Paean to Food Writing, or Why We Should Never Forget How to Tell Stories

Labor of Life
September 19, 2014
The Rise of America
September 23, 2014

Most evenings after work, I turn on the TV and watch my favorite cooking show—Jacques Pépin’s “Fast Food My Way.” I have a habit of cooking while scrutinizing Pépin’s fish sautés and crèmes de something-or-0ther. Usually, I can glean a kernel of advice that makes its way into my own rough French creations: cut behind the gills when fabricating a trout, use more butter than you think is necessary, don’t fuss about the precision of your cuts, and so on. All of it is offered with a sage, almost grandfatherly tenor—as though the modest culinary patriarch were giving me my own private cooking class.

It was similar with Julia Child, which is of course why we loved her. Flawed but impossibly large in every way, she was the sort to confess gracefully when eggs were flipped onto the floor or gélée didn’t quite set. But she also invited us into the many-layered French kitchen without pretense or snobbery. Without Julia, I may never have tried my unsteady hands at a soufflé.

These are not new revelations, I’m happy to say. In my food writing career, I have talked to countless chefs who gush over the great, if humble, toques of yesteryear. There was more to Pépin and Julia than tips for a perfect quiche, after all; they were a constant joy to be with. Smiles and laughter captivated us with their genuineness—even on TV—and made us believe that whatever the masters were cooking, it was part of a grander, more important affair. It was the adventure of eating, of cooking, and of drinking with loved ones. And so, stories unfolded over their many sundry meals.

This was the glamorous culinary world I fell into as a little, wide-eyed nobody. At my mother’s apron strings, I learned not only how to cook pasta and chocolate chip cookies (anchors of our household), but about those who inspired the recipes to begin with—like the portly lady my mother befriended in an Italian cafeteria whose talkative, Italian effervescence and violent gesticulation gave us the decadent Pasta Carbonara. There’s also the legendary story of the Steen family chicken taco-eating competition. Appetites and ambition dried up the chicken reserves after two dozen tacos, and forced my mother to improvise with canned tuna and deli-cut ham. I still laugh at the thought of pairing water-packed tuna with Pace salsa and shredded iceberg lettuce.

But times have changed, haven’t they? It’s clear that food writing—and the stories that make it shine—is falling prey to a new era of technology and social media.

Navigating the digital sphere for food media is a challenge to say the least, but it is also proving to be a bit of a personal dilemma. I relish telling stories—with characters that carefully unfold to reveal a world different than our own. I relish telling stories wherein food is a catalyst for revelation, for conversation, for happiness. I relish telling stories drunk on their own humor, and content to play out in idiosyncrasies and oddity.

But I do not love reducing food—and the context that makes it more than basic nourishment—to 140-character Tweets and two-sentence Facebook posts. I understand that this is where the world is headed. We are creatures of reduced attention spans, and that is simply a fact. I could push to retain the tradition of storytelling around food; I could be the world’s most stubborn, anachronistic culinary troubadour. But that’s not how profit is won, and we must remember the bottom line.

If this is how it must be, and if food writing as a whole is slowly reduced to sound bites and ever-smaller recipes for the sake of convenience and time, then I’m afraid I will someday have a falling out with my own profession. Over the course of a long workday, I spend more time strategizing best practices for digital sound-biting, for search engine optimization, and for captivating the largest audience in the fewest characters than I do telling stories worth remembering.

I tell you now—whatever convenience offers us, stories are what shape our legacy and carry forward the traditions of food. However basic a necessity, food is not meant to be digested in a moment, but to be savored over an evening, as an adventure, in a well-sung lifetime. It is a character itself, all too often redacted for a utilitarian meal. I can only hope that the art of storytelling and the dishes at its heart will not fall victim to the wiles of our digital world.

Though as I craft my next post for hungry Twitter followers, I am not very hopeful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.