Food, Inglorious Food

My decision to opt out of the macho food-writing movement.

Roughly 30 years ago, when I began writing a weekly column about food for a British national newspaper, the Observer, I was competing in a marketplace that was monopolized by women (and a few token gay men) who wrote recipes. My brief was to write essays about food—not recipes—for the women’s pages that were written from the point of view of the eater as much as the cook. Put another way, I was to present a masculine perspective, and—guess what?—the paper’s surveys showed that I garnered a male audience, in addition to the usual female readership. Clearly men took an interest in eating, if not in cooking.

At the annual round of food writing awards the next year, the column cleaned up, much to the dismay of the ladies at one prize-giving lunch, whom I recall actually hissed when I won the restaurant-writing category, as well as the food-writing award. But perhaps the women were right to protest: I was only one of the first fellows invading what had been their territory. Surveying the lay of the land now, the scenery has altered again.

Over the years, I’ve done my best to write seriously about food, assuming my readers are an educated audience who would get (and smile or learnedly chuckle at) allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, or Damon Runyon, readers who would understand cryptic puns and whose jaws would not slacken when asked whether they knew “the land where the lemon trees bloom?”

No doubt this was a kind of showing off on my part—a gaudy peacock’s prose display of pseudo-erudition. (It’s the only use I’ve ever been able to make of my Ph.D. in English literature.) The food writing that’s in vogue today consists chiefly of a bellow of bravado. It’s a guy thing, sure, but (with a few honorably hungry exceptions) these scribblers mostly ignore what’s on the plate. They view themselves as boy hunters and despise sissy gatherers, thrive on the undertow of violence they detect in the professional kitchen, and like to linger on the unappetizing aspects of food preparation. The gross-out factor trumps tasting good as well as good taste.

When I think about how I’d have to rewrite some of my earlier pieces for today’s market, I feel queasy. No editor today, for example, would be content with the way I dealt with durian, the cherished oriental fruit that looks like a giant hand grenade, which I wrote about for the Observer in 1984: “Some find the smell excremental, some find it reminiscent of sick.” I’d now be booed off the fellas’ food-writing team for excessive gentility. Today the correct vocabulary is shit and puke.

Or consider when I went to Macau to eat a Cantonese dog dinner for the Wall Street Journal. I wrote that “the meat had dark skin attached to it, was quite fatty and looked like pork … chewy, and had a very strong, though not disagreeable flavor.” Today’s foodie-writing fashion would demand that I confess that I’d never seen anything more repulsive than Rover’s skin. I’d need to itemize what happened to the tongue, brain, and genitalia of the—it turned out—stolen dog (and I’d need to go into grisly detail about the dog-napping itself, as well as its butchery).

No, today’s market does not allow for food writing that aims to be allusive, playful, or elegantly simple. The prevailing style is like polenta or steel-cut oats: coarse. Has this influenced my own writing? It’s made my sentences shorter and snappier—but perhaps that is because as I age, editors get younger, and the young are more urgently hurried. And the prevalent, apparently unburnished style of my fellow male cohorts has made me buff and polish my prose even more. I unsplit infinitives and unpick clichés. I try to imitate the rhythms of (my own) speech, but remain more scrupulous about my written than spoken vocabulary. When we are pricked, do we not shout “shit!”? Of course, but I strive to write more decorously, and avoid the four-letter words for things gastrointestinal as well as sexual. OK, it’s partly to preserve their shock value when I do use them.

This trend is not something I discuss with my close contemporaries (we talk about who makes the best BBQ and how noisy restaurants are nowadays). While I don’t want to appear prissy, I’d rather not nurturethe foodie shock jocks.

But there are certainly plenty of these, most obviously in the Bad Boy school of TV chefs. In TheNew Yorker,Bill Buford writes that after hearing that Raymond Blanc’s restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons failed to get a third Michelin star (again), Gordon Ramsay reportedly said, “When I heard that Maison Blanc had gone tits up, it added two inches to my cock.”

The rawest chronicler of foodie lowlife, Anthony Bourdain, not only tells tales of bad-boy kitchen behavior, such as the consuming of softer drugs, but also assumes this prosy pose in his writing: “You’ve made meat loaf, right? You’ve eaten cold meat loaf, yes? Then you’re halfway to being an ass-kicking, name-taking charcutier.”

This is not just a trend among commercial writers and chefs with TV tie-ins. Their success has polluted the mainstream consciousness and licensed the intelligentsia to dabble in the ass-kicking style. The Prince of Wales’ Eton- and Oxford-educated stepson, Tom Parker Bowles, writes with a testosterone-inked pen and in his recent book, The Year of Eating Dangerously, insists that the taste of silkworm eggs reminds him of “freshly dug graves.”

Even TheNew Yorker has succumbed to fashion when it comes to food. In its recent food issue, John McPhee describes durian as “a fruit that smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu.” McPhee again, on his own strange juvenile eating habits: “When I was eight years old … I used to swallow little two-inch whole trout—toss them high in the air and stagger around under them and catch them wriggling in my open mouth. …”

Adam Gopnik, in the same issue, writes about trying to be a “locavore,” eating only food from New York. When describing the Red Hook Community Farm’s use of zoo droppings in their organic farming program, he asked “if we could taste the elephant manure residually in the food.” The answer was yes.

Buford projects this macho posture in his books as well as his journalism. In his memoir, Heat, he writes: “The pain was remarkably intense, and my skin responded immediately by forming globe-like blisters on the tender area between the back cuticle end of the fingernail and the first knuckle. Four of them, one on each finger. These globes were rather beautiful, not unlike small shiny jewels.” This is not an account of a sports injury, but a description of Buford’s encounter with some short ribs and scalding hot olive oil.

It’s not surprising that the guys who write about food are looking for a way to nurture their manliness. After all, many good writers have revelled in the virile values of sport, from Hemingway on the bull ring and big-game hunting, to Mailer on boxing, and Martin Amis on tennis. What is novel is that, thanks to the Bad-Boy chefs’ aperçu that the kitchen can be a thrillingly dangerous place, real writers can now show off the size of their cojones while admitting to an interest in cooking. Personally, I’d rather stay home and read a good cookbook.