Last month, Harper’s commissioned something unusual.

Unusual in the context of our tight-pursed digital world. Less unusual, perhaps, in the heady (nearly bygone?) literary indulgence from which the magazine sprung.

Harper’s, based in New York City, flew a British writer across the Atlantic and, once in The Big Apple, covered her sprawling tab at New York’s most elite restaurants. Then they cut her a cheque—and seeming carte blanche—to fill up their pages with any ensuing adventures.

The piece seemed preordained by the magazine’s weighty masthead to be free-flowing and diaristic, spared the publication’s usual tight oversight.

New York food writers and bloggers generally hated it.

Now true, the whole endeavour was slightly un-Harper’s like. But the diaristic style wasn’t an error or oversight. Nor was the writing bad. It was good. At times, fabulous. So what’s the problem, you ask? Well this very fault line, more and more, is where the gap between between food culture, food writing and the reader is being drawn.

It would be hard to pick four more towering foodie temples to visit: Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Chef’s Table and Masa. It should be noted that Harper’s is neither food publication or news magazine. It doesn’t cover a regular “beat”, much less have a restaurant review section.

Who knows its mandate in 2015? Though broadly-speaking, Harper’s is still about excess: liberal reflection, the pleasure of the text.

…[Per Se] is not a restaurant, although it looks like one. It may even think it is one. It is a cult. It was created in 2004 by Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, in Yountville, California. He is always called Chef Keller, and for some reason when I think of him I imagine him traveling the world and meeting international tennis players. But I do not need to meet him; I am eating inside his head.

Now I’m a long-time follower of people like Keller, a junkie of chef culture and resto innovation through and through. I’m the kind of guy who would waste hard-earned money on these nutty places.

Animal Farm may be a metaphor for the anxieties of those who dine at Through Itself: they are hungry, but only for status; loveless, for what love could there be when a waiter must stand with his feet exactly six inches apart … Through Itself is such a preposterous restaurant, I wonder if a whole civilization has gone mad and it has been sent as an omen to tell us of the end of the world — not in word, as is usual, but in salad.

What’s more, smug, foreign food critics are nothing new to this scene.

Nor am I sure that the human body is meant to digest, at one sitting, many kinds of over-laundered fish and meat…

Yet at every turn of phrase like this from Gold, I only dove in further. The thing is, it didn’t matter what my food sensibilities told me: this was crisp, fantastical, entertaining, and ultimately — like all good satire —based on more than a small grain of truth.

If knee-jerk reactions are to be expected from locals and overwrought foodies, they are worrisome when they come from food writers. Why? Because the stark opposite emerged from another specific group: a global collection of folk that may or may not have cared about famous chefs, or even heard of these places.

I can only unify this mass as readers — the targets, after all, of a magazine article. It would seem that readers’  conception of Gold’s essay was different. They perceived it as writing.

And they’d be justified. Let’s leave aside the premise itself: that the magazine doesn’t even do reviews, that the writer was flown in to a city brimming with food critics for an expository feature.

Readers got it, knew that they — along with 99.9% of the world — knew they’d likely never set foot in these uber-elite places, or even necessarily have the desire to. — and that was the whole point all along.

Readers did not require “disclaimers” of satire or elitism.

Yet things continued to split apart. Both sides soon christened Gold’s piece as “an evisceration.”

Fair enough. Yet thanks to the highly-evolved logic of Twitter, the label just wasn’t reductionist enough. Sure enough, as the narrative changed, Gold’s piece became something slightly more vulgarized: a “takedown.”

The thing with “takedowns,” it seems, is once defined, they require “takedowns of takedowns,” each step further distancing readers from any literary agency of their own.

Only one more reductive t word could possibly be invoked, could possibly paint a starker picture of what’s been going on for years now, a sheer widening gap between “food writing” and essay. It happened:

Now food is no exception. These things happen all the time. Social media dumbs things down, to no one’s surprise, I know…

Yet to me, this particular saga is exemplary for three reasons: the sheer spectacle of it all, the big players of food criticism involved, and the fact that it highlights the tense space opening up between foodies, writers and food writers.

The trend seems to be that dry, cutting, whimsical, food writing should never even edge on brutal or fabulous — it must never go too far off the edge.

It’s ironic that food writing started from the edges, with fantastical, metaphorical essays that touched upon food coming from somewhere else.

One level head reigned. Pete Wells, New York Times critic  himself—tasked with hallmark reviews of these joints over the years—might have captured it best: between diaristic and satirical, Gold was for him not just any writer, she was the foreigner turning heads by flirting at the precipice of food criticism.

All this to say that I learned three things:

  1. We’re drawn to New York misadventures just as we’re drawn to the ire of Parisians: their hunger to take down their own is outweighed only by their ferocity at defending outsiders from doing the same.
  2. Harper’s still exists. I should probably check it out more often.
  3. “Food writers” gotta chill.

Back when I first started raising this drama, someone pointed me an old Harper’s essay. Turns out, in 1996, they paid Neil Foster Wallace to write about the cruise industry.

I read it.

Suffice it to say that if such a thing came out today, cruise line bloggers (if they exist) would dissect it with glee. Industry experts and travel writers would doubtless be next at the gate.

For in the piece, NFW is out of his element — uncomfortably so — and one teeters with him as he lurches along in search of his point. It’s as if his grip on the topic might disintegrate at any moment.

Here’s the thing: it is a glorious and riveting essay.

So if there’s a lesson for us food writers, bloggers and commentators, maybe it’s simply to take a deep breath. If those of us who care most about the topic keep strangling it, food’s life within language won’t fully thrive.

Going to concerts was the definition of my teen-hood. The feeling of complete freedom and chaos that comes with it is something that still tingles in my bones when I think about my concert-going days.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to partake in that all-encompassing feeling as of the late, (besides Fattal Fest) — no thanks to my ongoing studies and serious lack of funds — so when a friend of mine invited me last minute to go see Julian Casablancas + The Voidz (admittedly not a name I’d heard of before), I just couldn’t reject my teen addiction and inner desire to lose total control in a transcendent mosh pit.

It was 8 p.m. by the time we got there, and the venue was pretty empty. Hoping that the venue would fill up, we ordered shots of tequila at the bar and claimed our spot on the floor, left side as usual (must be some weird ritual at this point). Between them, my friends discussed their excitement about the first band to be playing, an NYC punk band called Cerebral Ballzy. Punk bands always get me going so I downed a beer and waited in a semi-tipsy haze for the lights to go down.

Cerebral Ballzy’s act was a little bit off, but it did contain the magical punkiness I was expecting. First of all, the singer (who admitted on stage that he had a cold) seemed to be on some type of heavy sedative. He was wobbling around the stage and his voice was somewhat incomprehensible. From what I could hear, though, their set was pretty good. If I was in a small, tightly-packed venue somewhere in Brooklyn with unisex bathrooms and some bearded guy to my right handing me a joint, I probably would’ve enjoyed myself more. In all goodness, though, their catchy punk tunes made me want to jump around (and the guitarist had some sick headbanging abilities).

The second band that came on, Shabazz Palaces, are described as being an experimental hip-hop band from Seattle. I couldn’t tell if I was listening to African tribal music, Rastafarian rap or some type of dubstep. The two guys on stage stood behind a table that had an array of musical instruments set up, including a djembe, a synthesizer and a strange instrument that looked like a miniscule version of a guitar’s body. The music they produced gave off a trance-like feel with their echoing voices and the deep resonating bass.

When Julian Casablancas finally came on stage, the venue was packed. My friend and I decided to spare ourselves the agony of standing in place any longer and decided to sit upstairs. Julian Casablancas (or, shall I say, Julian Casablancas + The Voidz) is a side project created by Casablancas in 2013. Besides Casablancas, there were five other members on stage and a wide array of different TV sets with static on them.

Casablancas came on stage wearing a jean jacket and light-wash jeans, his hair cut in what looked like a mullet. “He looks like white trailer trash,” my friend said to me, and I had to agree. Decoration aside, Casablancas’ set blew me away. I had never heard his voice before, so I really had no idea what to expect, but for those who have, you know that the static effect on the TVs works quite well with the vocal effect he uses on his voice.

There aren’t many ways to describe Casablancas’ sound, as it is so versatile and his style switches from song to song. A blend of 80s psychedelic rock and indie, finally the crowd was moving in synchronicity. Julian’s uplifting spirit moved me through different eras — the first few songs had more of a 60s feel (the two guitar players sporting old, vintage-style guitars in yellow and blue respectively), bringing me into a wavy, beach-like feel. It was somehow upbeat enough to promote an energetic, letting-go-and-releasing type of vibe that resonated throughout the venue.

As Casablancas had brought a new, dynamic energy to the room, I couldn’t contain myself and soon rushed down to the floor to become one with all the happy, swaying bodies, smiling in unison. I was excited when I saw the guitarists reach for more rock-looking guitars and performed a song I would have to classify as alternative rock. It was heavy, a bit trashy and oh, so good. The people around me were falling to the left, like one big super organism, and my hair was starting to collect little beads of sweat. Casablancas’ static-y vocal effect allowed the crowd to feel caught somewhere between the 80s, the present and future. How he does that, I have no idea. To evoke so many feelings at the same time was exactly what I had been waiting for.

They played two Strokes songs, including “Ize Of The World” and “I’ll Try Anything Once” during the encore. Shabazz Palaces came on stage to play with them during “Father Electricity”, which promoted their already-eccentric sound. All in all, I left content, energized and excited, wishing I had listened to Julian Casablancas + The Voidz long before so I could truly appreciate the show. That 80s vibe never seems to go out of style, and I can’t wait for the next time they come around so I can sport that trailer trash swag and become one with the static-rock flow.

Photos by Bree Rockbrand. Click on the photo to launch the slideshow. 

Julian CasablancasJulian Casablancas

Tonight mega-star M.I.A. will be playing Metropolis. Supporting her performance will be two of the most exciting artists to come out of the New York City music scene in recent years: Le1f and Venus X.

Le1f ‘s rise to fame began with his work producing other hip hop groups such as Das Racist. He released his first solo mixtape, Dark York, in April last year. He has since been getting a lot of attention for being an openly gay rapper, something that, sadly enough, is still not very common. He has collaborated with other boundary-pushing rappers like Mykki Blanco.

His production techniques as well as his lyrics and rapping style are complex and unorthodox. Coupled with a killer sense of personal style and some banging dance moves, Le1f’s talent is unique and refreshing in a genre that continues to be bloated with “gangstas” rapping about “bitches” and money.

“Wut” is the first single released from Dark York.

DJ Venus X started organizing GHE20GOTH1K, underground parties in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side in 2009. She has since played at major events thrown by the likes of Damien Hirst and Terry Richardson.

Venus X thrives on disparate concepts. She has been known to incorporate Al-Jazeera news broadcasts and audio from the Arab Spring into her sets. She has stated that music allows her to be an activist and be political while also making people feel good.

She has a very deep understanding of different kinds of culture and this is reflected in her original approach to music and DJ-ing.

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Le1f and Venus X open for M.I.A. at Metropolis tonight, July 17.