Is There Too Much Food Writing?

I’m not a foodie; it’s hard to be when you’re a vegetarian who learned how to cook in the 1970s. But my husband loves fine dining, so we’ve gone to restaurants run by celebrity chefs like Ming Tsai. We’ve imbibed a “Tomato Martini.” We’ve eaten copious amounts of shaved truffle on mesclun in Provence. Years ago, we almost went to the storied elBulli north of Barcelona.

If you’re a fan of elite eating, you’ll get these references; perhaps you’ll revel vicariously in every detail. But if you’re not, this kind of writing probably bores you senseless.

I know it bores me. It’s no surprise that the media hypes any trend like this as if it were beating viande chevaline. But in the past couple of weeks, several things have made me realize that food writing has reached a choke point.

First off, I recently attended a reading by Adam Gopnik to promote his new book The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.

At this event, he was as witty and erudite as his best New Yorker articles. He told stories about his reading tour, noting that he’s tried various approaches to describing the book. (At Yale, he said, he introduced it as a “moral code” for taste, which didn’t go over well.) He read an entertaining chapter about the way fiction writers approach descriptions of food in novels.

Yet I have no desire to read The Table Comes First. At one point, Gopnik himself called the chapter in it about taste “ponderous,” although he later backtracked. I sensed his discomfort at the contradictions here—all this intellectual candlepower devoted to what is essentially a sensual experience, and one that can only be afforded by a very few.

The second food-related thing I found exhausting was an email announcement about the New Yorker’s November 21 issue. Here it is, in part:

“The Food Issue: Adam Gopnik on Thanksgiving; Jane Kramer on foraging; Kelefa Sanneh on the coffee revolution; Lauren Collins on Lucy Worsley; John Seabrook on building a better apple; Calvin Trillin on Nova Scotia specials; and essays by Paul Theroux, Dana Spiotta, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Judith Thurman, and Louise Erdrich.”

I revere these writers—yes, I do, Adam! Calvin! Jane!—yet this email worried me. Just don’t let there be a cover painting by Wayne Thiebaud, I thought.

So, what should land in my mailbox yesterday? The very issue with “Turkey Dinner” by Thiebaud on the cover. I hoped the actual articles would hook me—and some of the long features have, especially the profiles by Collins and Sanneh. That’s because they aren’t just about food.

Meanwhile, Paul Theroux’s short essay on “Heirlooms” immediately sinks into pretentiousness:

“Slicing a sun-warmed, home grown, vine-ripened tomato is, first, an aesthetic satisfaction, as formal as dissection. Once the skin is split and the tang of tilled soil released, the fruit offers no resistance to the blade, which slides unchecked, as if through the pulpy meat of a melon.”

Judith Thurman says way too much about “Pine Nuts.” Louise Erdrich rambles on about her garden. Gopnik connects cooking methods for turkey and Ben Franklin’s preference for the national bird (“The First Served”):

“Maybe it’s no wonder that on this Thanksgiving more radical eaters will be putting on their tables ‘heritage’ turkeys—free in range, trim of breast, and revolutionary in resonance.”

Even Calvin Trillin, acclaimed food writer that he is, ends up with an eye-glazing caption on the opening illustration of his “My Repertoire”: The scallops available in Nova Scotia are incomparable.

What’s galling about this for me—full disclosure—is that the current issue of the online literary magazine I edit also focuses on food. We thought it was a shoo-in, especially for the holidays. But the traffic on Talking Writing during the first days of our bi-monthly issue was lower than we expected.

In fact, we planned the issue to include a number of counter-trend essays. Yet we launched with a very mainstream title—“Writing and Food: Temptation, Celebration, Sustenance”—a mistake in hindsight.

So I’m now pondering the meaning of literary food fatigue. Our traffic has improved, partly because there are many fine pieces in the issue. But I’m left with the sad realization that the personal reflections I used to love—be they M.F.K. Fisher’s “Young Hunger” or Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone—have become so ubiquitous that none feels fresh.

It’s not the New Yorker’s fault or Adam Gopnik’s fault or even Bravo and Anthony Bourdain’s fault that food writing has become so over-exposed. We’re all bathing in the same stew. Those of us who write about trends sometimes have a hard time seeing anything else.

Even now, I’m tempted to trivialize the problem: Just shut up! Just get into the kitchen and cook!

But as so many terrific journalist-writers continue to gorge on words, describing the minutiae of their best meals, I can’t help thinking we’re all distracting ourselves from the real fire in America’s kitchen.

 


 

• See the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Talking Writing—now titled “Not Your Average Food Writing.”

• For more about elBulli, sample this: “The Night elBulli Danced: The World’s Most Influential Restaurant Shuts Down” by Lisa Abend/Cala Montjoi, Time, Aug. 01, 2011.

• And to hear Adam Gopnik compare art criticism with food writing, order second helpings of this interview: “Adam Gopnik on Food, Baseball, and The New Yorker” by David Haglund, Slate, Nov. 7, 2011.

Bon Appétit!

3 thoughts on “Is There Too Much Food Writing?

  1. Aaah! You can’t do this to us. Just end the essay there, I mean. Not letting readers know whether the “real fire in America’s kitchen” refers to the political, ecological, economic and moral issues around food that Michael Pollan writes about, or whether you mean the ongoing world financial crisis and its surrounding political turmoil, which makes things like the sensual experience of slicing a tomato resemble Nero’s legendary fiddling while Rome burned, or whether you had something else in mind entirely. It’s just too cruel to the reader.

    Not that I don’t agree with most of your points. I’m a shameless foodie, myself, and yet I’ve read very little of the kind of stuff you’re quoting, the writing channeled directly from the pleasure center in the author’s brain. It’s narcissistic, and there’s no story-ness to it. High school creative writing teachers used to assign this kind of thing to teach the skills of description, but description isn’t an end in itself. I just wish you’d gone on.

  2. Thanks, Judith — and Joan! What a pleasure to have somebody want to read more. I absolutely meant that we are distracted while Rome burns. I almost made a direct reference to that in the piece, but figured I didn’t need to. Anyway, we’ll talk more.

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