6 reasons the New York Times story on Atlanta restaurants gave me cultural indigestion

Stop mentioning Scarlett O’Hara. Please.
NYT on Atlanta
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Last week, the New York Times indulged in its periodic scrutiny of Atlanta’s restaurant scene, declaring that a “city that often looked over its shoulder for culinary validation and inspiration is coming into its own.” On one hand, you could say it was nice that our hometown got such space and (measured) praise in America’s paper of record. The headline of the piece was “Atlanta Pulls a Chair to the Table for Culinary Greats,” but after reading it, perhaps a more accurate one would have been “Bless Their Hearts.” I didn’t take issue with the writer’s dining choices; Kim Severson is an accomplished food writer, an Atlanta resident, and a former bureau chief for the Gray Lady. What bothered me, frankly, was the condescending tone.

What do I mean? Let me unpack my objections and arrange them neatly on my veranda.

1. It seems that every New York Times writer filing dispatches from Atlanta is dutybound to mention two things: Traffic and Scarlett O’Hara. In this story, the evidence given for our traffic problem is that the drive to Decatur “can seem too long.” Well, from where? After all, Decatur actually has a MARTA station. But then again, the author never tells us where she’s driving from.

2. Then there’s Scarlett, whose de rigueur appearance is meant to be a stand-in for Atlanta diners who “place appearances ahead of everything else.” As we know, Scarlett didn’t eat the barbeque at Twelve Oaks, and eventually caved in to a raw turnip. If the New York Times has to bring Scarlett into the mix, does that mean it’s okay for me to compare New Yorkers to Jerry Seinfeld (a character who stocked his pantry with nothing more than cold cereal) or, I don’t know, Travis Bickle?

3. And of course, no story about Atlanta would be complete without mentioning—150 years after Appomattox—carpetbaggers. In this case, the carpetbaggers in question are the high-profile national chefs (Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) who opened and then had to close their restaurants here. Atlanta, says chef Guenter Seeger, “is a difficult town for an outsider.” Tell me, chef, how can I explain that to the 2.8 million metro Atlantans born outside Georgia?

4. Our inventive local chefs, “don’t feel the need to prove themselves in bigger ponds.” The home of the world’s busiest airport, sixteen Fortune 500 companies, and two Nobel Prize winners remains a small pond. Isn’t that a bit like hearing your dotty old aunt exclaim year after adult year how you used to love Gorton’s fish sticks when you were little?

5. Empire State South founder Hugh Acheson is quoted as saying that until five years ago, Atlanta “kind of wanted to be Dallas. The really popular restaurants were all valet and neon signs and kind of nightclubby.” Really? I’m not recalling the neon at Holeman & Finch, the Porter, Bocado, or any of a bunch of other restaurants who were around five years ago. Maybe I couldn’t see the neon through the crowds. Acheson also stresses the importance of the “table touch,” which doesn’t sound like something I want when I’m eating dinner.

6. The slide show accompanying the story is titled “Rise Up”—which could be seen as a not-so-subtle reference to the Confederate rallying cry. To be fair, perhaps we’re rising up against squirrel, or Arby’s, or poorly made pimiento cheese. (Dear editors: You will nevertheless be ecstatic to know that my childhood piano teacher once referred to the Civil War as “The Great Disturbance.”)

I admit that my griping might mean I’m just another Southern stereotype—the thin-skinned hick with an inferiority complex. But until those sorry tropes are retired to the back burner where they belong, that’s a risk I’ll have to take. So Gray Lady and Kim Severson, get over it. It’s time to sit at the same table.