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Jonathan Day

The choices of a food writer

59 posts in this topic

John Thorne writes:

I would argue that sensibility is what makes one cookbook superior to another, however factual it may be.
There are cookbooks written for a whole range of expertise, from Saulnier's _Repertoire de la Cuisine_, which gives the briefest of instructions to the chef/cook who already knows exactly how to finish in cocotte, to Delia Smith, who has surmised (correctly) that there is a whole generation that doesn't even know how to boil an egg. (Her books are doing very well in France.) In between, the bias is now towards an assumption of relative innocence, in which, above all, quantities must be precisely specified, even when such exactitude is misleading.

But certain cookbook authors of the past are still allowed a certain latitude of precision, even in instruction. If Elizabeth David were writing today and told her readers to "cook the eggs with the milk", her peers would raise a howl of indignation. But she is remembered fondly as Britain's Gastronomic Liberator. Of course she could actually write and, towards the end of her career, immersed herself in painstaking scholarship.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Good food writing has to be good writing first. It might then be 'about' various things.

It can't be about "various things"! It has to be about food! If it's not about food it's not food writing! Am I the only sane person in the room?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don't think that the "literary food writing corner" is such a bad place to be. It's one of my favorite corners to hang out on.
Not a million miles from the No-Name Diner! :biggrin:

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Can some of the more experienced, wiser, older folks around here flesh out this concept for me? I shall then, armed with my positivistic and handy definition, go out into the world and attempt to acquire sensibility, which I'm sure will annoy a great many.

Let us begin, O young and insensible one, with with the OED.

Power or faculty of feeling, capacity of sensation and emotion as distinguished from cognition and will. Caird, writing on Kant: "Our assertions must be based on the very nature of our own sensibility, and not on the nature of the objects affecting it."

(in the 18th and early 19th century, rare today): capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. Thackeray, Vanity Fair: "This lady had the keenest and finest sensibility, and how could she be indifferent when she heard Mozart?"

A great deal of modern food writing (both restaurant reviews and essays) starts and ends with the technical merits of the dishes offered: the precision cut of the mirepoix, the dozens of layers of foam in the dessert, even the sheer number of courses presented. Wider considerations disappear: the only question is whether the kitchen has worked its way through the athletic challenge of presenting numerous "high degree of difficulty" dishes. I have a similar reaction to the notion of rushing from restaurant to restaurant, maximising the number of 3-star meals consumed per day of travel. Context and setting get lost.

There's more to it than technique (or even ingredients, for that matter), and being open to that is what sensibility is all about, especially where we are talking about refined, 3-star, haute cooking, which in itself can seem to have little to do with satisfying fundamental hungers.

Music criticism went down a similar road in the rise of the "period instruments" movement. For some critics, the only issue was whether "authentic" instruments, scores and performance practice were employed. It was purely technical apprehension of the music, with little consideration as to whether it was music at all.

Having said this, some of the posts on this thread seem to imply that any technical understanding necessarily impairs a broader sensibility around food and life. I don't think this is the case. One can listen to music as well (or better) for having learned some theory, and indeed for having some experience of playing music. A cook can be a good food writer, both at technical and sensible levels.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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"Am I the only sane person in the room? "

Finally, you understand the problem.

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"It's one of my favorite corners to hang out on. "

Janet, believe me, it's a very scary place. It's much more fun to hang out with the prep cooks.

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Hey this is really interesting, and really does prove you're all wrong.

I just got my mail and there's an envelope from Cook's Illustrated. In it is the April 2003 issue with a press release about the "Spreading the Mayo" taste test article. Now that's quite interesting, I'm sure you'll all agree, but here's the thing that's relevant here. The envelope is addressed to:

cookslabel.jpg


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Certainly one can delineate a category of writing according to Steven's precepts and call it "food writing": technical cooking instructions, analyses of dishes, discussion of the sources and quality of ingredients. There's a lot of it around, and very dull it often is. But we then need to find a different term for the work of, not only Fisher, but Liebling, Wechsberg, Root, Trillin, and so many others who are a joy to read and who get the juices flowing. I don't recall Liebling ever explaining how to make a dish or where an ingredient came from, but I have never read better writing about a certain kind of food.

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It's amusing to witness this sparring match between two culinary giants (or whatever the hell they are), both of whom I regard, in their respective ways, as indespensible:

In this corner, John Thorne, the gentle miniaturist who nibbles the magic cookie and then, in his journey to the innermost recesses of a recipe or a cuisine, reveals "infinity in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour".

And in this corner, Steven "Fat Guy" Shaw, the new kid on the block, who can sweep us up in his giant paw and transport us from city to city, zooming in on its gastronomic solar flexus and emptying its larders with one snap of his capacious jaws.

Choose? I refuse! :laugh:


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Of course "food writing" should be about food. And of course, to be good food writing it must be well-written.

Further than that, food writing that I enjoy or that you enjoy might well be very different things.

I don't want to read recipes. A description of ingredients, techniques used, proportions, cooking times are welcome. But if I'm told that it's crispy and dense to the tooth but giving and tender within, I know how to do that. But I'm not interested in the trivia, unless it has to do with the specific kind of wood-burning oven used or an unusual cooking vessel. Larousse Gastronomic's few lines about a dish are enough recipe.

What I really want is an informed discussion of the dish. This should ideally be not just inforrmation about the dish, but be informed by how the author is engaged by it. What it brings forth from her, how it infuses her. What the dish contains within itself of its history and place and where that is for the author and where that might be for others.

I want to learn bot only about food but also about what constellations of meanings these might have for others.

I want to learn about it through what it means for the writer. If some of this involves learning the writer's spouse's name I want it to have to do with how the writer understands the food that's being written about.

But then I also like recipe books with purty purty full page pictures.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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. . . the gentle miniaturist who nibbles the magic cookie . . .

. . . the new kid on the block, who can sweep us up in his giant paw and transport us from city to city, zooming in on its gastronomic solar flexus . . .

John W., are you sure you haven't been nibbling the magic cookie again?

To me, the generational/seniority issues make it almost impossible to make a meaningful comparison between my style and Thorne's style. I'd actually bring two additional people into the comparison.

I think the most telling comparison is between John Thorne and Ed Behr. Here are two guys who utilize the same medium -- the "food letter" -- and if I'm not mistaken I've even received promotional leaflets for each publication in the folds of the other. Yet they could not be more different. Behr is extremely technical, so much so that you feel as though he completely drains any subject he writes about such that nobody ever really has to write about it again. There's nothing left to say once he gets through with a particular region, product, technique, or concept. Behr comes dangerously close to being exactly what Thorne seems to reject -- but I think he avoids it in part because that meticulous guy we see in the Art of Eating really is Ed Behr. That is his sensibility, if I may attempt to use the term.

I admire both Thorne and Behr but you don't have to spend more than three minutes with my writing to see that I follow the Behr model. Not that I'm going in that direction, but Behr is the guy who speaks with the authority to which I aspire. Which raises a question: Who is following the Thorne model? Who, my age, with my level of experience, operating in the new media world, is Thorne's disciple -- whether Thorne wants him or not?

I'll let you all take a few guesses.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Ed Behr and I are friends and I think that the way you describe him is exactly right, although what I think we have in common is that both The Art of Eating and Simple Cooking are vision driven, not profit driven, if only in the sense that you hold to the vision and try to make ends meet. As you know, Ed is trying to transform The Art of Eating into what I (but not he) describe as something like the Paris Review of the food world. (The problem is that he doesn't have the pockets of George Plimpton.) If he manages to do this, and he's gone a great distance with it, he'll have created something truly unique: a food publication that is neither scholarly nor glossy but intelligent, independent-minded, and motivated by a very real love of serious food writing.

Now Simple Cooking could never evolve in this manner. It is, I sincerely hope, a very fine thing, but it will die with me -- probably ahead of me, but who knows. This is, I think, because, although I have gift that is very much my own, I really don't have a vision. Murky depths maybe, but no proposition, no method to put forth that someone else could pick up and run with. Because of this, I can't have disciples. I think this is true of M.F.K. Fisher, too. The new M.F.K. Fisher is often announced but the comparison never holds -- not at all, usually, but certainly not for long. The same is true for another writer I greatly admire, Patience Gray. For me, HONEY FROM A WEED says everything about Mediterranean cuisine that neither Paula Wolfert or Clifford Wright has come close to saying, but you can take what they've done and go ahead with it. You can't do that with her writing; it just stands there like a rock. And a rock is something that you notice, even admire, but steer around and keep going. This is the price that has to be paid.

There are other books I would put on the same shelf as my own -- speaking strictly from this perspective (I think Patience Gray is a sybil and so out of my league entirely): Daniel Spoerri's MYTHOLOGY & MEATBALLS, T Earle Welby's THE DINNER KNELL. All the same story. If I had been a novelist instead of an culinary essayist, I would have been Ivy Compton-Burnett. So, I think trying to imagine someone as being my disciple is as wrong-minded as imagining me as Patience Gray's disciple. All you can say about that is that God broke the mold before he made either of us.

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In my opinion the next John Thorne is the young Matthew Amster-Burton. I believe that, despite quite a few salient differences, they share a similar . . . sensibility. So there.

A good example: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/pacificnw...1104/taste.html


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Stephen writes:

Behr is extremely technical, so much so that you feel as though he completely drains any subject he writes about such that nobody ever really has to write about it again.
This is as much a matter of style as of content. I have great admiration and respect for Behr, and devour his newsletter; but the recent issue on Britain reflected the biases and enthusiasms of the small group of food writers who showed him around, as well as the brief time they had together. It was very much a whirlwind tour, but with an ambience of long and careful examination.

I say this, not to denigrate an author whom I admire, but to suggest that one must be especially careful of sources when, by their very nature, they *sound* authoritative.

Elizabeth David is another example of a writer with many admirers but no successors. But no wonder -- out there in the wide open spaces of postwar British gastronomy, she was as lonely as Johnny Appleseed.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Of course, that article originally appeared in Simple Cooking. John gave me a real break by publishing it, and much of what you read in the Seattle Times version linked above is due to his editing. I'm terribly flattered by your comparison, Shaw, but I don't know that I have anywhere near the talent or discipline to live up to it.

(The rest of this post I started earlier, before the above shoulder-tap.)

For me food writing is about pleasure. If I illustrate this with a personal anecdote, perhaps that will indicate where I place myself on the Thorne-Behr axis.

Until a couple of years ago, I had never tried sushi. Well, that's not quite true. I was forced to try some on a fourth grade field trip, and I gagged. So it took me fifteen years to try it again. When I did, it wasn't because I felt some compunction to do so, a la The Man Who Ate Everything. It was because I had a friend who told me swooningly about her epic sushi meals. She's not a sushi expert, just a dedicated consumer. So I asked her to take me out for sushi, order, and tell me about each thing I was eating. I wanted in on some of her pleasure. (Turns out sushi is tasty.)

When I write, I can't do it as an expert handing down knowledge, only as an enthusiast. "Here," I'm saying, "I just love eating this dish. Try it, and maybe you'll love it too. If not, I hope you'll try again next week." It's a big reward when someone takes one of my recommendations and runs with it. I'm not really as much of an honest simpleton as that, but I've tried the journalistic approach and I'm just not good at it.

I subscribe to AOE and read it cover to cover every issue, but I prefer my food writing well marbled with hedonism. Which reminds me, there's a new Simple Cooking just out.


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Also, Laurie says, "Isn't it obvious to everyone that Shaw is the next Jeffrey Steingarten?"


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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John Thorne writes:

Ed is trying to transform The Art of Eating into what I (but not he) describe as something like the Paris Review of the food world. (The problem is that he doesn't have the pockets of George Plimpton.)
The real, the insuperable problem is that there is not, in the English-speaking world, a body of scholars/critics/essayists who are prepared to take food seriously as a seminal subject -- a paradigm, if you will -- from which insights may be gained into society as a whole. Massive projects such as that of Curnonsky in France just wouldn't have a chance.

The outstanding modern works in England are the love-children of dedicated individuals such as Alan Davidson and Colin Spencer, both of whom first established their reputations in other areas. I think it is illuminating that John Thorne, arguably America's senior food writer, is holed up in a sort of defensive Alamo from which his messages to the outside world are often masked by a sort of cracker-barrel-philosopher guise which reassures the non-believer by its disarming diffidence. I'm reminded of the persona which Ezra Pound assumed in addressing a public which he knew had little interest in and even less knowledge of the classics whose cause he so bravely espoused. Ezra would have settled right comfortably onto a stool at the No-Name Diner and joined volubly in the conversation.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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But, every now and then, we get both food and good writing together: cause for celebration.

From a book review, by me, that will appear in Saveur next month:

Food writing, like any writing, is best when expertise and talent collide.

"Better red than expert." -- Mao Tse Tung.

Now, Mao meant good politics trumped expertise, but of course, good politics would have sprung from having a good heart -- empathy, curiousity, fairness, and openness (= doing the right thing). So, in terms of food writing (and cooking) without that element of soulfulness, you may be left with technical perfection and lots of information, but not much connection to our true hungers.

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Also, Laurie says, "Isn't it obvious to everyone that Shaw is the next Jeffrey Steingarten?"

I want his job, but I don't share his sensibility (I'm getting very comfortable with this word now). I do see both Jeffrey Steingarten and Alan Richman as absolutely top tier in terms of mainstream food writing. In the practical sense of choosing a career path, I'm very much aiming for what they've achieved, which is why I've started doing the food column for the logical competing glossy in the Vogue category: Elle. Steingarten and Richman are pretty much the only people writing in glossy magazines who approach people like Behr and Thorne in terms of the thoroughness and quality of what they write. But both of them annoy me with their repetitive faux-regular-guy schticks. And Steingarten, while fun for a couple of thousand words, writes too much on every subject without adding value with the extra words, and when you put his pieces side-by-side in a book a real one-note quality emerges. This, I submit, is the difference between schtick and sensibility. I can also tell you that Richman and Steingarten would get their asses kicked in a street fight with Behr and Thorne. The Conde Nast guys put out some great product, but they do it with the aid of virtually unlimited budget, a podium they receive as essentially a gift from a billionaire benefactor, photographs by Irving Penn and the like, and a pre-installed user base of a million or so apiece. I wonder if either of them would have been heard from at all if given the challenge to create and build a readership from scratch, with no resources.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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"In my opinion the next John Thorne is the young Matthew Amster-Burton." Him? He's not my disciple, he's my brother.

"Ezra would have settled right comfortably onto a stool at the No-Name Diner and joined volubly in the conversation." And he'd be welcome, too, as long as he kept off the subject of usury. As to the rest of what you say, I don't know. I agree with Shaw about the "faux-regular-guy schtick" and I don't like to think that it applies all that much to myself. It's more accurate to say that I suffer from multiple personality disorder: there's the guy who writes seriously about serious food; there's the guy who goes and makes his lunch from a can of Progresso soup; and then there's the nut who meticulously peels off the smoked casing from the kielbasa he just took out of the Jensen-Luhr smoker and makes a po' boy out of it. They all claim equal time and they all have their fans and foes. You wouldn't believe the hate mail I get about the No-Name series: so much for the appeal of cracker-barrel philosophy. The Gaston-Bachelard-tinged stuff goes over much better.

Finally -- yak, yak, yak...I know. Sorry, but it's my last day -- I thought the last post from Shaw really hits the nail directly on the head. If, for instance, Jeffrey Steingarten tried to go to Paris on his own and visit all the best restaurants, he'd have a VERY different experience -- and potentially a much more interesting one to write about. But drop the name Vogue and all doors swing open; all chefs are your friends; reservations are always found. True, this is as much a part of reality as the experiences encounted by the innocent enthusiast, but it is reality of many parts -- as Shaw sagely enumerates. To have all that at your elbow and to act as the guy next door hit with a stroke of luck gets to be a little creepy.

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Sorry, but it's my last day

Well that sounds like a stupid plan. Can anybody fix this?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Shaw:

I can also tell you that Richman and Steingarten would get their asses kicked in a street fight with Behr and Thorne.

Thorne:

I thought the last post from Shaw really hits the nail directly on the head.

Okay, who wants to set this up?


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Sorry, but it's my last day

Well that sounds like a stupid plan. Can anybody fix this?

Ummm...

/looks at keyboard, wiggles mouse

Nope. Not from this end.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Forgive me, for I am young and have little of the attribute known as "sensibility" -- I don't even have enough of it to know what it means! Can some of the more experienced, wiser, older folks around here flesh out this concept for me? I shall then, armed with my positivistic and handy definition, go out into the world and attempt to acquire sensibility, which I'm sure will annoy a great many.  :laugh:

Of the attributes you request from your flesher-outer, I am only older for sure. I can offer this, though: you don't acquire sensibility with age, you're born with it. It can't be learned. It can be imitated, but it will always be only an imitation. It isn't necessary on the resume of a food writer who has seen the road to his or her own fulllest expression.

Thanks for this interesting discussion.


Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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