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What makes a great food writer?


fresco
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The incisive (some would say cutting) but always informed and intelligent commentary on Amanda Hesser's book in one of the other threads got me thinking about just what it is I find admirable and worth reading in the way of food.

Two of the writers I admire most and never tire of reading are Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, who were, probably not coincidentally, friends, Englishwomen and people who spent much of their lives in countries with much better food than England, but who wrote, first and foremost, for people who did not live in France, Italy, Greece or any of the other places which informed their understanding of food and human nature.

A third writer I like a lot is Richard Olney, so long as he sticks to food--his memoir, Reflexions, made my feel quite badly for him. Olney, of course, was originally from the United States, but, like David and Grigson, spent much of his life in France.

David I know from other reading could be impossible in person, but both she and Grigson had the most persuasive and likeable authorial "voices." They were both broadly knowledgable about food, and much else, but managed to deploy their vast trove of wisdom and arcania in a way that charmed, rather than alarmed.

Olney was much more prickly, didactic and preachy in his writing, but somehow, you set that aside, because he was an original, and usually right.

Years ago, someone once observed to me that hacks (meaning people who wrote stuff that was lifeless and banal and got paid for it) were born, not made, and I came to think there was a lot of truth in this.

So tell me: what is the source of food writers' ability to beguile and charm?

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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The most compelling writing I know is sensual, literally "of the senses." A good food writer must be sensual, even if not blatantly so. As well, my favorite writers (and my favorite people) are a blend of the sacred and the profane. Worshipping food does no good if everything is sanitary, pristine, and holy: while hymns have their place, that place is not in the kitchen. I appreciate the crude, the Rabelaisian, the unwashed, the pungent: earthiness.

While I do appreciate elegant writings, it's good to know that writers live full lives. Without a hint of that sensuality, it's too scientific, too precise, too orchestrated for my taste.

This is probably all too obvious, but the connections between eating and making love are abundant, from the seduction with visuals to the plateaus we reach, moaning "Oh God" when our pleasure is extreme.

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What Tana said. And these elements: technique, rhythm, generosity of spirit. What I look for in a food writer - or an anything writer - is a deep joy and overwhelming passion for the subject, coupled with both the ability to communicate same and the intense desire to share it. I love this so much that I need, not only to show you what I feel but to make you feel it too and experience the joy yourself. Same thing in another discipline: read Elizabeth Zimmermann on Opinionated Knitting, a perfect parallel. It's also part of what made Julia such a success on TV: not just that she was human and approachable and intelligent and funny, but that she positively glowed with the need to share the joy and the passion - and she succeeded in doing it.

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I agree with the opinions above. I think a great writer is .. well sort of three dimensional.. you can sense and feel what they are writing about.. you can taste and smell what they are talking about.. they make you want to share your own stories.. great writers tell stories that people can relate it. I think someone said something about generosity of spirit.. this is a key to a talented writer.

Monica Bhide

A Life of Spice

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I once took a workshop on public speaking by a woman named Marcia Martin. She stressed how important it is to be able to speak about your experience. From your experience. The "from" comes from your cells, your bones, your eyes, your skin. It comes from inhabiting the space you're in, and taking in all the impressions you can.

In sharing an experience, the words that convey the most color are those that incorporate your senses. Even that word, "color," implicitly brings the sense of sight to the equation.

Rather than use conceptual words like "bravery" or "valor," use words that have flesh and bone.

Here is a little of Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me with Apples.

I hadn't expected much from this Berkeley joing. When the first course turned out to be a bright magenta soup, I sneered down into the bowl and said, "Food coloring" in my most disparaging restaurant-critic voice. Then I deigned to take a spoonful.

My head flew off. I felt my cheeks getting hot and my eyes getting moist. My palms prickled. Shivers swooped down my spine. Suddenly I was so attuned to sensation that I could feel my watch ticking against my wrist. No food had ever done this to me before.

The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. Smalls puffs of fried tofu, as insubstantial as clouds, floated in the liquid. I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons has once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.

Sensual, yes. And also poetry.

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A writer who makes me feel as if I'm actually there, and I'm experiencing what they are, not just observing it. Someone who is passionate and engaging, not pompous and offputting, who wants to include me in the experience, not impress me with their own wit.

“"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.”

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I'd like to add a reference to what MFK Fisher said, that writing about food is really writing about our appetites, for all kinds of things, including love. (Forgive the mangled quote, MFK.) For me, the best food writing connects to those appetites, makes me see something beyond just the ingredients or the mode of preparation. Maybe I approach this differently, as a writer much more than a cook or gourmet, but I do think Ms. Fisher was on to something.

Neil

Author of the Mahu series of mystery novels set in Hawaii.

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IMHO, Mayhaw Man's food blog covers all of what you have been mentioning: generosity of spirit, enthusiasm, sharing of his lifestyle.

Actually all of the blogs, bring their own fascinating joie de vivre to life, but there was something about one of the final passages of Mayhaw Man's tribute to living that just sticks with me.

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IMHO, Mayhaw Man's food blog covers all of what you have been mentioning: generosity of spirit, enthusiasm, sharing of his lifestyle.

Actually all of the blogs, bring their own fascinating joie de vivre to life, but there was something about one of the final passages of Mayhaw Man's tribute to living that just sticks with me.

Aww Shucks. I'm just a g.o.b. trying to get by in a complex world. :wink:

But thanks for the kind words.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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What Tana said. And these elements: technique, rhythm, generosity of spirit. What I look for in a food writer - or an anything writer - is a deep joy and overwhelming passion for the subject, coupled with both the ability to communicate same and the intense desire to share it. I love this so much that I need, not only to show you what I feel but to make you feel it too and experience the joy yourself. Same thing in another discipline: read Elizabeth Zimmermann on Opinionated Knitting, a perfect parallel. It's also part of what made Julia such a success on TV: not just that she was human and approachable and intelligent and funny, but that she positively glowed with the need to share the joy and the passion - and she succeeded in doing it.

Balmagowry,

My "sediments" exactly! It's all about the passion and the desire to share it. I also happen to really enjoy a good sense of humor too. I relish Calvin Trillins' work and in fact I also enjoy your wiity posts here on egullet. These days it seems like there are way too many journalist/ food writers who lack passion and generosity and are woefully short on information.

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Add me to those who first want to sense that the writer is feeling some passion for his/her topic; not simply completing an "assignment".

Then the all-too-often missing prerequisites of knowing grammar as well as structure/style.

Bob Sherwood

____________

“When the wolf is at the door, one should invite him in and have him for dinner.”

- M.F.K. Fisher

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Yeah - I was kind of lumping that under the "technique" umbrella.

But on second thought... hey, maybe they are just born, after all.

("Most poets are born, you know." Damn, who said that? No doubt John Whiting will remember before I do.)

(EDIT to add - actually, I think it's orators, not poets, and I'm almost sure it's Lewis Carroll, in Sylvie and Bruno. Dammit, now I gotta go look it up.)

Edited by balmagowry (log)
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("Most poets are born, you know." Damn, who said that? No doubt John Whiting will remember before I do.)

Ooh! Ooh! I know! It's from Lewis Carroll's delightful Sylvie and Bruno, only it's orators:

"Bravo!" he cried, patting the Chancellor on the back. "You did that speech very well indeed. Why, you're a born orator, man!"

"Oh, that's nothing! the Chancellor replied, modestly, with downcast eyes. "Most orators are born, you know."

(I cheated and Googled for the quote, but I did know the reference.)

Squeat

Edit: Damn! Should've known you'd beat me to it!

Edited by Squeat Mungry (log)
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("Most poets are born, you know." Damn, who said that? No doubt John Whiting will remember before I do.)

Ooh! Ooh! I know! It's from Lewis Carroll's delightful Sylvie and Bruno, only it's orators:

"Bravo!" he cried, patting the Chancellor on the back. "You did that speech very well indeed. Why, you're a born orator, man!"

"Oh, that's nothing! the Chancellor replied, modestly, with downcast eyes. "Most orators are born, you know."

(I cheated and Googled for the quote, but I did know the reference.)

Squeat

Edit: Damn! Should've known you'd beat me to it!

Yeah, but you sort of win anyway, because you looked it up and got the right character. Here I was thinking it was the Vice-Empress.

LESS! BREAD! MORE! TAXES!

:biggrin:

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Great question, Art, and I've been cogitating for a couple of days. I think my simple-mided answer is this: the writing must be so good that it screams "Read me!" from two rooms away, and insists that I drop the laundry, the rake or the mouse. I'm old enough to resent the time obligation spent reading "Great Writing" if it doesn't turn me on. I want plot, snappy dialogue, a distinct voice, cheap thrills, and information. Oh! Sex and violence are fine too.

As I get older I'm glad I read the great feminine triumverate -- David, Fisher, Grigson-- in my youth, when I lapped up scenery and self-examination. They are all great writers --Grigson being my favourite, because she always writes about something. "Food With the Famous " is a flat-out great book. At forty- mumble I find MFK unbearably sad now, a melancholy bedside companion.

(I am aware that this says more about me than it does about the work of writers whose pantihose I'm unworthy to wash.)

Edited to undo some sloppy cutting and pasting.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Great question, Art, and I've been cogitating for a couple of days.  I think my simple-mided answer is this: the writing must be so good that it screams "Read me!"  from two rooms away, and insists that I drop the laundry, the rake or the mouse. I'm old enough to resent the time obligation spent reading "Great Writing" if it doesn't turn me on.  (I am aware that this says more about me than it does about the work of writers whose pantihose I'm unworthy to wash.)

I want plot, snappy dialogue, a distinct voice, cheap thrills, and information. Oh! Sex and violence are fine too. As I get older I'm glad I read the great feminine triumverate -- David, Fisher, Grigson-- in my youth, when I lapped up scenery and self-examination. They are all great writers --Grigson being my favourite, because she always writes about something. "Food With the Famous " is a flat-out great book. At forty- mumble I find MFK unbearably sad now, a melancholy bedside companion.

True enough, all of it. Especially the MFKF collected correspondence.

Does raise an interesting question, though. The alternative being unthinkable around here, are you suggesting that Ray Sokolov and Tony Bourdain (to name onlly two out of a good-sized field of candidates) wear pantihose?

Funny, somehow I hadn't figured either of them as the type.

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Great question, Art, and I've been cogitating for a couple of days.  I think my simple-mided answer is this: the writing must be so good that it screams "Read me!"  from two rooms away, and insists that I drop the laundry, the rake or the mouse. I'm old enough to resent the time obligation spent reading "Great Writing" if it doesn't turn me on.  (I am aware that this says more about me than it does about the work of writers whose pantihose I'm unworthy to wash.)

I want plot, snappy dialogue, a distinct voice, cheap thrills, and information. Oh! Sex and violence are fine too. As I get older I'm glad I read the great feminine triumverate -- David, Fisher, Grigson-- in my youth, when I lapped up scenery and self-examination. They are all great writers --Grigson being my favourite, because she always writes about something. "Food With the Famous " is a flat-out great book. At forty- mumble I find MFK unbearably sad now, a melancholy bedside companion.

True enough, all of it. Especially the MFKF collected correspondence.

Does raise an interesting question, though. The alternative being unthinkable around here, are you suggesting that Ray Sokolov and Tony Bourdain (to name onlly two out of a good-sized field of candidates) wear pantihose?

Funny, somehow I hadn't figured either of them as the type.

Giggle. Check out the edit line on my original post!

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Does raise an interesting question, though. The alternative being unthinkable around here, are you suggesting that Ray Sokolov and Tony Bourdain (to name only two out of a good-sized field of candidates) wear pantihose?

Funny, somehow I hadn't figured either of them as the type.

Giggle. Check out the edit line on my original post!

Oh, NOW she tells me. Hmph.

Damn, I liked it better the way you had it before. Wassamatta you, aren't you the one who wanted snappy dialogue and cheap thrills?

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Someone who tells me what I need to know. And no more.

Fine. But I need an awful lot. Such as joie de vivre, a profound but unprentious passion for excellence, an encyclopaedic diligence, an easy eloquence, a wry sense of humor, a crusading spirit and above all, a sense of proportion.

To the obvious choices already enumerated, I would add Waverley Root, John & Karen Hess, John Thorne, A.J. Liebling. A relatively small library would keep me happy on my desert island; if I were denied my favorite comestibles, I would learn to make do with their virtual equivalents.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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  • 1 month later...
A writer who makes me feel as if I'm actually there, and I'm experiencing what they are, not just observing it. Someone who is passionate and engaging, not pompous and offputting, who wants to include me in the experience, not impress me with their own wit.

Yes -- absolutely! A good food writer grounds her/his work in sensory detail, so I can imagine experiencing the food myself...

...and it's always more fun to read someone who's excited by their subject than to read someone who's excited by their own genius. *g*

***

Online Food Writing Workshop: http://www.inkberry.org/onlineworkshops.html#food

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