Posts Tagged ‘food writing’

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Amy Bloom’s fictional food

June 28, 2010

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.


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More writing on food

September 21, 2009

My thanks to my friend Eileen, for alerting me to this meaty segment on writing about food from ABC Radio National’s Book Show. More surprising than I had expected, it’s a nice energetic discussion on fictional, poetic and other writerly food between Stephanie Alexander (whose new book The Kitchen Garden Companion I absolutely lust after), John Newton and Gay Bilson with Ramona Koval.

Gay Bilson is particularly literate, erudite and thoughtful. She’s a very interesting woman, I think, given her stepping away from her massive success as a restaurateur (Berowra Waters Inn, etc) into a more reflective, quieter and far more ascetic sort of life these days. As a result of this interview I shall be seeking out her own books, Plenty and On Digestion. She also writes for The Monthly, and has a strangely moving piece in this month’s issue about organ donation which begins by evoking mushroom harvesting. She is intriguing, I reckon.

The beloved MFK Fisher comes in for a surprisingly acerbic serve from both Gay Bilson, who says Fisher’s writing is self-regarding and “makes my toes curl” and Stephanie, who calls her writing mannered and says she gets the feeling of indigestion from Fisher! A good lively, highly literate discussion all round, liberally sprinkled with food quotes from Sybil Bedford, Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Anita Brookner, Frank Moorhouse and invoking The Magic Pudding, Enid Blyton and lots more.

Download it or listen online here.

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Voyage round Fenella’s kitchen

April 15, 2009

peter-jugs-bowl1A couple of years ago I read a wonderful feature in the Good Weekend about cooking – it seemed to capture everything I felt about the pleasures of cooking – aside from the actual eating, that is!

The article, Voyage Round my Kitchen was by one of that mag’s star writers, Fenella Souter, and she has very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here. It’s a witty, moving and beautifully written exploration of the pleasures and consolations of cooking, and as a piece of food writing it’s gloriously untainted by the stink of fashion or snobbery or celebrity – depressingly common in Australian food writing I reckon (the Empress’s regular SMH Three of a Kind column excepted, I hasten to add!). The article is in a PDF file here that takes a little while to download, but be patient, it’s worth it.

A little taste:

As anyone who likes to cook knows, the kitchen is full of therapeutic pleasures. The familiar swift and competent movements of hand and knife; the invigorating beauty of a group of plump aubergines or elegant artichokes or voluptuous yellow quinces; the reassuring smell of frying onions or the yearning fragrance of poached peaches; the zen-like calm that descends as the cook oversees some delicate operation, for nothing focuses the mind like watching a custard thicken or caramel brown; the feeling of accomplishment, indeed of love, when all is done and the meal is laid on the table for the pleasure of others, or oneself.

I realise I’m painting a rather rosy picture here – relieved of such kitchen staples as boredom and resentment, griping children, grated fingers and burnt potatoes – but you get the drift. While cooking is not principally a cure for misery, it can cheer you up wonderfully. The Joy of Sex was a bestseller, but so was The Joy of Cooking. Ideally, one experiences both, but we may have underestimated the second as a helpful tool in life and marriage, even if the first is lacking. It’s surprising the subject doesn’t come up more in marriage counselling.

There’s lots more – just read it. You’ll love it.

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Adriatic Salad and other fictional foods

March 4, 2009

adriaticsalad1When my novel The Children came out I received several very gratifying emails from readers who particularly liked the family barney in the fictional country town of Rundle’s RSL Club restaurant, which featured an escalating  argument between two adult siblings, Mandy and Stephen, sparked by a dish on the menu described thus: ‘Adriatic Salad: Cajun prawns, sweet potato, snow peas and lime mayonnaise.’

For some reason, lots of people liked the sound of this dish. A couple of people even wanted the recipe. That salad actually exists, in a motel restaurant in a country town that will remain nameless, where I did a bit of research for the book – it seemed too good to be true, so I pinched it.  I quite enjoyed writing that scene actually – and now I find myself scanning menus hopefully at all times now for fictional fodder. Tricky though –  it would be so easy to repeat oneself, but there’s such a wealth of material out there I’m not sure I will be able to resist bad menu items for the book I’m writing now (I’ve got three words to say to you, Kimmy: Gourmet Pizza Kitchen).

On the topic of food in fiction, here is a wonderful New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik about cooking real dishes after  their fictional appearances in books, with varying results. He says, for example, of the eponymous dish from Gunter Grass‘s Nobel-provoking novel The Flounder:

Eating Günter Grass’s flounder was actually like reading one of his novels: nutritious, but a little pale and starchy.