of a literary bent

His Measure of Her Powers.

Photo credit: TCBLRarebooks.com

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A few weeks back, Esquire‘s Food Editor-at-Large Josh Ozersky published a piece on Medium (“Consider the Food Writer”) declaiming what he sees as the continuing influence of MFK Fisher on food writing in America, declaring that if the genre is to emerge from a creatively stunted and parochial bourgeois hegemony, MFK Fisher must die.

Figuratively, of course. She has been literally dead since 1992.

 

On the one hand, I totally agree. Or, to put it more carefully, I share Ozersky’s distaste for the prevailing narrative and stylistic conventions of much contemporary food writing. His critique is pretty on point:

They all grope for depth, via tropes that are now pretty much obligatory. The author will find in some plate of pie a memory of mother and, later, in the act of their own eating, a universal experience that binds us all together. Somewhere in there will always be found some fond memory of a picturesque past or exotic land, some unforgotten tomato or miraculous couscous that still reverberates, even today, and underscores the persistence of the past and the brotherhood of man.

In this way the unwavering predictability of the form threatens to eclipse – or effectively render irrelevant – the actual content. Like the readymade drama of a bad food documentary, the specificity of the life, the food itself, the creepy ephemereality of experience, all are made pat. Undeniably this is boring and usually trite, and undeniably this is -part- of MFK Fisher’s legacy. Hers was a voice that defined modern American food writing, and Ozersky is correct that she occupies a privileged position as the godmother of the genre, universally lauded by foodies and food writers alike. I can hardly take issue with the critical reconsideration of one of the giants of one’s genre. I also think that Ozersky’s compact analysis of the emergence of a particular classed relationship to food – food eating, food thinking, food writing – in the 1960s and ’70s, as a precursor to the modern ‘food culture’ phenomenon is valuable, especially as it emphasizes the publishing infrastructure behind these developments.

 

On the other hand, I think Ozersky is a bit of a fucking fouler, who should maybe fuck off and, you know, check himself.

Let us leave aside for the moment his summary dismissal of Susan Sontag as irrelevant and banal, with the lament that Fisher may not be so casually dispatched – I am not a giant fan of Sontag, but to glibly dismiss her work on, say, the representational violence of photography, or illness as metaphor, as merely part of an “indistinct din” of midcentury writing of interest only to cultural historians seems almost laughably boorish. His estimation of MFK Fisher’s own literary powers are somewhat confused, and this produces and ambiguity in how he characterizes the consequences of her influence.

Ozersky opens with the pro forma admission that Fisher’s merits as a writer are besides the point, which implies that it is her legacy with which he is solely concerned, although this is not exactly so, given that he spends the rest of the article waffling between begrudgingly acknowledging her talents and declaring her work saccharine, superficial and dull. He grants that she is at best an able epigrammatist, but, personal differences in my and Ozersky’s literary tastes aside, I think he sells Fisher unfairly short. I have always found that it is precisely in isolated quotation that her true strengths as a writer are least discernible, and run most toward the ‘superficially profound’, as Ozersky claims. I don’t believe it is necessary here to mount a lengthy defence of Fisher’s writing, but I think where she succeeds most is as a literary stylist who is able in short passages to communicate a frank and disarming – and, perhaps most importantly, unpretentious – sensuality. As one who considers himself an unfortunate, impoverished anti-sensualist, locked in a garbled and loathsome relationship of mutual misrecognition with his own body, I am not easy to impress on this front, and I am almost embarrassed by my appreciation for Fisher’s work in this respect.  If the aphorism is a form of compressed wit, I would argue that it is in her longer passages that the aesthetic richness of her prose is given space to unfold. Even if at times her romance is too high for me, I recognize that there is something special there, that is more than the “treacle” of Ozersky’s evaluation. But anyway, to each their own, I get it.

What leaves me feeling uneasy about Ozersky’s piece is that underpinning his call for what is in effect a dirtier, more conflicted, grotesque, and perhaps pedestrian, if not populist, food writing, is a very peculiar construction of what “contemporary mainstream food writing” looks like. His dystopian hegemonic landscape is populated by the likes of Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kim Sunée, Amanda Hesser, Julie Powell; the heir(esses) of Elizabeth David, Judith Jones, Julia Child . . . if this list seems gendered, it is not conspicuously so for who is included, but who is absent. What about Anthony Bourdain (inarguably as great an influence on the 21st-c voice of food writing as Fisher), Calvin Trillin, Adam Gopnik? Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky? What of Harold McGee, or professional bad boys Marco Pierre White and David Chang?

Why do these names – some chefs (professional or celebrity), some historians, some critics, none (save McGee, perhaps) innocent of participating in the tired narrative bathos of memorializing their first oyster / summer strawberry / fermented chick embryo – not appear in Ozersky’s sketch of the food writing oligarchy? Certainly one couldn’t exclude any of these best-selling and James Beard-awarded authors from the culinary cultural mainstream. And yet they are neither identified as part of the problem of rule nor even as aspects of -a- solution. Indeed, in spite of their success, these big names remain strangely invisible:

I’ve read moving and resonant accounts of eating, scenes that rang true from my own experience and that of other dirtbags like me. But I’ve never read them in a glossy food magazine, nor can I think of a single one that ever got nominated for an award . . .  There remains an immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable population of people who eat, and cook, and for whom food isn’t a source of community—at least not with that elite class of mandarins that currently control the field. They can all be heard, but they can’t get published or paid, which makes them invisible and unviable, voices in a wilderness that need to be heard. There is no doubt in my mind that if Fisher were alive, she would champion them. But she isn’t, and her legacy suffocates us, immobilizes us, covers us as tightly as the tenderloin in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced.

I am as tired as anybody (as or more tired than Ozersky, even) of the unexplicated, unproblematized mobilization of “community” and the trope of food as a mutually intelligible universal in food writing; food is paradoxically the great leveller and the great divider, debaser, destroyer. Food is a shibboleth. Food is a problem. And it is not for this that people call themselves ‘foodies’. But with the scene as he has set it here, Ozersky’s argument for inclusion comes to seem more akin to a backlash against the ascendance of what is pejoratively called “Women’s Fiction” in food-writing. The interrogation of the formulaic and trite is perhaps everywhere some kind of literary obligation, but to cast this mode as a gendered hegemony held in place by a bourgeois female editorial class – as similarly powerful ‘serious’ male writers recede from the analytic frame – is just gross*, and we can do better.

 

* All the more so, and the more readily legible as such, coming from a guy who has also written an apologia for his ogling of women.

 

 

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miscellany/etymology

Food For Thinkers: Does Not Butter Ennoble Enough?

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This post is a part of Food for Thinkers, a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than thirty food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD’s newly-launched Food hubWhat does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today? Check out the conversation in full at GOOD.is/food.

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at the risk of sounding glib, i’m inclined to say that food writing should continue meaning and being more or less what it has been for the past, oh, to play it safe, let’s say 200 years. which is to say, at its best, just as diverse and interesting and inspired as i think this Food For Thinkers project promises to be; and at its worst, boring, offensive and forgettable. i mean, Sturgeon’s Law, what are you going to do?

 

we are at a moment, arguably, when food has seized the cultural and commercial imagination to a remarkable degree, and one can only hope that some of this renewed interest in both the ethic and ethics of eating, in sustainable, organic, locally sourced, ‘politically responsible’ production and consumption, have a more rhizomatic* effect than just becoming another lifestyle activism laminate. it is in this respect that i think there are myriad important reasons to think and write about food, and i am happy to live in a time when food as an object of serious geographical, political, architectural, etc. inquiry is being taken up by so many very bright and talented people.

 

i am also happy to live at a time when such free rein has been given to the frivolous, fetishistic, pretentious, and perverse (i’d be hard pressed to convince anyone, but i really tried to avoid that alliteration) treatments of food. it is a tension that i believe to be productive. i mean, i have to, because it is very much those latter that run through my own writing. i write about food for primarily the same reason that i eat the stuff – pleasure. not sickening and dying is a welcome, albeit by no means guaranteed side-effect. Continue reading

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miscellany/etymology, spirit possession

The Cup That Cheers Itself.

A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) seems like an awesome guy. he was a prodigious writer, eater of food, lover of boxing and horse races. he studied French literature at the Sorbonne by his own admission mostly as a pretext for eating shit tons of French food, and went to war for The New Yorker (writing, not fighting) off and on between ’39 and ’44.

after a long and committed (after a fashion) search, i’ve at last acquired a copy of Between Meals, which contains the bulk of his food writing, and at the risk of being plunged into murderous dissatisfaction at the disparity between 1930s Parisian and early 21st century Island cuisine, i intend to read it on my upcoming “vacation” in PEI (here’s fingers crossed for smoother sailing this time around*).

as i have not as yet read it, this post will not be about that, but about this brief passage from his WWII writings, which has stood out and stayed with me, popping up now and then in conversation, waiting for fuller articulation, for some time:

A soldier wheeled over a tea wagon holding about 20 bottles – scotch, port, sherry, and various apéritifs. The Colonel took an obvious pride in his gamut of alcohols; it proved he could “defend himself.” The verb “se défendre” had acquired a very broad meaning in the French Army; it signified “getting along” . . . soldiers going on patrol in wooded parts of no-man’s land set rabbit snares so that they might pick up a tasty breakfast – all these expedients were part of the French concept of self defense. It followed logically that a colonel defended himself on a grander scale than a subordinate.

– from “Merry Christmas, Horrid New Year,” in The Road Back To Paris, 1944.

this idea of “self defense” is totally fascinating to me. on an immediate level, it resonates with the idea of larding oneself against the winter with jams, jellies, preserves, ferments and salt cures, grain stores, etc. basic survival practices in any country beset by seasons.

as i city dweller i find i do this myself in a similar if less urgent capacity – when i’m in good financial straits buying big bags of rice and lentils and jugs of olive oil and the like, as well as, on perhaps an (arguably) less subsistence level, bottles of brandy and scotch and vermouth for those harder, darker times when funds are stretched and i’m burning my own waste to stay warm. in this way and this way only am i like Aesop’s ant, in that i work now in order to sing the winter away. although actually it’s more like i spend now so as to eat later without being able necessarily to pay, say, the hydro bill, and so am like some happy if horrifying ant/grasshopper hybrid. can you even imagine? i’m hideous.

Continue reading

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Uncategorized

In Honour of the Resurrection of Chips.

The first time, on our way to Germany, we had sat downstairs while our meal was being made. There were big soft leather chairs, and on the dark table was a bowl of the first potato chips i ever saw in Europe, not the uniformly thin uniformly golden ones that come out of waxed bags here at home, but light and dark, thick and paper-thin, fried in real butter and then salted casually with the gros sal served in the country with the pot-au-feu.

They were so good that i ate them with the kind of slow sensuous concentration that pregnant women are supposed to feel for chocolate-cake-at-three-in-the-morning. I suppose I should be ashamed to admit that i drank two or three glasses of red port in the same strange private orgy of enjoyment. It seems impossible, but the fact remains that it was one of the keenest gastronomic moments of my life.

MFK, from The Gastronomical Me, The Measure of My Powers, 1931-1932

homemade chips and port. on the somethingth day we are risen.

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miscellany/etymology

Brassica Uber Alles, Part One: Chouette First, Ask Questions Later?

a propos of mostly nothing, save that there was cabbage in this dish and i really like this picture. also reminds me i never finished Lair of the White Wom.

 

it is a fixture of my insufferability that if, when embarking publicly on an analysis of some quibbling feature of language or social reality, i am met with a skepticism and (supposed) indifference so fervently avowed as to border on the venomous, i take it as an indication that i am on the right path, and my resolve is strengthened accordingly.

you know, like, i’m like “blah blah blah,” and they’re all like “that’s stupid, shut up, don’t think about that,” and so of course i am like “Whoa Ho, Methinks Thou Dost Protest Too Much!” and i become even more interested in whatever the fuck it is, cabbages or something. i mean it’s a vulgar psychoanalytic trick and basically Zizek’s equivalent of the People’s Elbow, but i think there is often enough something to it to justify my taking what may be merely an annoying habit/personality defect as a point of personal pride.

in this case, yes, it is cabbages, thank you very much, and more specifically the currency and polysemic richness of chou (cabbage) in the French language. Continue reading

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