Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

8.6.12

Eating their words.

Write about food for money? Beyond a few observations, food is food. Its nature determines that over-analysis is not natural, like chewing a mouthful eighty times. Food is for eating, not analysing; not for very long anyway.

Food writing has to be sleight of hand. You have to write about something else and food has to just be there, along for the ride, without getting in the way.

Food columnists go in and out of fashion. Eventually they pall. Jeremy Clarkson never palls, even though his writing is as formulaic as it gets, because his subject is motoring. But because the subject is food and the medium is their words, food writers’ pet phrases turn stale, like bread. It is something to do with the imaginative right and logical left brain, and hunger and desire, and what happens to your brain - or your stomach - when you read about food, and having the ability to go out and buy a burger right now; while you can’t go out and buy a Bentley right now. I don’t know.

It is fashionable to disparage food critics. John Lethlean’s language is inner-urban cliché: “a sexy little CBD bistro with a risk-taking menu”. Terry Durack bores. Jill Dupleix’s trilling tone grates. The Age writes for its peer group of inner urban foodies. Those tedious “We’ve all ...” statements make you roll your eyes: “We’ve all been through the foam fad and the molecular stage and we’ve all moved on.” Editors should ban the use of “We’ve all”.

This is unfair, of course. Writers have their style and they’re stuck with it. If you write politics or sport you are pulled along by events and people often don’t care how you say it. With food you are pushing a snowball uphill. Do you impress readers with flourish, knowing it will eventually become tiresome, or do you write vanilla?

In any case, food writing is better than it was. The restaurant reviewer at the Melbourne Herald in the 1980s used to write, “My wife had the chateaubriand and pronounced it excellent.” Presumably she shared it with him. Or maybe he had the seafood platter all to himself. It was exquisite to read this kind of stilted copy. You could see the wife sitting back and pronouncing. But it was also horrible.

Editors started putting serious journalists in the food column for light relief (for the journalist). Peter Smark was a battle-weary war correspondent and ended up writing the first eating out in Melbourne guide in 1977; he was followed by Claude Forell and Rita Ehrlich. Over at the alternative press writers such as Sam Orr and Barry Dickins were satirising the whole emerging foodie thing. Dickins was a subversive who was always getting sued, but his copy showed up food writing for the plodding nonsense that it is.

One writer says you can no longer write about food for money. But that's just the whole print thing writ small.

3 comments:

jo said...

I can only read Nigel Slater and Simon Hopkinson. I've given up on most others.

Dr. Alice said...

Love Nigel Slater. In Los Angeles we have a fellow named Jonathan Gold who's quite good. He became known for his column "Counter Intelligence" - he writes mostly about hole-in-the-wall type places, often foreign food, though he does not disdain soul-food and steakhouse type restaurants if the food is good. His underlying theme is the variety of Los Angeles and the neighborhoods. His colums were collected as a book with the same title, came out about ten years ago. If you ever see a copy I recommend it just for the writing.

Lindie said...

I don't read food writers in papers. But I love reading books and blogs that combine traveling or another country and the food they are eating. I fell in love with several spots in Europe which I have never been to after reading stories that combined their wanderings with the food they ate or cooked.