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Posts Tagged ‘Food Writing’

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How do we think of food? We think of it as something to eat, of course. We think of it as pretty pictures on a page – and the growing numbers of food pornographers, both amateur and professional, testifies to the immense hunger existing for viewing food this way.

We think of it as fodder when it is something we don’t like or don’t approve of (usually in this case it is always someone else’s food – not our own, of course!) Some think of food as a thing that describes who we are in a deep essential way – so much so that the oft-used quote ‘You are what you eat’ can almost be heard as a battle-cry sounded by a gathering tribe, fingers pointed as if sharpened spears.

Some of us think of food as a way to make money. Some of us who think of food in this way pretend not to. It’s important to pretend not to, or the sparkling glamour of it all may disperse into the everyday. And goodness knows that would be unfortunate, within how we think of food.

And of course food is a craft, an art, a political tool, a necessity, an economist’s important focal point. Food is memory, memory sad or pleasant or delightful and always memory that might be just the tad bit false, as memory can be.

One of the ways I like my food is when it is a character – when it gets a life, one with movement and passion quite aside from how it passively tastes and looks – a life where it does not lay in wait submissively to be gobbled up by the diner. When it stands up and becomes something alive – with every bit as much power to wield as any real person has (and each to their own levels and forms). I’m not talking singing bananas here, nor cute little tomatoes bouncing along batting their false eyelashes. There are other ways to be real.

Food is often used in writing as allegory or through metaphor. Allegoric or metaphoric use of food to strike meaning into the hearts and minds of readers has been effectively used in the Bible and in other texts preceding it. Foods are used to hint at beauty, at hubris, at the salacious, at the appetites man (or woman) may have for these things.

Just as common is the use of food as definer, in literature. One will understand who the characters are in the stories, by what they eat. Their social status, their personality, their aspirations, their cultural background . . . all can be known by just putting a plate with food on it right in front of them and watching their reactions.

But there are times when food is not the condiment to the story but rather the yeast. A vital, integral part, a living thing that moves the narrative forward – an unacknowledged yet essential character within the plot. In these cases, the food is not merely consumed to give the story flavor. Rather, it is a secret antagonist – or sometimes a false protagonist – in the story line. Not exactly a personification is the food in these cases, yet the relationship exists. A mysterious relationship, one of smoke, mirrors and imagination – but without this relationship how flat the entire narrative might become!

Three writers come to mind when I think of food getting a real life. M.F.K. Fisher’s strength as a writer (aside from her great ability to teach about foods ‘foreign’ to some and of ways to cook) was her use of food as symbol – but her incredible ability to express every strong human emotion through those foods brought the foods close to being alive. One could believe in the power of the foods every bit as much as one could believe in the power of any human person in her narratives.

Haruki Murakami often includes food in his writing. Three of his short stories – The Year of Spaghetti; The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes; Crabs – each of these stories offers the reader a look at how food can get a life through the author’s pen.

One food I’ve seen get a life is many people’s favorite way to start the day: coffee. In Mark Helprin‘s Memoir of Antproof Case it is coffee – not as something actually imbibed, not as a commodity bought or sold – but coffee as an idea so vital in the protagonist’s mind as to be as real as any actual person – that drives the story from fantastic start to magnificent end.

If you don’t know of any foods who have gotten real lives, try reading some of the above stories.

You may find that food is not just a pretty plate.

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Ouch. It’s January 2009, and wallets previously ready to fly open at the slightest beckoning call of the local free-range organic rabbit (head still on, bones intact, tiny tail bone looking rather pitiful now shed of its cute fluffy fur) for $7 per pound – which effectively makes the cost of the meat shorn of the bones somewhere around $15 per pound – those wallets are balking.

But it is not 1940. And we are not in London. And we are not kept busy in the ways the Women Firewatchers shown in the above photograph (from British Vogue in 1940 by Lee Miller) were kept actively busy at that time.

But getting back to the wallets of 2009. Some will still open. Many more will not.

Pain shows in the hearts and faces of men and women when facing their finances. Not only have their retirement funds been hobbled but food – right now – today! – is becoming more and more expensive. What’s a person to do?

This poverty is a different shape, here and now in 2009, than it has been in times past. For aside from the fact that the grocery stores are still filled to over-brimming with every product from almost everywhere in the world, there is the question of those wallets. Are those wallets as damaged as they have been in past times of hardship? Not being an economist, I can’t answer that.

But I do know that in past times though there may have been mortgage payments and utility bills and all the usual expenses of day-to-day life, there was no monthly cell-phone bill . . . there was no monthly cable or internet connection bill . . . there was no high health insurance payment due . . . there usually was not a second or third car payment bill due . . . and let’s not even start talking about the cost of a higher-education where funds must be saved or financed for the Masters or Ph.D rather than for the Bachelors degree – which now for the most part is about as useful to the job-seeker as a High School degree was in times past – useful, that is, as a mere nod into the door of a low-paying entry job.

In times of hardship one looks to times of past hardships for answers: what to do, how to survive. There’s also the sense of seeking reassurance that indeed, people did survive. They did live and love and eat and hate and plot and plan and dream and finally either regain their feet – or if not – simply go on living, somehow.

One of our most-revered writers on life, food, and hungers – MFK Fisher – wrote a huge body of work during the 1940’s during times of war and some hardships. Consider the Oyster (1941) was written as she and her husband Dillwyn Parrish fled a war-torn Europe to come back to the US. Dillwyn was dying – in a most painful way – in a way where his body was slowly, bit by bit, being claimed by Buerger’s disease. How to Cook A Wolf was published in 1942 – the year when the rationing (already in place in England) finally came to US shores.

Tires were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 because supplies of natural rubber were interrupted. Soon afterward, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were rationed by November 1943.[3] (Source wiki-rationing-US)

How To Cook A Wolf is full of information about how to survive when there is little to survive on. I’ve read this book more than once, in varying circumstances. The time I most appreciated it was when I moved to Paris into a wonderful apartment whose heating system required the insertion of coins into a small box on the wall. It seemed apt to read MFKF then and there.

Much of what is in this book will not be accepted by today’s readers, looking for answers in terms of ‘what to eat’ when the pocketbook is hurting. Gently given advice to ‘Go fishing for your dinner‘, or to ‘Gather wild foods for the one daily meal’, and ‘Eat mush‘ (recipe provided) come to mind.

In 1943 MFKF published The Gastronomical Me – to my mind the greatest of her works. Here is life, punctuated by food. Food is the thing that binds, that ties, that rocks, that cradles – a river that the larger themes of existence flow upon, with the prose of MFKF as wind goddess moving it all along.

Then followed a novel, then the translation of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.

There are many ways to face being pinched by the dollar. As for myself, I won’t try cooking and eating mush – unless I really have to. And I am grateful that my days are not spent scanning the skies for warplanes and fires.

But I will read MFK Fisher. And not just only (or not even substantially) for the advice she gives (though some of it is good).

I’ll read her just for her words, alone. They’re better in some ways than even the most perfect slab of Kobe beef.

An added bonus? They are sustainable.
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Live recording of Billie Holiday from the 1940’s: Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

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