually replacing it to quite a considerable degree. My editors—I cycled through a few —they did not say anything, only noting occasionally I should perhaps not be so harsh in certain reviews. So I kept reviewing and kept writing, despite the fact that I was beginning to lose my taste, or that I had already lost it. Otherwise I would not only expose myself as a fraud, as an imposter critic, I would expose the fraudulence of the entire restaurant industry, with its reviewers and critics, who were really like culinary bishops, stamping their imprimaturs on what they deemed worthy of praise and worthy of censure. But that would be unfair, the food critic thought, because what the virus revealed is that there was no need for me to eat at any restaurant, that restaurants, and by extension food, had exhausted my tastebuds, there was no longer any need for eating, just words, that man could live on words alone.
While the food critic was on partial lockdown, forced to stay in his apartment apart from the occasional trip to the grocery store, he started to watch a TV show based on food competitions. The characters on this so-called food anime had all sorts of powers, each increasingly ridiculous with the advent of each season, but the character with the greatest power—or the power on which the plot of the final season hinged—did not seem alien to the food critic at all. The critic thought that he too, like Erina Nakiri, the arrogant schoolgirl, had “The God Tongue,” he too could distinguish the myriad of flavours in any dish, no matter how complex; he could, in his own way, say if too much of this had been added, too little of that had been added; he could determine, furthermore, if the flavour profile was truly unique, or whether it was a minor variation on an old dish, passing itself off as an innovation. Chefs were terrified of the food critic, his reputation so much preceded him that they were willing, more often than not, to defer to his judgment. Yet his blessed, divine tongue, which revelled in ever new tastes (while damning dull and boring food) turned into a curse; like Erina’s mother, the matriarch of the culinary kingdom, he had eaten too much good food, requiring finer and finer tastes, so that food itself had rebelled against him, his tastebuds had negated themselves, the greatest and most decadent of dishes had become ash in his mouth. Perhaps, he thought, like Erina’s mother, who also had “The God Tongue,” he should give up eating altogether, he should put himself on an intravenous drip like her: after all, he was isolated at home and going out was a danger anyway, even a short trip to the grocery store. Yes, I can go more or less permanently on a drip, he thought, and instead of eating food I can simply write about it, I can create dishes that surpass any that I have eaten, surpass the creations of René Redzepi or Magnus Nilsson or any other chef, living or dead, because I am unbounded by the encumbrances of produce and equipment, technique and execution, temperature and time, I am free to make whatever I wish on the page, and my readers—who cannot go out in any case, who are stuck at home like me —can savour my new creations, eating them like a five-course meal, a ten-course degustation, an experience they can look forward to every week, when my reviews are released for public consumption.
But on second thoughts, that would never fly with my editors. Even if they knew I was capable of writing reviews without going to a restaurant, without being able to taste food—for I would have to reveal this is what I had been doing for the last few months, maybe for a year—they would never allow it. I would have broken the unassailable pact that a critic must sup at the place he reviews, otherwise could it really be called a review? But that was, to my mind, simply an outdated prejudice which could not withstand the New World Order, which was not run by a hidden cabal of powerful countries and leaders but by microscopic agents who were parasitic on the chains of globalisation. It would make more sense, the food critic thought, to write about restaurants that didn’t exist, restaurants which, when the authorities bothered to police them and fine them, would already be closed to the public, would not have even left any sign of being open, of being a restaurant at all. Yes, he thought, there’s no need for restaurants and there’s no need for food, and therefore there’s no more need for taste. That was proven by the immense popularity of food TV programs.
I once had the idea, the food critic continued, of commissioning a chef to produce four-star looking food, the chef would make a series of dishes that would, from the photos alone, rival a degustation menu at a four-starred restaurant in New York or its equivalent in Michelin stars, with the exception that it be entirely made of junk. In a museum, the photos would be accompanied by a placard that listed the ingredients (that is, the materials) which, for a painting or a photo, were usually few, but in this case would number in the twenties or thirties, having been made of junk food, thus making the placard almost as large as the photo. But as it turned out a chef had already thought of something similar and executed it, showing the results on his social media feed. As usual, it made the rounds until it was forgotten within a week or so, along with the predictable critique. Yet all that proved was that there no need for such an art project, because the project was enacted millions of times a day on social media, had indeed gone much further than the original idea by offering up an endless supply of “photomeals” that, despite lacking any nutrition value whatsoever, at least cost no calories. And wasn’t this, in the end, the ideal, perfect meal? A meal that anyone could eat (anyone but the blind, I suppose), because it was, by its very nature, gluten-free, nut-free, fat-free, dairy-free, free of artificial flavours and colours, indeed free of food altogether?
But at this the food critic felt a pang of hunger. He had not eaten for days, and the optimally engineered “food” bars he had ordered from the West Coast had not yet arrived. An IV drip was out of the question; it would be impossible to procure one, given the circumstances. He could admit himself into the hospital—he had lost his sense of smell and was feeling dizzy—but unless he started exhibiting more serious symptoms, losing his breath and then being forced onto a ventilator, he would be denied a drip.
The food critic decided it was time to step out of the apartment. The birds outside were making a racket. He had to pick up food at the grocery store, and it would be good to get some fresh air, no matter how contaminated the air might be with droplets. He went to put on his mask, tightening the elastic bands, while restraining his girlfriend’s dog, whom he had been minding—it seemed indefinitely now—and who seemed to be attracted to the smell of the mask. Even the dog is a greater gourmet than me, he thought, I should be the one eating dog food while the dog eats from fine porcelain dinnerware. Indeed, hasn’t it been my goal, he mused, to have tastebuds as refined as a dog’s, even as refined as a pig’s? Aren’t dogs and pigs the true gourmands, the pinnacle of tasters? While all us humans contract the virus and lose all sense of taste, won’t they be the ones who can taste for us, or rather leave us behind and discover new worlds of taste we’ve never experienced, let alone imagined?