It’s almost Thanksgiving, which means it’s time for that treasured annual tradition: debating turkey online. It’s a “second-rate bird,” the Atlantic declared in 2013. Bustle, 2014: “Admit it: You don’t even like turkey.” Slate, 2014: “Literally any other meat tastes better.” The Guardian, 2015: “Throw it in the garbage.” GQ, 2016: “unequivocally the very worst part of Thanksgiving.” This year, the debate raged on Twitter: “Turkey is trash” vs. “Actually, turkey is good.” In the upside-down world of online argument, the insouciant and unexpected claim of the moment is once again that the centerpiece of the most famous traditional American meal is … good.
Well, I have a bold claim of my own to make: Hot takes about food are getting stale. Punchy food writing can be a glorious thing, of course. But there’s an air of manic hollowness to the genre lately. On Halloween, a writer for Esquire proclaimed Reese’s peanut butter cups to be “gross” and “the worst.” Candy corn? “DELICIOUS” or “:garbage can emoji:” depending on who you ask. The more famous the foodstuff, the more ripe for a takedown. “Fuck ketchup,” declares Vice.
I detect a kind of desperation here to recapture some of the low-stakes zing of the pre-2016 internet. Only a few years ago, we could spend days—days!—in faux outrage over a weird guacamole recipe. And obviously, people still love to argue about food even as the republic crumbles around them. That’s why when a team of YouTube pranksters was trying to conjure a viral hoax last month, they got a Justin Bieber look-a-like to eat a burrito strangely on a park bench. They chose a mild “food crime” because “we were trying to think of something that would offend the Internet,” one of the pranksters explained. It worked.
There are subtly different styles of argument within this genre: X is overrated, Y isn’t as healthy as you think, the common way of preparing Z is suboptimal. There are kernels of insight in many of these pieces, and I’m obviously not dismissing the idea of thinking seriously about food, or the pleasure of a well-done hot culinary take. When New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells declared last spring that the ice cream sundae “must be stopped,” for example, that piece was really a broader meditation on restaurant culture and nostalgia. And a recent Slate piece about why Red Delicious apples “suck” was also a critique of 20th-century agriculture trends!
Maybe grandiose food arguments have become even more essential in our grimly polarized era. We can debate whether a hot dog is a sandwich without feeling like the opposition is ruining America, or simply distract ourselves as wildfires rage and sea levels rise. Fine! At their lamest, however, these pieces are thin gruel, nothing more than a description of the writer’s own taste buds masquerading as a moral jeremiad. As a writer, I can sympathize with the leap from the personal to the prescriptive. “I don’t like Reese’s peanut butter cups” is a Tumblr post; “Reese’s peanut butter cups are gross” is an Esquire essay. In the end, however, we’re never going to answer the question of whether turkey tastes good. It’s a question that can only really be answered inside your own mouth.