as personal narrative—and as a food writing trap.
One of the things that struck me as I was reading this is how good food writing allows me a certain kind of flexibility, curiosity, and willingness to try something new when I’m in the kitchen, not usually a place of confidence for me. But reading others’ personal narratives about their embodied experiences cooking gives me permission to try to be a bit more embodied in my own choices and decision-making while cooking too, to risk “failure” in a way I wouldn’t if I’m trying to adhere to a strict recipe, taken out of any context.
This book, which incorporates almost every aspect of your essay today, but especially "because of the ways the recipes emerge from her stories, from her narratives" will not be a stranger to most of your subscribers, Alicia: Pomp and Sustenance. Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti (1989). So began my love affair with Sicily, which I was fortunate to transfer from the page to real life for six wonderful years.
"Before the recipe was a text it was written by the body,” she writes. “It was cooked.”
Yes! People often ask for recipes and then get annoyed or perturbed when I give them a paragraph, instead of the more scientific absolutes of measurements and timings they're used to seeing in cookbooks. But I don't usually cook with specific measurements. Baking? Yes, because baking is science (although even though I fudge things because I can). But cooking is art, which is I think what is missing from a lot of traditional cookbooks. When it's just a list of ingredients and measurements and techniques, you lose the art. Headnotes help bring the description of the art process to life. Maybe this is why I also hate art exhibits that don't tell you anything about the artist or their process or the history of a work? I need to context, or the art (like recipes) are pretty, but meaningless.
"and I’ve learned over time not to expect even people who claim to want to talk to you about your work to have ever actually read your work." It's not the same, but this reminds me of being asked for recipes from friends at dinner parties. I used to think they really wanted the recipe, so I would write/type it up for them, etc., only to learn, over time, that asking for a recipe is a way that some people compliment your cooking: they really have no intention of making it themselves, or once they learn what's involved (one friend said, "Oh, if it's more than five ingredients, I don't make it") they're out. I suspect this happens on social media as well: in fact, I'd like to see the receipts of those who've asked for recipes and if they, indeed, actually made it :) Also: I love your take on embodied writing through recipes and find it fascinating.
This is so great, Alicia! I've been thinking a lot about how to insert personality/"embody" my cookbook recipes, despite them—as bread recipes—needing to be especially rigorous. It's a challenge, but I'm finding ways here and there to muscle myself into them.
Also: Thanks for the mention in your Taste podcast!
‘The narrative is where the voice comes in, providing as much citation and background as possible, to establish that this recipe hasn’t emerged from a void—could not have emerged from nowhere, has a range of influences and inspirations, and is indeed the product of this person’s experience in their kitchen. Why cook a recipe if you don’t understand the writer’s appetite?’
Can I say (again) this is really great anthropology, Alicia?
‘embodied writing’ ... this is so good
I love this line: "The personal narrative is inextricable from the suggested amounts of salt." Exactly. For me, they are both important and how I connect to food best.
A powerful read. “I prefer when recipes emerge to me through life”-- and they do, when we stop choreographing the show. Like writing, when I approach cooking with reckless abandon, I get the most unexpected results. And a messy kitchen and notebook.
This essay had so many moments that I wanted to screen shot, so many snippets to share. It's an irresistible urge to engage with digital media this way. But after essentially screen-grabbing the entire essay, I was reminded by the gentle steering of the essay itself that ... the point is the entire work builds, grows, and fits together. This is a new favorite piece, and one that I am sure I won't be alone in returning to often. Thank you!
Just a quick heads-up, for now, that ((the)) Die Zeit interview states that your culinary tourism course was a series of lectures for journalism students. You may want to ask them to correct that error.
("zuletzt hat sie für Journalismus-Studierende eine Reihe Lektionen über kulinarischen Tourismus erarbeitet...)
How do you prepare your okra? I was always put off by the inherent mucilage until I chanced upon the method of tossing them in oil and broiling them until crisp, tossing in spices and just going to town. No slime, all flavor. I’ll eat pounds of the stuff now.
Your description of Laurie Colwin’s writing reminded me of a favorite food memoir/cookbook hybrid, Rick Bragg’s “The Best Cook in the World”, in which the author does his best to translate his mother’s multi-generational knowledge of Southern cooking, passed down through observation and oral storytelling, onto the page. As he puts it, “She had hoped for a daughter to pass her skills and stories to - that or a thoughtful son, someone worthy of the history, secrets, and lore; instead, she got three nitwit boys who would eat a big on a bet and still cannot do more than burn a weenie on a sharp stick, and could not bake a passable biscuit even if you handed us one of those whop-‘em cans from the Piggly Wiggly and prayed for bread.”
Each chapter is a narrative building to a recipe, filled with turns of phrase that never cease to delight, some hilarious, some heartbreaking, always interesting. The love Bragg has for his mother bursts from every page. The food described within is mostly not going to be to your personal taste - pretty far from vegetarian or vegan, for sure! But the real nourishment lies in the storytelling, in which I think you would delight. That’s assuming you haven’t read it already, of course.
Expecting recipes from a food writer. The image that pops into my head (please forgive the intrusion of a name I detest) is of Tucker Carlson on “Crossfire” whining to Jon Stewart after having been ripped an entirely deserved new orifice, “I thought you’d be funny!” Unless someone is looking for and is promised a recipe, then not given one, well, not every bit of writing about music has a song at the end.