On Food Writing


The three icons you see here represent but a small sampling of the food writers I admire without reservation.  Anyone who has ever written about food has been assisted, certainly, by Julia Child.  She possessed an encyclopedic knowledge on food few have ever matched, yet did so without a whiff of pretension.   I continue to adore this woman, mostly because she was fun.  She could laugh and laugh at herself, which is a quality we all should share.  The woman is utterly free and unencumbered by hubris.  In the 1950’s, she took a monumental, daunting subject like French Cuisine and pared it down, like a tough woody turnip, until almost anyone can now face a chicken or a duck with nothing more than great anticipation for how delicious that blessed little thing is going to taste.  And without any trace of fear.

MFK Fisher, aka Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, started writing about food in the 1930’s, well before any television wonk ever conceived the Food Network.  If you’ve never read any of her books, start out with The Art of Eating, and go from there.   You’ll be taken on a journey, not simply through a theoretical and resplendent table of food, but led by a woman fully in control of her words and instrument.  She is my first and best example of how to give in and let go and simply enjoy what you eat.   The words themselves flow like a finely constructed béarnaise, and you feel full and content when you finish reading her…yet wanting for more.  So much for guilt-free literary gluttony.

Anthony Bourdain spent 20 some-odd years as a chef in New York City.  In 1999, he unveiled the Dead Sea Scrolls version of what the culinary life is like from the kitchen’s perspective.  And wickedly so.  Kitchen Confidential is the literary equivalent to wolfing your tiramisu before the entrée…and washing it down with a healthy shot of Laphroaig…while you watch porn.  Bourdain is a reader’s writer because of his ability to take a subject and weave it into something fascinating and utterly shocking and yet somehow innocently truthful.   That he really is a classically trained chef never strays far from his words or his reverential treatment of the subject of food, which he regards like a first-year chef might while standing before Jacques Pepin.  You trust him.  And let’s not miss the fact that Anthony Bourdain is bloody, fricking coooooool.

These three, of course, are not the only ones issuing forth on the universe of food.   Fisher and Child must be in the conversation if only from their sheer impact and influence.  Bourdain is the best recent example, because he combines a true practical expertise, combined with the gift of putting it on paper in a way that stays with you, sometimes like the lusty belch you issue hours after a memorable meal.   I’m not a fan of any chef who simply decides to write a cookbook or any book  in order to sustain their “brand”.   That kind of vanity is disgusting.   Neither Bourdain, nor the two women here, are or were, that kind of writer.

Although he’s not considered anything remotely influential in the world of food, I will offer advice from one of the great literary masters to any writers-in-training, food or otherwise.  Ernest Hemingway gave the single best definition when asked ‘what is good writing?’ that ever was uttered:   He said, “I write about the weather and the place and the people.  I know all the big words, but are they the right ones?   To me, the best writing is having written something where it feels as real as if I were there in the first place”.

Enjoy some tiramisu with your coffee.   -Jack





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