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Writing about Food Memories

Monday, October 12, 2009
Food professionals are concerned with everything about the food itself, its preparation and its service -- food writers are concerned with those things as subject material, but their writing is about the larger place of food in our lives. When we eat, the physical nutrients that we swallow are only the smallest part of the meal, perhaps 5% -- the rest is emotional and intellectual.

That's the part that food writers need to capture when we write about the past. There are many ways to accomplish that end. They are like different recipes for the same dish.

Here are just a few of the possibilities:

The most obvious is narrated by an all-knowing person who lives in the present, but is describing the past. For example:

I don't know why I thought that Campbell's Tomato Soup was the best food ever invented, but I did. There was something about its smooth texture and rich red color that spoke deeply to my five-year-old's sensibilities.

Another way is to narrate the past as if it was happening right now, as an adult watching a child:

Running inside, the child stops suddenly at the edge of the table. There sits a bowl full of fire-engine colored soup, a spoon so big it needs to be gripped in an entire fist, and -- just off to the side -- four delightfully fragile Saltine crackers.

Another way is to let the child you once were do the talking:

I'd just come in from the snow, and my ears were as red as the soup in the bowl. There was a smell of wet wool from my mittens on the radiator by the window, steaming a little, like the soup. Best of all there were Saltines, just waiting to be smooshed on top, and a gigantic spoon to shove the pieces of cracker down into the soup.

Each "recipe" has its advantages and weaknesses, and each gives the writer a different opportunity to shape the reader's experience, just as a cook can vary the seasoning of a dish to make it bland and comforting, or spicy and exotic. A simple potato salad could become intriguing by adding a lot of fresh dill, or raise eyebrows (and temperatures) with a bit of hot Madras curry powder.

Same dish, different effects.


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