When it Comes to Writing, Define Your Terms

Photo credit: Kevin Rawlings

There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.
~~ M. F. K. Fisher

With every story ever told, there’s usually a beginning, at least in an ideal world. The reader progresses toward a soft plump middle, where the real action occurs, like a jelly doughnut harboring cherry filling.

And, if the author is a considerate sort, the ending makes sense, too, recalling the finale of any satisfying meal.

That’s the definition of writing, as we tend to view it. At least in this part of the world.

Beginning. Middle. End.

Simple, cut and dried, logical, chronological, memorable.

After all, how else would stories make sense?

But trying to define writing about food, that’s another thing altogether.

By now, I am sure everyone, or nearly everyone, recalls Ruth Reichl’s indignation at being termed a “food writer.” *

“I find food writer a pejorative term. I’m a writer. I don’t only write about food. It’s like saying woman artist. You’re either an artist or you’re not. I would hope that anybody who writes about food is a good writer, and that’s the important part.

One of the real problems with food writing is there are so many people who aren’t writers, they think the topic is so interesting in itself it doesn’t matter if you’re not a great writer.

I have never wanted anyone to call me a food writer. I have taken food as my subject as a long time but hopefully I can write about other things as well.”

I view food writing in much the same way that FAO/WHO determined protein quality/digestibility standards – by one thing**

Food writing, I seriously believe, must be gauged by the work of M. F. K. Fisher.

Now some people will lob a shoe at the screen when they read that, their faces Cabernet-red, their mouths squawking, but I am adamant. I’ve read just about every food literature book that’s come out since Fisher began writing, and I must say that a great deal of today’s food writing just doesn’t measure up.

Most averages around 50%, much like peanuts on the FAO protein scale.

So why M. F. K. Fisher?

Adam Gopnik believes that there are two schools of food writing: the mock epic/comic and the mystical microcosmic.

“The mystical microcosmic, of which Elizabeth David and M. F. K. Fisher are the masters, is essentially poetic, and turns every remembered recipe into a meditation on hunger and the transience of its fulfillment.”***

And this is the type of food writing I’m after, the stuff that’s rarer than a passenger pigeon these days. It used to be you had M. F. and Elizabeth and the whole stable of writers at Gourmet, plus a couple of guys named Joseph Wechsberg and Ludwig Bemelmans. But even those last two sort of veered off into Gopnik’s definition, the mock epic style, “Hey, I’m really a serious writer, but I’m spending some comic downtime writing about food because I need to make a buck.”

I suspect it’s that comic element that throws off Ruth Reichl, the cutesy titles, the phantom tie to the women’s pages of newspapers of not so long ago.

All great writing pulsates in my memory long after I turn the last page or click the last click on my e-reader. All memorable writing sings of the universal, of our common humanity. And that is why, for me, the prototype of immortal writing about food lies in the words of M. F. K. Fisher.

She grasps the connection between eating and life in all its messiness and all its headiness. And that is where much food writing falls short now. For, while making a recipe will feed my body, I likely will not recall the words. The act of reading evokes no emotion other than, “Oh, good, I can throw this together in five minutes and play a couple of games while it cooks.”

My soul remains untouched.

With Fisher’s work, I enter into state of being that reminds me to slow down,  to savor her words and everything else in life.

Photo credit: Niko Nyman


* Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet magazine who presided over the demise of that publication, wrote several well-received food-centric memoirs (Tender at the Bone, etc.).  The quote comes from an interview with Dianne Jacob.

**1.0 signifies the highest quality while 0.0 obviously the worst. In this case, casein, or the protein found in milk, supplies the best protein in terms of digestibility, with a score of 1.0. (Egg white, soy protein, and whey also score 1.0, but follow casein on the list.)

***”Dining Out: The Food Critic at Table,” The New Yorker (April 4, 2005). There are actually several schools and types of food writing and we will scrutinize them later.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen


  • I love this article. It really encapsulates how I think of writing and particularly food writing. MKF Fisher is one of my favourite writers – food or not! Her tale of travelling on a Dutch freighter is a magic story of derring do in an age when women didn’t always have the opportunity to be so bold. Her comments on eating brawn – when you dine on brawn, you dine alone – make me laugh and resonate in my life even now!

    And by the way, I adore Jane Grigson, of whom Julian Barnes said “Her authorial mode is that of a very well-informed friend who has confidence in your ability at the stove. She is historical, anecdotal, personal where it is relevant – recalling, for instance, her grandmother’s belief that peeled cucumbers were great provokers of wind – but mainly she subsumes herself into her subject. She is scholarly without being dry, generous without being subservient.” Actually he said a lot more about her, so check it out!

    Apologies if I am going on a bit, but I have been thinking recently about what makes a really good food writer. My conclusions are that no only should you be able to write, your writing has in some ways to be more evocative as you have to capture all the senses too.; In fact, food writing may actually be harder than other forms of writing. OK, maybe just me then!

    But I do love humour in my reading too. So while Nigel Slater may be one of my favourite food writers, I get such a kick out of Calvin Trillin – he makes me smile for weeks!


    • Hello Rachel, sorry to be getting back to you so late. I loved your comments – all true about MFK. And Jane Grigson, another one of my favorite food writers, not as famous as MFK or Elizabeth David, unfortunately. You’re right, writing about food can be difficult, because we lack specific vocabulary to describe taste in many meaningful ways. I look forward to more of your comments.


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