Wednesday, 28 November 2012

FCC: Food and the Humanities

Quite fittingly, our final Food and Culture Colloquium lecture for the semester focused on food writing, with particular emphases on food literature and food blogging. This session, co-presented by Associate Professor of English Dennis Read and Assistant Director of the Writing Center Susan Kanter (both of whom also teach food-themed first-year seminars), also served as a wrap up to our month-long focus on intersections between food and liberal arts. To set the stage, Dennis and Susan shared with us the first half of this video (if you're more of a Hulu fan, you can check out the same video here). A direct response to Pete Wells's New York Times review of Guy Fieri's recently opened restaurant in New York, the cut SNL skit prompts us to think about the thematic curiosity of whether or not food writing means anything to anyone these days.

The marriage between food and the humanities is such that there is great validity in the following statement: "Reading is how the eyes eat." With that as an agreed jumping point, food writing creates discourses that propel the reader--initially drawn in by the food--beyond the food itself. To aid in capturing the readers' attention, the writer may (sub)consciously employ a wide range of techniques as s/he paints beautiful dinnerscapes, plays with the harmonies and clashes of the kitchens or recreates the smells and sights of the marketplace. The writing may (un)expectedly speak to us because a word, a food or a scene links us to a personal food memory; a piece of food literature may incite a call to action as we develop empathy for a  character or situation; or perhaps a bunch of words on a piece of paper simply makes us hungry as our minds drift off the page and into our inner voice's desire for food. Whatever the end goal or personal artistic style of the author may be, we can generally attribute different characteristics to the overall genre of food writing, or more specifically "good" food writing.

In order to "taste" through reading, food writing contains a very special flavour, highlighted by strong, descriptive words such as panache, eclectic and eidetic (further emphasizing the connection between food and memory). Quite often, writing will come in the form of metaphors and speak directly to our various senses. One of the clearest examples of a passage with intense flavour in these regards is that of Marcel Proust's madeleine. Another is Calvin Trillin and his writings on the dishes and regional variations of barbecues, alongside other food personalities from whom we learn about people through the ways in which their food stories are told. Another defining characteristic is spice, writing which appeals most directly to the senses and is innovative in its approach and quite fittingly not bland. This week's suggested readings speak directly to good food writing built on spice. In addition to a series of New York Times pieces of the same competition dinner, as told from the participants' and mutual supervisor's perspectives, Susan and Dennis also offered a series of hardcopy texts that exemplify great food literature which includes the likes of Albion native M.F.K. Fisher (1920s), Trillin (60s-90s) and Anthony Bourdain (2000s-). And of course we can't forget about dashes of humour that tend to pepper food writing.

The evolution of food writing has developed quickly as of late from printed media by way of food literature and food journalism to online media, particularly in the form of web communities and food blogs (something I know a thing or two about..). From the more academic-oriented sites such as SAFN's FoodAnthropology to Manny Rodriquez's photogenic gastrofotonomia, from homegrown to home away from home to home on the range, Susan and Dennis unearthed a diversified plethora of how food and food writing have become stylised and presented in recent memory. And yet, there seems to be a shared approach to the way much of what is written is actually written. In many respects, I find food writing to be conversational and, especially within an online framework and presence, this means there's the potential to be talking and sharing and learning (through food) from the diverse world of experiences that surround and shape us.

And so, we return to Guy, and the question posed earlier, rephrased slightly here: do people really care about what food writers write..(about)(?). As was pointed out, the media blitzkreig that ensued after the NYT article (not forgetting the SNL skit, of course) certainly seems to suggest that people are paying attention, at least on major newslines. Devra First posted an article on Boston.com claiming the review as funny, but questioned if it was fair. And Guy himself took on a positive, albeit defensive, slant when he spoke with Savannah Guthrie on the Today show. Wherever you may stand on the review, there are a series of prompts we could (should) consider and learn from this review, especially whenever anyone writes a review in electronic ink (instead of pencil) in the future: Do reviews help or hurt? Is the issue geared toward disrespect for the chef or the food? What impact do rhetorical question marks have in contrast to statements ending with a period? Is our goal to be edgy and push the envelope, and if so how far is too far?

As we consider food writing, or perhaps even more broadly writing in general, one may wonder to what extent such writing actually means anything today. Indeed, writing evokes emotions and challenges us to think critically of our world today; much of the best writing that exists exists as such because the themes and lessons are universal just as they are personal. Take a listen to what Judith Coburn shares in the above video (as an aside, I find that this clip all on its own brings us full circle to the start of the colloquium). Food, as we've been studying throughout the past semester via the colloquium, is a language of its own. In my opinion, the best food writers are able to put onto paper the five-sense medium of food into written words which cause us to recreate the five sense experience without the food actually sitting in front of us. Whether we may have experienced whatever is being described using nothing but words, great food writing sparks our imagination to fill in the blanks of these experiences and to create new experiences for ourselves and for others.

Suggested readings for this session: 
"Two Food Writers in a Kitchen Smackdown" (Frank Bruni, 2009)
"A Mexican Feast with Artisinal Technique" (Kim Severson, 2009)
"Old World with New Twists" (Julia Moskin, 2009)
"I Was Really Very Hungry" in As They Were (M.F.K. Fisher, 1974, PRINT)"Confession of a Crab Eater" in Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater (Calvin Trillin, 1978, PRINT)
"From Our Kitchen to Your Table" in Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Anthony Bourdain, 2000, PRINT)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the album of photos from our November colloquium sessions, click here. The Food and Culture Colloquium will resume January 23, 2013, in Slayter Auditorium from 4.30pm-5.30pm. Colloquium lectures and practicums are open to all Denison faculty, staff and students, as well as area community members in and outside of Granville.

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