‘I Am the Cabbage Writer’

Hannah Goldfield, interviewed by Merve Emre
Photograph of Hannah Goldfield in a red-orange turtleneck

Hannah Goldfield

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

In the first two episodes of The Critic and Her Publics, we asked our guest critics to address, respectively, a feminist manifesto and a Russian poem with two contrasting translations. In this episode, our object is something different—food—and there are few people better positioned to illuminate the subject than Hannah Goldfield, a food critic at The New Yorker who for many years wrote their beloved “Tables for Two” column. I am someone with a frankly pragmatic approach to food: I know I need it so I don’t die. But reading Hannah’s poetic, playful, and sociable column week after week made me want to eat. To commemorate her time writing for “Tables for Two,” she created a list of her twenty favorite restaurants in New York City from among the many that she had reviewed. Here are a few of her descriptions that leapt out at me: “A texturally thrilling stuffed cabbage, filled with sticky rice and oyster and button mushrooms, draped in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce, and finished with crunchy focaccia bread crumbs” (the East Village’s Superiority Burger). “A bowl of clear, fragrant broth dense with wontons bobbing like jellyfish, their ruffled bellies stuffed tightly with shrimp, their slippery wrappers trailing like tentacles” (the decades-old Great NY Noodletown). “The half chicken is brined, cleverly, in dill-pickle juice before it’s roasted” (gertrude’s, in Prospect Heights). “I preferred the testicle, meaty but mild, as supple as sweetbread, nearly spreadable” (Dhamaka, on the Lower East Side). I could go on, but it will only make me, and you, hungry.

Merve Emre: Many of the people in this room are college students. Can you tell us the story of how you got from where they are to where you are? 

Hannah Goldfield: I decided I wanted to be a food critic as a child, which is unusual, although over the last thirty years food has taken a more central place in the broader culture. So maybe now little kids are saying that they want to be food writers when they grow up.

I’ve told this story so many times that I’ve now convinced myself it’s apocryphal, but as I recall, when I was ten my mom, who’s in the audience tonight, took me to see My Best Friend’s Wedding, the romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts. In the first five minutes of the movie, you learn—and then it’s never mentioned again—that Julia Roberts is a restaurant critic. There’s a very dramatic scene of her eating at a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths, and she’s with her editor, and everyone knows she’s there, which I later learned is not realistic. The staff is standing at a little porthole window in the kitchen, watching her take her first bite, and then she pronounces what she thinks of it. She says something ridiculous like, “I’m calling it refined yet playful.”

For whatever reason I was completely captivated and felt like that was my calling, what I must do. I loved food. I’ve always been a voracious eater, and I had decided I was a writer because in third grade I wrote a poem that all the adults in my life told me was good. I was like, “Oh, validation, this is nice.” So, I thought, “Okay, food and writing, I’ll put those two things together, like Julia Roberts, and that’s it.”

A lot of things happened before I became a food writer, but when I was a teenager—I grew up in New Haven—I interned at a now-defunct alt-weekly called The New Haven Advocate. I wrote my first restaurant review of a kosher meat market that sold prepared foods, and they published it as a full page. I got really lucky in that I got to try it. 

This is when you were in high school? 

When I was fifteen. I had the idea very young that I could be a writer. I went to Columbia, and in college I realized that I wasn’t the only person who wanted to write about food. The scent of competition kind of threw me off. I decided I had to focus on other things. I ended up studying evolutionary biology. I kept writing, but I thought, food is not serious enough. Then I was an intern at The New Yorker, and then I became a fact-checker there, which felt very serious. “Tables for Two” was a column shared by a bunch of different staffers, assistants, editors, and writers. I had made it known that I loved food, even though I had backed away from the idea of being a food writer, so someone asked me if I wanted to audition to fill one of those slots. I did, of course. 


How do you audition to become a food writer?

They said, Go write a column. Pick a restaurant that you’re interested in. I picked a restaurant, and I wrote it. It felt like the culmination of my life. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I remember crying when they told me I could write a column, and then they said, Oh yeah, you did a good job. You can keep writing them. It was ecstasy. I wrote one, I was in the roster, and I wrote one every couple of months. They then decided that just three people should write them, so three people shared the column.

I left the magazine to work at The New York Times as an editor for T, the style magazine. Then The New Yorker decided that they wanted to hire a couple writers to really cover food. They’ve always had lots of food writing in the magazine, but there weren’t writers specifically on the food beat. I went back in 2018, I took over “Tables for Two,” and I became the designated restaurant critic, writing a column every week. 

Can you walk us through what going to a restaurant with you is like when you are on assignment? The first thing I’ll point out is that you said that the vision of Julia Roberts eating while the staff is peeking from the kitchen is not realistic, and I assume Ratatouille, my other go-to movie for food criticism, is also not realistic.

That one is probably more realistic. I was doing something that’s a little different than traditional restaurant criticism, insofar as that exists anymore—restaurant criticism is a half-alive art. It’s one of the first jobs to go at newspapers, which is sad. But most major cities still have at least one person doing it, and New York has several.

Usually, a critic is anonymous. I maintained a certain level of anonymity, but I did not wear disguises, as some other critics have. Ruth Reichl, who worked for the Times, and Mimi Sheridan, who was the first woman to be the restaurant critic at the Times, were both known for wearing wigs and sometimes fake noses. I didn’t do that, but I never made reservations under my own name. 

What are some good pseudonyms that you’ve used? 

I have two middle names, and I used those. It’s Grace Born, which sounds very different than Hannah Goldfield. I tried to make sure the restaurant didn’t know I was coming, so that they couldn’t prepare for me. I never really understood what that would mean. The service is probably a lot better, but the idea that they’re saving some special cut of meat or something—I guess they are maybe more careful with the food. I tried to let there be an element of surprise. I also wrote about places where they weren’t looking for critics. 

So you go to the restaurant, and you sit down. No one knows who you are, hopefully. A waiter brings you a menu. How do you read the menu? How do you decide what to order?

I look at the menu before I go, just to get a sense of what’s being offered, which is also how I decide if I want to write about somewhere. Is it interesting? Does it seem like it’s going to be an exciting place to cover?

I never went alone. I always brought at least one other person and tried to order as many things as we could, which was often an absurd scenario, a table covered with an ungodly amount of food. The more people I could bring, the better, which made me a very popular friend. Nothing excites people more than being invited to eat out with a restaurant critic, because you don’t have to pay. Now that I don’t write the column anymore, I have to remember that, no, I can’t order six entrees, because I am paying.

It’s very thrilling to order with abandon. You try to order as many things as possible. You always go to restaurants more than once so that you can try to cover the entire menu, and also so that you can get a better sense of the room and the service. A restaurant is not a fixed thing—it’s going to be different every night. You might have a great experience one night, and a horrible or funny experience the next. I’m trying to capture not only the food, but also the scene.

Sometimes eating out with me meant being ignored while I eavesdropped. My husband in particular bore the brunt of that. I would transcribe furiously the amazing things that someone was saying at the next table. I think a reader wants to know everything about the restaurant. Who eats there? What does it feel like to be there? 


Let’s say the appetizer has come. You take a bite and your friend also takes a bite. Do you have your notebook out, and are you writing as the two of you are eating and talking? How are you taking notes?

I use my phone. I think I just look like I’m rudely texting, which most people are doing anyway. Jonathan Gold, who was a beloved critic for the LA Weekly and then the LA Times, said that taking notes at a restaurant was like taking notes while having sex. I think he has a point. Sometimes you want to relax and make sure you’re actually experiencing the experience, and you’re not too in your head. But when I would have a specific observation, or if someone I was eating with would say something I thought was profound or notable, I would write it down. If a server described a dish in great detail, I would write that down because I want to remember what goes into a dish so that I can include it later. 

How much do you trust the opinions of the people you’re eating with? Do you feel like you have a more refined palate? Is “a more refined palate” even a thing? How much do you understand your own sense of taste and its development? 

It depends on how you define “taste.” More important than whether I like something or don’t like it, or whether someone else likes something or doesn’t like it, is context. If someone doesn’t like something, I’m not going to let that be the final word. And if I don’t like something, I’m not going to let that be the determining factor. I’ll certainly take it into account, but the bigger questions are: Is this dish prepared in the way it’s supposed to be? Do I not like it because I don’t particularly like this flavor? Or is this supposed to taste one way and it clearly tastes another way? There are things that I have eaten that I wouldn’t particularly want to eat again, but if the dish is prepared in the way that it’s supposed to be, and that other people like, and my distaste for it is totally personal—this is the kind of calculation I’m always trying to make—then I’ll still say, “This dish is amazing.”

For example, do I want to eat goat testicle every night? Not particularly. I wouldn’t say I love that dish. It was really amazing at this restaurant called Dhamaka, and I could tell that it had been expertly made. The chef is amazing. Everything else he made was amazing. I enjoyed it. It’s just not a thing I’ve grown up eating. It’s something that I have a little bit of a psychological block about, and I think many people do, although there are many people who ate goat testicles as babies and continue to find it to be their favorite food.

As for what other people are saying, if someone has a really interesting observation about something that’s not necessarily qualitative, I might use that. Often someone else will pick out a flavor that I noticed but didn’t identify immediately. They’ll be like, “This is cardamom,” and I’ll say, “Thank God you’re here.” 

What I hear you saying—and this is interesting, because I actually think this way about judging novels, too—is that there’s some mingling of intention, pleasure, and appreciation for expertise or for technique. I’m wondering how you match sensation to a vocabulary for describing it. As I was reading through your twenty favorite restaurants, I kept admiring all the different strategies that you had for giving a sense of what the food is like to people who aren’t able to eat it. How have you developed your vocabulary or lexicon? How do you find the right words, the right similes or analogies?

That’s a great question, and one I don’t know that I can answer because it feels very instinctual to me. I studied poetry. That definitely honed my ability to describe things. I’m trying to make it tangible, and colorful, and beautiful, but I don’t know exactly how I do it.

When you said something was “brined cleverly,” that was interesting to me because I thought, What does it mean to brine something cleverly? Yet it gives me a feeling for the taste without telling me exactly what it is. How did you pick that? 

I said it was brined in pickle juice, right? 

Yes, “cleverly, in pickle juice.” 

I thought it was clever to brine. That restaurant is called gertrude’s, a neighborhood bistro. There are lots of things anybody would recognize, like roast chicken, on the menu. The chef is Jewish, and he put all these old-world Jewish twists into the food. You can brine chicken in many ways. It’s really just salt. You can dry brine it with salt, or you can brine it in salt water. Pickles hold a real place of pride in Ashkenazi, and all, Jewish cuisine. I thought it was this amazing little twist to brine the chicken in pickle juice and give it some distinction from other roast chickens.

The cleverness is a judgment of the way history or culture is being brought to bear on the preparation of the food. Are there other memorable descriptions, or ones you really worked on or struggled over that are coming to your mind right now?

It’s so hard, because I did this every week for five years. The “wontons like jellyfish”—it’s funny, I don’t remember writing that, but as you said it, I was like, “That’s pretty funny, I like that!” That’s not one that I struggled over. The easy part is when something emerges. I sometimes struggle to find those descriptions, and when they don’t come to me, I figure out some other way to write about things.

I remember eating this lasagna. I think it was an artichoke lasagna. And it looked like petticoats to me. This is when I take notes—I remember thinking while I was eating it, that’s what this looks like, and I wrote that down. Whenever I have a really vivid metaphor or simile it usually just appears in my mind.

You mentioned earlier about how studying and reading poetry was the way that you honed this metaphorical imagination of yours. It also occurs to me that one way to hone a technical appreciation for anything is by doing it. Do you bake? Do you cook?

Yeah, I love to cook and bake. I consider those two things, writing about food and cooking, separate for some reason, although I don’t know why. I’m an eater first and a cook second. I love to be around food. I love to eat it and touch it.

I’m just imagining you slapping the lasagna trying to get a feel for it.

No, but at the farmer’s market I have to touch every apple before I decide that I’ve landed on the right one. And cooking is such a tactile experience. But I’ve been writing about food longer than I’ve been cooking, so somehow, they hold separate spaces.

I have a student who has written a brilliant piece about cabbage. One direction that the piece goes in is how cabbage is sourced: where it comes from, who works to produce it. How much do these political questions about the labor of food production and preparation play into what you do?

That’s an interesting question. Traditionally it has not played into food journalism and restaurant criticism in particular. I think that as the world has changed, even in the past five years, that’s been a question I’ve heard more and more. It hasn’t played a huge part in the criticism that I’ve done, writing capsule reviews about the experience of being in the restaurant.

I fully believe that food is politics, which is a thing that people say a lot, especially right now. There are other writers who have certainly focused on that, and I’m interested in the idea of trying to meld those two things. Politics are often painful, and then you have this writing whose main purpose is for it to be pleasurable to read. Of course the problem is that you can’t have one without the other.

What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten, and what is the most disgusting thing?

Oh, God, best is so hard. I’ve eaten so many amazing things. I’ll start with the most disgusting. The thing that I can think of, at least semi-recently, that really repulsed me was calf’s liver. This is nothing against the restaurant. I think they actually prepared it as it’s meant to be prepared. It’s a restaurant in the theater district called Joe Allen, which is an old-school pre- and post-theater restaurant. It’s very midcentury. It seemed like the thing to get there, such a 1950s dish. It was liver and onions, and I just hated it. Hated it so much it made me angry—not at the restaurant, but at eating something that is not pleasurable.

Two years ago, on Bloomsday, I was in Dublin and I ordered kidney and liver, and it was absolutely disgusting. I went to the bathroom and then came back, and a critic who shall not be named had eaten all of it off my plate. I thought, well, it’s for some people and not for others.

I should say, I really like chicken liver. So, I thought maybe I would like calf’s liver. But for some reason, it just really did not do it for me. The most delicious thing…

Or the most memorable meal?

I’ve only been to Paris once. I was eighteen. I had a really memorable meal at this tiny restaurant, which has become this mythical place. It was run by a couple. She was this very glamorous woman, the front of house, and her husband was the chef. I think they were in their sixties or seventies. It was called Table du Michel. It does not exist anymore, but I still have a matchbook from it. The food was definitely exceptional, but I also felt very adult for the first time in my life. I was in Paris. I remember having osso buco for the first time, and escargot. I’ve eaten so much good food since then, but it’s always held a place in my heart.

Can I have our bakers come up to the audience microphone to introduce their wares? I think I will start, if that’s okay, and say that last night my children and I made potato-chip-chocolate-chip cookies. The best part of it was watching my kids crush the potato chips. We also realized that we do not have a mixer, so my husband had to do the whisking by hand. And then he wanted a cookie and tried to explain that he had done the whisking, and everyone was like, “No, get out.” So maybe you guys could save a cookie for him. First up is Maya, my cabbage writer.

Maya: I am the cabbage writer. My name is Maya and I have celiac disease so I’ve baked you our family chocolate-chip-cookie recipe. They’re called “big fat chewy chocolate chip cookies,” but I have downsized them for the purposes of this event. When we make them at home, we make them literally the size of our heads. It’s very fun. The recipe exists on half a sheet of paper. The instructions are like, “whisk,” and then it just lists the ingredients. I’m excited for you to try it.

Myra: Hi, I’m Myra. I made ginger molasses cookies. They’re from Sohla El-Waylly’s recipe in The New York Times. They use fresh ginger and ground ginger, and they take a bit of time to make, but they’re really worth it.

Sabrina: Hello, I’m Sabrina. I made two cookies because I couldn’t decide which to make. I don’t know if you knew City Bakery before it closed down? The first is my attempt at recreating their brown butter coconut cookie with a mix of red fife, spelt, and all-purpose flour. The red fife I got recently and was very excited about. It helps add a nuttiness. And I also made an olive oil, rosemary, chocolate-chunk shortbread, which is vegan and very good. It has salt and coconut sugar on top.

Arla: Hi, I’m Arla. I’m here in place of my housemate, Kyla, who is the actual baker of the snickerdoodle cookies that I have brought here today. The recipe shall remain a mystery, because it is only in Kyla’s mind, and I am not Kyla, so I do not have the recipe for you. I will say that I heard that the melting of the butter was a very laborious process. I can also tell that a lot of bowls were used because I was there to do the cleaning up. That was my contribution. Again, I have no stake in this, so you can be as critical as you like.

Hannah, I will share your platter with you. Where do we begin?

I’ve never done this before. I’ve never reviewed cookies in front of a crowd. I’ll pretend like this is a cookie platter at a restaurant. I’m just going to dive in. This is ginger molasses.

If you have a ginger molasses cookie, please eat it.

It’s great. It’s—

Are you about to say “moist”?

It is a little moist. The first thing that I noticed was the flavor of butter, which is prominent in a nice way. There’s a bit of nuttiness to it, and it’s hard to say that it tastes creamy because creamy is a mouthfeel texture, but I got a flavor that I associate with creaminess. Then the ginger actually is really strong, but it comes later, which is something I think about a lot when I’m writing, because I think that’s a fun way to describe food. What flavor do you get first and what comes after?

I think this is a great example of what you could call a kick. There’s a kick at the end. You get the kick of spice, and it’s quite spicy. It’s quite gingery, but I really didn’t taste that until the butter flavor and the sweetness had faded away. So it’s this little journey, really. Well done.

Can you describe which one this is?

This is the coconut, I believe. Coconut brown butter. I have to say, this is the cookie that is most visually appealing to me, which is important, too. What I like about this visually is that it’s craggy. Maybe I like it because I could write about it more easily. But it has real texture. It looks like it’s crunchy. It’s really nicely browned on top, which is just an appealing thing. And then I also love coconut.

Everyone eat the coconut. It’s really good.

This is a cookie that tastes as good as it looks, which is not always true, but this is really nice. I like the textural diversity. It’s soft. It’s crunchy. It’s chewy.

It’s a little salty.

The saltiness. The coconut.

What is left? There’s salt. I got a flavor. It’s good, but there’s something else other than coconut. What am I getting?

You’re probably getting the brown butter. You can feel the butter.

How can you feel the butter?

Well, I don’t want to use the word “greasy.” I would never use the word “greasy” when writing. I would think for a while about how to say that in a nicer way. Because it’s nice. There’s a sheen on the bottom, especially. You don’t feel it on your fingers?

No, I feel it on my fingers. I really like chewing this cookie. There’s something very satisfying about chewing this cookie.

Yeah, I can’t stop eating it. That’s good.

Thank you, Sabrina. All right, everyone who has their gluten-free cookies, go ahead and eat your gluten-free cookies. I can’t tell that there’s no gluten in it. I would never know.

What did you use instead of wheat flour?

Maya: These days, you can find all-purpose one-to-one flour.

Like Bob’s Red Mill, or—

Maya: Personally, I’m a big fan of Cup4Cup, so that’s what we used.

I would say this is a very straightforward chocolate chip cookie. There’s a little bit of—I wonder what they use, because I got a little bit of nuttiness, which I’m guessing is from the flour.

I’m amazed how you can reverse engineer how it was made from what it tastes like, which is maybe a totally obvious thing for you to do. But for me, it’s not intuitive at all. I’m really admiring the way that you’re doing it.

Thank you.

You’re welcome. Should we do the snickerdoodle? We’ll have something a little bit different. The truth is, I’m just trying to get us to the point where nobody eats my terrible cookie, which is way less thought-out than—

So this is yours. It looks really good.

It looks good, but it’s terrible.

I like that the snickerdoodle has these striations, which I think were probably made with a fork? A wooden fork maybe? Did you see that happen?

Arla: A spatula.

A spatula. That’s a nice visual touch.

Sometimes snickerdoodles are a bit much, and I’m kind of happy this is a slightly subtler snickerdoodle.

I like the texture. I’ve had crunchier snickerdoodles. This one’s on the softer side.

I’m getting something else, like in the back. Do we need to cleanse our palate? I think I’m learning something about myself, doing this eating.

What are you learning?

I have a preference for very mild desserts.

Because so far you’ve liked the milder.

No offense to anybody, I’m very grateful for everyone who did this. But I’m just realizing this about myself.

I think that makes it more comforting in some ways. It’s easy to eat, it doesn’t shock your palate. There’s definitely salt and cinnamon. I don’t think I would have identified something else, but now that you’ve said that I feel like I’ve got to get to the bottom of it.

You’re trying to see what it is. All right, let’s get this terrible thing over with.

I mean, this looks really good to me, and it’s not burnt on the bottom.

It’s a little burnt on the bottom. It’s crunchy.

It’s great.


The potato chips go a long way. Putting potato chips in a cookie is catnip for me, because it provides that textural element and the saltiness. I would say it’s a little dry.

It’s a little dry, it’s a lot dry. I was trying to figure this out yesterday because I followed the recipe, set the oven for 350, rotated the pans, and then half of them were burned and half of them were dry. It’s my kids’ fault.

But I love all cookies, I really do.

That’s a really nice way to end. I love all cookies, even this terrible one!

That’s how you feel about books, right?

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