What we write about when we write about food

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So when we write about food, we are already writing about class struggle. “A society’s cuisine is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure,” wrote French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1966. Reading about an extravagant meal can vicariously replace not being able to afford one. one or charge us. feel superior to those who waste their money on such madness. We especially love tales of astronomically priced meals gone wrong, like Times critic Pete Wells’ calm and lucid 2015 gutting of the “brutally, illogically, relentlessly” expensive Japanese restaurant Kappo Masa in the Upper East. Side of Manhattan – “a pantomime of service…an imitation of luxury” – to the viral demolition by travel blogger Geraldine DeRuiter last December of the Michelin-starred Bros’, in Lecce, Italy, in which 27 dishes were served, consisting mostly of “pieces of edible paper”, “glasses of vinegar” and “12 kinds of mousse”, including one sprayed into a cast of the chef’s mouth and drooling down one side, for the diner laps with his tongue. Such stories confirm that the emperor has no clothes; that we lack nothing.

IN THE HEDYPATHEIA, Archestratos mentions silphium, a wild herb believed to be related to asafetida and since lost to history. The plant was so coveted that it was overexploited, and by the first century AD, according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, only “a single stem” could be found; Archestratos was in advance the elegist without knowing it. What we gain in the complexity of the kitchen necessarily has a cost in labor and on the environment. Perhaps the nostalgia that O’Neill fears is the flaw in contemporary food writing is, in fact, the nostalgia for the present, which slips more and more rapidly into the past, and even the nostalgia for the future, which we we may never have.

MFK Fisher, arguably America’s greatest food writer, if not one of the greatest writers on any level, was delightfully nostalgic, but she also had a naughtiness. When she published her first collection of food essays, “Serve It Forth”, in 1937, The Times called it “delicious” but the contents “unfamiliar and strange”. To this day, it escapes categorization; To say she wrote about food is like saying Virginia Woolf and James Joyce wrote about dinner parties. In “The Gastronomical Me” (1943), she evokes the banality of childhood meals under the iron gaze of her grandmother, who, with “millions of unhappy Anglo-Saxons”, had been educated in the principle ” that food should be eaten without comment of any kind but above all without sign of praise or pleasure. A new cook arrives for a few weeks and the results are disconcerting and thrilling, leaving Fisher in “a sort of angst of delight”. Then, one evening, the cook does not return, and it turns out that she killed her mother and herself, with the knife she had so skillfully wielded in the kitchen.

It’s a horrific twist, but it doesn’t dampen the cook’s aura in Fisher’s eyes. She cries but retains “awareness of the possibilities of the table” and grows to become the kind of cook herself – and writer – determined to shake people “from their routines, not just meat-potatoes-gravy but of thought, of demeanor.” And, more forcefully: “To blow up their safe, tidy little lives.” Surely there’s no better mantra for a food writer today, wallowing in leftovers and swinging for the stars. What more could we give our readers? For what good is reading about food or, for that matter, reading about anything: looking at yourself in a mirror, or through a window; escape the world or discover it?

Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Scenography by Victoria Petro-Conroy. Digital technology: Lori Cannava. Photo assistants: Karl Leitz, Maian Tran. Food assistants: Tristan Kwong, Isabelle Kwong, Bri Horton. Set Assistant: Constance Faulk

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