Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Appeal of "Special"

When people think “journalism,” things that may come to mind include “research,” “facts” and maybe even “dry.” Words like these don’t describe the review by Pete Wells in the New York Times article “Like a Kid in a Vegetable Store,” which uses rhetoric in a particular way for a particular reason. It’s artfully varied and feels nearly conversational, which was almost certainly done intentionally. Everything about the review -- from the images and text surrounding it to the restaurant itself -- whispers to each reader something very enticing: special and unique.

Dirt Candy is a small restaurant; hallway-shaped with a row of tables on either side and only 18 seats. This allows for approximately 72 customers (give or take a few) for dinner from 4:00-10:00 (assuming each dinner takes about an hour and a half). Having worked in a medium-sized family restaurant where a Friday night can easily bring in 300, if not 400 customers, 72 seems to me like a very, very small number. In fact, on the Google+ comments about Dirt Candy, at least half of the commenters have said that they had to book their reservation two months in advance. Two months. So what is it about this shoebox of a restaurant that makes people want so badly to eat there?

Looking back to Wells’s review itself, it seemed like the artful variation of the review reflected the artful variation of the food itself at Dirt Candy. In one instance, a hyperbolic simile acts to get the point across that the restaurant focuses on making food that’s new and interesting:
“Ms. Cohen isn’t necessarily out to save a small planet or prevent heart disease. Her goals are possibly more subversive, and she achieves them with vegetable cookery that is original, clever, visually arresting and, above all, a lot of fun to eat.”
He could have said something like: “Ms. Cohen is not trying to make vegetarian food because of healthful reasons; rather because she wants to make food that’s appealing and interesting,” but is that really saying the same thing? I would argue no. Using the hyperbole of saving a planet or preventing heart disease in a simile to contrast Cohen’s goals delivered a completely different tone than did the plain sentence I wrote. It almost felt like an inside joke Wells was trying to have with the readers and that it had to be written this way, or risk losing some degree of the originality and creativity trying to be portrayed of Dirt Candy. Another hyperbolic simile describes the eggplant tiramisu: “[It] sounds like a dare: daring you to try it, daring you to like it.” No one actually said “I dare you to like the eggplant tiramisu,” but this rather extreme perspective on a dessert is another example of how Wells makes Dirt Candy stick out as unique. This is certainly one of the appeals of the restaurant: that it is something different and original, so you want to come spend your money here.

Interestingly though, the review isn’t the only thing on the page trying to entice people to spend their money in a certain place. An ad by Google on the side of the screen showed advertisement for “Tiny Prints Holiday Cards.” I’d just Google searched “Christmas cards” a few days earlier, and this personalized advertisement was catered just to me. It seemed to say “I know what you want, and here it is.” Special, just for me. This idea seemed to reflect on the whole idea behind the review and Dirt Candy in general. Looking at some of the Google+ comments about the restaurant, this reflection was confirmed. A couple of them are as follows:
“fabulous. i have tried many veg restaurants. this is the best by far. very creative. you feel like they are cooking just for you.” 
 “excellent vegetarian fare. really puts vegetables front and center, instead of faux meat. the chef (amanda) personally comes out and explains the dishes to you.”
“Cooking just for you...,” “the chef personally comes out and explains....” Is this the appeal? It’s just one of thousands of restaurants in New York City, yet people are making reservations and waiting two months to eat there. It sort of seems like it’s supposed to be a hidden gem, but everybody knows about it. So again, what is it about this restaurant that makes people want so badly to eat there? It’s special. It’s nearly impossible to get in, you’re only sharing the experience with seventeen other people at a time and the food is unique and interesting.

Main dishes average about $18 dollars per plate and has a “nicely eccentric” wine list, according to the article. We can safely presume that the community Dirt Candy attracts is probably one of people who eat out frequently. Wells uses simile here to describe the target demographic: “Eating at Dirt Candy can be like going to a child’s birthday party in a country where all the children love vegetables.” This provides a solid backdrop for just whom this article and restaurant are trying to attract. He implicitly states that Dirt Candy is for a particular group of people who would be attracted to or at least interested by a restaurant like this and who enjoy a more modern-feeling environment with modern (vegetarian) cuisine. If they’re willing to wait for months to eat at a tucked away, vegetarian restaurant with “eccentric” food and wine, it’s probable that they’re not people who decided on a whim to go out to dinner for once. Yet the demographic The New York Times sells its articles to has a median household income of only about $74,000 (,
which doesn’t seem like a very high income for people who eat out regularly at places like Dirt Candy. This information definitely raises questions about both the motive or object of Wells’s review and of the people who eat there. Knowing that many of the people reading his review in the Dining and Wine section don’t have tons of money to spend on eating just anywhere, Wells had to do even more to entice his readers, which definitely contributed to the creativity and nearly literary quality of his review and provides further explanation on why he had to make each reader feel as though his review, and the restaurant itself, was made just for them. For the target community, his text seems to function well to meet these needs.

It’s possible that a big part of the attraction isn’t just that customers feel special while they’re there, but after leaving they feel that they have this elite experience to carry around on a silver platter: “Where’d you go for dinner last night?” “Dirt Candy, the unique and innovative vegetarian restaurant with only eighteen seats and exotic dishes like smoked scallions and chives, and mascarpone whipped with grilled eggplant.” This Google+ comment gives off an air of eliteness that supports this possibility: “The place is small but welcoming, and the food provokes some degree of thought.” Under the assumption that most people don’t generally consider food to be “thought provoking,” it seems like the commenter thought highly of him or herself as a culinary critic. While he or she very well may be knowledgeable in vegetarian cuisine, this definitely seems like a regional cultural difference.

As a midwesterner born and raised, places like Dirt Candy are very few and very far between and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s not likely that the people who eat there intentionally leave with their noses in the air, but this theme of special seems petty in a place where we don’t have restaurants like this. While Wells’s text functioned well in the context of New Yorkers who eat out frequently at eccentric restaurants, it doesn’t for people in this region. Eating at a certain restaurant just doesn’t seem like something that would give someone prestige. This raises much larger scale questions about regional values and norms. What does earn you credit or distinction in the Midwest, or California, or the South? Why is it that New Yorkers seem to value unique experiences as small as eating at a certain place so much? Do they even value it or have I missed the mark? All of these questions can only be answered in terms of context. In the contexts surrounding Dirt Candy, it’s obvious that, for whatever reason, it’s definitely not just another place to eat.

To see the article, click here.

Chelsea Dolan

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