In Defense of Food Writing: A Reader’s Manifesto
by Eric LeMay
This essay originally appeared
Read food writing. Not just recipes. Mostly stories.
That’s my answer to what, with our omnivore’s options for reading and our limited time to read, we should read when it comes to food.
That food writing needs a defense might strike you as odd. You’re reading Alimentum, after all, The Literature of Food, and food writing now shows up everywhere, on best-seller lists and Twitter feeds, in academic catalogs, splashy newspaper sections, and photo-drenched magazines. The blogosphere brims with it, creating an interconnected, ever-expanding, cyber-chronicle of America’s general awakening to what’s on our table and in our take-out.
“It sometimes seems,” writes Darra Goldstein, the editor of Gastronomica, “as though everyone is writing about food.”
And food writing isn’t just du jour. It addresses a basic need. We need to eat. Food literally, which is to say biochemically, becomes us. Brillat-Savarin said more than he knew when he aphorized, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Food has an importance that would seem beyond question, and instead of defending food writing, we might ask why bookstores aren’t organizes into four basic sections: Food, Clothing, Shelter, and Other.
And yet, the plump gal with the great personality, food writing does get defended. Its writers champion it in the anthologies that represent it. Molly O’Neill, for example, introduces American Food Writing by telling us that “a good piece of food writing is never just about the food; it is, among other things, about place and time, desire and satiety, the longing for home and the lure of the wide world.” And here’s how Mark Kurlansky serves up Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and throughout History:
What’s intriguing about these defenses is the defender’s need to assure us that food writing is not “just” about food; it’s about something else, something more, even sex. M.F.K. Fisher herself gave the same defense:
That gesture, in which a food writer stresses what she’s “really writing about,” that’s the one that marks defenses of food writing: It’s not really about food.
“Why not?” I want to ask. What can’t food writing really be about food?
As a reader of food writing and a food writer myself, I get defensive about having to be defensive. Why does food writing have to be about more than food when writing about sports or politics or fashion can really be about sports or politics or fashion? “Go fug yourself!” I want to say. To whom, I don’t know, so I usually end up eating chocolate, which I suppose means I’m really seeking warmth, security, love, memory, tradition, desire, and satiety in a Dagoba bar.
Usually, by the time I’ve dabbed the last dark crumbs out of the wrapper with my forefinger, I’m calm enough to remember that, in my defensive pique, I didn’t ask the right question. The right question isn’t “Why can’t food writing really be about food?” The right question is “Why has food been so stripped of what it’s really about that food writers need to remind readers—for that’s what these defenses amount to, reminders—that every essential human pursuit involves food, and that consequently food writing involves nearly every sort of knowledge—anthropological, sociological, psychological, agricultural, economic, ethnographic, political, historical, personal, poetic, mythological, philosophical, ecological, religious, scientific, journalistic—that we consider worthwhile?” That’s the right question.
The answer is, I suspect, vast and would include a lot of attention to “food itself,” which in Goldstein’s words, was “dismissed as women’s work that belongs more properly in the domestic sphere.” So here I’d like to point out just part of it, a partial answer that may shed light not only on why food writers need to keep reminding readers of food’s real significance, but also why food writing can be so deeply satisfying, an answer I hit on when reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.
In the book, Pollan shows us how to make our way through the confusing options we have as eaters. He starts off by charting the rise and influence of a vision for food called “nutritionism.” With nutritionism, Pollan explains, “the key to understanding food becomes the nutrient.” Foods are no longer seen as foods, in the sense of whole carrots, bananas, or pork chops that you can stab with a fork or hold in your hand, but as “essentially the sum of their nutrient parts.” When you say “potato,” nutritionism doesn’t say, “patattah.” It says:
Nutritionism translates everything we eat into grams and milligrams, carbohydrates and vitamins. Under nutritionism, the true nature of food becomes its nutrients and its true purpose becomes promoting our health—that task we know so well, of locating, calculating, and consuming nutrients.
Nutritionism doesn’t want eaters, much less foodies; it wants gram and milligram machines.
Nutritionism, in its essence, isn’t as new or unique as it might seem.
It has a surprising likeness to another vision of food touted in Rome about eighteen hundred years before we started studying food labels. The greatest physician of classical Roman Empire, Galen of Pergamon also saw food as little more than the sum of its health-promoting parts. Here he is on the qualities of watermelons, sounding, as Kurlansky notes, a lot like “those who extol the virtues of high fiber and low fat”:
My aunt once went on a watermelon diet for an entire summer. She did not, as far as I know, have leprosy.
I mention Galen not only because he sounds so oddly like us, but also because he alerts us to a danger. His reductionist vision of food seeps, quite easily, into a reductionist vision of life. Listen, for example, to Galen’s most famous patient, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He begins with a food view and ends with a worldview:
Strip everything down to its raw state, its bloody and sticky parts, argues Marcus, because that’s its reality. Had Marcus known about nutrients, he probably would have seen them as the thing itself, what food is in reality.
Today, we call Marcus’s viewpoint “stoic philosophy,” but the contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls it “death within life.” And Nussbaum could be describing how we eat under nutritionism: think of the lifeless, zombified faces of health nuts and dieters alike, peering into sallow Tupperware containers, preparing to consume nutrient-centered lunches. Not for them the pleasure of the carrot, but the duty of the beta-carotene.
Fortunately, there’s hope for bringing life back to lunch, and Pollan sneaks up on it when he reminds us of all that nutritionism misses:
Here, in his defense of food, in his reminder of what food is really about, Pollan sounds as though he’s giving a defense of food writing. And his defense reveals the reason food writers are always on the defensive: Nutritionism, the vision that dominates our culture’s relationship to food, also strips our food of its connection to culture. Food writers are constantly reminding readers that food is “really” about culture, because our nutritionist culture believes it isn’t.
Yet, seen in this way, food writing doesn’t need a defense. It is one. Food writing defends readers against nutritionism’s reductive bio-vision of food by reuniting food and culture. It restores to food everything else, everything more, that food is about, which is just about everything.
Food writing says, “Patattah.”
That’s why I started off by recommending stories, not just recipes, in the food writing we read. Recipes are wonderful. What a boon to live in a moment where a native Ohioan like me can Google “palak paneer” and, in a few clicks, learn how to make a dish from Northern India. Yet, ever since Fanny Farmer set the standard for recipe writing in her cookbook, recipes have had much in common with nutritionism. With lists of ingredients at the top and a series of how-to steps that follow, they often reduce food to a thing to be made in a way that’s similar to nutritionism reducing food to a thing made of nutrients. Recipes let you make a culture’s food, but they don’t offer much illumination on the culture from which that food comes, certainly not as much as the food itself. Like nutritionism, recipes usually aren’t created to illuminate culture.
But stories are culture. Whether they’re about cod or haute cuisine, stories are how we make sense of one another and the world around us.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote, and while nutritionism would take issue with her, stories do have a defining importance for any culture that’s figured out how to feed itself. As Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” we come to know as much through stories as science, and any vision of food that robs us of our stories or reduces them to nothing but an impoverished narrative about nutrients starves us of what we need.
And that’s why food writing can be so satisfying: Because it gives us stories about food that let us live more fully, because it fulfills us, and not just at the table.