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Use of first person in Food Writing


David Leite
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Where do you guys weigh in on the use of the first person in food writing? I've seen many established, big name writers go ballistic when the topic comes up. They believe that a new writer should never use it, that it's indulgent, poor form, and a cover for lack of knowledge.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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We have always been taught that it is not genteel to express our opinions in such a way as to suggest that we know any more than anyone else.

Guess I never learned that lesson, huh? :raz::laugh::raz::laugh:

If I can't say "I think. . . " or "I want to know . . ." or "I DO know about this . . ." then why should anybody listen to me? No wait, don't answer that. :hmmm:

BTW, David, where the hell were you tonight???

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If I can't say "I think. . . " or "I want to know . . ." or "I DO know about this . . ." then why should anybody listen to me?

I agree. Almost all of my writing is first person. But I've seen one famous writer foam at the mouth when the subject was brought up. When I reminded her that most of her writing is in the first person, she actually said, "I'm different." I thought, different? Perhaps. Megalomaniacal? definitely.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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We feel it... most... unbecoming... in one so... young. We do. Oh yeah, we really do.

First, one must become a person.

Then, with the proper permissions, the first person can be used.

It is much like using the German "du". Except it is the "ich". And an unearned "ich", is, well, somewhat winsome. At best.

Twenty, forty years.

Perhaps.

We are patient about these matters.

"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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If I can't say "I think. . . " or "I want to know . . ." or "I DO know about this . . ." then why should anybody listen to me?

I agree. Almost all of my writing is first person. But I've seen one famous writer foam at the mouth when the subject was brought up. When I reminded her that most of her writing is in the first person, she actually said, "I'm different." I thought, different? Perhaps. Megalomaniacal? definitely.

Schrambling? :)

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They used to teach in journalism class that one must always use the "journalistic 'we'" - but that has recently fallen out of favor.

And now, more and more, you see the use of "we" only when the writer actually means "more than one of us."

In the olden days, it was "we" that were or were not amused, even if we were all by ourselves at the time.

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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If I can't say "I think. . . " or "I want to know . . ." or "I DO know about this . . ." then why should anybody listen to me? 

FWIW, I agree with you completely.

I'm no expert, and not a journo, but I have a few journo friends. I was told that the "youth" market (under 35) prefers the first person narrative - but then again, the voice should also reflect their own sensibility. Some of these friends I mention are past the market age, but deliberately adopt a "youthful" voice (or maybe they're just immature anyway :smile: )

Personally, I think ageism is crap, but it seems to be the reality in many industries. Is it a consideration for food writers too? I ask because I don't know....

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Schrambling? :)

No, it's not Schrambling. But my lips are sealed. :hmmm:

So winsome.

"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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As is obvious to anyone who's read my column on The Daily Gullet, I use the first person exclusively. But that's because I tend to write about the personal aspects of cooking.

Overall, I'd have to say it depends entirely on the subject, the writer, and the approach. Think of the difference between Harold McGee's two books -- On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook. A first person voice in the first would have been really strange, but it's completely natural in the second, because that book is more informal and more, well, personal.

What I tend not to like is the intrusion of a first person voice at the end of a piece that's written "objectively," with no personal voice, for 9/10's of the whole. Then it's jarring to me.

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Depends on the focus of the writing. If one is sharing personal experience "I" is totally appropriate. The piece would seem cold without it. If one is writing about a chef or a restaurant then "I" probably gets in the way.

Edit: What drove my editor up the wall is my tendency to drop the subject of sentences. Do that often with "I" as in this sentence or my opening sentence above. Used to argue with the editor that it was my "style" and totally acceptable as such. Don't seem to have gotten over it.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Not only food writing but featuring writing in general has been damaged by endless indulgent first-person drivel, in which the author seems far more interested in themselves, their feeling and reaction, their own pain, suffering and triumphs than the alleged subject of the stupid article. It's the flip side of those annoying food magazine articles which are more about the vinyard-owners' comely grandaughter and the beautiful people weilding the antique silver at the (gauzily photographed) soiree, than about the wine and food.

Pulling back, there are some pieces that are by definition first person -- Mr. Leite's stove envy piece, and my own first (of two, so I'm more opinionated than published in this area) published piece, about appearing on a cooking show, for example. And there's really know non-awkward way to say something like "traditionally, chefs do x, but I've found that y works better in a home kitchen."

Maybe it's the self-indulgence of so many writers -- who seem to think they are more important or interesting than their subject. It's like a drunk falling off the wagon, once they get the first snootfull ("My first bolognese was eaten at a small trattoria with my first love") they lose control completely.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I'll take some lumps for this, but...

A couple of years back, ABC (or whomever) decided that the women who watched the Olympic Games were more interested in the "backstory" of the athletes particpating in the Games that the actually events and more traditionally jock-type coverage. The result, as we've all seen, has been a much-criticized proliferation (like morels in the spring) of 2-minute mini-dramas about athletes overcoming adversity to become a part of the Olympic Games. The networks read the ratings, however, and the mini-dramas keep coming.

I say that because I find that the writers whom I find self -indulgent tend to skew female. Food is complicated stuff, and can be powerfully evocative. But it's easy to trip over the fine line between drawing a reader in with a well-turned anecdote or ecocation, and turning the article into a personal voyage of self discovery -- from Saveur to Oprah in three easy paragraphs.

I might suggest that men and women see the line as lying in a different spot, and what I find icky another would find compelling, and that what I find compelling, another reader might find barren.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Not only food writing but featuring writing in general has been damaged by endless indulgent first-person drivel, in which the author seems far more interested in themselves, their feeling and reaction, their own pain, suffering and triumphs than the alleged subject of the stupid article. 

. . . . .

Maybe it's the self-indulgence of so many writers -- who seem to think they are more important or interesting than their subject.  It's like a drunk falling off the wagon, once they get the first snootfull ("My first bolognese was eaten at a small trattoria with my first love") they lose control completely.

That's what I always disliked about Ruth Reichl's restaurant reviews. Although I do think it's disingenuous for a reviewer to try to absent him- or herself from the piece in an attempt to seem totally objective. Critics must be, but reviewers can't. (My opinion :smile: )

Many of us here are still working out our personal styles -- most definitely in the plural for each of us, unless we expect to only write within very narrow subjects and genres. Holly refines on that point when he says

Depends on the focus of the writing. If one is sharing personal experience "I" is totally appropriate. The piece would seem cold without it.
Just as humor is appropriate in some writing but not in other.

Edit-ion:

I might suggest that men and women see the line as lying in a different spot, and what I find icky another would find compelling, and that what I find compelling, another reader might find barren.

Take out the attribution to gender, and I'm with you all the way. Because I doubt the network execs who made the decision to add in all that crap were female. Edited by Suzanne F (log)
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I'll take some lumps for this, but...

A couple of years back, ABC (or whomever) decided that the women who watched the Olympic Games were more interested in the "backstory" of the athletes particpating in the Games that the actually events and more traditionally jock-type coverage. The result, as we've all seen, has been a much-criticized proliferation (like morels in the spring) of 2-minute mini-dramas about athletes overcoming adversity to become a part of the Olympic Games.  The networks read the ratings, however, and the mini-dramas keep coming.

I say that because I find that the writers whom I find self -indulgent tend to skew female.  Food is complicated stuff, and can be powerfully evocative.  But it's easy to trip over the fine line between drawing a reader in with a well-turned anecdote or ecocation, and turning the article into a personal voyage of self discovery -- from Saveur to Oprah in three easy paragraphs. 

I might suggest that men and women see the line as lying in a different spot, and what I find icky another would find compelling, and that what I find compelling, another reader might find barren.

Interesting perspective

Monica Bhide

A Life of Spice

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Maybe it's the self-indulgence of so many writers -- who seem to think they are more important or interesting than their subject.  It's like a drunk falling off the wagon, once they get the first snootfull ("My first bolognese was eaten at a small trattoria with my first love") they lose control completely.

I checked. Self-indulgence is not one of the 7 deadly sins unless one considers it to be gluttony. What is so bad about self indulgence on the part of a writer? On a few occasions I have maintained that my writing is indeed self indulgent - I get joy from it and write about what is of interest to me. In passing I hope it is also of interest to my readers.

As to my first bolognese - it was in Patchogue, I believe. My small apartment kitchen overlooking the canal leading into the Great South Bay. Prepared with the help of Ada Boni - her recipe for lasagna bolognese from "Regional Italian Cooking". I was indeed preparing it for my first love, me. But others seemed to enjoy it too.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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"I might suggest that men and women see the line as lying in a different spot, and what I find icky another would find compelling, and that what I find compelling, another reader might find barren. "

"Take out the attribution to gender, and I'm with you all the way. Because I doubt the network execs who made the decision to add in all that crap were female. "

The gender of the execs was irrelevant -- they weren't making the decision based on personal preference, they were looking at the numbers and trying to expand a targeted audience. Just business.

On the other hand, their numbers confirmed what a lot of people feel instinctually to be true and what has, at any rate become conventional wisdom: women are about feeling/nurtuting/emotional connection while men are about sex and tools. Compare recent meoirs by Ruth Reichle and Anthon Bourdaine.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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