My first book proposal was about appetite and nostalgia, but it was roundly rejected. The time wasn’t right and it’s good to experience rejection, so I don’t feel too bad. It’s better that my first book will be about concrete things, about facts and figures as they relate to the various ways people decide to eat and call it “ethical.” I also realized that there’s no way to write about food that isn’t about appetite and nostalgia, and so I got my wish anyway.
That proposal and the working introduction of my book start in a cliché manner, with my maternal grandmother, because it is with her that my relationship to food began. It was interesting to go back to what I wrote in 2017 and see how little my focal points have really changed. The most crucial aspect of my work on food is that I love to eat, that I was born into eating good, rich food—no pat of butter, no French fry, no cannoli left behind—and it seems insurmountable to overcome that inheritance. The second is that I try to care about what I eat and where it comes from, which some people would argue comes at the expense of indulgence. Implicitly or explicitly, I’m always working against that notion.
Last week, I talked to Dr. Badia Ahad, a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, about the role of food in her book Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture. She said that there was no way for her to write about food that didn’t involve going back to her own formative memories, and in the chapter we discussed, she makes a recipe from Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan in order to understand how his reading and musical suggestion function as part of the whole experience. She said:
And I think for me, at least when I was writing the book and just doing some reading around this, it was really hard to try to find a way in, actually, as someone who's coming to this work from a very different vantage point. And that's probably why this chapter on food was the most personal for me, because I actually used my own food memories as a way to participate in what I saw was a really kind of expansive conversation.
Essentially, as a literary scholar explaining complex realities of nostalgia, politics, and Black identity, to discuss food, she had to get personal and she had to get into the kitchen. She had to go to where food is rooted for her and to where food happens for us all, each day. Food is memory and activity. It is alive.
That morning, I’d begun reading a book I’d forgotten I’d bought called Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer by Dr. Lisa Heldke, a philosophy professor at Gustavus Adolphus College. This book was published in 2003, the year I graduated from high school, and I was immediately struck by Heldke’s articulation of topics that were coming into the fore of food media only in the last few years, specifically the idea of cultural food colonialism as a significant aspect of white liberal food culture—that classic expression of bourgeois exuberance, as Sudanese chef Omer Eltigani put it to me once. But Heldke too had to start off personally with the elaborate Thanksgiving meals she cooked “in common” with her mother, from whose style of cooking she increasingly felt herself pulling away from, especially by no longer having meat as a central part of her diet (that’s when I remembered why I’d bought this book).
This is where food begins for us, whether we’re scholars or food writers, and it was a relief to be in conversation, literally and through reading, with smart women who also felt the strain of their childhood and familial traditions in their adult lives, who had to break away from those traditions, too, in order to be more fully themselves. “I definitely think that women’s relationship with food is too often pathologised and its meaning simplified,” says Clio Nicastro, who teaches Cultural and Critical Theory at Bard College Berlin in this Another Screen roundtable. That’s what good writing on food undoes. Bit by bit, it frees us from the simplification of our appetites.
Our appetites lead us away from our upbringings, but the nostalgia for what we grew on never really leaves. We find new ways to sate it. I thought of this the other day while sautéing kale and mushrooms, which I seasoned with a jar of Trader Joe’s Vegan Un-Chicken Seasoning a friend had brought me from New York. The taste of this blend was so reminiscent of something my mom actually used on chicken when I was growing up. The lemon I’d squirted on it on instinct amped up that flavor memory. I’d unconsciously made something I missed, the tools for which were handed to me by nostalgia and contemporary circumstance. It would all be cliché if this weren’t existence, weren’t the stuff of life.
It is boring when the filling of one’s appetite for nostalgia doesn’t go anywhere else, doesn’t bounce off the walls and out into the world. That’s where the cliché is to be found, in food memoir that doesn’t get at anything bigger than the self. As much as we’d all like to do bad impressions of M.F.K. Fisher, the ship has sailed and the planet is drowning. I am bored to tears by books about food that don’t give me anything about the author’s relationship to eating, though, like so many of the texts by academic men I have to read as research for my own book. Only giving us the facts falls flat, too. The good stuff is somewhere in the middle, between poetry and plain truth. In writing about food, we are writing about something material and concrete. It has to be present, but I balk at those readers who want food writing only to make them hungry. What a boring task, to talk gastronomically dirty.
There are also those who think food writing is always service writing. People responded to my Eater deep-dive into this history of vegan cheese to say that, actually, rejuvelac is not safe (I wasn’t telling people to use it) and that I didn’t address nut allergies (I wasn’t writing about allergies). There are a lot of gendered assumptions around who is allowed to simply do a big feature and who needs to also teach and accommodate. I am not a teacher; I am not a health writer. Food writing isn’t just about telling people what to cook and eat.
Excuse me for bringing him up again and again, but this is why I like Karl Ove Knausgaard writing about food. In My Struggle, he does not have an aesthetic or even real physical appreciation for food; he doesn’t like the idea that food has moral value. He writes about what food he buys, eats, and cooks with precise detail because he is writing about everything in life with precise detail. He learns to cook because he wants a task while people are visiting. His cooking is a performance of talent, a means of escape from small talk. Conversation gets good only later in the evening anyway, he knows, when the first bottle of wine is gone. Food is because it is. We all, after all, have an appetite—some of us resent it, others of us relish it. Some of us decide our appetite is the driving force of our lives. It’s so universal, so banal, that of course people think food writing is a bit fucking stupid, precious and frivolous. Everyone eats! You can’t get more cliché than talking about it in tones of grandeur.
I don’t always succeed at what I want to achieve in what I’m writing, which helps me to keep writing. Maybe one day I’ll express myself perfectly about all of these things that swirl around, catch the drift of all the themes I let flow. The funny thing is that I always wanted to be a writer in the Knausgaard mold, a real writer, but all my starts were false until I arrived at food, the most obvious thing for a person of my expansive appetite to write about. First, of course, I had to cook and bake a lot. So much, in fact, my then-boyfriend told me that when it came to food, I was “compulsively creative.” Finally, I thought, This is my thing. I’d spent my life up to that point rooting around for what would bring out of me what I had a deep sense was there if only I could find it. Something I had sought in strumming an acoustic guitar and shooting black-and-white photos but couldn’t quite access. In another cliché, it was the thing that was right there in front of me all along. Day in, day out.
One of the titles I’d suggested for that rejected proposal was Eat Through This, a reference to the Hole album Live Through This, and I still think that works for a memoir of female appetite. You know, the girl with the most cake and all that. I’m too happy now to recognize that person I was at the time, the rage she felt at the world and the simultaneous joy she took in food and drink, of being out among people after years of hiding, of finally living, only to have grief snatch it away and give what she’d previously considered joy a sheen of desperation. Going through the motions as life raft. I also know one day I’ll have to reach back and find her, bring her back to life, put words in her mouth and give shape to that desperate appetite. That’s how this works.
This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Jackie Summers, the first licensed Black distiller in the United States and maker of Sorel liqueur. Summers is also a brilliant writer and speaker. We’ll talk booze, loss, and equity.
Annual subscriptions are $30 and provide access to all past interviews. In the summer, I’ll be adding twice-monthly recipes.
A feature on vegan cheese for Eater. My talk “On Food Writing” with Pineapple Collaborative is now on YouTube.
Catching up on my giant stack of magazines! Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community, and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil.
Summer squash carpaccio with shallot dressing. A basic stir-fry. Much pasta. Many tacos. Attempting to not order in or go out during the week at all so that we can truly be gluttonous on the weekends as the work is seemingly never-ending.
"The good stuff is somewhere in the middle, between poetry and plain truth." Great post!
Loved this post. This line particularly resonated: "That’s what good writing on food undoes. Bit by bit, it frees us from the simplification of our appetites."
I, too, have found it interesting that Knausgaard spends so much time detailing eating, cooking, and food shopping, despite caring so little for any of it. It definitely highlights how inextricable food is from life and culture, and as someone who cares so much about these things, I find the purely utilitarian perspective an interesting one to explore. Thanks for these thought!