How new is food writing really?
Food has been indispensable to us since Adam exchanged Paradise for an apple. Wikipedia tells us writing as a means of representing thought began around 3200 BCE, a long time before the rise of what’s become popularly known as “food writing“. People who see food as far more than sustenance have been around a while too. They’ve been described variously, for example as epicureans, gourmands, connoisseurs, even (by the uncharitable), gluttons. These days the popular term is foodie.
Food lovers of whatever name have long recognised that the act of eating is about far more than gratification of appetite. Passionate advocates of life’s great pleasures have never been able to keep their joys to themselves and food lovers being no exception, they’ve been writing about their experiences since time immemorial. So while food writing might sometimes seem like the next big thing, it’s hardly new.
In jumping on the bandwagon, food writing-wise, it’s tempting to think not only that it’s good because it’s fashionable, but also to indulge in what Andrew F. Smith, in a paper he wrote entitled “False Memories: The Invention of Culinary Fakelore and Food Fallacies”, defined as “temporal jingoism”, or believing that food and cooking today is superior to that of previous times. Or, as is often the case with foodies, that our knowledge as consumers is uniquely privileged because of our great good fortune in living now, rather than back then.
Food writers then and now
What is more recent is the popularisation of food, the remaking of the pragmatic activities of cooking and eating into subjects worthy of intense media scrutiny. Along with this goes an assumption that our culinary tastes have been taken to a whole new level, that we know so much more now about food, that we’ve finally got it. But there’s no reason to think previous generations ate like peasants, tossing any old rubbish down their throats to keep the wolf from the door. Discerning and enlightened cooks and diners have always been around. It’s just that they didn’t go on about it as much.
Food today … what’s changed?
Whether symptom or cause, the sheer volume of material available now is such that it’s impossible to remain oblivious to who’s eating what, when and where in any corner of the globe. As well, almost everything worth reading (or not) is on line. Whatever your whim it can be gratified even faster than your craving for a Big Mac. Books about food and cooking have always been ubiquitous, but now you can download the latest must-have at the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger. The same with magazines, journals, newspaper columns and blogs. Not only do these diverse forms of food media infiltrate our every reading, browsing and viewing moment, but they feed off each other, with television programs such as Masterchef generating spin-off book titles that regularly top best seller lists.
Why is food big?
But is our insatiable appetite for food related information based on the fact that there’s more of it and we can get it easily? That might have explained the sexual revolution of the sixties, but it doesn’t really account for food. There are those who theorise about the alienating effects of modern society, where, in our isolation from a sense of community, we turn to the warmth of traditional comforts like home cooking. Then there’s rampant consumerism, with its none too subtle pressure to keep up with what’s hot. When you add to the mix the global village effect of migration, multiculturalism, regular overseas travel and other factors that have transformed Western culture into a melting pot, isolating a cause becomes even more difficult.
Why this blog?
In the end, no-one knows for sure why we’re food obsessed. Food mania hasn’t of course gripped everyone. It has its share of vehement critics, among them Steven Poole, author of “You Aren’t What You Eat“. In a recent article in The Guardian, he goes so far as to describe our food-centric culture as decadent and obscene. Like it or loathe it, it’s a cultural phenomenon that’s subject to as many theories as there are theorists. And, you may say, who cares anyway?
But those who are attracted by the idea of making a living out of food writing are at least mildly curious. Whether such an aspiration is even realistic is a wholly different topic, one that’s well covered in this article in the American Observer. But I’m not embarking on this venture to answer that question (although if I do find out, I’ll tell you). As a budding food writer based in Adelaide, South Australia, I want to know what makes a successful food writer, who the good ones were and are, what attracts readers, how you learn to do it better and why anyone should want to do it at all*. Most of all I want to translate my passion for food and writing into something constructive that can inform, educate, divert, amuse or otherwise spark your interest.
by Anne Green