On Domestic Writing
The genre of food writing I can't get enough of.
I realized while writing for Gawker last year about how “recipe developer” became a famous job that I don’t have any allegiance to the recipe developer types as food thinkers, despite ostensibly being a recipe developer myself. I don’t actually want to be a recipe developer; I want to talk about how I cook. I care more about the domestic chronicles of the food bloggers and the essays of folks like Laurie Colwin and the books of Nigel Slater. I don’t want someone to tell me how to create a flavor bomb, someone inspired by restaurant cooking: I want to know how you’re feeding your family on a random Monday, how you’re creating a holiday feast. I want the domestic.
In Gary Indiana’s 2013 essay on Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, he writes scathingly of any food writing that wasn’t M.F.K. Fisher, until Bremzen comes along to once again marry the material conditions of the society outside the kitchen with what happens within it. Now it’s expected to consider systemic and economic issues even when writing personally, but I also think Indiana’s perspective ignores people like Madeleine Kamman, Colwin, and Tamar Adler (and surely many others) who have also attempted to show how the kitchen relates to life as it’s lived. Domestic writing doesn’t have to deal in the most major of issues to be important, not always.
“Cooking is like anything else,” writes Colwin in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. “Some people have an inborn talent for it. Some become expert by practicing and some learn from books.” Cooking is like anything else is the foundation of domestic food writing. It lets you take a big sigh of relief and not be so serious.
There’s a truth in what people are drawn to in this kind of food writing—something I am often scoffing at, but when I step back, I see the purpose—which are seemingly banal lines about food being life, cooking being foundational to existence, blah blah blah. These are simple ideas but they do need to be repeated. Cooking, the real cooking that is the stuff of daily life, is something we have to consistently reassert as significant, important, because it is so rare that the world acknowledges it as such.
Did I ever thank my mother enough for her cooking? Have I really internalized what a gift it is that my grandmother can live on in a chocolate chip sour cream cake? That, through Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, I can see how my own grandmother was part of a larger culinary framework in New York City—inspiration shared among women? “For Henriette’s, Victoire’s and Marie-Charlotte’s recipes, I sat and bored my mother with millions of questions until I squeezed out of her all she remembered that could come to the rescue of my own memories,” writes Kamman in When French Women Cook.
A focus on quality ingredients for quality flavor (organic chicken, fresh eggs, etc.) is also an expected aspect of domestic writing yet oddly became associated with the ’00s “food movement” alone, the influence of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Yet women were writing about it, out of taste but also out of a desire not to serve the opaque products of industrial agriculture to loved ones. (There’s a class privilege situation here, yes; that doesn’t make agribusiness into the good guy.)
Domestic writing is different from the food media concerns with restaurants and chefs. It is writing where we talk about the brilliance of steaming and boiling as cooking techniques, so often forgotten (so often we forget). It is writing where we talk about what we cook when we don’t feel like it; the differences between cooking for close friends, the people you’ll let into the kitchen, and cooking for acquaintances; the hangover meals; the tasks a child can complete; the salad dressings; the constantly forgotten ends of parmesan that we had the best of intentions for using up in some way or another.
It’s writing where those culinary frameworks, constellations of inspiration from someone we know or the cookbooks we always reach for, are acknowledged. It’s writing in which I tell you that I am not in a great mood today, and when my husband was leaving for work, he told me I’ll feel better once we go to Costco tonight. (It’s writing where I tell you I’m really a very moody person, a very anxious and neurotic person with a tendency toward self-sabotage, and I try to sublimate all of that through having control in the kitchen. “Sometimes I want more control than is possible,” writes Rebecca May Johnson in her new classic of domestic writing, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, “so I hide rather than risk the vulnerability of proximity.”)
Domestic writing shows off the mess, doesn’t shy away from it; it complicates what we consider rest and what we consider labor. Mess is a word that has come up for me more and more, defining my photo aesthetic, and so I felt very understood when reading Betty Fussell, in her memoir My Kitchen Wars, write, “I like food because it’s in the middle of the mess.” She doesn’t, in this book, shy away from the ways in which her life, her marriage, had been defined by food—restrained and constrained, and eventually liberated through it. It’s a more sensuous companion to Marion Nestle’s Slow Cooked or Deborah Madison’s An Onion in My Pocket or Alice Waters’ Coming to My Senses: a great portrait of some women’s lives at that time.
Who gets to do the domestic writing, of course, is always the question hanging over the texts. Lately I’ve enjoyed work from folks like Ifrah Ahmed and Lil Chef Mari. I always adore Daniela Galarza, whose newsletter endeavors to let everyone in. Where are you reading your favorite domestic writing nowadays, and who’s writing it? What are your favorites of the past?
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be a manifesto, of sorts—a continuation of this piece, describing my plans for how this cooking supplement will change somewhat this year (and expand, in ways!). See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I gave a comment to Bon Appétit about the announcement that Noma will close in its current form at the end of 2024—news that oddly coincided with my newsletter on cinematic portrayals of fine-dining’s unsustainability last week.
All these books mentioned here and more. I read a lot but I’m always hopping about; I’m trying to focus myself again this year and also regularly dedicate myself to the kind of writing I really love. To that end (and for a less food-centric depiction of the domestic), I tore through Love Me Tender by Constance Debré in one afternoon. An absolutely astounding work.
Above, the makings of both oatmeal and a broth of scraps made for risotto—my husband’s specialty. My flatbread for mushroom shawarma last week didn’t rise sufficiently—the weather has been strangely cool, the air dry—and it made me depressed, so the extra mushrooms were put into homemade flour tortillas for tacos the next night, which were much more successful. Leftover tortillas thhen became basically the mushroom-kale galette in quesadilla form for lunch the following day—oddly very successful! Excess mushroom-kale filling was put in a warm orzo salad for the next day’s lunch. The kitchen goes on and on and on.