About a month ago I read an article in the New Yorker that left me thinking: I want to be a ‘proper’ food writer. It was a review of British food writer and historian Bee Wilson’s book “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat”, a study of how the food we have eaten historically, our manners regarding food, and the implements we use to eat it, have influenced not only culture, but also recent human evolution. As I read on I kept thinking to myself – that is just so cool. Not so much the article, which was beautifully written, or the book itself, which I am eager to buy, but the fact that someone could have the job of writing highly researched books on food that were academic in nature, yet accessible to the non-specialist. That is just so cool.
I am not always a fan of food writing as a rule. On the whole I don’t care for people talking about their personal relationship with food, unless they have the writing skills to make pretty much any topic interesting (like Julian Barnes) or they are someone I know personally (who is feeding me at the time). When I was a child I read Sophie’s World, a combination of children’s fiction and lessons on ancient Greek philosophy. Like probably all children, while reading I would skip the philosophy lessons. I have remained the same when reading works that incorporate recipes. I skip the recipes – reading recipes is for cooking or planning what you are going to cook, it is not meant to provide a unique pleasure.
I like what I read to have substance. I want facts, not just speculation or musings. It has taken me some time to realise that you can get this from food writing. However I am the first one to admit my mistake, and very recently I have started pursuing more food writing (and podcasts) in my spare time. I will share what I am reading occasionally, just in case you feel the same.
Food Writing Worth Reading
1. Jane Kramer, “A Fork of One’s Own: A History of Culinary Revolution” (The New Yorker). This is the review of Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork, discussed above. While I might recommend reading the book itself based on the review alone, I can certainly recommend the review.
2. BBC Radio 4 podcast: “Madhur Jaffrey, a life through food“. I have mixed feeling about Radio 4’s Food Program – it does not always have quite the substance to it that I would like. This episode, however, is a gem. It is marketed as Madhur Jaffrey’s life through food, but in it it is her life that is presented as a map to the history of Indian food and food in India. It is brief but lovely, and leaves you wanting to read her memoir, and to smell boiling rice and frying spices.
3. Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen. This charming, (very) short book by Barnes would, I suspect, appeal to anyone who has tried cooking at home. Barnes talks through his cooking history, cooking troubles, and cooking lessons in such an engaging, literary style, that I felt when reading it as if the fact that almost every cooking failure he had experienced had happened to me just showed how romantic my life as a home cook really is. I intentionally read this slowly, coincidentally while sitting in a kitchen most of the time, and it made the winter more homely and understanding.
4. David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”. This is considered one of the best essays on food of all time. It has facts, it has philosophical dilemmas, it has fascinating descriptions of foreign cultural practices (namely, the Maine Lobster Festival) – all the things that I crave in almost anything I (metaphorically) consume. Whenever I teach about food, or ethics or the philosophy of mind, I set it for my students. This is mostly because I want to occasionally give them something I know they will actually enjoy reading.