As discussed in my very first post, writing about food has been going on for a long time. Only relatively recently have we come to define it as “food writing,” a term about as indeterminate as for example “people writing”. As fundamental to and inextricably bound up with life as we ourselves, food as a genre may as well be called “life writing”. While all living things depend on food for survival, for most of us it represents far more than sustenance. From its origins to its consumption, food as it’s grown, harvested, selected, cooked and eaten is bound up with us in a complex and intensely interdependent relationship. Writing about it so as to capture what this really means is far more challenging than it may at first appear.
Barbara Santich, well known food historian and Professor of Food Writing Studies at the University of Adelaide, defines food writing as writing about people’s experiences of food in all its guises and contexts. With such a broad canvas, food writing falls into a multitude of genres. Indeed, it would be hard to find any aspect of the human condition and its expression in literary form that doesn’t include food in some form or another. The Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, in her book “Love and Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food”, suggests our relationship with food is also a spiritual one, likening it to a gift we both offer and receive, one which nourishes the soul as well as the body. No-one expressed the food as love analogy better perhaps than MFK Fisher, who said in her book “The Gastronomical Me”, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one”. In his exposé of what goes on behind the restaurant kitchen door, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, Anthony Bourdain defines food as power. As a child he discovered the potential of food to “inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress”. Once he realised that, he resolved to forge a career in harnessing that power. Many writers have observed that food reflects culture, indeed that the two are interchangeable. Jill Dupleix in “Voracious: the Best New Australian Food Writing” says in her essay “Voices from an Australian Kitchen”, that down through the years cookery books have charted the many influences that shape our lives – historical, political, economic, social and more. The cuisine of a people tells you far more about their culture than just what they like to eat.
Michael Pollan, in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, recalls that Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin in “The Physiology of Taste” drew a sharp distinction between the purely bodily pleasures of eating (“the actual and direct sensation of a need being satisfied”) and the uniquely human “pleasures of the table” – “the considered sensations born of the various circumstances of fact, things, and persons accompanying the meal”. Most of us dine regularly with others; family, friends, business colleagues, fellow travellers and the like. From the moment you take your seat at the table, you’re aware that you’ve become involved in an intricate social interchange that’s about far more than the collective consumption of whatever’s on the plates.
Food drives the political and economic agendas of nations perhaps more powerfully than any other single commodity. Today, more than ever, the food industry wields enormous power to influence our purchasing, our health and the wellbeing of future generations. What we put in our mouths has a direct influence on how long and how comfortably we and our children will live. Those who stimulate and manipulate our appetites have a responsibility to educate and inform honestly about the true nutritional value of what they want us to buy, but when commercial interests overshadow all others , the likelihood of that happening is remote.
There’s a growing worldwide rebellion against the vested interests of what’s been called “Big Food” and the dubious practices involved in industrial food production. People are beginning at last to be curious about just how the food on their plates was transformed from a living thing to dinner. We’re realising that we can’t continue to look away and pretend the brutality of factory farming is nothing to do with us. What we choose to eat has ramifications far beyond those we ponder over when deciding what to have for dinner.
Michael Pollan, again in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” asks why food is becoming the “linchpin” of a generalised rebellion against the power of the total economy of industrialised nations. He suggests it is “perhaps because food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalisation poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity”. Clearly, food writers have the capacity to engage readers on many different levels, from the sensual and imaginative through to the moral, ethical and political. It’s a perspective that extends from the intimacy and immediacy of the home kitchen to the infinite horizon of the world’s weightiest problems. But each food writer will choose which part of it best suits their literary skills and most authentically reflects their own relationship with food. To write about food meaningfully, it’s probably irrelevant which of these contexts we choose. What is relevant – what renders the writing compelling is the ability of the writer to convey a mindful engagement with food. A love of food, an understanding of its centrality in our lives always shows on the page, whether that be in a cookbook or a treatise on the global food supply. To choose to write about a subject so complex, so vast and yet intimate, so fundamental to life and yet so often taken for granted, is to embark on a journey that takes you round many blind corners, but the constantly changing panorama is so diverting, the final destination becomes unimportant.
Gay Bilson, in her book, “Plenty: Digressions on Food”, which is as much about history, politics, culture, ethics, books and words as it is about food, makes some rather biting comments about a certain type of food writing. She has in mind what she calls the “delicious” market which is, in her view, little more than self-advertisement and gush. To restate the obvious about food, that it is in certain presentations a joy, both to behold and to consume, according to Bilson amounts to “praising the emperor’s new clothes”. The very best food writing in her experience (and in mine I have to say) is often found in writing that ostensibly has nothing to do with food. Other writers come close to describing what it is – a kind of “evocative exactitude” (a phrase coined by John Banville) or, as Barbara Santich has written, “the result of the confluence of the intellect and the senses”. In the end it’s all of these things. And like any kind of writing, it succeeds when the writer takes a subject and through imaginative and creative interpretation, helps the reader see it in a new way. It’s not unlike cooking. It’s the careful blending of old and new knowledge, of disparate ingredients – combining the parts into an original whole with flair and originality. Food writing at its best excites the senses, engages the intellect and satisfies the appetite.
by Anne Green