People sometimes ask me how I got into the business (if you could call it that) of food writing. I fell in love because of the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten. I realized that there’s nothing quite like food memoir and writing to transport me to places that I can only dream about. And yet because of my youth and endless passion for adventure, I know that these experiences might lie somewhere in my near or distant future.
I was reading a short story in The New Yorker a few days ago, a piece by Dinaw Mengestu called “An Honest Exit” that recalled the story of the author’s father and his escape from war-torn Africa in the 70’s. The angle the author takes is one of a private school teacher in New York’s Upper East Side, telling the story to his well-heeled students who listen vociferously to the story. The author’s story of his father’s “exit” becomes the topic of conversation amongst the students, instead of the superficial muck commonly affiliated with the “Gossip Girl” set. The best food writing is the same – stories become so engrossing that you’re virtually sucked in.
I’m thankful for the immediacy of food blogs and new media, where such stories are now a dime a dozen, quick on the draw and straight to the point. The overall effect of this new culture of food writing is that we’re satisfied with “small” plates and “street” food – flavorful shots of food writing that capture our attention in the unending wake of news. It’s not that I don’t enjoy these stories – they have their purpose. But it can get overwhelming, even for the aficionado. There are just too many new restaurants to visit, too many dishes to cook in the kitchen, too many ethnic cuisines to explore. Living in a city as wide and distinctive as Los Angeles, the pace quickly becomes exasperating. My cholesterol levels, arteries, and belly can only take so much.
Reading helps me to live vicariously through the incredible range of these experiences, but I find myself oddly empty in the end. A proliferation of photos and words on the smorgasbord of food blogging only confounds. There was a day when people would read the eloquent pieces in Gourmet or the memoirs of Calvin Trillin, digesting bits in larger, more manageable meals.
The rat race of food writing and reporting needs to stop. I sometimes realize how insignificant so much information which we deem to be of “pressing” news becomes after stepping away from our RSS feed or daily websites for two or three days in a row. It’s as liberating as losing a cell phone. When we think back on the last ten bits of food-related news we read, or perhaps the last 100, consider which of them have any lasting meaning. I remember when Anthony Bourdain (I do lament the falloff in his writing lately) recalled the most significant events of 2009 in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, stating that Jonathan Gold winning a Pulitzer Prize was big news. I agree. And even then, I remember asking my fellow servers at a recent pop-up restaurant about that news, only to be greeted by, “What’s a Pulitzer?” Their ignorance of both the writer and prize reveals to me that even what we foodies consider to be significant loses luster in this wide world.
What to do when all the noise becomes enveloping? Go for quality. Just like fashion, when the trends change quicker than the tides, it’s always helpful to reach for what is timeless. I’ve seen the benefit of paying a little bit more, or searching a little bit harder, for that skinny tie or well-fitted suit. In the same way, good quality food writing is so much more fulfilling. And perhaps more than fashion, food writing has the incredible ability to convey meaning and purpose to things that we didn’t notice otherwise. I was thumbing through Colman Andrews’ excellent cookbook, The Country Cooking of Ireland. I wouldn’t say that I have a terrible passion for Ireland but that changed when I read Andrews’ description of what most would consider a humble cuisine. The vivid photography, whose color palette seemed to stretch various formats and media, showed an incredible display of the dishes, but the writing is what transported me to the Irish countryside. I felt compelled not only to learn more about the cuisine and culture, but about the history of Irish people, and how the cuisine reflects its cultural history.
Going back to Jonathan Gold’s prize – I believe he won because his writing doesn’t just jazz like a saxophone going off or a free-style rapper hitting his phrases. He didn’t get brownie points for being the first one with the review. He received the most prestigious prize in journalism because his reviews do more than just about talk about food – they bring to life a culture, a community, a family, or a way of life.
Fine, you might say. All these highfalutin aspirations seem so ambitious. Perhaps they’re a bit too precious. I’ve been told to get off my high horse on more than a few occasions. It can be possible to take food too seriously, but when food writing transcends its superficial purpose of entertaining our appetites, when the writing takes on life, then we get to the marrow. I don’t know about you, but I love bone marrow more than almost anything.
Find more of Matthew Kang’s writing on his blog, Mattatouille.