Wednesday Food: Food Writing (Part Two)
I’ve been trying to assemble a formidable list of current food writers for you, following up from Part One. It’s a taller task than I anticipated. My trouble has been assessing who is a ‘food writer’ in the (post-?) post-modern context of the term, and who is a writer dabbling in food. The designation appears entirely fluid and boundless.
Many writers continue along the traditional lines of food/ travelogue/ memoirs as such writing existed in the 20th century, addressing their experience of food and culture. But the political nature of food is now more evident than ever and it would be incomplete to omit those writing from a political perspective. The entertainment value of writing for laughs is high, and the very personal human interest scope of food writing is as alive as ever. Accessibility is streamlined so that anyone can write from their humble blog for immediate publishing.
The only categorization I could come up with for now is that of The Cheeky, those writing for shock or entertainment value, The Political, who generally posses an investigative journalist background and want to convince readers of something, and The Sentimental, which happens to also host a cross-over of restaurant critics. I wanted to include a section of bloggers who write well enough to support their food-porn pictures but that may take weeks. So for now, a very modest introduction to food writers who have affected my plate and palate…
Jeffrey Steingarten. A long-time editor at Vogue, Steingarten wrote The Man Who Ate Everything (1997), and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate (2002), which account for his obsessive relationship with food. He has a tendency to push himself to uncover every detail about an ingredient or dish, master techniques involved in it, find where in the world it is best produced, and then mock himself for how ridiculous his indulgent behavior becomes. His humor makes him agreeable despite his odder proclivities, and the scope of his taste– Himalayan Sea Salt to bite-sized Milky Ways– makes his experiences more sympathetic.
Calvin Trillin. With an oeuvre that extends far beyond culinary topics, varying from poetry to comedic novels, Trillin writes food with a good deal of snark and honesty. His primary food contributions now assembled in The Tummy Trilogy were written between the 1970s and 80s and, because they allude to a number of then-popular restaurants the book feels somewhat dated. But mocking the Establishment of fine dining is a timeless tradition that will always feel like a wink and a nudge to those of us salivating from the sidelines, and so he earns my readership.
Anthony Bourdain. The man has a way of polarizing audiences– he’s hilarious or he’s hypocritical. Some think he’s an arrogant shit, or charmingly sardonic, or just lucky. Regardless of your personal opinion his debut publication, Kitchen Confidential, did have an effect on the fine diner at-large. He wrote candidly about ingredients that were unabashedly recycled, the drug habits of line cooks, and the realities of kitchen cleanliness. His sporting condemnation of Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee is pretty cathartic and amusing, even if his own path to fame bears a striking resemblance.
The Political (Muckrakers!)
Upton Sinclair. So this is an unusual addition, and the only deceased author in the post, but I felt the list would be incomplete without him. The Jungle (1906), which revealed the horrific circumstances of industrial meatpacking at the turn of the century, further exposed class divisions and labor abuses rampant in factory settings. Granted, his book is not strictly about food, it uses the industry as a point from which to unveil a wider scope of the injustices of modern life and capitalism. But his approach resonates with food writers today who use points about agriculture, food production and distribution, migrant labor, and cost and availability, to illustrate governing agendas and operations that determine what you eat. Food is entirely political.
Eric Schlosser. An investigative journalist, his relevant work, Fast Food Nation (2001), examines the quality conditions, sanitation, labor issues, and discriminatory practices commonplace in the fast food industry. He traces the advent of production-line kitchens and the growth of franchises and how they’ve changes the American meal. The book touches on everything from controversial marketing tactics toward children, practices in cattle farming, government subsidies, and the health and welfare of the nation. His account is problematic at points– Schlosser was never permitted entry to the meatpacking facilities that provide for the industry so his evidence is largely based on first-hand accounts of current and former workers. However, the larger commentary on the role of food and dining, and the way it’s institutionalized in the 21st century, is reason enough for the book to be included on most high-school and college reading lists.
Michael Pollan. More so than other political food writers, Pollan writes predominately about food. The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) charts the origin, evolution, and habits of the human diet. This book includes the fundamental problems of industrialization, the principles of pastoral farming and its manifestations today, and difficulties of personal food procurement– finding and preparing a meal without intervention. Botany of Desire (2001) and In Defense of Food (2008) were likewise responsible for the popular culinary question of the decade: where does your food come from? I have some issues with Pollan that I will suspend for commentary, but his 7 word mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants,” is as important to his ethos as bacon was to the Atkin’s Diet.
The Sentimental, The Critical
Claudia Roden. A prolific author of cookbooks, her love of food was not inherited. Unlike many writers who focus on memory and childhood, she pursued the craft of cooking through her own initiative. In her work you won’t read through recollections of charming family suppers, or watching her Nona knead bread. Cooking and food writing were a reclaiming of her heritage, and she adopted techniques as an adult that were not introduced in her youth. She marries a more traditional manner of food writing with the contemporary.
Ruth Reichl. She may be the ‘truest’ food writer on the list. With nearly 40 years of experience in terms of coming from a substantial literary background she has always focused almost exclusively on food. Her career as restaurant critic for the New York Times earned her many loyal readers because of her honesty about fine-dining in the city. As the final editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine she solidified a captive fan base. A great deal of her writing is memoir and culturally influenced, including Tender at the Bone (1998) and Comfort Me with Apples (2001). They’re pleasant to read and I love her simple recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara, but Garlic and Sapphires (2005) is her most compelling read. It chronicles her encounters of haute cuisine in New York, dressed in disguise, so that restauranteurs wouldn’t alter the experience to affect the NYT review.
Jonathan Gold. A bit of an eccentric, Gold built a reputation on sharing the virtues of modest ethnic restaurants over flashy, well-recognized names in 1980’s Los Angeles. Beginning at LA Weekly and then moving onto the LA Times, he wrote for Gourmet under Reichl and then returned once more to his current post at LA Weekly. He has authored numerous articles in an assortment of well-recognized publications, and boasts a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Which fuckin rules.
And many more worth pursuing… Michael Ruhlman, Harold McGee, Shirley O. Corriher, William Shurtleff, Akiko Aoyagi, Laurie Colwin, Margaret Visser… OTHERS?!…
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