Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than thirty food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?
I've always been drawn to food. I suppose that might seem obvious because I've built my career around a culinary hub. Looking back I realize that it was more than the pursuit of a good meal that drove me, more often than not it was reading about a good meal that would make my imagination take flight. I read cookbooks for the essays rather than the recipes. If the story struck a deep chord and the recipe seemed accessible I would take the next step and attempt some facsimilation of the dish. But most of my pleasure came from my imagination. I may not have always wanted to consume the meals that were described; but I loved being transported to another place by the description.
The many instances where I would be carried away by someone's food writing would lead me to pursue other essays or novels by the same author. Unfortunately, many times they would leave me cold. It was disappointing and it took me a long time to understand that people write differently about food. It is inevitably more personal than almost any other type of writing. You cannot separate the writer from the subject at hand, there is no real way to write objectively about the things we eat and drink, and that is what makes food writing so special. Food is a universal language. Whether or not the writer acknowledges what is happening, any story about eating and drinking and cooking is a glimpse into the writer's psyche. That is what has always fascinated me, that brief window into someone else's world that is translated into terms that I can relate to. Sky diving or playing tennis may be beyond my capacity to empathize with, but culinary experiences are always accessible.
Because of this realization I am almost never satisfied with my own writing. I went from being someone who confidently submitted the first draft of every essay and paper to someone who ponders the meaning behind each syllable and then teetering back towards writing quickly in order to capture an experience and then editing to be sure that the meaning is correct. I've learned to appreciate writers who can create prose that flows like water across the page and those who can paint vivid pictures with a few choice words. The very best writing always evokes emotion and those who write about food have an endless supply of material. This sometimes makes it difficult to separate the good from the great but when something you've read stays with you, for hours or days or years, then you know you've found a great writer, even if it's the only thing they've ever written.
For us the key to writing about food is transparency, being as honest about our experiences as we can. If we can't share fully then we try not to write about an experience at all. I would hope that this is part of what keeps our readers coming back. What I love about the internet is that it has made an abundance of food writing readily available. It may not all be good but most of it is true and heartfelt and inspiring. A Google search beats combing through bookstores for memoirs and novels with food-centric themes to find interesting writers. There's a world of inspiration at our fingertips and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to sift through it.