Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Food Writers and Popes

There was a food radio program I used to guest on, and I'd drive the host - an imperious authority - absolutely crazy when I'd insist to his call-in listeners that my opinions held no more weight than their's. "But, Jim," he'd interrupt, "you can't deny that you're a food expert!" I'd point out that I'm just a dude who happened to get some gigs writing about a subject which tons of people know a ton about (this was shortly before I proved the point by founding Chowhound).

To him, I was calling into question his own haughty expertise. As he saw it, his relationship with his audience was based on the unshakeable assumption that he chewed and swallowed more knowingly than they. This was, of course, completely ridiculous. What attracted them (and, for that matter, me) to him was his umatched ability to clearly explain and describe. He wrote with warmth and flair, spinning tales of cuisine well beyond the surface level of potatoes and crock pots. But in his mind, he was, above all, an expert, and reigning from above his audience was the basis of simply everything.

And so I, a fellow expert, left him gasping by renouncing my expertise in front of his people. He saw it as a brutal betrayal. For my part, I never understood why he couldn't recognize that elitism isn't a necessary part of a writer's job description, and that he was unnecessarily exhausting himself by flailing to maintain the pretense (as is true of anyone trying to project infallibility).

Meanwhile, we now have a Pope who washes people's feet and displays genuine humility, keying into the simple essence of a priest's job description, which is about loving service rather than weighty grandeur. And I'm figuring the other cardinals must absolutely freaking hate the guy.

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