A Dearth of Pleasure: The Curse of Modern Food Writing

Thankfully, the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames didn’t sway under my feet that day, giving lie to its other name, the Wobbly Bridge. But the chilling wind whipped at everything not tied down, painting a disagreeable redness on my nose and a deep-seated hunger in my belly. The aroma of roasting sugary peanuts floated through the air and once I found the right coins – two thickish circles each worth one pound – the vendor handed over a small paper cup and a tinier napkin. Hot and salty-sweet, the peanuts burned my hand a bit and threatened to dislodge a tooth or two, but that didn’t matter because they also warmed me from the inside out.

Peanuts on Millenium Bridge
Selling Sugared Peanuts on The Millennium Bridge, London (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I passed another peanut vendor about ten yards away and then another. Were these men all members of one family? What was their history? How did they end up in London, apparently far from their ancestral roots? Or did they scrawl “London” as their birthplace on application forms? If all I wanted was a recipe, I supposed I could ask one of them, and delve into more of their culinary secrets.

Or I might instead search online for a similar recipe and tweak it until my taste buds gave it a thumbs up.

And in today’s food-writing climate, that’s all I’d need to do. Oh yes.

Maybe I could title the article “5 Ways with Spicy Peanuts” or “Doll Up Those Dull Peanuts with a Dash of Sweetness.”

All this crossed my mind at 5 a.m. as I stared at the ceiling, contemplating the pleasures and the pressures of the writing life. Of how difficult it is getting to be to write about food in a market where the attention span of the reader measures in mere nanoseconds. Or at least prone to what some call “clickbait.”

There is this tendency now toward the basics in food writing, the bare bones, without any in-depth background, not unlike all those community cookbooks filled with recipes lacking any headnotes.

But there is another trend in modern food writing that annoys me, too.

So, at 6 a.m., I sat in front of my computer, reading the words of wonderful food writer, Damon Lee Fowler. He made some pointed comments on social media late at night, saying, ” … when it comes to the kitchen and dining table, I don’t really care about things that startle: there’s enough of that in the daily cares of our lives.”

Exactly.

Startled by food.

How true. Take one example.

Well-known food writer Melissa Clark modified a recipe for Lemon Bars, a popular and frightfully easy 1970s dessert, by requiring the cook to make a lemon curd enriched with butter AND olive oil, as well a generous pinch of sea salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons of cornstarch. The flavor combinations sounded quite toothsome. But nowhere in the recipe does she mention the dangers of mixing cornstarch with an acidic liquid, a basic rule familiar to most chefs, as well as home economists who work with food. Thus, many commentators expressed their dismay over the failure of the recipe to work for them. I won’t go into more details about the recipe here, but a general eyeballing of the ingredients suggests several reasons for the high failure rate.

I love lemon bars, and my heart bleeds a little for those readers of Ms. Clark’s, those who might never ever again try to make what is – in the original incarnation – an extremely foolproof concoction.

Food writing ought be more than mere recipes or catering to the latest dietary fad. (If I see another rendition of the thrill of kale, I think I will scream. Or how about vegan this and gluten-free that? Or the nightmare of hosting a dinner party for eight people, all of whom demand special dietary changes in your menu. You know what I mean.)

Leave out the startle, please.

Gone – it seems – are the days when I sank into a comfortable chair to read, a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and a meaty and erudite article in the other, written by writers such as Roy Andries De Groot, Caroline Bates, Jay Jacobs, or Naomi Barry, among many others. I knew I could count on spending a good hour or two reading those well-written and informative stories about food and cooking in the world, extolling places I might never see firsthand. And in the process, I often found a few do-able recipes to rustle up in my kitchen. What a pleasure.

Pleasure.

That’s it, that’s what missing in so much food writing today.

Pleasure. Joy. Mystery. Discovery.

“Shouts were coming up from the village. There was a frothy wind in my face. Overhead, rosy clouds were galloping. There was a damp, rich smell, perhaps from bared roots, sap oozing from broken branches, the nectar of crushed flowers … I breathed deeply. Soon, I was sure, the crushed flowers would slowly lift up their heads again, the thick blood of the earth would revive everything. Mademoiselle Vivette was loudly announcing that tomorrow morning the woods would be thick with wild mushrooms.”*

See?

*Roy Andries de Groot, The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, p. 123.

Lemon Bars

Makes 1 9×13-inch pan

A German friend gave me this recipe when I lived in La Lima, Honduras. Easy and delicious. The best thing when it comes to recipes, no?

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

2 cups + 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup powdered sugar

4 eggs, beaten

2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder, preferably aluminum-free

6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ tablespoon grated lemon zest

Combine melted butter, 2 cups of flour, ½ teaspoon salt, and powdered sugar in a mixing bowl. Pat this mixture into a greased 9×13-inch baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes at 350°F. Remove from oven when time is up. Meanwhile, mix eggs, granulated sugar, baking powder, and remaining 4 tablespoons flour, and lemon juice and zest. Pour lemon mixture over baked crust. Return pan to oven and bake 30–35 more minutes longer, until topping is set, and crust is golden. Cool on a rack. Sprinkle with sifted powdered sugar before cutting into squares and serving.

(Recipe from my book, Meatballs & Lefse: Memories and Recipes from a Scandinavian-American Farming Life.)

© 2021 C. Bertelsen


4 thoughts on “A Dearth of Pleasure: The Curse of Modern Food Writing

  1. Thank you for the recipe. I’ve always enjoyed other people’s lemon bars but regarded them as something that requires a magical touch. If I’d known how easy they are, I’d have made them myself long ago! (Wish me luck.)

    Liked by 1 person

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