The art, or otherwise, of food writing.

A steaming Summer’s eve’, once again running late, I joined a friend, wine-buff, entrepreneur and surreptitious reader of food-literature in his London backyard over a chilli-mackerel-couscous, and there was asparagus too and feta and a bottle of something French and White…  As conversation veered and the light waned he scurried away, returning, dragging from pouches and pockets, from hidden nooks, beloved bindings of food-writing.  Like a collector who comes upon some other, not rival, morelike apprentice, with whom they can gush unguarded as to their too-oft’-solitary passion, I was passed first, ‘midst murmurings, Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, then Alexandre Dumas’ Encyclopedia of Food and Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries

Watching this friend, erudite and articulate, bringing food-writing into his conversation as he might 15th Century Italian literature, awoke a long-nurtured query: Do food and thought illuminate or interfere with one another?
I am since compelled to think upon the art (or otherwise) of Food Writing.  For therein lies the dilemma: is such writing worthy of consideration as an art, or, dealing with the pleasures, the mere sustenance of the body, as opposed to the perturbations of the mind, is it rather one of the cruder written forms, certainly not to be mistaken for an art?

It is said that Jorge Luis Borges offered only a bowl of rice at his dinner parties, for fear that the food might otherwise interfere with the conversation; his guests were there to converse about matters of the mind, and not the baser ones of the bowl.  Indeed, only recently, in the Guardian Review the writer Vendela Vida is quoted as saying: “Being married to another writer is easy.  You share a love of books and an understanding that you don’t want to linger over dinner.”  However, in another vein, one cannot forget the oft’-quoted fact that a Madeleine sufficed to spawn the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.  In this case the Madeleine is synonymous with illumination.  And yet, as the foodwriter A.J. Liebling reminds us below, Prousts’ inspiration was not an elaborate banquet of gushing iridescent scents nor was it the most hearty of feasts, it was a measly biscuit.

The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly rooted in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s stem kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book….In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a pack of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous are, a pair of lobsters and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.

In one case food is spurned for the sake of the higher arts, in another a mere biscuit spawns one of the last century’s most scholarly opus.

Despite Brillat-Savarin’s book being subtitled Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, food, gastronomy even, is commonly considered to belong on more Imminent plains.   Indeed, food, related to the body, to ingestion, digestion and excretion is almost immeasurably base; to be condemned by the human-being striving for the skies, the cerebral, the ethereal.  It would appear that even the most gastronomic of feasts, a banquet, a table lain with the heavy, the buttery, the rich and the meatladen, despite provoking rapture, gustative euphoria even, amongst the banqueters, causes the blood to settle to the stomach in digestion and matters of the mind to be left aside.  Oh!  But I sense same epicureans, same bacchanalians, those of wide-girths and oak-pannelled libraries, those who break the fast with Oysters and Champagne, who take tea of Cod-Cheek and Cucumber Sandwiches at four in the afternoon, I sense them scowling at any suggestion that food and literary erudition are not of one and the same ilk.  For both are indeed contained in some bracket of high-living, of the cultural pleasures of life.  Yes, doubtless, one can enjoy good books and enjoy good food.  Perhaps then I should better define the query.  Can one enjoy good food, linger over dinner, and write good books?  More to the point, can one enjoy good food and write learnedly about it?

I have already mentioned the nineteenth-century French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, who is little known for his food writing which culminates in Le grand dictionannire de la cuisine, where with a certain arrogance and a literary turn-of-phrase Dumas explores an A-Z of foods and culinary forms including quite the most extortionate of feasts such that called to be lengthily read out over dinner that evening in a London backyard.  A writer I haven’t yet mentioned, who writes exceptionally about food but also drives us to thought is Elizabeth David, whose literary meanderings between the tastes and food havens of the continent have stood the test of time and are remembered as much for their prosaic prowess as for their culinary erudition.
There are others, but they are rare quite as, I have come to notice, mealtimes are rarities in novels:

A favoured contemporary criticism of novels is that writers create unreal worlds in which no mobile phone rings, no email buzzes up on a screen, protagonists rarely tweet, nor do they spend hours deluding themselves as to their worth on Facebook.  Indeed, the world of literature rarely endorses the menial, the day-to-day, and, often as not, a meal is ne’er eaten.  Perhaps for this reason alone I cannot forget being enthralled by Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea, protagonist who notes down the meals of which he partakes in his diary – substantial mutterings as to the qualities of his tinned anchovies or otherwise.  Nor that third chapter of Ulysees, in which Leopold Bloom appears:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.  He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.  Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

In investigating that most ritualistic of dishes, the Ortolan Bunting, I happened upon the tale Le Duc de l’Omelette by Edgar Allen-Poe.  An extraordinary tale, in which Duke Omelette’s vanity is wounded when the dish is not prepared as should be.

As an aside, and so that the same does not occur for you, I shall elaborate here on the etiquette of eating an Ortolan Bunting:

The Ortolan Bunting, Emberiza Hortulana, is fattened to four times its own size, then drowned in burning Armagnac for eight minutes. To eat the tiny bird, one covers one’s head with a linen shroud, to keep in the aroma and to hide the appalling act from God.  The head dangling from between the lips, one gorges on the whole bird, lungs, heart and bones.

Despite the extant foody members of the literati, or vice-versa, food-writing, as per the likely ordering of a bookshop, is low down the literary hierarchy.  In parentheses, I cannot fail to notice that whilst “bookish” suggest highbrow and even charmingly raffish, the term “foody” has a vaguely illiterate nuance about it. While Travel-Writing, which gained in reputation with the erudite travelogues of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the haunting writings of W. G. Sebald walking the length of the Norfolk coast in The Rings of Saturn and Rebecca West’s magnum opus Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, charting the contemporary history of the Balkans, is recognised to having some literary substance.  Food writing is denigrated to the “Cookery” section.  The odd book with an auto-biographical lend, such as Nigel Slater’s Toast might make it across to the Biography section.  But, in the majority of cases it is considered a lesser-form it is the chick-lit or worse of the Bookshop.

All this to simply interpolate whether in fact food-writing, now being revived and employed by the very best, could perhaps offer a framework, a sort-of straight-jacket in which the most elaborate literary fictions, the most marvellous concoctions of words could come to life.   I understand food to be one of our most vital acts of communion, a meeting of the outer world with the inner.  Quotidian it may be, mundane even, and the fact that we cannot do without seemingly renders it of the least profound of acts, but the very same reasoning recognises food as a subject that both reflects our interior psychological states and, more generally, contemporary society and politics.  As yet burgeoning, the art of food-writing is a literary art striving to find its form…

And of course, if good dinner-party conversation does not arise, a hindrance Borges is not so mindful of, good food offers a handy cue.


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