Don’t you find writing about food becomes awfully twee and tiresome much of the time?
All those clichés about seasonal produce and sharing tables with family and friends, the delicious aroma of baking from the kitchen, blah blah blah. Or the slickly stupid language of shrine restaurant menus. Remind me to tell you one day of a friend’s visit to a most pretentious molecular gastronomy restaurant – not, I hasten to add, The Fat Duck, where we’ve eaten and which is an unforgettable experience of playful culinary genius, but one presided over by a rather less skilled chef. She said the wait staff behaved like members of a cult and the menu featured stuff like An Interim of Parsley Dust – hilarious.
Turning to food in fiction, it’s just as tricky. If you are as engaged and delighted by cooking and eating as we are, putting the spotlight on food in novels or short stories so often results in gushy, sentimental sop and nostalgic rosy glows. A writing teacher friend of mine, buried in marking one day years ago, sighed, “If I have to read about one more yiayia’s orchard I’m going to puke.”
I am well aware, dear readers, of my own shortcomings in this department, both fictional and non-. From now on I’m going to pretend Gay Bilson is looking over my shoulder when I write about food, for her stern, clear-eyed and unsentimental writing is inspiring.
For now, as an antidote to any food tosh you might have been reading lately, I want to show you how a really good fiction writer does it. I recently read Amy Bloom’s story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. This is from ‘Between Here and There’.
Most of the mothers in our neighborhood were housewives, like my mother. But my mother was really a very good cook and a very accomplished hostess, even if the things she made and the way she entertained is not how I would have done it (red, white and blue frilled toothpicks in lamb sausage pigs-in-blankets on the Fourth of July, trays of deviled eggs and oeufs en gelée—with tiny tulips of chive and egg yolk decorating each oeuf—to celebrate spring). My mother worked hard at what she considered her job, with no thanks from us and no pay, aside from the right to stay home.
Five minutes before the start of a cocktail party or bridge night, my father would make himself comfortable on the living room couch, dropping cigar ash on the navy-blue velvet cushions, or he’d stand in the kitchen in his underwear, reading the newspaper while my mother and I put out platters and laid hors d’oeuvres around him. Sometimes, he’d sit down at the kitchen table and open the newspaper wide, lowering it almost to the tabletop, so we’d have to move the serving dishes to the counter. One July Fourth, when I was about twelve and Andy was ten, my father picked up an angel on horseback as my mother was carrying the tray past him. “What is this, shit on a stick,” he said, and knocked the whole plate out of her hands, and then there we were, my mother and Andy and me, scrabbling to grab the hot, damp, oily little things from under the sideboard and out of the ficus plants. My father picked up a couple and put them in my mother’s apron pocket, saying, “You kids crack me up.” He was still chuckling when the doorbell rang and my mother went back into the kitchen and Andy and I went to our rooms, and he was still smiling when he opened the door for Mr and Mrs Rachlin, who were always the first.
Now that’s writing.