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John Whiting

John Whiting

8 posts in this topic

Hi, Robb – Thanks for having the generosity of spirit to throw yourself to the eGullet jackals. As in the recent German cannibalism trial, you’ve let us off the hook by submitting voluntarily to vivisection.

We panellists have been asked for an initial reaction to your fascinating book. I find this easiest to do in the third person:

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Collected essays originally written for periodicals are usually published in a format implying that they have been written in a unified present that springs in magical simultaneity from the timeless mind of the author. But when the subject is popular food, and in particular food which has moved from the narrowly ethnic into the quixotic realm of the fashionable, essays written over a ten-year period are as inexorably tied to time and place as, say, political analysis or sports reporting.

And so it is a welcome surprise to find that Robb Walsh, in Are You Really Going to Eat That?, has preceded each of his culinary reflections with the name of the periodical for which it was written and the date of its publication. (This also relieves the author of the dubious task of unifying the style and altering the text so as to disguise any anachronisms.)

Such honest labelling suggests the mind of a scholar. This is confirmed in the essays Robb has written for Natural History, which reveal painstaking research that goes far beyond mere Googling. (Many of the essays date from the mid-90s, when an enquiring author couldn’t just glue his butt to a chair.) In subjects I know a little about, such as Gruyère and truffles, I finished reading them rather better informed than when I started.

Robb tells us frankly that he had to give up his world travels and settle down to a more lucrative newspaper job, writing about food that was eaten locally by readers of the Houston Press. Because of his global experience, he has been able to place this provincial dining within a larger perspective which makes his local restaurant reviews interesting to readers who will never make the proverbial Michelin detour.

Robb expresses particular admiration for John Thorne, another fine food writer whose horizons were circumscribed by economic necessity. John solved the problem by going within himself, adopting the persona of an introspective scholar whose world comprised his library and his kitchen. Robb’s culinary world is also intimate, but it is essentially social: he introduces us to remarkable characters whose idiosyncrasies give their food its unique identity. Authenticity? For Robb Walsh’s autonomous cooks it doesn’t come merely from tradition – it’s inherent.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Thanks John!

I'm very flattered. Not very good vivisectioning on your part, thank goodness.

I am indeed a great admirer of John Thorne. We argue about food via e-mail sometimes. And the subject of rich people's food versus poor people's food comes up quite a bit. I dare say eating well without money has been a central theme of his. But as much as I love Thorne's work, I have never been tempted to take the vow of poverty his POV demands.

But I think the subject of wealth, or lack thereof, is of particular interest to a discussion of the new era of food writing.

If the old elitist thesis was that everybody who read food journals had enough money for foie gras and old Sauternes, and the revolutionary antithesis was John Thorne's book, Outlaw Cook, which introduced a new kind of food writing which was all about eating with integrity and without money, then perhaps the culinarily adventuresome synthesis has begun to emerge, a variety of food writing that is neither elitist nor stridently prole.

Here in the Lone Star state, I am best known for writing about barbecue and Tex-Mex, both decidedly low-brow styles of cooking. But I have also been nominated for a Beard Award for coverage of the Texas wine industry. And I'm a wine competition judge as well. There are food writers of my acquaintance who see this as a conflict. "How can you take a barbecue writer's opinions about wine seriously?" some ask. While others see me as selling out the common man in pursuit of such elitist pastimes. The guys who write about barbecue generally don't write about haute cuisine.

Why?

I think it's a class issue. You know how incredibly earnest we Americans get about the egalatarian thing. What's the climate in the UK? Is there upper class and lower class food journalism there?

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I think the subject of wealth, or lack thereof, is of particular interest to a discussion of the new era of food writing.
Indeed it is, as in almost every other topic. John Thorne chose the road he travelled because he was a writer before he was a foodie and couldn't bring himself to write the sort of prose that was required to be publishable in the foodie press, certainly as an unknown beginner. He has told me of experiences with publishers that made it obvious that in order to satisfy them he would have had to become someone else. Correspondence with him convinces me that his ethics and aesthetics determined his cuisine more than the other way around.

Jeffrey Steingarten has established a persona as a gastronomic explorer who works just as hard in the kitchen as Thorne, but with a virtually unlimited expense account. He walks a tightrope that gives credence to his integrity but also provides lots of ammunition for the Frasieresque gastrosnobs.

The guys who write about barbecue generally don't write about haute cuisine.

With at least one notable exception. Your chapter on Jeffrey and barbecue had me rolling about on the floor.

You know how incredibly earnest we Americans get about the egalatarian thing. What's the climate in the UK? Is there upper class and lower class food journalism there?
Yes, and it goes back centuries. But some of England's best food writers have been aristocratic in manner but egalitarian in principle. The late Alan Davidson is the prime example. And there was Jane Grigson, who provided an observation to carve on the wall: "We have more than enough masterpieces. What we need is a better standard of ordinariness."

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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May I ask all of your ages?

I only mention it because I have no memory of a time when food writing was so snobbish. To me, right now too much of the food writing I see is self-consciously populist, which is also the case with too much travel writing. John Thorne is sui generis, but his pale imitators are just a drag.


Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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i'm certainly old enough to know better, but not as old as john! i'm 48.

as for john thorne (the OTHER john for purposes of this discussion), he is a friend and i would definitely agree with the sui generis. well, maybe not. i just got done watching "american splendor", the harvey pekar movie. there are marked similarities there, for sure (said almost entirely admiringly).

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Extrapolating from my age (35) to Russ's (48) where does that pinpoint the rise of the kind of non-snobbish food writing that Robb illustrates? Would it be sometime in the 1980s?


Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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