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Russ's Feces & an Insight


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#1 Chad

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 10:43 AM

I was fascinated by the discussion kicked off by Russ Parsons -- yeah the Playing with Feces one. Don't read too much into that. :rolleyes:

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?

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?

Chad
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#2 John Whiting

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:01 AM

For me, "just another encyclopedia entry" is fine, providing it's a good encyclopedia. I like entertaining writing, I like informative writing, but I don't demand that they coexist. There are whole pages of Robb's book where he deserts entertainment and just gets down to business. Schwabe's Unmentionable Cuisine, which I've already mentioned, is as po-faced as you can get, and is (I think) all the more effective for it.

Edited by John Whiting, 09 February 2004 - 11:02 AM.

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#3 Pan

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:25 AM

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.

Edited by Pan, 09 February 2004 - 11:26 AM.


#4 russ parsons

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:49 AM

i don't think it's quite as simple as "boring writing is boring". there is writing that is informational: where the writer is so fascinated by his subject that he thinks everyone will be equally taken by the facts. in some cases, this is true. but for writing to cross over from that small group to a larger one, it has to appeal on a more general level. in food, that is flavor. and as anyone who has ever tried to write about flavor will attest, that is devilishly hard without resorting to cliche. (i say this with some conviction since the most frequent comment i get from my editors seems to be: "fascinating, can you make it more delicious?"invariably, they are right.)

#5 John Whiting

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 12:34 PM

. . . for writing to cross over from that small group to a larger one, it has to appeal on a more general level.

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.

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.
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#6 Chad

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 12:38 PM

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.

Well, boring writing is boring, but that's not what I was getting at. In retrospect, I was making two distinct, but related, points.

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?

Chad
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#7 Pan

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 12:49 PM

If the writer's disengaged, so are we.

That makes a lot of sense, Chad.

#8 Robb Walsh

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 01:05 PM

I'm with you Chad.

But...
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.

#9 russ parsons

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 01:12 PM

You're not full of it, but I do think you need to be more specific. What you're talking about is writing for a general audience. The reason I'm so insistent on this is because I am a food wonk. I get enthralled by technical pieces on the history of sardine biomass in the catalina channel, or on moisture retention in the longissimus dorsi muscle, or (and one of my all-time faves) agricultural location theory and the history of the castroville artichoke industry. these are not things that would hold the general reader's interest (to put it mildly).

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.

#10 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:11 AM

Chad -- I think that a distinctive quality of much of Robb's writing is not simply that it has "personality" or that he writes from a "personal" viewpoint in writing about food, but that he also captures something of the essence of specific people in their cultures. Some of the essays in Are You Really Going To Eat That? are not just fine food writing, but fine writing, period. I am thinking in particular of pieces like "Dinner at Darrington: The Dying Art of Black Southern Cooking", a poignant piece on a prison cook. Or "The Things We Still Carry", the candid views of young pizza-eating Vietnamese American college students in a Houston Vietnamese restaurant. And for making other cultural traditions his own in the most personal of ways, there is "Bread of the Dead".

#11 John Whiting

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 06:43 AM

In other words, he has the writer's necessary gift of modesty -- the ability to focus attention on his subject rather than on his own perception of it. He looks through a lens rather than into a mirror.
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#12 fifi

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 07:05 AM

Well said, John. I was trying to put words to "what is different here". Thank you for clarifying for me.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

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