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.