What Is Food Writing?

It is a question that's been on my mind of late.

Over the course of the past 10 years, I have been fortunate enough to get paid to play with food and write about it. There have been recipes, restaurant writeups, reported articles, essays, weekly columns, Web chats and this daily blog.

When asked what I do for a living, I say I write about food, not that I'm a food writer. And the reason is this: I'm a writer first. I like to tell stories. Food is my passion, and it is the entryway for those stories. Food is the entryway.

The door swung wide open when this spring I got my hands on a copy of "American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes." The brains behind this collection of work that spans 250 years is Molly O'Neill, whose food columns in the New York Times Magazine planted the seed for my own career in food.

I've always had a thing for anthologies on a variety of topics; they can be a great introduction to a writer or genre yet to be explored. One of my favorite go-to anthologies is "Catch the Fire!!!: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry," edited by Derrick I.M. Gilbert. But like anything with a cafeteria-style theme, anthology selections often can be hit-or-miss and more work than is worth leafing through to find the good stuff.

What stands out about this collection, published by The Library of America, is not just its scope but its definition of food writing.

In addition to obvious culinary greats such as Julia Child, James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, the volume includes many surprises that push the envelope on what is this thing we call food writing.

There's a passage from Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," celebrating a wagon of baked yams on a cold winter day in Harlem. And there's the one by Frederick Douglass who in "My Bondage and My Freedom" contrasts two worlds on a Maryland plantation, through diet alone.

We learn about a mysterious bag of "little brown chips" in a passage from Willa Cather's "My Antonia," which are initially scorned and later turn out to be dried mushrooms.

We are invited to see how adultery impacts one woman's cooking in a chapter from Judith Moore's "Never Eat Your Heart Out."

A few of my favorite zingers now marked with pencil:

You have to understand pancakes. (Evan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's film "The Birds")

Actually, your cooking is a personal thing, like your sex life, and it shouldn't be the subject of general conversation. (Peg Bracken, author of the 1960 title "The I Hate to Cook Book")

The hot dog should be elevated to the level of an art form. (H.L. Mencken, from a Nov. 4, 1929 column in the Baltimore Evening Sun)

Of all indigenous American culinary triumphs, probably the most put-upon, misunderstood, and generally abused is the Southern fried chicken which in its pure state almost no one ever gets to eat.
(William Styron, "The Artists' and Writers' Cookbook" 1961)

And if you're still hungry, there's plenty more to choose from, plus 50-some recipes from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. "American Food Writing" is proving to be an important volume of eloquent, funny and critical writing that uses food as an entryway.

That is food writing.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 13, 2007; 12:14 PM ET Cook's Library , Kitchen Musings
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Comments

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Dear Kim:

I am so proud of you! I read your blog regularly, and now that I am married I and my better or worse half will USE it.

Congratulations on yet another fine column, and keep up the good work.

Larry Richette
larry1918@comcast.net

Posted by: lawrence richette | July 15, 2007 8:55 AM

"Food writer" or "writes about food". What you do for me is wrap your reminisces, dreams and hopes around your love of food. I am SO impressed with the way your words flow, I can sometimes taste what you are saying. I hope you are not selling yourself short, you are a great writer and I enjoy your blog tremendously. Thank you for sharing and thanks to Mr. Mighty Appetite also.

Posted by: concetta27 | July 15, 2007 9:32 AM

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