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My Heart is a Kale Chip: In Defense of Food Writing

My heart is a kale chip: In Defense of Food Writing.

By Amanda McGuire

 “Food writing is a literary activity, built upon words, sentences, and paragraphs rather than flour, butter, and eggs. It may refer to the kitchen and the dining room, but it is forged in the library and the study.” — Kathryn Hughes

The moment I bite into a juicy hamburger, I’m not thinking about calories or if there is enough iron. I’m chewing and tasting for the perfect balance of fat and protein, sweet bun and savory seasonings, or the mellowness of grain-fed versus the slight gamey-ness of grass-fed. I’m thinking about how the cow was treated by its farmers, how the weather affected its feed, how it was butchered depending on the farmer’s philosophies, how the cook honored the meat, and how on Fridays when I would come home from second grade, sad because I was picked last for dodge ball again, my mom would make burgers, my favorite comfort food.

To say I’m obsessed with food is an understatement.

In the morning I wake up with recipes spiraling around in my head and at night I am visited by potatoes, kale and duck fat.  Taste is my favorite sense, and I take pride in having a fine-tuned palate that deconstructs each dish I eat. I love the science of recipes and the subtle differences between ingredients.  I’m a junkie for the history of industrial farming. Food politics are the only politics I discuss. When I travel it’s the food cultures I seek out. Cooking, for me, is a spiritual journey; it brings me peace and challenge. And when I’m around a table of steaming dishes, intoxicating smells, and the clanking of spoons against bowls, I feel the sanest. Nothing else brings me as much joy as the moment of silence that happens after a great dinner. Food is a blissful abyss for me as a writer, and it is intricately interconnected with every aspect of the life cycle, which means food has the ability to catapult me into any topic and generate onion-like layers of meaning.

Even when I wrote poems, I never felt that way.

Food writing is a place I can find myself while leaving myself behind.

When I first started writing poetry I wanted to be Jane Kenyon. I was determined to replicate the heaviness of her simplicity, her ever-observant eye, her respect for gorgeous lines that read like perfectly stitched hems.

(They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

When I started food blogging, Orangette’s Molly Wizenberg became my new Jane Kenyon.

At a time when I started feeling crazy for being “food obsessed,” Wizenberg was there to offer me a fork, knife, and empty plate:

My method for ratatouille, though, is different from either of my parents’. I like to cook the vegetables separately at first, so that each is perfectly cooked on its own, and then combine them at the end. Recently I’ve started taking the added but easy step of roasting the eggplant in the oven rather cooking it on the stovetop, where it sometimes winds up spongy and weird. In the oven, it gets wonderfully silky and tender. I think it’s my best version yet. When I’m home alone, it’s often the only thing I want to make. I tuck a napkin onto my lap and sit down by the window, and when it’s all gone, I lick my knife until it sparkles, because there’s no one there to catch me. (122-3)

Finally, I don’t need to feel guilty for licking my knife. I finally found a like-minded food enthusiast.

Quickly, I realized, though, the term “food writing” equals commercial writing.

In other words, as a literary genre, it receives the same skepticism as graphic novels.

“You should show me some of your new poems,” a random poet at a random party says to me.

“I don’t really write poems anymore.”

“Oh. What do you do?”

“I have a food blog, do food writing, and edit a food column for an online magazine.”

He walks across the room to talk to the poet he’s been eyeing for the past ten minutes.

When I started my food blog The Everyday Palate it was out of boredom with myself. I wasn’t fulfilled writing poetry and my personal blog started feeling self-indulgent, even more so than when I was writing poetry in my MFA program. Why should I expect anyone to care about my musings on Britney Spears or how difficult it is to raise a puppy? The only posts I felt were interesting had to do with food: restaurant reviews, cookbook reviews, food-focused book reviews, reflections on a specific meal, ramblings about my latest cravings, etc. A food blog made more sense.

Reading food blogs initially fed my hunger. Then cookbooks. Then popular food magazines. Then food journals. Then food writing, in general. Now food literature. Today graphic novels geared towards foodies. Tomorrow multi-media websites.

When I’m not devouring food, I’m devouring texts.

Or I’m concocting a blog post, newspaper article, or an essay about food.

While some question the “literary merit” of food writing, the genre has become my gateway to “the human condition.” My poetry always felt contrived; I was trying to write something I truly didn’t embrace. Writing about eggplant propels me into several directions: history, agriculture, myths, chemistry, culture, genealogy, and visual art. Poetry, for some writers, can do this. It just never did for me; I could never get over the “I.”

For as obscure as poetry is in the mass media and how few readers it attracts, I was surprised to find roadblocks between commercial food writing and literary food writing. Food writing is just a sub-genre of non-fiction as fantasy is a sub-genre of fiction. The distinctions matter little, quite honestly. But there are some editors, writers and readers who believe food writing doesn’t belong in a literary setting.

(What exactly does a “literary setting” look like?)

“Have you met Sarah Lenz? She’s like you. Obsessed with food.

It feels as though everyone in East Hall, on Facebook, and in my neighborhood knows this Sarah Lenz and thinks we should be friends. She food blogs at Prose and Potatoes, home cooks, raises backyard chickens, keeps a front-yard garden. Her friends tell me, “Talking with you is like talking to Sarah. I just don’t care that much about kale. You need to talk to Sarah.”

After almost a year of food blogging a dear friend asks if I want to be a Food and Wine editor for his online magazine Connotation Press. I accept. I’m now an editor. I find literary-minded foodies. I beg them to write for me. And I’m surprised by how many want to write about food.

Sarah is no exception.

We meet at Trotter’s Tavern in downtown Bowling Green. She walked there in one of her awesomely constructed homemade skirts, a white t-shirt mellowing out the print and a heavy beaded necklace to balance contrast. I’m jealous: Great, she knows how to sew and cook. What can’t she do?

I ask her to write a piece for my offal issue of From Plate to Palate. She’s eager but reserved, as if she has suspicions about me. We order gin & tonics. We order wine. We relax. We order Scotch Eggs. More wine. Brown Jug steaks. Under the dim glow of a Heineken sign we talk food the entire time—six hours straight. I want to cry. With happiness. My husband thinks I’ve been abducted. (I have been.)

Finally, much like the first time I read Wizenberg, I feel comfortable in the company of a writer, a food writer.  Why do I feel the need to make that distinction? No matter the focus all good writing begins with form, style, and language. It doesn’t just happen; it’s crafted, carefully, much like a layered 1-2-3-4 cake. Without precision and attention, the outcome is messy, undesirable, and met with frowns, sometimes expletives.

Food writers don’t eat to live; they live to eat and describe what they eat in a manner that engages everyone—from recipe seekers to anthropologists. From the food writers I’ve had a pleasure to meet and become friends with, such as Sarah, to those whose writing I admire from afar, such as Wizenberg, one thing is clear: food drives the passion to write.

In the community of food writers, the debates aren’t over form or style, they’re over food. Is organic really worth the price? How does the government shape the country’s notion of good food? What’s the next food trend? The writing isn’t second place; it’s the chosen mode of communication—communication that usually prompts discussion among many audiences.

Evan Kleiman, chef, cookbook author, and foodie legend, says that “food writing today is an intellectual and emotional funnel to some of the most fundamental issues of our time.”

In other words, the community of food writers is confronted with an endless range of topics, such as ethics, politics, biology, chemistry, sustainability, history, sociology, visual art, and veterinarian sciences.

Because food is universal to the human experience.

“And since food is as universal as breath, it is hardly surprising that it has insinuated itself into every aspect of the literary imagination. These days you will find food wherever you look on the bookshelf—in memoir, biography, popular science, academic anthropology, post-colonial studies and, of course, in travel writing,” Kathryn Hughes in an online article for The Guardian argues.

Stripped down, the human race survived because we are hunters and gatherers. Food is what protected us from extinction. Food, also, is how we can document the changes that have occurred in our culture and, most importantly, in our human evolution

Consider food writing as a reflection of our current industrial food system.

On one end of the spectrum there’s fear meat, Kraft Foods listserves, countless recipe search engines, and Food Television magazine. On the other end: grass-fed beef, LocalHarvest.com, sleek food blogs, and independent journals and magazines such as Gastronomica and Meatpaper. What food writing I choose to value has everything to do with the purpose and context of the piece. I don’t go to Good Housekeeping for an essay about the differences between classes on the Titanic as reflected in each dining room’s (or hall’s) menu. Just as I wouldn’t read Alimentum to find a great pulled pork recipe. But I might read Saveur if I wanted both at the same time.  The best food writing has the uncommon ability to be didactic and literary at the same time. Because food is a common bond between us all, food writing can be as simple as recipe in Bon Appetit, as informative as Mark Bittman’s column Bitten, as scientific as Eric Block’s Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science, or as literary as Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Bender’s novel captures the language of food and its connection to our lives:

There, I ordered chicken Dijion, or beef Bourguignon, or a simple green salad, or a pate sandwich, and when it came to the table, I melted into whatever arrived. I lavished in a forkful of spinach gratin on the side, at how delighted the chef had clearly been over the balance of spinach and cheese, like a matchmaker who knew they would shortly fall in love. Sure, there was small distractions and preoccupations in it all, but I could find the food in there, the food was center, and the person making the food was so connected with the food that I could really, for once, enjoy it. I ate as slowly as I could. The air around me filled purpose. (244)

 In literature, I expect projection through language.  I don’t want to be taught something and I don’t want to be force-fed the author’s intentions. I want to peel apart multiple layers and discover meaning myself. I want to find myself in characters and escape from my own reality for just a little while, as I did in Bender’s novel.

But I can equally escape into the pages of a cookbook. Traditionally, cookbooks present a formula to be followed. Presently, however, there’s a rise in hybrids such as cookbook memoir or cookbook art books. Nigel Slater, in his newest cookbook Tender, artfully describes his gardening practices, the vegetables that emerge, and how to best cook what’s harvested. Slater invites the imagination, just as Bender does, to walk with him among trimmed hedges and fertile rows:

The leek is the vegetable of clear, white winter skies and kitchen windows fogged up with condensation. It is garden soil glistening blue with frost; grainy potato soups the color of antique linen; itchy socks that have slid down the back of your Wellingtons, toes numb with cold. I like the gardener’s expression, “a good stand” of leeks, and that the upper green part is called the flag. For that is what they do, stand and wave, when all else in the garden or allotment has collapsed in a tangle of crisp, brown stems. (283)

Essentially good food writing, such as Bender’s and Slater’s, should spark hunger and ignite the intellect. Slater’s passage is alive with language and metaphor; his leeks stand proud, waving green for all to see. The same richness abounds in Bender’s selection. But Bender doesn’t need to tangle meaning with pretty descriptions. The food is the center and the awareness Rose experiences replicates our continuing fascination with this bare necessity.

In fact, good writing—no matter the genre—should do just that. It should replicate experience and guide readers to a new understanding of experience.

Food writers of the past and present acknowledge this to be true. Even though both approach the topic from different contexts, Bender and Slater are just two examples of hundreds that illustrate the diversity, artistry, and merit of food writing. As Molly O’Neill points out in her introduction of American Food Writing,

…a good piece of food writing is never just about food; it is, among other things, about place and time, desire and satiety, the longing for home and the lure of the wider world. In a good piece of food writing, dozens of other tensions skittle just beneath the surface of these basic conflicts; the  civilized competes with the wild, the idiosyncratic tugs at convention, self-control campaigns to squelch self-indulgence. A meal, like the written account of it, is a declaration of self. (xxi-xxii)

Food is the language I think in. Poetry is something I still appreciate, but it never truly nourished me. I can ponder poetry, but I can’t ingest it. There’s no sensual gratification. There’s “ah-ha” moment that all fives senses can share at once.

Food defines me.

When friends ask, “What do you do with kale?” I answer as if kale is my sister, who shouldn’t be mistreated in a new relationship—a loved one I defend even when defense isn’t warranted. I describe how to simply sauté kale in a skillet with a drizzle of olive oil and squeeze of lemon. Or how to tenderly wash each leaf, pat them dry, coat them in olive oil, and sprinkle them with salt before baking them into crunchy chips. Or to slice leaves into thin ribbons for raw kale salad with a miso dressing.

My friends nod politely as I answer affectionately. I stop before two minutes turns into an hour.

The canon of food writers—M.F.K. Fisher, Craig Claiborne, Ruth Reichl, Gael Greene, Jim Harrison, and Anthony Bourdain to name a few—have done all the prep work, the cooking, and the dishes. They leave a legacy for newbies to live up to. But those writers are the shiny, sleek surface of a surprisingly deep pool.

In fact, it’s more like a saturated market. With the accessibility to hundreds of thousands of food blogs, television channels dedicated solely to food and cooking, and YouTube and Vimeo clips with any John or Jane showing how to scale a fish, food writers have to work even harder to find an original angle that makes a reader want to pay attention. And they have to acknowledge that no matter how fateful a food experience was, the only way to capture it (and an audience) effectively is through good writing. Hughes points out, “Food writing is writing full stop, and the best of it does what good writing always does, which is to create an alternative world to the one you currently inhabit.”

If a food writer drags me to a family meal, I must be able to see, feel, smell, hear, and taste it through the writing. And I better be able to chew on more than the menu and the family dynamic. I should be transported to that writer’s food universe. I want to feel the polish on the wood table, the sturdiness of the chair’s back against my spine, the fork at my lips. But I want more. I want the interweaving of human desires, conflicts, feats, and values, an entanglement that reflects the struggles always present in the undercurrent of our culture.

Essentially, language is the only vessel to the core of our human existence.

Lately the only way I feel connected to people is through food. Three or so nights a week my husband and I invite friends over for dinner. We linger over meals, drinking wine, patting our stomachs, sharing stories, and finally I feel, for the first time of the day, nourished—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. When I look at the retro Last Supper lamp/painting that hangs on the wall above our dinner table, I think, Jesus was really onto something with this breaking bread thing. (Hmm, yet another angle to mine, yet another layer to research…)

The nourishment from the page is, at best, the same as the nourishment from the meal.

I write and read about food because food is my gateway for making sense of my surroundings. When I discovered food, I discovered the world of fractions, the chemistry of a roux, the history of shallots, the geography of Bordeaux, the memory of my mom pan frying burgers while I peer up from a fraction worksheet to watch her grab a salt shaker.

I also discovered a community of like-minded folks who find themselves and the world through food. In this community of fellow food writers I have learned how to cook gluten-free, how to nurture backyard chickens, and how to turn a recipe into art. Writing about food is a way to say to someone, “You’re not alone.” And reading about food reaffirms that message. With food it’s easy to find a new way to prepare kohlrabi, to learn a trick for thickening curries, or to discover salivate while reading at text about offal. But what I love most is how food and writing about it has welcomed me into a community of others, who are just as vigilant and obsessed as I am, and with their support I am able to cultivate meaningful connections between edibles and words, and I partake in meaningful conversations about food.

That’s not to say there isn’t jealousy, self-doubt, competition, networking and nepotism. These exist in all communities of writing.  Let’s not be naïve. What’s different about food is that food, naturally, has the ability to create community. And within that already-established community, it’s easier to find and gravitate towards those who primarily write about food. By no means am I as popular as food writer Michael Ruhlman, but I feel community with him. His blog fuels my food knowledge and inspires my food writing. From his book Ratio I gained the know-how to make from-scratch mayo. Learning from Ruhlman pulls me into a viable, real community, a community of writers—and recipes— that I then share with my family and friends and they with theirs.

Food sustains and brings us all together and it perpetuates its own existence, even if writing isn’t involved.

But even more so if it is.

Walk into any Williams Sonoma, and you can buy a sous vide machine or Vitamix blender. You might have to swipe some plastic before you take either home, but the reality is any home cook can have the tools that only chefs once had access to. The availability of these foodie toys will no doubt change the future of food writing. Reviewing these machines and/or experimenting with them are some of the “new” angles food writers address. But there are other paths to food writing’s future. Some lead us through rows of heirloom vegetables and to a dining table only a few feet away where a chef sautés just-picked zucchini still warm from the afternoon sun. Others lead us through farmers markets, CSAs, urban gardens, goats grazing in an empty downtown lot. Food inspires civic action and engagement with our land and each other. At its core food brings folks together and helps us share the stories of our lives. As food writers, we must capture this notion and do something with it beyond the didactic. Food-focused journalists, such as Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, drop knowledge. But now, at this crux of defining contemporary food writing, its utmost purpose should be to prompt discussion and action. Good food writing has the ability to shape people’s values and their relationships with food. The food writing of tomorrow must find new territory, report observations, bridge the gap between the literary and the instructive. It must do it all.

“What are your all-time favorite foods, EJ?” I ask, glancing in the rearview mirror.

“Hmmm,” my niece considers from the back seat, sucking on a mint from the roll I just bought her while checking out at Mustard Seed Market. She was miffed they didn’t have candy by the registers. “Corn dogs!”

“What else?”

“Cotton candy. Funnel cakes. And Reese’s.”

“What about food your mom makes?”

“Her brownies with Rolos.” They’re quite simple; whip up brownie mix, pour it in a wrapper-lined muffin tin, stick a Rolo in the center of each cup so it is completely covered, and bake according to the box’s directions. The simultaneously moist and gooey  chocolate cakes with caramel centers are highly addictive.

“But your mom makes really great guac, salads, marinated chicken breasts…”

“Yeah, but that’s good food, not favorite food. Your favorite foods are burgers and fries and mac and cheese.”  EJ rolls her eyes, crunches the last of her mint, and we fall into silence.

A few puffy clouds cover the afternoon sun’s glare. I fantasize about a recipe for brown buttered radishes.

“These mints are really good, Aunt Amanda. Want one?”

In response, I hold out my palm.

Apart from obsessing about food and wine as editor of Connotation Press’ From Plate to Palate and on her blog The Everyday Palate, Amanda McGuire has several other food-centered projects in the works. She also writes book reviews which have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal and Literary Magazine Review. Her poems have appeared in Noon: Journal of the Short Poem, The Cream City Review, So To Speak, and other literary journals. She teaches at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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