The children’s novel Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl, was one of my favorites when I was a kid. My parents had misgivings about a book that so blatantly endorses stealing (Danny and his dad pull off a major pheasant-poaching heist), but to my brothers and me the book was, simply, magical. One of the scenes I remember best is when Danny, alone in the “gypsy caravan” he lives in with his dad, cuts a giant slice from a meat pie that the doctor’s wife has dropped off. The pie has a hard boiled egg in the center, and when Danny cuts into it he gets a cross-section of yellow moon surrounded by white. Famished, he devours it. Since my mother is English I grew up with food like meat pies, and I thought them mostly disgusting. But for some reason the description of that pie made me absolutely salivate.
Several years later, I used to entertain myself by reading The Cushing’s Island Cookbook, which was one of those books communities make as fundraiser and voyeurism (what does Jane Smith make for dinner?). Cushing’s Island is the place in Maine where my family spends its summers, and the women on the cookbook committee solicited recipes from everyone on the island. Some were lofty, like “Blanquette de Veau,” and some were disgusting, like tomato aspic. Fascinated, I read them all. I read descriptions of how veal could be either milk-fed or red (as a budding vegetarian, I had no intention of eating veal—nonetheless, I read avidly), and how you trussed it before you stuffed. I read recipes for stuffed mushrooms and fancy chocolate pies and chicken casseroles made with cream of mushroom soup. My family would find me in the kitchen poring over The Cushing’s Island Cookbook, and shake their heads with wonder.
I still love to read cookbooks. One of my favorites is called Dairy Hollow House: Soup & Bread, by a woman named Crescent Dragonwagon (no, really). Called “the Alice Waters of the Ozarks,” Dragonwagon prefaces recipes with prose like, “At times I’ve felt my fondness for cabbage doomed me in the eyes of the terminally hip the way my choice to live in Arkansas did.” Two pages of espousing later, we finally get to a recipe for Shchi. Another good one is the 1982 classic Entertaining, by Martha Stewart, as well as anything by Jamie Oliver. And then there’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, which my friend C. gave me for Christmas last year. More philosopher than cook, Adler writes things like, “Anchovies divide us into lovers and fighters. No one is neutral. The little fish elicit wistful gazes from their adorers—if you love them you wonder when you will get your next one…”
Nowadays, of course, we have food blogs. One of my favorites, Cook with What You Have, is written by my old friend Katherine Deumling. The most recent post is, charmingly, called “The Idea of a Salad.” From Katherine I got turned onto this blog, Rachel Eats, where Rachel fills us in not only on her travails with fava beans but life in Italy. A friend recommended The Wednesday Chef, too.
I suspect that what attracts so many of us to food writing—and not just the process-oriented, helpful-but-prosaic type of writing found in Cook’s Illustrated—is two things: immediacy and sensuality. Because food is fleeting, writing about food seems a way to give it permanence. (I’m reminded of how artist Andy Goldsworthy takes photos to document his ephemeral artwork.) A good meal, rendered in prose, becomes something historical, concrete, lovely.
And then there’s the subject matter itself: food is the consummate life-giver, maybe the most sensual piece of our day. Food is how we support our families, ourselves. Writing about it is the ultimate exercise in self-assertion. Food writers tend to be poetic; after all, their muse comes in the form of fresh vegetables and earthy wines and olive oil like green gold. I find their love for what Jamie Oliver calls “the good life” infectious.