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Reading in Public

Saturday, May 9, 2009
This originally appeared on the old version of this website -- and, since we couldn't think of a better place to put it on the new site, here it is again:

Recently, I've had the opportunity to read before audiences -- sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of other food writers. This is always an interesting experience, and not always for the expected reasons.

Certainly, writers benefit from actually seeing and hearing the reactions of their readers. It helps them learn what works, as well as what doesn't, and provides insights available nowhere else (with the possible exception of published reviews -- which appear too late for any effective repairs to be made). For this reason, I like to read unpublished works. Occasionally, audience members are in a position to publish the work they've heard -- which always appeals to writers. Plus, as Molly O'Neill said at a recent group reading, it gives writers a chance to see what their competitors are up to.

These are all useful and ordinary functions that could apply to any kind of writing -- poetry, screenplays, short stories, as well as discourses of an academic nature. What I noticed at these recent readings of food writers was something else altogether.

When I read in public, I usually choose stories that are humorous and self-deprecating. Obviously, an audience is less likely to start lobbing over-ripe vegetables onto the stage if I've already confessed to being a pompous idiot. It's never a good idea to let audiences make such discoveries on their own -- especially if those audiences know enough about food to be able to select those tomatoes, onions and cabbages that have achieved the exact degree of decomposition that makes for the most satisfying splatter.

My stories, therefore, tend to be about culinary failures, youthful indiscretions and excesses -- detailed accounts of eating things that sensible people would never even consider putting into their mouths. Perhaps audiences feel a kind of relief in knowing that there are people who will take such risks for them, and it puts them in a forgiving mood. Essentially, when an audience hears about my gastronomic experiences, they're witnessing the literary equivalent of having a clogged toilet opened professionally. Someone has to do it -- and it might as well be someone else.

What surprised me at the group readings is that almost every food writer used the same approach. Many of these writers routinely publish articles and books in which they extol the virtues of some new ingredient, celebrate the talents of a new chef, gush over the charms of an exotic foodstuff, or elevate some ancient peasant dish to the status of haute cuisine. Yet, with a live audience before them, almost every writer chose to focus on the dark side of the gastronomic life. One would think that the actual enjoyment of food is so alien a concept that it never occurs to any of us -- which seems odd considering our chosen careers.

Why should this be?

A possible, but unlikely, explanation is that we were all brought up to have good manners. It would be rude to gloat, in public, over the amazing good fortune that allows us to indulge freely -- often literally for free -- in some of the most delectable treats imaginable, let alone get paid to do so.

Aside from courtesy, simple survival may explain the inexplicable: if we were to flaunt our privileged lifestyles before those who cannot eat what they desire (whether for economic, dietary, or medical reasons), we might suddenly find ourselves served en brochette, and possibly flambeed.


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