Literary Gluttony

Anyone else getting tired of food writing?

I started my freelance career writing about food. A fabulous little bi-monthly food magazine in Calgary called City Palate published my first paid article, an account of my time in Mali’s Dogon country drinking millet beer with locals. I went on to write about a dozen or so pieces for the kindly editors at Palate. Nearly all the stories were about eating abroad. Those stories led to a monthly gig at another Calgary magazine writing profiles of local chefs. I hated that column – chefs are rarely as interesting as they think they are – but I managed to churn out ten profiles before abandoning it.

Suddenly, somehow, I was a food writer. My stories about cuisine and restaurants gained far more attention than any of my other work. One year I had written a story about two people I met while traveling in the Middle East: a twenty year-old female army officer and a former Palestinian terrorist-turned-tour guide. (This was pre-September 11th). The story meant a lot to me both personally and professionally, but was completely overshadowed by a puff-piece I wrote about the secret life of waiters. People still mention that waiter story.

The fact was, and still is, that food-writing sells magazines. I have far more success pitching food-related stories than I do any other kind. My first long-ish story for The Walrus was about two famous chefs from Konya, Turkey. EnRoute published a piece about a tavern meal my wife and I enjoyed in Istanbul, and will print a story about a cafe owner and a Chinese restauranteur in Jordan. City Palate still calls me once and a while to ask for material – usually my long-promised diatribe about breakfast diners and eggs – or to contribute to their annual ‘Cheap Eats’ column. This is surprising considering a number of the places I’ve recommended in the past have been shut down by the health board.

I’ve no problem eating food. I still obsess over cuisine when I travel. Just ask my poor wife who I dragged, starving, through Istanbul one summer in search of authentic anchovy pilaf. Just last week we were in Portland where we I visited cinemas that serve pizza and microbrews, and swooned at menus that included such delightful weirdness such as braised lamb BLT’s, quail with marrow sauce, and foie gras profiteroles. And I can’t wait to fill my stomach in India and Pakistan this fall.

I love the eating. I’m just weary of the writing.

Perhaps it has something to do with what has happened to food. Groceries have become status symbols. You don’t believe me, check out the crowds at the Calgary Farmer’s Market in their lululemon pants and zillion dollar baby-carriages. Ingredients are fads. Last year you couldn’t find a menu without smoked paprika and pork belly. The year before it was pea shoots. Now we are pickling everything. Television chefs are adored for their sociopathology – only in pro-wrestling are villians so popular. Bartenders are mixologists now. Today people refer to themselves as ‘foodies’ in the same way they used to describe themselves as ‘wine connoisseurs.’ (Both terms are never used by real experts in food or wine. Mention to your waiter that you are a foodie or a connoisseur and watch his or her eyes roll). Tap water is ‘in.’ Writing about this stuff feels like prostitution.

Granted, there is some fine food writing out there. I just finished reading John McPhee’s essay “Giving Good Weight” about the farmers’ markets in New York City during the 1970s. It was fabulous. Saveur Magazine and gastronomica is full of good writing. And, quite frankly, my Konya piece, “Sufi Gourmet,” is the best thing I’ve written in a while. I guess the key for me is that food-writing has to be about culture. Not pop-culture. If I write about food again, it will have to be a story with some meat on it. Something with relevance and real characters. No more empty calories.