“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” This line from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” appears on coffee mugs and salad bowls, t-shirts and baby bibs, posters and restaurant menus.
In what is perhaps a by-product of the “foodie” revolution of the past twenty-some years, more and more people not only want to dine well, we want to read and write about it too. Beyond cookbooks—many of which make terrific reading even if you never use the recipes—and restaurant reviews and works about health and diet, there’s been a proliferation of food writing in books and magazines, blogs and tweets, in novels and stories, essays and memoirs.
My favorites are Calvin Trillin and Ruth Reichl, both of whom make reading about food almost as much fun as eating it. Three of Trillin’s books were combined into “The Tummy Trilogy.” Another, “Feeding a Yen,” has a chapter about fish tacos in San Diego. He read from it here in 2003, and as he autographed my book, I suggested that he should come back and try the scallop tacos at El Zarape. I offered to accompany him.
Ruth Reichl’s life in food, from Berkeley soup kitchens in the ‘60s to the sweeping heights—restaurant critic for The New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine—has captivated audiences in her memoirs: “Tender at the Bone,” “Comfort Me With Apples,” and “Garlic and Sapphires.”
The movie “Julie and Julia” was based on a biography of Julia Childs and a memoir by Julie Powell, who cooked and blogged her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Nora Ephron, who wrote lavishly about food in her novels, stories and essays, directed and wrote the screenplay.
Most food essayists and memoirists—going back to M.F.K. Fisher, Gertrude Stein, and others—are writing about their lives, families and travels; food is the unifying theme around which they piece together their stories. Humorists have a picnic with it. I just read a piece by David Rakoff on foraging for wild edibles; in another he mocks culinary fads and excesses. A number of celebrity chefs have gotten into the act too, writing their lives in food: childhood memoirs by Jacques Pepin and Nigel Slater, and Anthony Bourdain with his kitchen exposes.
There are hundreds of literary journals, both in print and online, with a remarkable number of stories about food. I’ve written and had published a few food essays myself, one about how eating sushi has kept pace with my life’s ups and downs, another about a relationship in which food was the primary, if not the only, common denominator, and still another recollecting a trip to England centered around Cornish pasties.
The old adage that “I think, therefore I am,” has been replaced by “We are what we eat.” Food is the hook into memories and moods; it offers keys to understanding and can unlock once-hidden mysteries. I’ve written stories about bacon—more since I became a vegetarian than when I was eating it—clams (a new allergy), rutabagas (a daunting surplus), and, of course, my mother’s cooking. We all like to reminisce about the foods of childhood—good and bad—and writers frequently incorporate them into fiction and memoirs.
Like my friend Jim, who recently included glazed Spam in a story. “Come on,” I said; “your mother didn’t really make that, did she?” He sighed and nodded. As Nora Ephron said, “It’s all copy.”