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Wednesday Food: Food Writing (Part One)

Writing about food.  A noble craft, a worthy subject.  Tackled by poets and novelists, a chief component in memoirs and histories, issued now in its utterly modern and overly indulgent blog form, the experience of food and eating continues to enthrall us.

Why do we do it?

MFK Fisher wrote that it was because she was hungry.  She said the elements of food, security, and love, so entwined, were all the necessities for which we truly hunger.  And that in hunger satisfied, all the needs are one.

There are obvious points to make about eating being a fundamental part of our animality and about the ritual of dining being quintessentially human.  So much writing on the subject draws out larger allegories and sweeping conclusions on the human condition.  We all know the lengths of prose and insight that can be drawn from a cup of tea and a shell-shaped cookie.

From memory to humanity, from recipes to reviews, food justice to animal rights, trade secrets to technique: the scope of subject material in food writing is as numerous as books written.  One can write of eating, about what to eat, and people who eat.  The great bulk of it seems to be personal narrative, the attempt to elevate and even validate the moments that exist as we sit and sup, our lives between plates and bowls.

In writing about food and the intimacy of dining we expose our desires, our bodies, our fallibility, our times of leanness and largess.  The pieces I love, those that have stayed with me, express these sentiments honestly and forthright.  When they do so with humor and vulnerability the writing becomes unforgettable.  And so I refer to writers of food from classic to contemporary, who make mincemeat of this daunting task.  This week, classic food writers.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (French 1755-1826) known for, The Physiology of Taste (trans.) on sensation, taste, and flavor.  The work covers ingredients, nutrition, technique, the difference between gourmand and gourmet, and popularizes the term ‘gastronomy’.  Translated to English by MFK Fisher.

Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (Grimod) (French 1858-1837) a contemporary of Brillat-Savarin, he published Almanach des Gourmand, a collection of food essays and restaurant itineraries, for nearly a decade.  His writing is characterized a dry wit and black sense of humor, which most attribute to his being born with deformed hands.  He had to keep them concealed while relying on prostheses for movement such as dining.

James Beard (American 1903-1985) the man widely credited with elevating American cooking from chore to art.  He published dozens of cookbooks, beginning with Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés, his triumphs as a caterer, through The Fireside Cookbook and How to Eat Better for Less Money.  Beard on Food, his essays on travel, hosting, history and, of course eating, best showcases him as a correspondent of the culinary world.

Waverly Root (American 1903-1982) a pioneering food journalist, he first published The Food of France in 1958.  It illustrates the wonders of French food, but mocks and gently teases when appropriate.  In Eating in America he offers criticism on a American food culture after a history lesson that begins with the food of early explorers and settlers.

M.F.K. Fisher (American 1908-1982)  was the first writer to address Americans specifically on the art of eating well.  This was possible, she insisted even in wartime, which she addresses in How to Cook a Wolf, encouraging women to cast off the enriched white loaf bread lining supermarket aisles and make bread themselves.  Her writing is lyrical and full of a gusto reminiscent of a Barbara Stanwyck character.  She is best known for Consider the Oyster, her first food publication, and Gastronomical Me.

Roy Andries de Groot (English 1910-1983) transitioned to food writing later in life.  After losing some, and then all of his vision from an injury during WWII, de Groot decided to capitalize on the senses that directed him toward food.  He wrote articles until 1973 when he published Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, which details the seasonal Alpine fare of two French women.

Elizabeth David (English 1913-1992) after spending wartime in the Mediterranean, David returned to England where she was appalled by the bore and blandness that marked British cuisine.  She published numerous books that introduced readers to pasta, olive oil, peppers, and zucchini– the bounties of Italy and France.  David championed the creativity that every housewife could access in her kitchen.  An Omelette and a Glass of Wine collects a number of essays and articles she wrote including her unapologetic and scathing reviews of other post-war cookbooks.

These are the original writers who used their talent and taste to convey to generations of readers, a love of all things edible.  The New York Times offers a few more.  Next week I’ll get into modern food writers, but for now, is there anyone omitted?

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September 8, 2011 - Posted by | Wednesday Food

4 Comments

  1. This reminds me of the book I’ve been wanting to read for a while- Food of a Younger Land (http://amzn.to/oxivI3), which was commissioned by the government during the Great Depression. Basically they hired really great (though out of work) writers to write these chronicles simply to create jobs- when the stories were finished, they sat in filing cabinets for decades. So the book is a collection of beautiful descriptions of little more than food and the 1930’s.

    Comment by Brandon Buck | September 8, 2011

  2. Excellent! I’ve seen it around but haven’t looked into it. Will do.

    Comment by ebolden | September 9, 2011

  3. Hey ebolden,you sound like a very cool girl and you are a good writer, loved reading you, found you interesting. And I totally dig the book, with the beer, in the bar. However, I must offer that your appraisal of Chicago vs. San Diego beers is limited because you focused on locally brewed craft beers. If you’re in the know, Chicago imports some of the best German brewed beers available in the U.S. They are available at only a few bars in their freshest form. Recently, for the past month or so, Ayinger Jahrhundert (brought in from Aying, in Bavaria) has been pouring with the freshest, most delicious taste. This past week, the Hof Brau Oktoberfest, the Hacker Pshorr Oktoberfest, and the Spaten Oktoberfest have arrived in their freshest possible form in a few bars here on the N. Side. From what I’ve seen I highly doubt San Diego would have the same beers in as good of shape, though S. D. may very well have a quantity of Western microbrews, which are mostly ales and in my opinion far inferior to the German beers which have been built on hundreds of years of brewing. If you come back to Chicago sometime, I will clue you in on the best German beers currently pouring. sogara321@gmail.com

    Comment by Sean O'Gara | September 10, 2011

  4. Thanks for your comment, Sean. I was referring to local brews, because that’s where I’m better practiced and what I usually prefer. But I will dearly miss the vertical Oktoberfest Ayinger tasting at Delilah’s this year, and will keep an ear to the ground for German import action in San Diego. Prost!

    Comment by Ebolden | September 12, 2011


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