Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Location
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Birthday
March 18
Title
Editor in Chief
Company
Talking Writing
Bio
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Athenas_Head (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)

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NOVEMBER 16, 2011 2:41PM

Is There Too Much Food Writing?

Rate: 22 Flag

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!

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Martha, I loved this piece on so many levels. It's hard to be much an erudite foodie when you are a Hoosier farmer! But I love Adam Gopnik and I love Calvin Trillin. Trillin's writing has changed over the years, and it has been fun to watch him grow in "adjective" flavor. Great post.!
This is why Lucky Peach is the only food writing I'm reading lately. It does feel different, irreverent & fresh. I miss Francis Lam on Salon, he could make the everyday item interesting.

"Then I went to ___ and ate ___" has been done to death.
as someone working on a book of (hopefully) humorous pieces about food, i have to say--this was an splendid (delicious?) piece of writing...rated
Nice, and true. And what about all of the celebrities getting their cookbooks published? Come on!
"literary food fatigue" is an interesting phrase. It's why "Foodie Tuesday," once a huge success on this site, is in shambles. The editors only wanted food pieces with a huge narrative, regardless of the recipe. We've lost site of "food" and settled on the "i.e." part.
Jane thurman writing too much about pine nuts. Great line that said it all.

It strikes me as odd that food has become so very... dramatized, in this century.
Foodies and Chefs as celebrities and millions of food food food discussions accepted as the new norm.
Food to me is food. You eat it. It's mostly wonderful stuff.
Maybe I shouldn't judge those who think food is such fodder and who actually create a whole label for themselves for the fact that they fancy up food. Sometimes it's done right and it really works but mostly it doesnt. Bellwether Vance really know how to include food as a feature in her writing.
In short, it strikes me as somewhat disgusting a moronic that when so many are hungry now these foodies are still yammering on about their exquisite lunches. Perhaps, I'll write a post about his. I like Gopnik a lot , and I'm glad I missed his musing on a gourmet meal.
Well Martha, if you want to read a bit here about food from a more proletarian perspective (anti-foo-foo-foodie) just do a search for Cheap Bastid and read a few of my food posts. They're the furthest thing from pretentious foodie drivel you'll find. And maybe you'll even enjoy some of it.
Thanks, everyone. Fernsy, I love Bellwether's food pieces, too. In fact, I like a lot of food writing, as long as it doesn't descend into the kind of preciousness that sidesteps tough questions about economic privilege.

What's gotten to me lately is not only the cluelessness of those in the gourmand bubble; it's the narcissism. Food can be a metaphor for all sorts of things, and at its best, food writing illuminates our experience on earth. But when all you're doing is swooning over raspberry foam or deep-fried calves brains, it's just self-diddling, no matter how many words you trick it up in.

In the current issue of Talking Writing, OS stalwart Jeremiah Horrigan interviews Raymond Sokolov, a former food columnist and restaurant critic at the NY Times and Wall Street Journal. What struck both Jeremiah and me as we went through the editing of this piece is how bored Sokolov was with the whole topic of food writing. He wanted to talk about anything else, including the breeding history of his dog.

I'll also give another shout=out to a wonderful piece by Lorraine Berry in Talking Writing called "The Bad Cook's Blues"—about what it was like to live with her ex-husband the chef. It's a great antidote to "Heirlooms" or "Pine Nuts" in the New Yorker.
Martha. You KNOW how I feel about this issue. Terrific piece! r.
I love clear simple writing about food. I can't stand pretentiousness in ANY kind of writing!

And really, my favorite things to do with food are A: cooking it, and B: eating it. I like to discover something new--I get bored by cooking the same old thing too many times but rapturous lavender prose about lavendar ain't going to do it for me.
rated
I just did two recipes. There cannot ever be enough food writing. There can be too much food reading, though.
Thanks you for this!

The educated elite in this country have taken their collective obsession with food to an obscene level. Another wasteful, indulgent folly of the 1 percent.

Sure, the middle and lower classes gorge on their cheeseburgers, potato skins and stuff-crust pizza. But the writers and readers of the New Yorker food issue, the groupies who flock to Il Buli, hold up their selective gluttony as an example of their sophistication. Look at us!

America's economy and our very democracy are swirling down the toilet and our intelligentsia respond with yet another article about eating.

I'm all for eating well, organic and locally. But the "foodie" phenomenon (indeed the word itself) is truly sickening and it is a manifestation of America's relinquishment of the values, shared sacrifice, and common sense which made us (once) great.
great piece! As a writer and a "foodie" - though I dislike that word - I find it very hard to write about the food that I cook, unless it's part of a larger story. And when I read cooking magazines, I often jump straight to the pictures and the recipes. I like to save my words for other things - when it comes to food, I do prefer to just shut up and cook (or eat)!
Here in Italy we say that " a tavola non si invecchia mai (you never grow old at a table)" and, in fact, the magic of eating here is the genuine ingredients, the honest local wine and the scenery, either by the seaside, or immersed in vineyards and cypresses, or at a sidewalk restaurant in one of our cities large or small (even better)

To top it all no pushing to free the table and lingering on with espresso and grappa and limoncello and....what the heck, i am calling our friends and i am going out tonight to a place you will never find in any foodie magazine, that is simply modest and divine
Buon Appetito!
Bad pun alert, but this is definitely food for thought. Yes, I think we've gone about as far as we can go with the whole foodie thing. When it becomes a "lifestyle", you know you've reached the end of the line. There's just no more that can be marketed and sold - we're saturated.

My greatest foodie experience was taking a cooking class vacation in Tuscany with my husband and his family. We made the most marvelous using the humblest (but freshest) of ingredients, and the most basic of kitchen tools. It definitely opened my eyes to a whole new way of doing things.

And as much as I love food, cooking and eating, it's something I rarely write about. (I only responded to a foodie Tuesday open call once, writing about granola.) It's not something that translates well into words for me.

Great essay, Martha.
Very interesting. I love good food writing, and especially admire Trillin and Gopnik. I look forward to the New Yorker food issue each year, also Oxford American's. (Lucky Peach is interesting, but not great writing - the writers cuss, Big Whup.) I read some overblown food pieces and just want to tell the writer that sometimes a tomato is just a tomato.
Martha, what a treat to read your piece. The food-as-art mood that has swept the nation might be getting in the way of "Just get into the kitchen and cook!" -- which is what we need for our nourishment and health. But oh, how I love those books...
It seems that food writing adopted many of the worst traits of wine writing and, particularily, wine reviews.
Yes and no. This was a really interesting and well-written analysis of the foodie conundrum, but I still love to ponder food and read others' ponderings. I completely agree with your point about the over the elitism of writing about rare and expensive foods that few of us will ever experience in real life.

But to defend the genre, we live in an age where the average person is becoming further and futher disconnected from the process of growing and preparing food-- and I think this fascination with everything homegrown and handmade is a reaction to that -- if only in a vicarious way.

I do appreciate, for example, Mark Bittman's move to use his prominence as a culinary writer to advocate for food justice. And the kind of food writing I love most is the kind that sustains authentic kitchen traditions (see paragraph above).

But I will definitely check out the foodie edition of Talking Writing. (Could it be that your core audience is not usually in the market for this type of writing and wasn't expecting it?) Very interesting.
After "beating viande chevaline" - was blinded by the sheer brilliance and had trouble paying attention. Did you say anything else?

No, seriously. I read it all.

I don't think Even now, I’m tempted to trivialize the problem: Just shut up! Just get into the kitchen and cook! trivializes it as much as it cuts to the heart of the matter.

Now if you want to talk about technique and even ingredients - that's different. Other people's sublime experiences with food -- trends by definition become overdone and food appreciation has reached its tipping point, I think.
Ya think?

It reached the level of the disgusting years ago.
Elitism, pretentiousness and snobbery are unwanted regardless of the subject matter. I get to eat better, travel to more interesting places, wear better clothes, have more money, and know more famous people are subjects that make me stop reading, listening or watching. I do love Calvin Trillin and good food, but I will probably never meet him or eat at The French Laundry, but I will be OK.
This made me giggle. I have love/ hate relationship with foodie lit.
One piece of sliced cheddar cheese, two pieces of grain bread.
Ate it for lunch while I read this. Sort of surprised myself as the first paragraph lost me. No idea what "shaved truffle on mesclun" is.
As a food writer, I have to tell you that I am NOT offended in any way by this. Most of the kind of writing you describe is unbelievably tedious -- especially to those of us who are exposed to it all day, every day.

Reading foodwriting that doesn't connect us to some other part of the human experience, is like trying to live on a steady diet of candy corn -- fun for the first bite, then increasingly cloying. We might continue to pop the sugary things in our mouths but, since we cease to enjoy it, the only emotion we feel is shame.
Dr. A: "food-as-art"--yes!

Grace: Really interesting points. As noted, I love lots of food writing myself, and I like Mark Bittman. What saddens me is that I no longer respond to even the best of the genre with my whole heart. I think all the chattering, in print, online, and in every other media, manages to undercut the necessary economic and political analysis at the same time that it trivializes the sensual delight of good eating.

As for what going on with TW's audience, I think it's a match for my own fatigue more than not giving our readers what they expected But I could be wrong; we're still experimenting.

Dr. S: That's an interesting point about shame. I wonder if the reason so many high-powered writers have been expending so many words on food (or worse, over-intelllectualizing the experience) as a cover for less delightful feelings.
Ouch, OS just ate my comment... and it was such a succulent one.

Okay, here's the gist again:

Well done! Just look at you, on the Week of Our Feasting, here you go...grousing about food posts. And here I've been wracking my cupboards for ingredients to inspire my next pumpkin gingerbread pudding. ohwell. Given the many and meaty comments here in opposition to the joy of writing cooks, perhaps I'll save my Thanksgiving musings for another holiday.

On the prevalence of all this foodstuff (sorry) in the media -- I recently read another explanation. I can't site the source, but in the newsfeed (sorry) on the information pyramid, the subject of food stands at the base -- a low-hanging fruit (sorry) for the bottom feeders, uh so to speak. It doesn't take much research or energy to walk into the kitchen and whip up a froth to put into words. Tweak a recipe, change an ingredient or two, and voila-- you've got an original work of foodie art.

And yum, don't mind if I do.
As for my personal taste, I'll take the food issue of The New Yorker, please, and savor every bite.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.
M.F.K. Fisher, THE ART OF EATING. The only book you need on food. Nobody's ever said it better.
Now that's some food for thought. You are right; there is way too much talk about cooking and food. It's no wonder America has such a large obesity problem. R
There's way too much my turkey/tomato/whatever is better than your turkey/tomato/whatever, when often it just isn't the case.

How many of the people waxing on about the wonders of heirloom tomatoes could tell the difference between an heirloom and an equally ripe non-heirloom on a blind taste test?

I tend to call this writing and the accompanying pictures food porn. Sure, I some times read it, but I'm not fooled into thinking the orgasms provoked by 'orgasmic' tomatoes are real.
Is there too much food writing? At OS, yes.
I think a lot of food writing wants to be the next "Consider the Lobster" and that's not going to happen. When food pieces can be reduced to descriptions of how food tastes, there's too much writing product out there for any of it to feel fresh, not that I won't read it, because I will! I'm a sucker for food writing -- good, bad or in between. Like pickles. I will ALWAYS eat the pickle.

My favorite food pieces where the recipe is kind of incidental (a story/memoir piece that involves food but isn't really all about the food) or where the recipe IS the focus and the story is brief but catchy or funny or personal, or pieces that are geeky-scientific and esoterically educational.

We did just eat some awesome farm tomatoes. Like the concepts of porn or art, you might not be able to describe good tomatoes, but you'll know good tomatoes when you eat them, and if you're doing the whole eating thing right you won't be worried about words.
Trudge164: Actually writing about good food could make a difference in America's obesity problem. Most of us are too fat -- not from eating too much, but from eating entirely too much BAD food.
Jon said, "The educated elite in this country have taken their collective obsession with food to an obscene level. Another wasteful, indulgent folly of the 1 percent."

You've got a point, just as the author is right that food-worship prose has gone over the top and jumped the shark (assuming they didn't steal the fin and prepare an unsustainable filet.)

However, it's not simply a 1% thing. Just as coffee obsession has raised the quality even of the convenience store brew, elements of foodism had improved the quality of what's served even in seriously strange locations, like Applebee's (By the way, has an Applebee's ever been built in someone's neighborhood?)

I'm not trying to suggest that the trickle down theory applies to extra virgin olive oil. I'm just suggesting that, exceesses aside, an emphasis on thinking about food is not a bad thing. It is pleasantly contagious, and it can be applied to canned tomatoes, frozen beans and cheap cuts of meat in ways that make the pedestrian a bit special without putting a whole lot more money into the effort.
For me (barely can cook, certainly no chef), reading about food ITSELF gets boring very quickly. But reading about food within a larger context of emotions, human relationships and general life memories about people, places, things, events, etc. can be pretty wonderful/visceral: sensuality surrounded by a meaningful EXPERIENCE that goes beyond the description of taste, texture, flavor, presentation, blah blah blah.
Not sure I get the complaint. You're upset about a picture caption? Or Gopnik throwing in a little food history? If you object to pretentious food descriptions, don't see how you like Ruth Reichl's stuff-she's the queen of over-the-top detail. Maybe you're upset about low traffic, but it's hard t compete with the New Yorker.
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