c/o Hannah Goldfield

c/o Hannah Goldfield

The Zoom room radiated with tangible anticipation as we waited for our esteemed guest to enter the waiting room. As born and bred New Yorkers, Tables for Two aficionados, and The Wesleyan Argus’ Food editors, it goes without saying that to meet and speak to Hannah Goldfield, food critic at The New Yorker, was a dream come true.

We met Goldfield about a month ago during an event put on by the Shapiro Writing Center that was part of a series called The Critic & Her Publics. Shapiro-Silverberg University Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism Merve Emre (The Critic), a highly admired professor at the University, interviewed Goldfield about her life story, approach to criticism, and overall relationship with food. During the event’s second half, we saw Goldfield in action as she tried various students’ cookies, responding critically to the different flavors and textures. 

While there was some time for Q&A after the cookie testing, we were eager to continue the food writing conversation with Goldfield, and, luckily enough, she graciously agreed to answer a few more of our many questions virtually. 

Goldfield’s entrance into the world of food criticism was not as one might picture it. Goldfield graduated from Columbia University with a concentration in Biological Anthropology, which she said informed her interest in and outlook on the food world in many ways. Her interest in writing originated in her participation in the campus magazine and her voracious reading habits, which she still sustains today. 

Among her inspirations are auteurs such as David Sedaris, from whom she gets her propensity for humor; Calvin Trillin, lauded critic for the New Yorker; and Ruth Reichl, whose food memoirs are canon for most aspiring critics. 

Reading any of Goldfield’s articles, one can see how she artfully integrates the quippy humor and inventive description of her favorite authors. Some examples of such are: “tart barberries glistening like rubies,” “shiny blimp speckled with sesame seeds,” “sauceless white pies that let it sing,” or Merve Emre’s personal favorite: “wontons bobbing like jellyfish, their ruffled bellies stuffed tightly with shrimp, their slippery wrappers trailing like tentacles.” Her illustration of food is filled with alliteration and evocative verbiage; it’s no surprise that she took various poetry classes while at Columbia. These poetry studies inform her ability to avoid cliches, which lies in her specificity of description. After perusing her articles, it’s evident that Goldfield is never boring, always bringing her unique storytelling to her restaurant descriptions. She makes it look easy.  

For the average writer describing food, achieving a Proustian level of finesse is hard. But how might one walk the line between cliche and over-abstraction? 

“I find it really hard to write about food because there are so many ways to say certain things,” Goldfield said. “You run out of words really fast. I often hit a wall with how to describe that particular sensation more than once in the same piece.” 

While Goldfield has had a passion for food all her life and quite a knack for writing about it, she didn’t anticipate a career in food writing. After college, Goldfield worked as a fact-checker at The New Yorker and grew an affinity for the food columns, constantly seizing opportunities to work on those pieces. As luck would have it, one of the staff writers for the food column stepped down, and Goldfield jumped at the chance to claim the spot. 

Goldfield is now a seasoned savant of culinary conversation, but her methodology has changed quite a bit since she first began. Goldfield herself can trace a distinct shift in her approach to criticism.

“When I started writing about restaurants, I aimed to serve the reader,” Goldfield said. “So I was just going to be brutal about whether or not I like this restaurant. And that has shifted over time. There is a time and a place for negative reviews.” 

It was amid the COVID-19 pandemic that she changed her outlook on criticism. With restaurants all over New York shuttering their businesses, the hardships of restaurant ownership became glaringly evident.

“The bottom line is that it’s really hard to run a restaurant,” Goldfield said. “It took me a while to realize there’s never a reason to punch down.”

She also extended this advice to our growing food section, explaining that we (and our writers) should write to serve our audience of other students, pointing them to places we love and explaining why one type of restaurant may be more fitting than another. Comparing and contrasting locales might be a better way to approach one’s writing than just trying to be a harsh critic. 

In Goldfield’s opinion, harsh criticism should only be reserved for “big fussy” restaurants that spend gargantuan amounts of investor dollars on publicity. These restaurants tend to be pricier, and Goldfield believes that it is her job to alert the public whether or not these locales are living up to their proposed hype.

Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, much has changed since Goldfield started writing Tables for Two. Food writing and journalism have ballooned as a career or interest for many young people, ourselves included. The industry has become increasingly digitized, relying on videos and short-form content instead of traditional food essays or articles. Goldfield acknowledges that for today’s aspiring critics, their career paths will not mimic her own, especially in an age where social media has transformed the food media landscape. 

“I think it’s just where things happen now,” Goldfield said. “Social media is absolutely integral to my work. Instagram, to me, is a research tool. That is how people promote things in the restaurant world. It’s how I’ve made connections with people in the industry. It’s often how I reach out to a source.”

Food writing, as Goldfield herself acknowledges, is no longer defined simply by writing.

“Food is such a visual and tactile medium,” Goldfield said. “It really lends itself to photography and video. It does feel like you at least have to be aware and fluent in those things and be willing to participate with them.”

These other media haven’t always defined her work, but Goldfield has a positive attitude about how the food writing landscape is changing. 

“Tables for Two is a thing that is very beloved for print readers,” Goldfield explained. “In terms of traffic on the website, it was not the most popular thing. People want different things when they are reading online.”

After reading one of her most recent articles, “My Favorite Restaurants in New York City,” it became clear that Goldfield has artfully adapted her voice and style to serve a new, faster-paced online environment. This specific angle of the food media was especially interesting to us regarding our section, since we recently had the idea to create a spreadsheet for students to fill with their opinions about local restaurants, almost like a Wesleyan Yelp. We’ll shamelessly plug ourselves and encourage our readership to fill it out

After recently announcing she would step down from her position as the Tables for Two columnist, we were curious what was next for Goldfield. While a memoir is not off the table, Goldfield admits she doesn’t have much of an impulse to write one, at least not in the next 20 years. However, she would consider writing a book of reported essays not necessarily confined to the formalities of restaurant criticism.

Another pursuit Goldfield is currently engaged with is reviewing cookbooks, which she believes to be the emerging pearls of publication as they become increasingly grounded in narrative and rich biographical stories. To review a cookbook, Goldfield treats it like a hybridized book and restaurant critique, attempting to share how she engages with the text. The narrative portions are equally important to the actual experience of cooking the recipes, which she does for her friends and family whenever she has the time. 

We look forward to seeing how Goldfield and her sharp prose continue to evolve in the next stages of her career. We are thankful for her help setting the table so our food section can continue to whip up worthwhile engagement and serve a dynamic array of ravishing recipes, saucy stories, and fond fables.

Gemmarosa Ryan can be reached at gryan@wesleyan.edu.

Lewis Woloch can be reached at lwoloch@wesleyan.edu.