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On ‘Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics’
Reading Marion Nestle's new memoir, in which she forges a path now taken for granted.
Reminder that I’ll be in conversation with Masienda founder and author of MASA: Techniques, Recipes, and Reflections on a Timeless Staple Jorge Gaviria tonight in a virtual event hosted by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). Join us! 7 p.m. EST
The first book I bought when I was becoming interested in the food system over a decade ago was Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle (the penciled price on the inner cover suggests I got it at Book Revue in Huntington for $7). I appreciated it but not enough: I was and remain interested in how policy determines how we understand nutrition and how corporate power influences food (and by extension, nutrient) availability. But, as Betty Fussell wrote in the piece I also quoted last week, “Whenever food is the subject, like poetry or music or art, we should begin with the concrete and particular reality of the foodstuff, on the plate, in the hand, in the mouth. As a subject for the mind, food should not be divorced from its sensate existence and our sensuous experience of it… ”
The pure politics of food aren’t compelling to me—I’m a philistine in that way, or just nosy. I need to know, unfortunately, why the person gives a shit, what they like to eat and cook themselves, where they get pleasure. All of this could be considered cliché, I guess—or just lowbrow. But I can’t divorce food from the body—the body that labors in fields, the body testing recipes in kitchen clogs, the body that sits at the computer and writes—and I don’t think we should.
Nestle, though, never sought to be a food writer, and I am excited to return to her books now that I’ve read her memoir Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics, realizing that basically everything I care about, everything I am able to do, has some root in her work. (I was on a panel with her years ago to celebrate her retirement from NYU, to discuss gender in food; I had an awful time because I had explicitly asked the moderator not to discuss my ethnic background and then… he did… so I never got to really talk to her because instead I wanted to crawl beneath a rock.)
Slow Cooked begins with Nestle saying she’s always been taken aback by people’s interest in her personal life, history, and relationship to food. I obviously don’t find that surprising, but I do find it likely to be gendered: Would we care what a man liked to eat at home if he had written a book called Food Politics? I would, of course, but I doubt most would ask. It reminds me of how many people have assumed my first book will be a cookbook, when it’s a work of researched nonfiction.
Gender is a major subject in the book, as Nestle had the first half of her career determined by marriages and motherhood—husbands’ jobs, husbands’ moves—and she endured no shortage of discrimination and alienation in university positions. What I found to be the most compelling through line in the memoir, though, is her making explicit the gatekeeping and social mores of academia that she was unaware of and had to learn through experience. She acknowledges never having had a mentor (something I’ve also lacked), and how difficult this made life even as she achieved a PhD in molecular biology and a master’s in public health, worked on the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, and founded the food studies program at NYU in 1996. The time that is taken from people who didn’t grow up knowing how to navigate these systems (Nestle grew up quite poor, and her father passed when she was a teenager) doesn’t usually get its due, but here Nestle documents it.
Her honesty on the difficulties, as well as on the subject of book sales and publishing, filled me with relief. That’s not the point of a memoir, obviously, but it was useful to read as I face down the publication of my first book and my first time teaching—a culinary tourism class at Boston University’s master’s of gastronomy this coming spring—to read about her travails and understand more about how this significant force in the field of food studies emerged.
I see Slow Cooked as in conversation with other recent memoirs from women in food, like Jessica B. Harris’s My Soul Looks Back; Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums, on her time at Gourmet; Deborah Madison’s An Onion in My Pocket; and Alice Waters’ Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Waters’ critique of the food studies program at NYU not including a farming segment makes its way into Nestle’s memoir). Through these books, I have understood myself as the oftentimes ungrateful beneficiary of a lot of road left plowed for me to make my way. A moment in food writing and politics history has culminated in these memoirs, and there is much to learn from examining it.
There is also much to critique about who gets to write a food memoir at all, of course, and I’ve long been working toward a long piece on the genre—one I am obsessed with, endlessly. I want to know, always, about the body in the kitchen, determining what and how we eat, as well as the ways we talk about pleasure.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be about the way I’m making tomato sauce these days, as tomato season continues in Puerto Rico, and the implications it has for other vegetable-based sauces (Tomato Sauce and Its Implications). See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
My Foreign Policy piece on mushrooms in Puerto Rico is online now. I did an interview with former Zagat editor Chris Mohoney for his newsletter F&BQ&A, where we talked about chef culture and my desire for time to focus on my next book, whatever that may be.
I bought a lot of new (and used) books in New York, and right now I’m very eagerly reading Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now.
I made the most heinous-looking gnocchi last week but they were delicious. A lesson about gnocchi (or, my preferred spelling, ñoqui): it’s always delicious.