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:
- Soil conditions
- Festivals and feasts
And maybe somebody else’s traditions?
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