Best Food Writing 2011 edited by Holly Hughes
I think the reason I like food writing so much is because it’s both personal and, if done correctly, visceral. I say “visceral” instead of “sensual,” because the latter, with all its positive, sexy connotations, would exclude such repulsive magic as Pete Wells’ disappointed letter to Guy Fieri in lieu of a review of his restaurant in Times Square. Even people who aren’t foodies (those exist, right?) have certain foods that mean something to them, even if it’s just how to eat an Oreo. (A stance that can, apparently, start fights. As for myself, I’m in the “fried Oreos” camp.) It’s the relationship between eater and food that fascinates me, thus my interest in historical cooking.
And my disinterest in restaurants. Most restaurant coverage that I’ve read focuses on the food critic’s first impression about a place. That’s all well, good, and useful, of course, but it’s the point of contact, not the relationship, and it’s the latter than interests me. Wells’ review is an interesting exception, since it highlights both his and the public’s relationship with Guy Fieri’s persona and the dissonance between that and the actual place. See? It’s all about connection, man. (That reminds me, I need to get a haircut. My flower child impressions are getting startlingly authentic.) Luckily, there was only enough of it in Best Food Writing 2011 to make me realize I didn’t quite care for them.
There’s a broad variety of food writing covered in this collection, as befitting a yearly round up. I’m really warming up to these annual anthologies, which could either reflect my growing obsession with nonfiction or my deteriorating attention span. Besides the aforementioned restaurant coverage, there’s also food politics and personal stories. Since I picked this up two years after the events covered, some of the food politics were a little dated or obscure to me (such as the decision to ban shark fin, a major but non-essential ingredient in some Asian cuisines, in San Francisco), but Jill Wendholt Silva’s quiet, straightforward “Life in a Food Desert” stands out. Geoff Nicholson’s “Peasants,” about perceptions of pork, is placed in a different category, but some of the social implications of it could fall under food politics. (The link will take you to an edited version of the piece on Nicholson’s personal blog.)
The real standouts in the collection, however, are exactly the kind of intensely personal stories I like. Mike Madison’s “Fruits of Desire,” about the customers who purchase melons from his stands at farmers’ markets in Davis, California, especially focuses on the immigrants who find a connection to their homeland through the fruit he sells. It ends on a blazingly lovely anecdote about a young Afghani student greeting his grandfather with a kharbouza melon just after he and his friends finish their annual recitation of the Koran. Floyd Skloot’s “The Famous Recipe” finds Skloot attempting to recreate a bizarre recipe his mother, who never cooked, contributed to a community cookbook in an attempt to connect with her. But Chang-Rae Lee’s “Magical Dinners” is the best of the lot, examining how his family used food as a battleground between their Asian and American identities. Speaking of traditional American fare, Lee states: “These dishes are much heavier and plainer than ours, but more thrilling to me and my sister and perhaps even to my parents, for it is food without association, unlinked to any past; it’s food that fixes us to this moment only, to this place we hardly know” (277). Attempting to escape the velocity of one’s seemingly oppressive heritage is always a haunting thing, and Lee captures it in small, furious strokes.
I did enjoy some of the lighter pieces—Katy Vine’s “I Believe I Can Fry,” about the undisputed champion of all those bizarre fried foods at state fairs, is both hilarious and mouthwatering. Of course, being a Southern woman out West, I am intensely biased towards the magic that is frying. (See the fried Oreos link above.) I was also challenged by Daniel Duane’s “How To Become an Intuitive Cook,” since it runs so counter to my own culinary methodology. Duane used to be a recipe junkie like me, never straying from the original by more than a few adaptations. (This allows me to hurl myself whole-heartedly at recipes and still get food out of them.) Essentially, Duane settles upon a method for internalizing recipes—making it once with personal notes, making it off the personal notes, and then making it without any notes. I don’t think I’ll ever get to that stage, but it’s good to have in the back pocket.
The only piece I didn’t care for was Deborah Madison’s “The Case for Handwriting,” a lament about the digitization of recipes and the loss of personalized, hand-written or typed recipes. The dissonance between sighing over how romantic typed recipes were and the fact that computers are literally the next step in word processing is jarring. I get her point, of course, but I also once spent a holiday break typing up all my mom’s collected recipes and printing them out so she could actually use them. Still, I am fond of sending hand-written recipes off to my correspondents; I do hope they can actually read my handwriting.
Bottom line: Like any annual anthology, it can be uneven, but the standout pieces—“Fruits of Desire,” “The Famous Recipe,” “Magical Dinners,” and “I Believe I can Fry”—are thought-provoking, mouth-watering, and a lot of fun. Worth investigating if you’re into food writing.
I bought this book from a thrift store.