What Makes Good Food Writing

Food is a form of communication.

When someone cooks for you, the food can tell you where they came from, what’s important to them, what influenced them, and what they dream of being and doing. On one plate, everything from the ingredients to the cooking methods to the service style can give you a veritable masterclass in the entire culture the dish came from.

Then there’s people like me who try to write about all of that and what’s more, make a buck off of it. It takes no small amount of hubris to assume you can summarize a multimedia, multi-sensory experience to words on a page. Sometimes the only thing that encourages me in trying to do so is that 1. Someone has to, and 2. People have.

When your office is wherever you want it to be, things usually wind up delicious if a little unglamorous.

A Food Writer is a Translator

The only reason people think their lives are boring or uneventful is because they are in the middle of living them.

After a week of work, I’m crashed out at one of my favorite food pods. I’ve convinced myself that, because I intend to write and “do research” while getting a few beers in on a beautiful warm afternoon, the trip and expense are merited. Over a couple pints of quality local beer, I’ve caught up on the local food gossip.

A new deli cart is dragging itself long on its elbows- possibly bad decision making in starting the business, possibly naïve management. A new pod down the street has shitty accommodations but great food. The Thai truck has new people that are still trying to get orders right, so I accept my order of potstickers and (now possibly store-bought) pork buns with a smile.

With a half-pint of Japanese-style Rice Lager in front of me, two pints In me, and lesser gossip floating around, I’ve decided that now is the best time to put my metaphorical quill to parchment and document my thoughts. The sun is hot on my back as my drinking buddy and the bartender move on to investing. The pod is quiet. Not empty, but the crowd is subdued and enjoying a sunny afternoon after the chilly, rainy day yesterday.

I find absolutely no joy in just documenting menus and meals as though they were specimens under a microscope. Dining does not happen under laboratory conditions. Eating is a function of life. Dining is a function of culture. People buying and eating food happens in “the wild,” and can’t be codified or quantified in any realistic way on a series of spreadsheets. What’s more, I’ve always believed that if you want to write about life, you need to be surrounded by life.

So I take my walks. I write in restaurants and talk to cooks, bartenders, bakers, and chefs. I try to translate the ideas they put on plates into words, wrapped in my own layers of story. Their thoughts and feelings, in my words, told in your emotional voice.

Food writing is not, should not, can not, just be “writing about food.” It’s far to close and personal an experience (for me, anyway) to discuss with the cold objectivity we expect from regular journalism. It’s why, whenever I write a restaurant review, I do my best to create a story about one person having a good night out. Essentially I need to act as a translator- and a good translation needs a knowledge of context.

AZ Quotes image of Hunter S. Thompson. Quote reads: “With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as objective journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

Good Food Writers Inspire More Than Hunger

One of my favorite essays by legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher is little more than instructions on how to dry tangerine slices on a hotel radiator. With that description, the first reaction someone might have is “…wait, really?” Over the course of those instructions, however, Fisher weaves a scene, a story, an emotional landscape of being flat broke and living with the love of your life in a Paris hotel you can’t afford, waiting for your partner to get back. In the meantime, your favorite snack of the day consists of slowly concentrating and drying fresh tangerine segments on the hot radiator in front of an open window- saving the “kiss” of the tangerine for your partner- and watching Paris go about its existence outside your window.

M.F.K. Fisher encompasses the newness and romance food can offer in her writing. Anthony Bourdain was a master raconteur of the culture and people present in a meal and moment of time. James Beard highlighted the history and context of his cooking. Scores of other food critics and food writers have done the same- highlighting the culture, the anxiety, the frustrations and glory of food.

A picture of grilled salmon collar under a salad of green Thai basil leaves and pickled cabbage. Served on a disposable bamboo plate.
The grilled salmon from the Chef Shack by Flying Fish Co., Portland Oregon.

I’m now at home, sitting in my rocking chair on a Saturday morning, trying to finish this post before I go for a run. I had intended to finish the post yesterday about publish this morning, but as the weather turned colder and threatened rain, I realized I’d better start walking home. A quick dinner of grilled salmon collar and lime Topo Chico (accompanied by a very nervous and talkative Australian) later, I got myself home just in time for the rain to fall, and my energy was wiped out by the 40+ block uphill hike.

However, lined up neatly on my right on top of my home bar is my small library of food books (the ones that don’t qualify as “cookbooks”.) Bourdain, Brillat-Savarin, Bee Wilson, Ruth Reichl and Bill Buford are all there. Every word at one point got me thinking about the world I live in, how I go about doing the work I love, and why.

Interestingly, for a number of these writers, I might not have been necessarily the “target audience.” Selling food books to food people is objectively easier than selling them to the general population, but the ones who did– in my collection Bourdain, Reichl, Buford, Beard, and Wilson- did so because they are aware of a truth that not everyone is consciously aware of. Everyone is a “food person.” They just need a good story to remind them.

A series of food writing books are lined up on a dark wood shelf. The books are various colors, and there is a jar of jelly beans off to the left.
There’s a Japanese word for the feeling this picture gives, I think…

Good food writing inspires more than hunger. It inspires curiosity, adventure, emotion, nostalgia, anger, grief, loss, wonder, frustration- the whole smorgasbord of human feeling- the same way food itself does.

To date, I cannot make you taste things through a screen. I can’t make you smell the hot grill at Saint Burritos, or the sweet/savory/spicy/crunch combo of House of Banh Mi’s house special. What I can do, however, is convey the relief of that pour of fine whiskey at the end of a rainy day. I can give you the shivers that the smell of grilling fish and cold beer on a hot day gives me. I can write you a warm fuzzy blanket of my mother-in-laws red stew made by my wife when the world feels too depressing and you need to remember that good and simple and beautiful things exist.

I would like to do that for as long as I possibly can.

Stay Classy,

One thought on “What Makes Good Food Writing

  1. I love cooking many things find it very therapeutic

    Like my calming Zen I never do same thing twice nor eat the same thing twice

    Enjoying seeing many delicious dishes you come up with Mate

    Good hunting

    Slainte

    Alex

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