Russ's Feces & an Insight
Posted 09 February 2004 - 10:43 AM
Exotic (to us) food as arrested development, as thrill seeking, as cultural exchange, yada, yada, yada. One thing that wasn't covered is that the food itself is not that interesting. It may give us a frisson to read about eating ant eggs or grub worms, but only if the writer does his or her job properly. Otherwise it's just one more factoid.
This point hit home while I was reading the galley proofs of Jerry Hopkins's new book Extreme Cuisine: The Weird & Wonderful Food that People Eat. This is an overhaul of his previous work, Strange Foods. It's full of some of the most radical meals ever -- from durian to dumpster diving. Hopkins is a good writer. He can even be a powerful writer. He is the guy, after all, who wrote No One Here Gets Out Alive, spent time on the road with the Doors, and has written for Rolling Stone for years. He has eaten some really bizarre stuff. Should be a wild ride, no?
As a matter of fact, big chunks of this book are downright boring. There will be a full eGullet review in a week or two, but the bottom line (thus far) is that Hopkins, in his desire not to turn other cultures' foods into a sideshow, maintains a level of detachment that makes reading about eating live monkey brains about as interesting as reading the local zoning ordinances.
There's none of Tony Bourdain's swashbuckling, Jeffrey Steingarten's manic compulsiveness or Robb Walsh's passionate anthropology (for want of a better term) or love of old diners. In short, there is no personality.
In the intro to Are You Really Going to Eat That?, Walsh says, "I discovered that weird food isn't all that interesting unless somebody interesting eats it, or somebody eats it for an interesting reason." I'd add that unless somebody writes about either one in an interesting way, it's just another encyclopedia entry.
Okay, long winded premise over. What do you think Robb, Ellen, Russ, John? Where in that intersection of food and writer does the real story lie?
Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:01 AM
Edited by John Whiting, 09 February 2004 - 11:02 AM.
Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:25 AM
Edited by Pan, 09 February 2004 - 11:26 AM.
Have a look at my website, fluteperformer.com!
Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:49 AM
Posted 09 February 2004 - 12:34 PM
That's the key to the word "boring", and I've never seen it put more succinctly. But even "flavor" is a graded word. For a small minority it could be provided by an appropriate Latin quotation.
. . . for writing to cross over from that small group to a larger one, it has to appeal on a more general level.
It's certainly true that a popular newspaper must be written with a different audience in mind than a group of specialists or enthusiasts. I've seen popular authors write on eGullet with an unadorned seriousness that their publishers (or their public) would never accept.
Posted 09 February 2004 - 12:38 PM
Well, boring writing is boring, but that's not what I was getting at. In retrospect, I was making two distinct, but related, points.
Chad, I'll start off by saying that I haven't read any of these books. That said, it sounds to me that you're really saying that boring writing is boring, not that the food is boring. I find it really difficult to think of durian as boring, and there's a hell of a lot one could write about it, from descriptions of its legendarily strong, stinky smell and the complex taste of different varieties to the fattening and "heaty" nature of this unusual fruit, to its growing on tall trees and the concern about the possibility of fatal injuries from the thorny fruit dropping on a person's head, to the known preference of cats - including tigers - for the fruit, etc., etc.
First, good food writing is always personal -- It's not self indulgent, but the writer has to have some investment in what he's writing about. We'll even put up with mediocre writing if the writer has passion and personality. Take Michael Ruhlman's interminable run on sentences, for example. You just want to smack him and say, "This is a period. Use it." But he's a good story teller. He's involved with his topic. His writing has some personality. It works. When Robb Walsh recounts the history of the okra pod you can sense his personal interest in the subject. A potentially dry topic becomes engaging, even if Walsh isn't trying to be "entertaining."
Second, if you're going to get into the "Weird Things People Eat" arena, you damn well better make it personal. Otherwise you've turned a fascinating topic into a dull academic treatise. That's why Tony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour sells and the Proceedings of the International Symposium on Flower-Eating Culture in Yunnan Province of China doesn't. History and anthropology aside, we're along for the ride. We vicariously share the writer's fascination -- or his squeamishness. We want to know why people eat some of these things, sure. We want to know the history. But we also want to share the writer's experience of the food, the culture and everything leading up to putting a fried bat in his mouth. The fried bat is not, in and of itself, all that interesting. If the writer's disengaged, so are we.
That's my theory, anyway. The question to the panel now becomes -- Am I full of shit?
Posted 09 February 2004 - 01:05 PM
There are many kinds of food writing. Some are inherently more exciting than others. Russ Parsons is one of the best at the most challenging kind of food writing--the food section article. I know, I tried to write a piece about plums once for Cooking Light. It was one of the hardest assignments I've ever had. Try to emote about a plum. Or describe the flavor without being obvious.
It's a hell of a lot easier not to be boring when you're writing about a mission to find the world's hottest pepper or to eat durian.
But I wouldn't want all food writing to be like that.
Posted 09 February 2004 - 01:12 PM
one of my roles as a writer for a general interest publication is to synthesize the material and translate it into a form that will appeal to the general reader and will make them understand why i find this stuff so damned interesting.
Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:11 AM
Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:43 AM
Posted 10 February 2004 - 07:05 AM
"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose