"Sue had neither health nor companionships to comfort her and warm her, but she nourished herself and many other people for many years, with the quiet assumption that man's need for food is not a grim obsession, repulsive, disturbing, but a dignified and even enjoyable function. Her nourishment was of more than flesh, not because of its strangeness, but because of her own calm."
~M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
This past semester I took a course titled Food and Literature: The Invention of Modern-Day Food Writing. As we worked our way through 19th century French authors – Brillet-Savarin, Fourier – up to M.F.K. Fisher, A.J. Leibling, and Ruth Reichl, I continually found myself asking, “What’s the point?”
When it comes to observing and enjoying art, a pragmatic, rational approach is rarely encouraged. However, as an aspiring food writer, I could not help but wonder why I was attempting to find my footing in such an over-saturated field.
Thanks to the assistance of social media, today anyone can maintain a food blog. Just a few revised recipes, iPhone quality photos, and a pinch of wit, and you can call yourself a food writer. But what separates the M.F.K. Fishers, the James Beards, the Elizabeth Davids, the Paula Wolferts? What separates “a list of the foods I ate this week” from “an essay that can transform the future of American cuisine”?
I recently reviewed the book Provence, 1970, a collection of correspondences between M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, and a few of their contemporaries – key characters in the formation of modern American cuisine. As I skimmed the pages, I noticed the importance of cultural critique in their approach to eating and writing. These gastronomic idols did not simply write up the recipes they loved, they allowed their interactions with food to pervade their homes, their travels, their relationships – using food as a platform to write about the world around them.
I often find myself frustrated with much of modern-day food writing, fearful that I too will fall into the trend of meaningless muttering. As I acknowledged the cultural critique intrinsic to the work of Fisher and Beard, I found myself increasingly grateful for the influence of my liberal arts education. It was not just knowledge of food and a few skills in the kitchen that set these writers apart, but a holistic approach to gastronomy that comes only through critical engagement of the world. They were not just great chefs and writers, foremost they were incredible thinkers. Following in their footsteps, I aspire to hone both my knife and writing skills, so long as they continually remain secondary to the formation of thought and critical engagement with the world.