Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Food Writing as Research

Until this morning, I didn't think I was reading food writing for any other reason than just being influenced by my sister, a budding chef who believes that all she does for her deviled eggs is combine such ingredients as cooked egg yolks, mayonnaise, paprika, and whatever else she puts in it. She's too modest. It's not only the ingredients, but also what the person puts into it. She's got talent that I hope propels her to the highest echelons of cooking and food appreciation.

Her influence began with me watching more and more cooking shows, and finding a favorite chef in Nigella Lawson. It's not only how sexy she is (She can order me around with a spatula any time), but how sensual she is about food, the passion she has for it on television and in her books. It almost feels uncomfortably voyeuristic when she's cooking, but I love it. I live that same kind of passion with books.

I also began watching "America's Test Kitchen", "Cook's Country from America's Test Kitchen", and the occasional out-of-the-way cooking show. Not the Neelys or Paula Deen, but just episodes of shows about regional foods, about how various foods are made ("Unwrapped" especially. It's like Marc Summers has been with me throughout my entire life, because I watched him all the time on "Double Dare" and "What Would You Do?" when I was a kid), and some food competitions, but not many.

I thought I had checked out "Best Food Writing 2000", as well as the 2005 and 2010 editions from my library because I was just following what I had done with those shows. I just wanted to read about food.

Not so.

When I read a chapter in "Best Food Writing 2000" of a selection from "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain, I felt like I was being violently slapped around while reading it. But instead of running away, I wanted to drop to my knees and thank Bourdain so much for doing that to me.

I can't write like that. I don't have the temperament that's ultimately required for it. But I know that in my novel, which is partly a love letter to literary journalism, I want it to feel like that at times. The rush of the movements of a kitchen that Bourdain writes about, I want some of my paragraphs to feel like that in describing, I don't know, maybe a rollercoaster or the near end of a long day spent at a theme park, or maybe if I decide to, a carnival-like midway section with all those games. I ordered a copy of "Kitchen Confidential" from last night because I want to read the entire thing. And I put Bourdain's three other books on hold as well.

I know now that I'm also reading these "Best Food Writing" books and soon enough the five "Cornbread Nation" books (which celebrate the best of Southern food writing) for detail, for how these writers describe their experiences with food. A lot of that novel is going to be detailed like that. I want to get in close, to have a reader feel everything going on, especially with the strange slant I have planned. I know how I want my novel to begin, and while I'm not entirely sold on what I wrote yesterday, I know it's the tone I want. I don't know how I want this story to unfold yet, but I've got time. Research breeds ideas. And just like the Bourdain revelation, I'm sure there's more to come in these books.

I don't need my small legal pads yet to jot down necessary information while I read, since I haven't yet reached those particular books. But this research is so much fun! And that's my first and only consideration whenever I start a writing project: It has to be fun. The writing will inevitably be difficult, but I know that it will be fun.


  1. Thanks for the follow, Rory. I'm following you back. I haven't read food books, but I like the pictures. Moreover, I like to eat.
    Be well.

  2. Thanks, Robyn! Your blog's bright, and a lot of fun, so I'm happy you're here, and that I can provide a stark contrast, at least in layout. ;)

    A good number of food books are trash in the text. The photos, perfect, sexy, exemplifing how good each dish could possibly be. But the text? A complete disconnect. Recipes should not only be written with the cooks in mind who will make these recipes, most likely in vastly smaller kitchens than the writers themselves most likely come from. They should also be written with a sense of the food itself, of the worlds that the ingredients come from. This is why I have a hard time with some celebrity chef books, too, because the writers assigned to those don't realize that we're just average folk. We don't have $500 sets of knives lying around (And if they're more than $500, then it's obvious I'm pretty average since I don't know the going rate), we can't get truffles that regularly, and really, we just want something good to eat, something satisfying that takes us out of our day when we need to flee for a while.

    The food books I've read lately are all text, but that's fine, since I'm seeking writing style, what will inspire me as I do more now with my own writing after the generally fixed format of "What If They Lived?" (which was an introduction, a biography, and then the speculation of what each actor might have done with his or her career had they not died).

    I just finished "Best Food Writing 2005", and, learning from the experience of "Best Food Writing 2000", I made sure to have a lot more bookmarks at the ready to slip in between pages to reference the authors later when I went on Amazon and/or Google, and my local library system's website. It helped a lot this time.