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?
Picture of wallpaper in the bathrooms at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, MD
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.
Here at the resort where we're staying we've learned that menu descriptions are interpretive. It's an interesting twist that tends to throw people off because what you order may not be what you get. At dinner one night when someone was asked what he had gotten for dessert he replied "I have no idea." This is sometimes good and sometimes not. On the other hand as long as you know what you're getting into you can approach each meal with an open mind and a sense of adventure. You never know when you're going to stumble across something great.
As we were discussing the broad interpretations of the menu descriptions I realized that it wasn't so different from what many chefs in the States do. We ourselves are often knocked for our tongue in cheek menu descriptions that can seem disrespectful, if not downright sacrilegious, to others. We defend our right to creative expression but catch ourselves occasionally raising our eyebrows at others, especially when we don't enjoy the food offered. It's an interesting double standard and one that I hadn't realized that I possessed. The words "you can't call that a cannoli." came out of my mouth one night. But the truth is they can and they did. Certainly we've stretched classic culinary descriptions much further than that slightly soggy confection that resembled a taquito stuffed with barely sweetened cream cheese. Does being delicious make it any less disrespectful? And is it even about respect at all?
Philosophy at the table. I don't suppose there are any concrete answers although it did give me pause. We defend our use of classic culinary terms because they are a point of reference, giving the diner a sense of what they are about to receive even when what is on the plate is far removed from the original intention. In many cases we are paying homage to a well loved creation. If we lose the original definition then we also lose the analogy. On the other hand classics change with the times. Today's confit is not the same one that was created to preserve meat through the winter in France so many years ago. We can't shy away from evolution. Acceptance of change means acknowledging that everyone has a right to employ it.
Just a quick note to let you know that over at Sante Magazine there's an article on dehydrators that not only mentions Ideas in Food, it features photographs and a recipe from us as well. In addition to our ideas, there are some great insights from Tony Maws and Tory Miller. Check it out, it's a definitely worth your perusal.
PS: Congratulations to Tony & Karolyn on the newest addition to the family! We wish you all the best!
One of the great things about buying cheese from Tomales Bay Foods is their Library of Cheese. It's a great resource, especially if you buy cheese the way we do. We buy whatever they tell us is good that particular day whether we're familiar with the cheeses or not. The library enables us to go and look up the background information when the cheese arrives. It's a font of information whether you are lucky enough to get your cheeses from them or not.
When you are able and willing to work with individuals who are driven to produce perfection your own standards and results can improve dramatically. Every day I am surrounded by marks of greatness; from Diane’s butter to Steve’s roes and guests staying with us to individuals who visit us visually through our website and push us towards excellence. I thrive off this interaction between individuals and ingredients. Yesterday we were presented with an incredible challenge. Steve, of blis caviar, has researched and developed a wild char roe. The hoops he has jumped through to bring this ingredient to market are amazing, and we as chefs get to benefit. The roe cured with just fleur de sel is nutty and rich, crisp, herbal and buttery. He has also cured a small portion of the roe with smoked salt. Over the past several years Steve has worked on applying the smoke with a deft hand so as not to lose the natural characteristics of the roe. This morning, when we had the pleasure of sampling these two renditions of wild char roe, I experienced something different. The char roe, larger than brook trout and smaller than salmon roe, golden in color and explosive in texture is better than any of the other roe’s Steve cures. Think about the fact that Steve has stretched himself thin to raise the bar of perfect. Now we are faced with the results.
I am lucky to have friends who read what we write. I am even luckier that they openly and candidly correct my mistakes. Recently I have gotten on a box about cooking potatoes with a method adopted by Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck. I have adopted the technique and consequently encouraged many to buy his book with the recipe as well as many other interesting facts, techniques and ideas. What I failed to mention and really absorb was Heston's inspiration was Jeffrey Steingarten the author of The Man Who Ate Everything. I was forced, and now gladly so, to revist this incredible compendium of culinary tales and research which divulges the basic essence of the mashed potato technique as well as presenting a source for the initial concept--the instant dried potato industry. Now, I am revisting Steingarten's work to see what other gems I mistook as coal. Think about this, I read the book cover to cover seven years ago. I did not pick up this technique. I have wasted a fair amount of time because I was unable to see into the details. Revist old favorites and ideas of yesterday with eyes and thoughts of today. You never know what you will find.
From food to bookstores, smaller is better. After spending too many hours searching for cookbooks on line and at large bookstores, I returned to the source for new cookbooks--Kitchen Arts and Letters. The tiny storefront on Lexington Avenue not only has character and individuality, it has amazing cookbooks. From the obscure to the seemingly ordinary, KA&L has the books and the story behind them.
The store and its staff focus on cooks and their books. It is a hands on environment which lets chefs see what is going on around the country and the world in an intimate Manhattan storefront.
Oh and if you are not in Manhattan give a call, they will listen to your needs, virtually walk you through the store over the phone, and hand pick books to suit your needs or cookbook collection.
And this all ties into food how? Smaller is better. Be determined to provide something great. It does not have to be large or grand, just done well.
In the hopes of making culinary leaps and bounds we decided to set slow cooked egg yolks in a smoked maple jelly topped with vanilla fleur de sel and surrounded with sweet cream. We tasted and thought brilliant!!! After digesting the dish we realized we just borrowed the flavors and tastes of Alain Passard's signature egg with maple and sherry vinegar. Well, the tastes, textures and aesthetic works well so we will continue to refine it. Pictures are in the "EGG" photo album.
All Amazon links on this website are part of an affiliate program. Ideas in Food will earn a small percentage on any purchases made by visiting Amazon through our links. Thank you for supporting Ideas in Food by making purchases through our site.