Julia Moskin is a writer of uncommon intelligence and one of our finest food critics. In column after New York Times column, Moskin displays her energetic signature writing style that combines analytical skill with verve, an obvious love of food and a no-nonsense approach to her subject matter. She is even funny at times -- not a quality that many food writers possess in droves. And if memory serves me right, she even managed to make a story about a Jewish-Egyptian cucumber pickler in suburban New Jersey jump from the page a few years back. Which is why I find the recent attacks against Moskin in response to her March 13 column "I Was a Cookbook Ghostwriter" the all the more entertaining. In it, Moskin points out an already obvious fact: that celebrity chefs -- like other busy celebrities -- do not usually write their own cookbooks, but (gasp) use ghostwriters. Well, blow me over. In her piece, Moskin also names names including Rachel Ray, Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, which is what seems to have gotten her into some hot water, as Paltrow and Ray in particular have since denied ever doing any such thing.
To begin with, if we must get down to a one-line nitty-gritty: Why would Moskin make any of this up? Surely, she did not make any friends by unmasking some of the famed chefs that she and others have ghost-written books for in the past. (For the record and for what it is worth, I clearly remember sitting with Moskin more than a decade ago and listening to her describe her many years writing culinary tome after tome that appeared under other people's names.) I am further amazed that much of the reading public is still gullible enough to think that Rachel Ray or Martha Stewart actually sit there and not only write out each recipe, but test it, compose the accompanying text, do the layout...and what else? Do they also think that they physically print the books themselves?
But the funniest and most revealing part of Moskin's piece may well come in the form of the "Comments" section that follows it and the all-out acerbic attacks on one celebrity in particular -- Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, some might say that Paltrow deserves the reaction that she is getting for actually lying and claiming that she did indeed write her cookbook all by herself. But it seems that America still cannot come to terms with its childish love-hate relationship with celebrity. Reading some of the comments, Paltrow is accused of being: spoiled, born to wealth, a bad actress and, oh yeah, just plain dumb. That it might come as a surprise to anyone at this point in the game that Paltrow is anything more than a passable actress is, of course, simply remarkable. Paltrow, for better or worse, has become a brand, like Ray and Stewart. And yes, she comes from Hollywood royalty: her dad, Bruce Paltrow, is a major TV and film producer and her mom, Blythe Danner, a fine actress; she attended Spence and NYU, two of the country's elite academic institutions. Where would Paltrow be today if she had been born in Iowa, say, to two potato farmers? Probably nowhere if being somewhere means -- as it seems to increasingly mean in America -- achieving a certain type of superficial public fame and/or wealth. But the same is true of Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, George W. Bush and a larger swathe of the American elite than most are willing or likely to admit. Rather than waste their time attacking Paltrow in print, which is mean-spirited at best, all these people might simply boycott her films, not buy her cookbook (!) and instead support community theater, independent film, or (God forbid) read a tome of fiction in their spare time.
Anyone who is surprised that celebrity chefs are not also Pulitzer Prize-winning writers who pen their own books is one short of slow. The semantics of what constitutes ghostwriting here is besides the point. It seems to me that, if anything, Julia Moskin has done everyone a small favor by exposing a truth about cookbook writing that I would have previously thought self-evident. Now people can put their money where their mouth is if they are so offended by the concept and simply not buy the books anymore. The spookier, uglier truth, I fear, I that much of the American public prefers to live with the ridiculous illusion that celebrity athletes, chefs and actors are truly superhuman, rather than just slightly more gifted people with the power of big ole' nasty corporations behind them -- and a phalanx of editors and ghostwriters thrown in for good measure.
(n.b: If Rachel Ray truly has every word of every cookbook she has ever written in hand written and digital form -- as she claimed in a response to Moskin's piece -- and received no help composing her many fine tomes of mid-level culinary magic, all I can say is: Mazel Tov!)
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