What We Write About When We Write About Food
So when we write about food, we are already writing about class struggle. “The cooking of a society is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure,” the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in 1966. To read about an extravagant meal can be a vicarious substitute for not being able to afford one or make us feel superior to those who waste their money on such follies. We especially love tales of astronomically priced meals gone wrong, from the Times critic Pete Wells’s calm, lucid evisceration in 2015 of the “brutally, illogically, relentlessly” expensive Japanese restaurant Kappo Masa on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — “a pantomime of service … an imitation of luxury” — to the travel blogger Geraldine DeRuiter’s viral takedown last December of the Michelin-starred Bros’, in Lecce, Italy, in which 27 courses were served, consisting mainly of “slivers of edible paper,” “glasses of vinegar” and “12 kinds of foam,” including one sprayed into a plaster cast of the chef’s mouth and drooling down one side, for the diner to lap up with her tongue. Such stories confirm that the emperor has no clothes; that we’re not missing a thing.
IN THE “HEDYPATHEIA,” Archestratos mentions silphium, a wild herb believed to be akin to asafetida and since lost to history. The plant was so coveted it was overforaged, and by the first century A.D., according to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, only “a single stalk” could be found; Archestratos was its elegist in advance without knowing it. What we gain in the complexity of cuisine inevitably has a cost in labor and on the environment. Maybe the nostalgia that O’Neill fears is the default for contemporary food writing is, in fact, nostalgia for the present, which is slipping ever more quickly into the past, and even nostalgia for the future, one we may never have.
M.F.K. Fisher, arguably the greatest American food writer, if not one of the greatest writers across the board, was exquisitely nostalgic, but she had wickedness, too. When she published her first collection of essays on food, “Serve It Forth,” in 1937, The Times deemed it “delightful” but the material “unfamiliar and odd.” To this day, she eludes categorization; to say that she wrote about food is like saying that Virginia Woolf and James Joyce wrote about dinner parties. In “The Gastronomical Me” (1943), she recalls the banality of childhood meals under the iron glare of her grandmother, who, along with “unhappy millions of Anglo-Saxons,” had been schooled in the principle “that food should be consumed without comment of any kind but above all without sign of praise or enjoyment.” A new cook comes in for a few weeks and the results are baffling and thrilling, leaving Fisher in “a kind of anguish of delight.” Then, one evening, the cook doesn’t return, and it turns out that she has killed her mother and herself, with the very knife she’d wielded so expertly in the kitchen.
It’s a gruesome twist, but this does not dim the cook’s aura in Fisher’s eyes. She mourns but retains the “consciousness of the possibilities of the table” and grows up to be herself the kind of cook — and writer — determined to shake people “from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy but of thought, of behavior.” And, more forcefully: “To blast their safe, tidy little lives.” Surely there is no better mantra for a food writer today, wallowing in scraps and swinging for the stars. What more could we give our readers? For what is the point of reading about food or, for that matter, reading about anything at all: to look in a mirror, or through a window; to escape the world, or to discover it?
Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy. Digital tech: Lori Cannava. Photo assistants: Karl Leitz, Maian Tran. Food assistants: Tristan Kwong, Isabelle Kwong, Bri Horton. Set assistant: Constance Faulk