Pete Wells and The Patty Melt Problem
From inside The Bubble, looking inward.
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. -Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land
Diets will change, whether we like it or not. -Alicia Kennedy, No Meat Required
“I wish I knew how to quit you”
Several times in the past year, I’ve attempted to ditch my New York Times subscription, both for its lies about Gaza and its transphobia (cf. “The Anti-Trans Hate Machine”). Every time, however, the Times offers me a cheaper rate, currently about two dollars per month. That money paid off this week, offering up grist for the mill in the form of an article by Pete Wells: “The Patty Melt Is Tired of Hearing About Your Favorite Burger”.
The piece is a paean to the patty melt; Wells, one of the “patty-melt people,” sings of his love for the sandwich-slash-burger, shares a bit of lore, and surveys some restaurants that serve them. It’s giving “I’m just a [boy], standing in front of a [burger]” vibes: very innocent, very sincere.
What’s the problem, then? Let’s get into it.
More like ice-cap melt, amirite?
Given our ongoing genocide against the Palestinians, I can’t blame you if you’ve been distracted from climate. (Indeed, we live in a time when our only respite from one abyss is to turn and stare into another.) But a reminder, if you need it – last year, like the year prior, left us with new, alarming records. And that’s only climate; don’t forget the biodiversity crisis, the soil crisis, the water-scarcity crisis, and so on. (This is all very grim, I realize; we’ll have a bit of fun at the end, promise.)
A key player in the polycrisis: animal agriculture, particularly beef and dairy. The evidence for this has been so well-established that I won’t recite it here – as I wrote last year, and the year before that: “There’s no way around this: Wealthy countries need to reduce production and consumption.”
Food media, as insular as it can be, is not unaware of the problem; if you work in or adjacent to food, you’re familiar with at least a few of the following: the decision by Epicurious to cut beef; how Alain Ducasse removed red meat from his flagship restaurant; how Eleven Madison Park went vegan; the influence of chef Amanda Cohen on American hospitality; the writing of Alicia Kennedy; the reporting of journalist George Monbiot; the work of food writer Mark Bittman.
How, then, does a long-established food writer, bearing the cultural capital of “food critic” – not to mention, the imprimatur of The New York Times – write about the consumption of beef in such an naive, non-critical manner, while the world heats up around us?
It could be dark money, of course, considering that Big Beef, like Big Oil, works to seed doubt and spread misinformation. Or, it could be The Bubble.
About The Bubble
Last year, I described what I called “The Bubble” in food media, which results from the “manufacture of entertainment and marketing that has the look and feel of journalism or documentary – without the substance or rigor (i.e. reporting).” The Bubble floats above the politics of how we produce, process and prepare food, refracting the world in its prismatic, rainbow-colored light.
Well’s piece on his beloved bread burger, in my view, serves as a model example of this.
I’ll end the rant here by repeating the end of another rant from two years ago: “food media needs to grow up”. Good news is, readers now have plenty of options for substantial, informed food writing by grown-ups: newsletters, online magazines, podcasts, etc. I can only encourage you to direct your attention their way.
Bonus: And now let’s have some fun
Given that Pete Wells makes a living evaluating restaurants on their merits – put another way, making or breaking businesses – let’s do a little “review” of our own, and consider the quality of writing in his patty-melt profile. Our rating system: five stars.
At one point, Wells describes hamburgers as “pillowy, rounded and voluptuous,” which might ring a little strange – but, if you place two burgers side-by-side, I suppose they do kind of look like a set of tits? (Minus one star.) Later, he shares his excitement upon learning that the original patty melts were made with sourdough, exclaiming, “Whoa!” This costs him half a star – for the simple reason that Bill-and-Ted-like exclamations in food writing annoy me.
Elsewhere, our critic notes: “Maybe beef juices won’t run down your arms the way they do when you eat a medium-rare hamburger.” This leaves me wondering whether Wells eats burgers with his fists, or his elbows, maybe? Another star, gone. Likewise, the fact that he describes a “well-lubricated” patty as a necessity costs him another; I don’t want to see the word lubrication associated with anything that I put in my mouth. (To eat, at least.)
I think that’ll do, for it is I, not the patty melt, who is tired. Total rating: one-and-a-half stars. Would not return.
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