Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Writing about food

Thomas C. Foster, in his wonderful book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, remarks that writing about eating is hard. He says that is because not much happens. You put food in the mouth and chew and swallow. BUT, he tells us, it is all about what takes place AT the meal, who is there and what kind of interaction happens. He says that eating with others is an act of communion (like sex, passing around a joint, and dying are acts of communion). True enough. If one eats alone it is sustenance only, with the pleasure of the food added in for good measure; if one eats with others one enters into community.

So what about writing ABOUT food items themselves? I just read an amazing poem by Dorianne Laux, A Short History of the Apple, in which she not only describes the eating of it, but intersperses fragments of where the apple has fit into human history. Here is the opening of the poem so you can see what I mean:

Teeth at the skin. Anticipation.
Then flesh. Grain on the tongue.
Eve's knees ground in the dirt
of paradise.Newton watching...

So we have the taste and tactile nature of eating the apple, transformed by the bits about Eve and Newton. The whole poem is like this until its end where she praises the pollinators for their part in making this treat for humans:

Melt-in-the-mouth made sweet
by hives of Britain's honeybees:
white man's flies. O eat. O eat.

The ending is as dramatic as it goes, but without being over the top or in our faces. Laux criticizes mankind for not appreciating bees and their role in feeding us, and praises the apple and its pollinators. A surprise to be sure, and a welcome one. Mid poem she lets the reader know in no uncertain terms that the apple is hardy, maybe hinting at the fact that we are not so hardy ourselves. Fire blight. Scab and powdery mildew./ Cedar apple rust. The apple endures./

I have written about food many times, not nearly as well as this to be sure. But I think it is worth doing. I think by doing so we might gain some increase of appreciation for what is on our tables, or what cannot be on our tables.
Two weeks ago I suggested the topic to my writing group. We exchanged recipes to give us material. I'm excited to see what they have done with this, how hard they thought it was to do. I can say it really beat me up!! I will be bringing a copy of Laux's poem for each member of the group. I know they will love it as I do. Might just be one of my favs at this point.


  1. Charles Simic writes frequently about food and is also rumored to be a serious cook. That said, I've noted (entirely nonscientifically) that good food-writing poets often seem to be non-serious cooks . . . though sometimes they are good gardeners. I know that I rarely feel moved to write about food, although I am a serious cook. Almost, to me, it feels as if the cooking is itself the expression and thus doesn't need poetic expression. I have similar feelings about writing about violin playing.

  2. violin playing? wow, didn't see that coming! LOL I do write about music sometimes, have a few music-oriented poems that satisfy me, but would rather worry about the music OF the poem.

    I am less often moved to write about food than to write about the landscape but do love a good food poem. I am a good cook, an original recipe kind of cook, but the mundane daily grind of making meals is not fun for me. I'd rather go into the kitchen and "get food" so I can keep writing.