"For me this would be Jeffrey Steingarten, who writes on food for Vogue magazine in the US. His book, The Man Who Ate Everything, is the finest collection of writing on the subject that I have read. Witty, informative, interesting, evocative and appetite-inducing, it is everything good food writing should be..."
In case you've had more important things on your mind, and I'm sure you have, you might have missed the fact that there's been a bit of a stir among the foodie twitterati over the last couple of days. The catalyst for this 'twitstorm' was a piece written by Alex Watts, who is a chef / journalist according to his blog - Chef Sandwich.
Evidently I'm paraphrasing here, but the thrust of his argument is that most food writing is lazy, unimaginative, derivative guff. He also gives good old Hugh F-W a virtual shoeing for being symbolic of every lazy food writer and the final flourish is to provide us with a passable pastiche of said guff.
This got me thinking more about the subject of food writing and specifically on what actually is good food writing? There's so much of it around these days that it can be hard to wade through all the crap and find the good stuff. But what is the good stuff?
If you're at all into food and drink, you can probably come up with a couple of food writers whose work you particularly like. For me this would be Jeffrey Steingarten, who writes on food for Vogue magazine in the US. His book, The Man Who Ate Everything, is the finest collection of writing on the subject that I have read. Witty, informative, interesting, evocative and appetite-inducing, it is everything good food writing should be, and a long way from the similarly titled The Man Who Ate the World, Jay Rayner's tedious travelogue on Michelin starred restaurants.
It might sound obvious, but good food writing is just good writing full stop, and in the same sense, bad food writing is just bad writing. It is here that I have some sympathy with Alex's point of view: that a lot of what you read on food is either formulaic, derivative, predicable, or if you’re really lucky, all of the above.
For example, I went along to what was billed as 'Dickensian Feast' with the Young Turks (a couple of itinerant but talented chefs) at a pub called the Ten Bells the other week in order to write a review for The Arbuturian. I opened up by stating that an event such as this would offer endless digressions for the lazy writer to begin his or her piece - musings on Dickens, who were the original Young Turks etc. etc. So afterwards, I thought I'd see if I was right and take a quick look at some of the other reviews out there.
Lo and behold, there it was at the top of the tree in the google rankings; a review by Amol Rajan in the Independent, which opened up with a little vignette about who the original Young Turks were...case proven!
I'm not going to be too harsh on Amol, as he's probably a very nice chap and according to his online biography is into cricket. But also because it does seem that if you are writing a restaurant review or introducing a couple of cabbage-related recipes, there are only so many opening routes you, the writer, can go down before reaching the AA Gill school of restaurant reviewing: "but he doesn't even talk about the food". We all know where that will get you, a vicious tongue-lashing from Mary Beard in the Daily Mail.
It appears that your options are limited to:
- Some sort of reminiscence / personal history. For example: 'I first encountered porchetta from a street seller in Rome while wondering back to my hotel after a free Elton John concert...'
- A discussion centred around the particular history of a dish. For example: 'kedgeree has its origin in the Raj and should be seen as the original fusion food...'
- For the egotistical amongst us, something completed unrelated to the topic altogether, only moving on to the food when there's a couple of hundred words to go. Just see one of AA Gill or Giles Coren's restaurant reviews for an example of this.
- For the boring and unimaginative, you can just launch straight in to discussing the food itself, with no preamble at all!
If you've read more than one or two of my posts you'll have noticed that I usually end up with option one: some sort of personal experience or story. It is this for which Hugh got most of his bollocking: a stereotypical story involving smelly cabbage and his school days, before moving on to a flowery descriptions of certain brassicas, and finally launching into a couple of recipes featuring kale.
For me, writing about food is necessarily a personal experience; you can't really write in any meaningful way about it, without it being such. Otherwise what is there left to say? A dispassionate account of a meal which merely details what the restaurant looks like, the food and wine on the menu and how much it costs.
The best food writing has that personal experience at its heart, but like Steingarten's writing and like good writing on any subject, is also witty, interesting, evocative and informative. I try my best to live up to this ideal when I post here: avoiding those flowery adjectives and predictable stories, while coming up with something that will make greedy people want to read on. But it is all too easy to occasionally find yourself falling into that cliche ridden style of writing which is the enemy of the aspiring writer and the interested reader alike.
My usual consolation is that we're not actually writing about anything of grave importance. After all no lives have been lost, it's only lunch!