Writing about Food IS Writing

(jchizhe, Adobe Stock)

An interesting thing happened to me today.

I ran into a person who knows me, a person who is also a writer.

And they said the darnedest thing. Something about me just writing about food. As if it were something lesser than writing a novel or whatever.

Actually, I have written a novel. In the Shadow of Ravens, a novel portraying the forbidden practice of witchcraft as it evolved in seventeenth-century England. But, more than that, it is the story of a family of strong women, of healing, of cooking, and of love.

There’s a good bit of food in it, yes, because one of the main characters is a cook. It was a spinoff from another one of my books, “A Hastiness of Cooks”: A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks, aimed at living-history reenactors, historians, writers, chefs, archaeologists, and, of course, cooks. Publishers Weekly deemed it a “remarkable book.”

Their comment resurrected a bit of the writerly snobbery still lurking in the shadows whenever the messiness of food pops up.

Food, and eating, plays the most important role – more than anything else – in the lives of humans.

If you don’t eat, if you don’t take in fluids, you won’t live.

Yes, you could survive for a while as your body catabolizes the fat stored under your skin. You would need water, though, because if you don’t have access to water, you’re counting three days until the Grim Reaper raps on your door. As for food, let’s see, how about two months, as long you’ve got water. Of course, it all depends on how fat you are when your food supply shuts down.

So food’s pretty important when you get right down to it! And so is writing about it.

Foodways are usually the last cultural habits to assimilate, if they ever do. Writing about culinary cultures, as I did in my fifth book – Meatballs & Lefse: Memories and Recipes from a Scandinavian-American Farming Life – preserves aspects of a culture’s kitchen habits, beliefs, and traditions. Meatballs & Lefse garnered a Finalist award in the 2021 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

I touched on that concept in my first book. In Mushroom: A Global History (Reaktion Books UK, distributed by the University of Chicago Press), I examined how traditional Anglo-American food habits excluded fungi. As opposed to the rest of the world, primarily Asia, Slavic countries, Italy, France, and Germany.

Nothing wrong with that.

Then in my latest book, Stoves & Suitcases: Searching for Home in the World’s Kitchens, I described my discoveries of various cultures and the food emanating from those cultures. I carried that theme over from my fourth book, Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil: Journeying Through the Food and Flavors of Africa.

In many cases, food is the pathway through which you learn about other people and other cultures.

I do not believe that any form of writing is better than any other.

And I would like to believe that others don’t think so, either.

Fish, rice, bananas, and salad. Meal on Caribbean coast of Colombia (Matyas Rehak, Adobe Stock)

8 thoughts on “Writing about Food IS Writing

  1. Great points! Good writing should always be valued equally. I look it as similar to reading is reading. For instance, when my brother was young he was not interested in reading but my mom knew he needed to read to make sure he could comprehend writing and other the other benefits of reading….he ended up falling in love with the Captain Underpants series. Other mothers judged my mom for letting him read “trash”. Her response was simply 1. My son needs to read and these books are better than nothing 2. Don’t we all learn better when we are happy and enjoying ourselves. I believe writing is the same. The best writing is the result of passion. Any subject is amazing for writing as long as the writer has a deep connection with the subject! Well done!

  2. Good heavens! Think about Julia Childs, Alice B. Toklas, Nigel Slater, and the Duguids when they were a couple! I reread their books over and over. I may not make a soufle or hot Chinese sauces but I really enjoy reading about the experiences and stories plus the background details. I can’t cycle through Mongolia checking out open air markets.,,never could have but want to read about it. Alice kept a hidden larder of sugar and made use of it to celebrate the American Army’s arrival. She speaks of receiving forbidden fish from a neighbor to help she and Gertrude survive the German occupation of France. Nigel Slater’s comments on his daily cooking and shopping are wonderful. I am sorry this person doesn’t get it. It’s all tied to history and life in general in my opinion.

  3. Thank you Cynthia for setting the record straight. Most of the reading public has no idea of the work entailed in writing a cookbook or a memoir with food for that matter. Food writing, when done “deliciously” (as you do so well) is a perfectly seasoned dish of non fiction!

    Fellow cookbook and food writers unite!

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