Just Exactly What is Worthwhile About Food Writing?

Toyota pickup

Hot as an oven outside, sweltering with 87% humidity;  if it were any hotter, I might consider baking a loaf of crusty bread inside the hood of my black Toyota pickup truck.

Instead, I lie in my black leather recliner, sipping icy water, contemplating the nasty, brutish, increasingly egotistical business of food media, especially food writing.*

Thinking about food writing in all its permutations, I came up with a lot of old questions, still trying to make sense of this field of literary quest.

My first questions:  What good does it do the world to spend days dreaming up catchy 10-second vignettes that entertain people who, with a click of their wireless mouses/mice, immediately move on? A modern version of bread and circuses, entertaining the bored masses?

My next questions:  What is food history, for example? Why bother with it?

Is it all about asking questions that lead somewhere, like, say, cooking mushrooms, which I am thinking a lot about these days, like “Why do people only cook mushrooms in certain ways?” Are the cooking methods so finite, for any manner of cooking, that those choices limit how people handle certain ingredients? In cultures with strict culinary traditions (think Chinese and French, for example, or even some African dishes), innovation doesn’t occur much. Just what does innovation demand? How did cooks move from one dish to another? What does it take to think outside the box of day-to-day cuisine?

Some of these elements surely contribute to the answer:

  • Leisure
  • Scarcity
  • Hunger
  • Opportunity
  • Ingredients
  • Technology
  • Climate
  • Soil conditions
  • Festivals and feasts

And maybe somebody else’s traditions?

Thinking

Another issue with food writing: Like Rodney Dangerfield, food writing seems to be slow in gaining the same respect that other literary genres enjoy. After all, not so long ago the women’s pages of newspapers gave birth to today’s food pages.

But, in my heat-addled musings, I suspect that there’s another reason for the difficulties that plague the genre:  the propensity for cutesy titles and comic effect in food writing (even the history part of it) still set food literature off from mainstream literary genres, prejudicing serious readers even when flawless scholarship  prevails. Are food writers shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak, tying wit to wisdom?

And a few final perusals:  What do we learn from all this? Do we learn about ourselves, as we come face to face with cooks from the past, through their words in the paltry few manuscripts, diaries, and cookbooks available for certain time periods and cultures? Do we really gain insights into why we eat as we do? And how we actually came to eat as we do? Remember, as Michael Beer says in his recent work, Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity (2010), “Drawing parallels between the ancient and modern world is a perilous endeavour.”

So many questions, so much to learn, so little time, especially for the nasty, brutish, egotistical stuff.

___________________________

*Or food and culinary history, since many people postulate that there’s a difference between the two, ostensibly subsets of the food-writing genre.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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17 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Ken and Karen,

    Thank you for your wonderful comments and adding to the conversation!

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  2. Karen Depp says:

    When I look at my pantry shelf with all its cookbooks, I believe that I am looking at history. Each of these works contains what, to me, is “living history” because of the personal associations as well as the brief cultural and culinarial (hmm, such a word exist?) history citations. Some books are long on history and short on actual recipes – maybe that in itself is historical as they tend to draw from the vast (or not so) supply from the era or area. Guess what I am saying is food writing and cooking are living history as well as geography and art – maybe even science. The (former – don’t get me started on this!) Newcomb College in New Orleans has a wonderful collection of cookbooks and writings about and by women cooks and chefs which is a part of the Center for Research on Women. I believe that they have formed a great platform for the study of women’s history as well as that of food and eating in a city that lives for such activity. Where else would you hear “can your Momma make a roux” and think it was an ordinary conversation?

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  3. Ken Albala says:

    I’m happy to be called a food writer or a food historian. Or a home cook for that matter. I guess I do all of them, though sometimes teaching history seems like my day job. In any case, I think the apprehensions that Karen Hess expressed are disappearing. Food writers are doing much better research nowadays and food historians are having to write well without a lot of theoretical baggage and jargon. Nothing wrong with that. And there is a lot of really good work being done within and without the academy.

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  4. Some did, yes. Not all, though.

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  5. timmy says:

    works of fiction, before they became classics and included in the canon, also graced the pages of dailies and magazines.

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  6. Great post and great questions! As food historian Karen Hess recently wrote:

    Few scholars are cooks – and ever fewer cooks scholars. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that no other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking. I cannot help but feel that this neglect is also related to the agless depreciation of the work of women. Yet since time immemorial – when not searching for food, making baskets and pottery, tilling the soil and tending livestock, spinning and weaving, and bearing and raising children, of course – women have been inventing and perfecting the art of cooking. The importance of agriculture and the signifance of the spice routes were always well understood by the historians…but the homely art of the hearth has never been worthy of the same study as are other disciplines.”

    You may not be asking the same questions as Hess, but they go to the same point: what can we learn about ourselves, and our past, by studying food/culinary history? A lot, I think. It’s a fertile, and potentially lucrative, new field of historical inquiry, which is perhaps why the “food media” is beginning to so jealously guard it! Just a guess. Love your website!

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  7. Deb, I like the description, “non-magazine.” There’s a place for all types of writing about food, but I guess that’s the traditional women’s magazine type of writing, I think, that gets in the way of other types of writing about food.

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  8. Rachel, I see you as a writer too, not only a historian. Food is so basic to the human condition, and mostly it was women’s work to get it on the table or into the bowl or on the trencher. So no wonder the primary sources we’d love to see don’t exist.

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  9. Kimberly,

    Really enjoyed your blog. I like the focus of it especially.

    Like

  10. deb says:

    What an interesting post and comments as well. I just write about food stuff that I find interesting on a pretty basic level. I am not qualified nor interested in writing from a scholarly point of view but I am interested in reading about food and culinary history etc. I think that one day culinary history will gain more acceptance. It is a specialised field and maybe readers will become more attuned to reading about food and culinary history in a non-magazine kind of way.

    I say, write about what you love. The rest will follow.

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  11. I don’t think of myself as a writer, let alone a food writer. I’m a historian who happens to think that food is an excellent entry point for understanding our past and therefore our present too. So I guess my point is ultimately the same as Petra’ s and Cindy´s.

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  12. Great post. I do think that the origin of food writing in women’s pages of newspapers has led to a lack of respect for the art. This is a true oversight as women’s sections took the topic seriously. I blogged about your blog today.

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  13. Hi Petra,

    Yes, you said it very succinctly. This is exactly what I meant by posting what I did. It’s like cooking and the teaching of recipes — a recipe is fine, don’t get me wrong, but an understanding of the science of cooking gives a cook the power to create and enjoy a lot of different recipes. The same thing works in a way with food history and food writing like that of M.F.K. Fisher, etc. A certain approach deepens the experience of food, cooking, eating, and beyond that (ideally), food issues in the world at large.

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  14. Petra says:

    Trying to write professionally about Food History can sometimes really be frustrating. I know these questions and feelings. My impression is that most people are looking for a kind of entertainment in internet what means that they don’t really want to read. I have the only blog about Food History in German and every time I write really seriously like a historian about something, I loose a lot of feed-abos. Most feed-readers are passengers. But there are a lot of interesting books in English about culinary history and also articles in magazines. I wrote a book about the history of well known international dishes and it was very hard to find a publisher. Mabe we have to wait till Food History will become a trendy fashion like Gender Studies?

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  15. Mae,

    There are many different ways to do things in this world, that’s for sure.

    Like

  16. mae says:

    Is it true that if he thinks about how to walk, the centipede is paralyzed?

    I just do it cause it’s fun, and I don’t worry about all those questions. My feet would stick to the floor, figuratively, if I did.

    best,
    maefood.blogspot.com

    Like

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