In Defense of "Too Much" Food Writing

November 17 2011 - 11:02 PM

"Just shut up! Get into the kitchen and cook!" This is the exasperated cry of Martha Nichols' otherwise thoughtful, measured argument against "literary food fatigue" that she published Wednesday on her blog, Athena's Head. Nichols is tired of written foodie culture. She is exhausted by page-long descriptions of heirloom tomatoes and bored by poetic musings on Nova Scotia scallops. What makes her argument more than just populist noise is her vantage point: Nichols herself is a literary magazine editor whose latest publication is an entire issue devoted to food. So what are we, the food-obsessed writers and readers, to make of her assertion that "food writing has reached a choking point"?

It helps to clarify the type of food writing to which Nichols is opposed. She cites Adam Gopnik's book Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food, as well as the current New Yorker food issue as recent sources of her food writing ennui. She singles them out for their high falutin language and ethereal treatment of what is to her "essentially a sensual experience."

It is in there that Nichols' argument loses traction. Yes, we are bombarded with more food media than most of us can handle. Yes, this democratization of culinary culture—thank you, Guy Fieri—means that there are more bad cupcake recipes, inarticulate blogs, and disgruntled Yelpers than we'd ever care to read. But it is this very explosion of mass food media that necessitates fantastic writers like Adam Gopnik, Calvin Trillin and Mark Kurlansky to elevate food writing beyond just a stream of consciousness description of the last meal we ate.

They, and other writers of their literary talent and intelletual curiosity, are the ones for whom food is more than a tasty bite or a hedonistic distraction. For a great food writer, ingredients, chefs, farmers, and restaurants tell a richly textured story. Do we fault the fashion editors for their obsession with designers and materials, when to most of us, clothes are merely function and utility? Do we dismiss music criticism as irrelevant static because 90 percent of America is content with Top 40 radio?

This is not to say that writers shouldn't guard against elitism. Nichols seems to find the content of most literary or magazine food journalism to be redundant, and it can be.  The same themes recur again and again: the fetishizing of market-bought produce, the pastoral glory of the family farmer, the exotic thrill of ethnic street food. Imagine what writers of Gopnik or Trillin's talent could do if they turned their attention to the political, environmental, or social justice crises that are sadly a large and under-reported aspect of the food we eat every day?

The mark of great food writing, and the reason that we cannot dismiss all of it in the sweeping terms that Nichols does, is its ability to delicately bridge the gap between the average person's sensory experience of a meal with a larger story. Ultimately, we must hold food writing to the same standards that society holds any other writing: it is successful when the reader puts down the page and realizes that he or she will never quite think of a mundane experience in the same way, but in the simplest actions, finds him or herself a part of a larger narrative.