“She once said – I think it was in 1949 – that almost every gastronomer has some kind of literary predilection.”
—Joan Reardon, on MFK Fisher
Earlier this month, Revolution Brewing played host to “Alphabet Soup,” a gathering of some of Chicago’s most prominent food writers for a paneled discussion on food writing. Arranged by Graze magazine’s Cyndi Fecher and Brian J. Solem and priced out at $20 a person, the beer flowed like wine and the food flowed like…wine? Seriously, I felt a little guilty paying only $20 for as I was to discover, there were no limitations on beer or food.
This was an incredible gesture of trust and good will on the part of Revolution as well as Graze and all the other folks who made this possible. There were five beers offered, all covering the gambit from light to heavy and deliciously dark, and they were serving them all by the pint! Mindful of the little space I have, I’ll mention only Cross of Gold Ale. It was sublimely balanced and slaked like a session beer but heavier. In other words, it was light and yummy enough to arouse the urge to drink all day. The heft – a careening dance between the slight sweetness of citrus without the acid and the palette-cleansing ablution of hop – is what struck me like an epiphany.
The foods reflected a still-new-kind-of pub fare having much more in common with farm-to-table cuisine than what most associate with pub-quality munchables. Crispy polenta with Italian seitan, asparagus and smoked tomato sauce? Lovely and what a great realization of the name: Revolution through polenta? While many think this isn’t worth pointing out, I just can’t get enough of this pointing and noisemaking. Polenta in a pub becomes totem, at least in the way Revolution is doing it.
Revolutions turned to revelations when the panel finally convened. Speakers included (from left to right on the photo): Steve Dolinsky, Maggie Hennessy, Ed Marszewski, Louisa Chu, Julia Thiel, Heather Sperling and David Tamarkin, and moderated by Martha Bayne.
The discussion began with beginnings as Martha Bayne prompted the panel to share if they started as a writer or doer first. The understanding of “doer” abruptly assembled itself as only culinary school-trained chef. Not everyone answered as the panel was a bit unruly, even sometimes challenging moderator Martha Bayne’s questions altogether. It was a choppy discussion, reflecting a surprising amount of emotion throughout.
What emerged was that Louisa Chu was the only doer, first. All others started as writers.
I ache still that this was not covered: Tell us about your first moment of rapture involving you, food and your writer-self. What Proustian memory quake or surge of sensation or plume of bouquet pushed you to pick up pen or strike the key in the name of making the food experience better. As far as forays go, this type of entry into the world of food writing means more to me than the praxis of it. Perhaps I’m a romantic in this regard.
Admittedly, I’m being sensitive. The question was meant to start a conversation. At the time, I trusted that this conversation would evolve to something involving stories or moments that would stoke the fire in my belly. And this evolution I don’t think could have been helped by a different question; I suspect I would have felt the same. Nevermind if you were a server or an expo or cook in a kitchen or cook in your own kitchen. Nevermind if you were an eater before any of it. The question presupposed an either/or dualism and nothing else. This is how I started my “Alphabet Soup” experience.
Quickly Amanda Hesser’s blog post from April 10th, “Advice for Future Food Writers,” was mentioned (Incidentally, and thankfully so, a day later appeared “What Amanda Hesser Got Wrong”). Hesser’s message was a bit bleak with wisps of hope, at least this was the impression I got from the panel. Panelists brought it up several times during the event. I was grateful for this nod to something out there that I could refer to as I wasn’t reading her. In the end, though, I think what I was hoping more for was something that I could only get at a symposium on food writing or something more academic, something that focused less on the business-side of things (Twitter, benefactors, etc) and more on the art and craft of food writing, replete with handouts and presentations friendly to note taking. And like most things that are worth having a paneled discussion over, a couple hours isn’t enough time. As an aside, The New School has two videos online that are worthy of an hour or five of your time: M.F.K. Fisher: Poet of the Appetites and Food Writing Forum: Judith Jones.
I think food writers are suffering from the same stressors that all Americans are feeling. Namely, we need more education. I’m not saying that there’s no hope unless you have an advanced degree. Instead, I’m saying that there’s a new type of diligence that’s needed and that goes beyond Tweeting and apps. In an age of Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” where centrifuges threaten to become as essential as a blender and where science is forcing us to know much more than we could have ever imagined (just listen to Robert Lustig talk about additive sugar on either Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” or “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook), we food writers have more on our plates than food writers of the past. No. I’m wanting to say that, but really, there are unique struggles with each era. However, there’s a complexity now that didn’t exist back then. Mounting pressure from our country’s growing waistline and food-related illness is not just threatening to sap the art of food writing of precious levity, it’s become a suffocating ambient, the constant companion we cannot ignore. The other side of this, I think, is the artisanal movement. We spend less time in our kitchens than ever before. Perhaps now this is the era of when we come back, anew.
In America, we once did not talk about food. Judith Jones, the editor responsible for not only Julia Child, much of MFK Fisher and even from rescuing “The Diary of Anne Frank” from a rejection pile (in case you didn’t know, because I didn’t know about her until somewhat recently), remarked during a paneled discussion of MFK Fisher about what life was like before her: “Don’t forget that this was a point that food wasn’t something we honored, particularly in America. Food was fodder. And you didn’t talk about it and you didn’t fuss over it or disguise it with sauces the way the French did (I’m quoting my English mother).” This is a helpful reminder allowing us context amidst where we once were, where we are and where we need to be heading. And this place, I think, involves more than just a penchant for writing, a culinary degree, or even a love of food. In a world of increasing complexity, so, too, must its food writers. In lieu of that, we fall pray to what made Machiavelli so famous.
Here’s an almost 13-minute clip of the discussion. I wasn’t intending on writing at all or recording at all, but I couldn’t resist the urge. Alas, I didn’t bring the right equipment and could only muster enough memory to capture this and a few smaller clips. Chirp Radio was present, and if they have a recording of the entire event, I’ll be sure to add a link.
I also made transcripts of several other sections of the discussion. If interested, email me: email@example.com