Long-form Food Writing: Journalism You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

“Given the genre’s [food memoir or “foodoir”] propensity for vicarious pleasures, a melancholy turn might come as a surprise. Three recent memoirs in this mode—Boris Fishman’s Savage Feast , Kwame Onwuachi’s Notes from a Young Black Chef , and Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums —may describe exciting travel and glamorous careers, but they also, centrally, address cooking as a coping mechanism. A recipe need not be a portal to another life, these memoirs remind us; it can be a bid to save your own.”

A review and assessment of three recent memoirs that revolve around food:

“Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.”

Some intriguing ideas from 2009:

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I love the headline photo… bagel noir.

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service labor is all but entirely unrepresented

The best pieces of food writing I’ve read, Kitchen Confidential, Heat, and Blood, Bones & Butter, all focus on labor.

The fiction that Wells, Yelp reviewers, and other middlebrow critics perpetuate is that service is a type of performance and therefore subject to the terms of aesthetic critique. “No,” one might say, copping Wells’s own patronizing rhetorical crutch, it’s not a performance. It’s labor.

Restaurants are theater. Service is a performance. Obviously it’s also labor, just like acting.

https://cas.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/cas/documents/academic-programs/freshman-seminars/754.pdf

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“In the Italian south, the lives of foreign agricultural labourers are so cheap that many NGOs have described their conditions as a modern form of slavery. They live in isolated rural ruins or shanty towns. Some have Italian residency permits, but many don’t. A few have work contracts, although union organisers often find they are fake. Desperate for work, these labourers will accept any job in the fields even if the wages are far below, and the hours far above, union standards. The produce they pick regularly ends up on the shelves of Italian, and international, supermarkets, bought by consumers who have no idea of the suffering involved.”

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"Spending money on a meal in an unknown gastronomic territory, and all that in English, while Mama’s cooking is axiomatically the best in the world and their several fridges are full of reliable food, including the already proven leftovers, would just be foolish and irresponsible. In my family, eating is not meant to be an exploration, nor an expansion of cultural experience. Part of the food pleasure is in meeting the set expectations, while its indelible utility is in providing energy for labour, and therefore for survival. Food is an existential necessity, an irreplaceable element in the structure of daily life, and it should never be fucked around with in some expensive place that also happens to be devoid of friends and family.

The only Hamilton place where the two of them might venture for a meal is the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant featuring mounds of fried things and stewed stuff, plus very un-Chinese multilayered cake with industrial-strength frosting. The attraction to the Mandarin is largely a consequence of its all-you-can-eat wonder buffet, wherein the utopian concept of cheap and endless abundance, dreamed of by generations of Slavic peasantry, is finally fulfilled."

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A micro essay from In My Blood, by Bo Bech. One of my favorite cookbooks. I transcribed this to show a friend but figured it might be appreciated here.

The Conception

What I want is actually quite primordial and straightforward. I like to be strong in every expression. But that calls for opting out of many things when cooking. Most often, I am triggered by a single component. It could be a loaf of bread or a head of cauliflower. I become fascinated by the question of whether I can get away with putting it on a plate without all kinds of fuss.

I would, quite simply, like to pay tribute to it. Draw out its nature, its DNA, if you will. This stands somewhat in contrast to the conventional notion that protein always stands above everything else. That is, that fish, shellfish or meat plays the starring role and that everything else on the plate, figuratively speaking, is the gentleman who helps the lady across the river. Many chefs believe that a dish must contain all features: There must be something crispy and something soft, something raw, a puree–it becomes a sort of showy exercise. But it gets monotonous really fast, because then you end up going through an entire dinner repeating the same dish, only changing out the ingredients.

I usually work with a starring role and a supporting role, the latter being there to make the former shine. And then there is always a wild card, a kind of slap in the face that makes people stop and go: “Hey, what was that?” It is usually an ingredient that I find completely logical.

But people may become a little frightened when they see the dish on the menu. I like to draw out their apprehension, because once they have tried the dish, then their forgiveness becomes a stronger feeling.

And to me, as a chef, all that simplicity also becomes a little dangerous. Because if you order the bread or the cauliflower and you do not like it, then there is nothing else to be done. There aren’t all kinds of other things on the plate that can step in to save the day. This is the danger that I like.

But I am also old-fashioned. I do not belong to the school of chefs who like to go out and find ingredients that maybe or maybe aren’t edible–acting almost like the fashion designer who presents a collection just to say: “I can get away with this.” I prefer the friendship to be there from the beginning so that you do not need to set out already facing a headwind.

So instead, I work with ingredients that I know people are familiar with. So that the guest perhaps looks at the plate and thinks, “Okay, fine, mashed potatoes, and so what?”–and then he or she tastes mashed potatoes that are completely different from what they know. We lift something familiar up to a different level so that they realize how good we are, without being subjected to long stories about food.

I care greatly for the hidden treasures. I don’t have a need to tell people how complex the food can be. The guests should find out for themselves that celeriac with condensed buttermilk is a simple dish that tastes fantastic. I hate receiving long lectures about food when I dine out, so I want my guests to also be spared that. One example: I make what I call condensed buttermilk by bringing buttermilk to a boil so that it coagulates, or separates. Then you take all the clear liquid, which constitutes about 85 percent of the fresh buttermilk, and remove all impurities. Then you get a liquid that tastes like buttermilk. Then you reduce it to next to nothing so that you are left with a small brown texture that almost looks like granulated sugar. It is SO acidic. It is not pleasant by itself, but acid can draw fat, so we blend it with browned butter and pour it over the celeriac in great quantities, like chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream. That sauce costs more than five celeriacs and is pretty complicated to make, but no one knows that. Or needs to know that. The guests only know that it tastes good.

I would like to keep things as simple as possible. If I serve a guava sorbet, then 99 out of 100 people will ask: “What in the world is guava?” It’s like saying “pear” in Europe, guava is just a pear in South America. But you need to use your brain to process all of that and to sit there and mess around with the desserts and consider: “Hmm, there are both some pear and some apple notes here?” It is not until all the detective work is finished, that you truly begin to taste it. In that case, I would rather just serve a pear sorbet. It is, in my view, humble. And uplifting. I would rather be a vagrant who impresses, than a guy in a tuxedo who disappoints. It is very fashionable today to say that you have a test kitchen. “We had our test kitchen develop this dish.” But to me, the kitchen is a kitchen. It is where we cook. I am simultaneously so free in my mind and so focused that I play in the kitchen–maybe random things meet on the cutting board, maybe they meet in my head, maybe the dish is conceived somewhere in between.

Sometimes, new dishes arise out of fury–at other times they are a calm, well-considered tribute. The inspiration comes in all kinds of possible and impossible ways, but over time I have discovered that my ideas rest on five pillars: the Rage, the Tribute, the Introduction, the Reunion, and the Journey.

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:slight_smile: It’s quite thought-provoking. I appreciate the idea of focusing on the single element and working out from that in a manner that enhances it.

I’d not heard of the chef, his restaurant, or his approach to his craft: Thank you!

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In 2019, the Southern Foodways Alliance explored the theme of “The Labor Food.”

From the website introducing one part of the project, Reporting the Work of Food:

[W]e share three interlocked stories [snipped out some text] … Together, they shine light on the economics and labor practices of campus dining at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi — the largest public universities in Alabama and Mississippi.

Individual links to the three articles:
The Labor of Food:

When Food Service Means Food Stamps:

Real Food Challenge:

There is also a fourth, SFA-commissioned piece, from the L.A. Times that is somewhat tied to this theme.

The Festival Industrial Complex:

(This appears to be behind the LAT paywall, but the full text is available on the SFA page for the project.)

I’m curious to know if any similar investigations are happening in the LA area.

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A lot of the older folk in my family lived in NY during the “Harlem Renaissance”. I heard them mention Father Divine but never knew his story.

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I think I might have relative envy: they must have incredible stories to share!

Along those lines, have you read this obit?

Interestingly, Father Divine showed up in a book I read late last year, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (a fascinating concept for a book, but the actual execution was sorely lacking: author really needed a stringent editor to push them!).

One of the (loose) themes of the book involved looking at these various religious/spiritual movements as related to food, race, gender roles, and society. I wish that had been more developed through the research and writing.

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Oh lord, yes. Somebody should write a book.

Looking forward to reading about Ms. Lillian.

Thanks!

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Foodways, History, Culture, Politics - the naming and claiming of one’s identity.

I was going to pull out quotes, but the piece needs to be read fully.

With a nudge toward further thread-drift, Sam Wasson has a new book out on the making of the film:

His bio of Fosse was pretty damn great; I’ve put my name down at the library for The Big Goodbye but am now thinking I need to drop by Vromans and grab it.

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Yes I think I heard an interview with him on KPCC maybe. Super interesting

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“A MANSION IN THE HILLS ABOVE Glendale, a man named Mardiros Iskenderian rose from his bed one morning and put on a white silk suit he hadn’t worn in 20 years. He stuffed a 9mm handgun into his waistband and a .38-caliber revolver into his coat pocket and walked step by small step down the stairs. His wife, Rita, who had fallen in love with him when she was 12, couldn’t believe the sight. For a man who was so near death, cancer everywhere, he looked beautiful. It had been months since he had ventured outside by himself, months since he had driven one of his fancy cars, and she fretted that he was too weak to go anywhere. He told her not to worry. He was feeling much better now, and besides, he was only going to Zankou Chicken to see an old friend.”

Published in Los Angeles Magazine April 2008, a version of this piece (or perhaps the whole of it) appears in Arax’s West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State.

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I had no idea this was happening, @robert - it’s been added to my ever-burgeoning “Want It Now” list, yet next October seems so far away.

"As the earth’s population approaches 9 billion, the Malthusian prediction that humans will outgrow our ability to feed ourselves seems increasingly plausible. Meanwhile, agriculture faces a slew of environmental challenges: erosion, desertification, salinization, water scarcity, and, of course, climate change.

Quinoa might be a big part of the solution. It provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, fiber, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E, and is (unlike any other plant food in the world) a complete protein, with adequate stores of all nine of the amino acids that the body can’t synthesize itself. More to the point, it is remarkably resilient. It thrives in soil saturated with salt. It tolerates cold and drought. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, a Danish agronomist who has studied the plant for more than twenty years, put it this way: “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things — the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

Except for one problem."

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The story of water is not local – it’s hyper, hyper, hyper-local.

"The cost of sustainability appears set to hit the valley’s most modest players first.

There are roughly 8,000 small farms between Fresno and Tulare counties alone, according to the 2012 agricultural census, many of them farmed by immigrants. Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, small farms adviser with the University of California Fresno Extension, worries about how those small farms will fare over the next 20 years, as the water table continues to drop.

For farms that can’t rely on surface water, local Sgma plans in their current form could mean the difference between making it another season or selling the farm. The growers with the short straws will continue to lose."

Edited to add:
Explainer on Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (Sgma)

Also, the article in the first link mentions the Westlands Water District. It’s worth tracking down articles about Westlands, the Shasta Dam, and the Bureau of Reclamation. (I tried to find a good summary/overview but am short on time.)

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