I love The New York Times. I read it every day, and can’t imagine a world without its pages. (It took strong counsel from friends smarter than me not sink the little money I have into Times stock. And I considering having a small funeral for The City section when it passed.)
So it was with keen interest that I read a Big Money story last month suggesting that Sam Sifton, the new dining critic, would be an excellent candidate some day to run the greatest paper in the world.
Really? This certainly hadn’t occurred to me when I first read that Sifton would be replacing the departing food writer Frank Bruni. But the article, in Slate.com’s The Big Money, makes an interesting case:
What makes Sifton the man who ought to be considered a future editor of the Times is his ability to attack and explore popular subjects with intellectual rigor. Combine that with an ability to attract readers to stories with compelling headlines, art, and ledes, and you have all the tools necessary for leading the Times into the future on the web. Because out there on the flat, infinite plane of the Web, all stories have an equal opportunity to become the story of the day. The challenge for the Times is not to promote the soft news over the hard but to be able show, when relevant, that what happens in the kitchen (or on the playground or on television) can be just as important as what goes on in Afghanistan.
So it was with no less interest that I began to read Sifton’s first pieces. His debut review was a two-star appraisal of DBGB, the new beer and food joint on the Bowery. OK, fine: He makes the requisite points about the place being near CBGB and how no one cares enough to retaliate by kicking in the glass window. His poise and perspective are pretty much what I’d expect from Bruni, or any other competent Timesman of Sifton’s age, 43. But where’s the whirling swirl of energy and enlightenment that with its keen take on modern culture could lead the paper into the future?
Then I read the second piece — a brief on a restaurant called Cowgirl Seahorse, which he made seem a kind of sparkling revelation — and I began to see the light. You should read the whole thing yourself, but I’ll leave you with this taste:
And so there is on the menu coconut shrimp ($7.95) from Sugar Reef. Sugar Reef was nutso fake Caribbean eating in the ’80s East Village, fun like a fifth-floor walk-up with a pretty girl by your side. The shrimp are weird and wonderful time machines, crunchy and large, not so revelatory in flavor but a pleasant and intense reminder of a neighborhood filled with boys in pegged jeans late to band practice.
If the Times needs to lead the future of newspapers not by breaking news but by being the supreme cultural arbiter and guide, as the Big Money suggests, I guess a good boss would be the guy who wrote that. (Or we’re all screwed. I just reread the piece and am concerned drug-taking may have been involved. Then again, maybe that’s a good thing, too.)
Now several weeks into Sifton’s reign, I’m growing more familiar with his brassy, literate writing. I like it, I really do. But I’m wondering if even good lines like the below — in which he dismisses a mediocre “California” burger called Sunset & Vine at a new Meatpacking joint — will ever guide him towards or away from Keller’s chair.
In this, at least, it’s an accurate depiction. Sunset and Vine? There are four corners: two banks, a Borders and an apartment complex. No there there.
You know where there is there there? Afghanistan. The real durability of Sifton’s pedigree will of course be tested in his first foreign posting, where real newsprint Kings and Queens are made. What’s a good fit for Sifton on the foreign desk? Beijing? Berlin? Bogota?
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