On Food Writing
Where does it end and where does literature begin?
There is a chapter in Rachel Cusk’s memoir The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy called “Gianfranco’s Store.” Ever since I first read it, I’ve called it my favorite piece of food writing, though it never would have been published under that rubric. Maybe it could have slid in through travel writing—those magazine features always seem to give writers a bit more leeway.
It begins, “In the drab gray folds of an English winter we speak of food.” I’m always snagged on the lack of a comma to set off the prepositional phrase, to introduce “we speak of food.” But it’s that refusal to pause that gives the sentiment its urgency; “we speak of food” protruding like a hungry belly, inspiring me as reader to keep going, to find out what the feast will be. But unlike much food writing, she’s not trying to make me hungry or inspire me to purchase a plane ticket, as in travel writing. I’m not to be made envious; the work is not aspirational: She’s simply entertaining me, engaging me, telling me about the role of food and this shop in her trip.
This sets off what I understand as a squishy demarcation between food writing and food literature. Literary food writing—it’s one of those things you know when you see it, and “Gianfranco’s Store” is it. Of course, Cusk’s self-mockery and intentionally surface analysis of the world’s cuisines would upset the masses on Twitter, would explode into think pieces, even with her self-mockery—“for I am not the omnivore I would like to be,” she writes.
“I am not proud of my revulsion,” she goes on, of her palate’s limits when imagining being served things like blackbird, headcheese, monkey brains, or guinea pigs. “It is, I know, a form of stupidity.” This is why she is relieved to go to Italy, where no small fowl goes hidden in the pasta, where all components of a pizza show themselves on its face. Are you allowed to mock yourself, your own tastes, in food writing that will be on the internet? I don’t think so, because every personal act or thought must also be categorically true for everyone else. This is antithetical to honest writing, honest being.
I don’t share Cusk’s lack of adventure and enthusiasm for new-to-me foods (though, of course, I don’t eat meat), but I don’t have to agree with anything here in order to enjoy the writing. What reading this piece does is make me realize how much food writing that is positioned as “food writing” hinges upon argument, on making a case for its ideas rather than its existence. Food writing, as we usually encounter it on a daily basis, needs to provide a service. It’s not the least bit formally daring, either. Every comma should be in its proper place.
There are challenges to this, though, especially in recent work like Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen and Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit. Both these and much more make the case that food writing can be literature while still offering fresh ideas for engagement with ingredients, with the act of cooking, with the natural world.
Writer Charlotte Druckman—editor most recently of the anthology Women on Food—and I have been discussing the food writing we’re most excited about, such as these books, and where we’re reading it, and I thought it would be interesting to take the conversation out of the DMs and to the public square, so to speak. (The following has been condensed and edited for clarity. There is a Bookshop list of all the work we mention that’s available there.)
Charlotte: Whenever people ask me what my favorite food writing is, or, you know, my favorite food writers, I would say that my favorite food writing, usually I find in fiction. The book that I usually hold up as the thing that really opened my eyes was Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. It’s a fictionalized account of a real person who lived; he was the Vietnamese chef who came and worked for Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in Paris. It's his story, and it's just so beautifully written, and that extends to all the descriptions of his cooking, of his learning to cook, of food, of eating of all of those things.
A lot of times, you'll just be reading a passage in a novel, and there will just be a description of a meal. And it seems like the most loosely tossed-off thing, because when you're reading that novel, and it's not necessarily I mean—in Monique Truong’s case, it was a novel that was directly about food, but it might not even be a food book, it may be that it's a description that's helping give you a sense of a moment, a place, you know, a person's tick, or something. And it'll just be so much more evocative.
I think when I say it, the reason I feel embarrassed or bad about it is that I don't want to disparage what I do, and what all of the other people who do my job do. I feel terrible about it. And I also think that it's not—because we, I mean, we don't know what we're capable of, but the point is, it's what is expected of us, and what the limitations put on what is called food writing are.
Alicia: What we were talking about, what inspired this conversation, was that we're seeing a lot of books and a lot of writing coming out, specifically of the UK, that really does challenge the U.S. hegemony around what is defined as food writing, like Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires.
Charlotte: I knew we were going to talk and I was just like, I really love this book.
Alicia: It is so gorgeous. And it really challenges everything that food writing is supposed to be. Same as, you know, Jonathan Nunn edited London Feeds Itself, which I've only dipped into a little bit, but it's so refreshing just to see food taken into contexts where it's not making an argument for itself. And I think that that's what drives me a bit nuts about the U.S. approach to food writing, is that like you always have to be making an argument, you always have to be justifying the food angle, you always have, like, I don't know, it's just there. There's no joy in it.
Charlotte: For me, it's about the idea of form, that you're not allowed to really just appreciate and work on the writing itself and the form of the writing, whether that's on the level of a sentence or whether it's the structure of an entire piece that you wrote. Everything is so sort of contradictorily formulaic. It's annoying because it takes an academic term, in the sense that you're not allowed to look at it from a more formalist approach—and not write formalist with a capital F, then we're gonna take a bad turn—but we're not allowed to, we're not allowed to write with that in mind, and we're not allowed to write about the writing with that in mind. So it's kind of like a strait-jacket.
Alicia: I mean, Small Fires wouldn't have been published in the U.S.
Charlotte: No, this is exactly what I was thinking. I was like, This is so sad. I try to imagine what this proposal would have read like to American editors and publishers.
I want to point out a few other books, too, just before we get into this, that are, in some ways harder to talk about, maybe, but I think one of them came out of the UK, just to add to that list, and it's called Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives by a woman named Genevieve Jenner. And it came out in March. And the cool thing that's happening here is that it's this weird fusion of—weird in a good way—is the short story and an essay. So some things are anecdotal. Some things feel more expository in certain ways. Some things feel more rhetorical, and she uses magical realism, so that's why sometimes it'll start to seem like you're reading a story, and then a short story. But yet you are also still reading what is essentially an essay about or a memory of food. It's really, really cool. It's not like anything else I've ever seen. And again, I don't think we would be seeing it.
The other book is actually American. So yay to that, but it's an academic press. It's Columbia University Press. And the woman who wrote it—first of all, it's called Taste: A Book of Small Bites by Jehanne Dubrow. She's a poet. She is a professor of creative writing and a poet, and she calls herself an intellectual sensualist was really, really interesting. And what I like so much about this is that she has this incredible command of material culture and history. And she just zigzags through all of these different moments in history and pop cultural sort of touchstones. And it's, again, it's something that feels very distinct to a person's literary style and literary point of view. But it's also how they see the world and it's all through food.
And the last one, which I really, hope gets more attention here, because it's a book of poems—which, you know, we don't really talk about in food writing at all. But it's called The Symmetry of Fish. These are all by women, by the way, which is coincidental. A woman named Su Cho, and so it's really about the language of food, because you see that through poetry, and a lot of it has to do with her own memories of cooking. Her background is Korean, and so it's her heritage, and she conjures up a lot of folkloric Korean ghosts, which is pretty cool. It's definitely different, but it taps into stuff that we're talking about now in food writing, which is immigrant culture, memory, collective memory. I may not have articulated that so well, but it's a really beautiful book. And I feel like these are all people who are taking this idea of how you could write about food in different directions, and they're all literary.
Alicia: I guess that's always the question, what is literary?
Charlotte: I also feel like it has to do with and again, like this is my own skew of what we are not allowed in quotes to do is food writers. But to me, it also feels like the room you're given, or the mindset that you approach the work. And, you know, like, if we, if you and I are doing a piece for a magazine, right, like, like travel and leisure, or whichever magazine wants us to write about a specific thing we know already going in that this is lifestyle, and on top of that it service. Yes. And that requires certain skills. And we know we have those skills, we know how to do that. But it's very different than sitting down and feeling what relative to us, would be the freedom of saying you can just write for the sake of the writing in order to express whatever ideas you have that you wish to express.
Alicia: Is food writing appearing anywhere where it is allowing us to do that? Because the thing that comes to my mind first is that I've only—I mean, other than for my newsletter on occasion—but you know, I've only written what I would call food writing that is literary for Hazlitt. I don't know who else has been supportive of that.
Charlotte: I mean, I tried to do that, to some degree with Women on Food, but part of that was you have to go, just like with you in your newsletter, you have to go make your own thing.
I also just want to point out, because I also made a note of this, I think Ruby Tandoh, her writing in general, I think does this, but I also think her recent books, I would say probably do this, like I think Cook As You Are does it to some degree? And I definitely think Eat Up did it—maybe Eat Up more than Cook As You Are.
We wouldn't call them food writing, but just to say that there's definitely been sort of a build. Maryse Condé’s book Of Morsels and Marvels. And what's really fascinating about this, to go back to the idea of like, Well, is it food writing? Do you find it in the category of food writing? It doesn't fit any genre. It's not quite memoir. It's not quite travel. It's not quite food. It's all of those things. And I think also, again, unfortunately, was not published here, but Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs. I think those were maybe some early lead-ups to this.
You know who else I think is doing it here? Ligaya Mishan’s writing for T is definitely an example of it. But again, how many other places does that happen?
Alicia: When people come to me, maybe I'm also constraining myself sometimes, because even when people are asking me to do a food essay for a non-food publication, I feel that I'm supposed to bring the food writer vibe, so maybe I'm shooting myself in the foot sometimes.
Charlotte: It's funny, because editors will always say that they want your voice in it. I always think, but I've spent most of my entire life honing my voice to suit whichever publication I was writing for, so how do I know what is my voice?
I will often, when I'm writing a very standard service piece, think, I'm just gonna mess with the format just a little bit. I don't like doing that first paragraph being the nut graf; I hate that expression so much. And I'll just very deliberately mess with it and be like, I'm gonna make readers read a few extra paragraphs, why can't I build up to it? Inevitably, my editor will ask, “Charlotte, can you just move this up?”
Alicia: And I do think that a lot of these constraints are artificially created. For a reader—I don't think we're giving the reader enough credit ever. And I do think that that's been one nice thing about newsletters—like you know, Vittles getting popular or Whetstone getting popular. These are places where we're not taking for granted that the reader is a smart person who cares.
Charlotte: I think it's also just this idea of, aside from the underestimating of intelligence, I think it's this idea of siloed expectation, right? Not just for us, but for the reader. It's like, well, if the reader thinks it's food content, the reader is not going to be looking for literary content.
Alicia: To talk about a mutual friend of ours and to compliment him very much, I do think Taste Makers by Mayukh Sen confused people because it was well written and beautiful. And you went through it and you were being given these gorgeous scenes that he cultivated.
Charlotte: Because most of them are not here anymore, you are getting into sort of the psychic interiors of a character. I've read a ton of food writing where there's actually no story, but there are very lyrical descriptions of food—that is definitely allowed. You're allowed to be, you know, mellifluous, and poetic in how you describe a peach, right? But I think the thing with Mayukh’s book is that it was actually about character development. He also has the descriptions of food, but that wasn't what he rested on. That wasn't what the book depended on at all. It was about exploring lives and characters, and then putting them into this analytical context. And it was really beautifully written. I mean, the sentence construction is, yes, so deliberate about all of it. It's more than just, I'm going to describe the food for you, and I'm going to give you enough information that you could probably tell someone at a dinner party, what the food that you just read about was, or, you know—I mean, I'm being really that's really reductive.
It just doesn't feel like there's a lot of room for American food writing and food writers to grow or to go right now. There should be more than ever. That's what's so sad.
Alicia: I do think one of the few places in U.S. food writing where we do get to play with form a little bit is in the memoir, but then it's the question of who gets to write the memoirs? One of my favorites that I haven't read in a long time was Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen.
Charlotte: By the way, a novelist.
Alicia: Exactly. That was, for me, that was when I was like, Oh, this is what I want to be doing. This is the food writing I want to see. Obviously, my approach is different because I'm always like, the personal and the political and like, where do they meet? And where does pleasure meet it and blah, blah, blah. I hope I did something about that in my book. I don't know. It remains to be seen.
Charlotte: It's not necessarily for want of doing this kind of writing, ambition, or talent. It's just that there are so few outlets for it, and the amount of capital and effort, and just like can-do attitude that you need to go out and do it yourself. I don’t want to bring age into this too much, but there is a point where you reach a certain age where you're just like, I don't know if I have that same kind of whippersnapper energy, right, to just make this happen—to just figure it out. Or if I'm like, you know, past my years of wanting to bootstrap my life. Unfortunately, in order to see some of what I think we want to see—I hate to make this parallel but I'm just like, so upset about it, it reminds me of the restaurant industry and opening a restaurant. Where is there room for scrappy innovation and not fake scrappy innovation?
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include the ratio of my pumpkin spice blend, so that you can make it yourself and customize it to your liking, now that it’s no longer in stock at Burlap & Barrel. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I read Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night: On Writing very quickly—it’s wonderful, as is everything put out by Dorothy Project.
A lot of salad for lunch with a crunchy topping I’m going to talk about in not this week but next week’s From the Kitchen.
Oh god I hate so much to hear talented writers like both of you talking about the constraints of "what's allowed." Allowed by whom is my immediate response? Is the problem that you're "not allowed" to write in certain ways, or that the paid publishing landscape is shrinking so quickly, that we're all trying to grab scraps of a disappearing industry?
My touchstones were always Patience Gray, Laurie Colwin, and MFK Fisher -- I mean, I did get included in Best American Food Writing in 2010, but I wasn't paid for the piece (linked here: https://charlottemcguinnfreeman.com/books/). I've never found a way to make any actual $$ off any of the writing I most love. Which is heartbreaking. And appalling. And makes me even more angry for talented younger writers like the both of you ...
Thank you for this essay! I’m taking a class soon on food, life, and literature, and I’ve been thinking a lot about these very demarcations between non-fiction food writing and literature. What you wrote (for today, for previous pieces) is really helping me work through differences, but maybe more importantly the gray areas between these categories!