Food Writing 101

Leading up to our first ever food writing workshop, we’ve been thinking a lot about the writers and books that have made an impression on us. The ones that made us sigh with delight at a turn of phrase, or the ones that had us still thinking about it, long after the last page. In an attempt to compile, for both our workshop and for ourselves, some of the most memorable pieces of food writing, we reached out to writers from across the country, and the resulting list is a resource we know we’re going to return to, time and again. 

Poet and author, The Immortals, Afternoon Raag. Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.
"My favourite passage about food is from Kafka's 'Metamorphosis', where he describes how Gregor's sister, worried by his loss of appetite after he's turned into a gigantic insect, decides to leave the sort of food in his room which she hopes will tempt him. It's a reminder that Kafka is a writer of great exactness."

Example of food writing in Kafka's Metamorphosis

Journalist and author, The Wildings.
"I love this story so much, because it's about abundance without gluttony, and so often gluttony is the undertone to food writing – a dish is 'ravishing,' we 'devour' it, etc, etc. But no. There is a deeper pleasure connected to setting an abundant table, which in this story is set not for friends, but for strangers, casual acquaintances, anyone who happens to come by. This is the pleasure that comes both from giving freely, with trust, and in celebrating the abundance that the earth, and life, can sometimes yield, if we are ready to accept, and to share."

Example of food writing in The Sharing Of Loaves by Clarice Lispector

Columnist with The Economic Times and host of The Real Food Podcast.
"MFK Fisher is unquestionably one of the great food writers, and The Art of Eating, the compilation of five of her books, including The Gastronomical Me from which the piece below comes certainly made me realise how writing on food could be a way to talk about history, culture, memoir and more.

But I think there has been a slight reaction against her in recent years. She is seen as the founder of a school of lush, over-personalised, self-indulgent food writing that has been given a boost by so many food writing programmes. The results of these are, without doubt, often excessive and unnecessary, but it seems unfair to blame Fisher for it. Because she showed how it could be done right, with passion and control and intelligence, and then it was amazing.

The Gastronomical Me is her magnum opus and this passage comes towards its end in a chapter entitled '1941'. It is a chapter that chronicles deep changes. The sensuous, bohemian European world before WWII that takes up most of the book is in ruins and so is her life, after the suicide of Dillwyn Parrish (Chexbres), the love of her life, because he was suffering from an agonising, incurable illness.

Fisher is back in the USA now, but not in the California she grew up in and where she came back to live and write in. She goes to Mexico where her brother and sister are living. It is not just an entirely new world from the rest of the book, but she also travels to it in a new way. Sea voyages and the occasional train journey form a large part of the first book, but here she flies - and in the process gives a neat lesson on how to re-engineer your inflight meal to make it more palatable.

Airline journeys at that time had to be shorter and required several stops and this passage is taken from one of them when she is put up for the night in a standard tourist hotel. We have all eaten the sort of dull food these places serve and Fisher's piece reveals how even in such places you can find ways to eat well. The piece made me aware of the potential of staff meals and I have written about them.

I have also used her trick in Goa. The beach shacks there serve tourist food that is probably better than what Fisher describes, especially the simple grilled stuff, but they can also get boring. The Goan dishes on the menu are usually just exercises in overdoing the use of reichado masala and no one wants to try the Western or Chinese options.

But the staff at these places is usually Nepali and they make a thick yellow dal for themselves, which is simple, but sustaining and delicious. It becomes quite wonderful when you pair it with the one real innovation these shacks have come up with - choriz-naan, where they use a of smear of spicy Goan sausage inside the naans they make with their tandoors.

Choriz-Naan and dal, with a gin and tonic on the side just after the sun has gone down is a simply amazing combination and one that is unlikely to make you too bloated or worse the next day.

I think the other reason I like the piece is because it celebrates beans, and few food writers really do this. Beans, dal, all pulses in general are some of our most important and delicious foods, but they aren't prestigious enough to be celebrated (unless made with lots of meat in dishes like cassoulet or Chile con carne, which sort of misses the point, however good those dishes are).

There are time when I'm feeling drained or slightly down, especially by evening, and I know there is one thing that always helps. I take the train home to Bandra and walk from the station a little further away where there's an old dhaba type restaurant called National. It’s been around for ages and it makes meat, a few chicken dishes, but what is really outstanding are its dals.

National cooks them on coal fire and makes four every day - rajma, chole, kala dal (black urad) and sukha dal (white urad cooked dry). You can have them by themselves, or mixed with each other, or mixed with any other dish on the menu. I usually chose the palak mixed with sukha dal and have it with their tandoori rotis. Nothing could be simpler, yet for me, at that moment, nothing could be better. “

MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher

The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K.Fisher
The dining room, like hotel dining rooms all over the world, was large, bleak and dull. I walked through it as far as I could, past a few tables of almost silent people who stared for a second and then dropped their eyes to their food again. 

A waiter appeared at the end of the room, chewing and looking surprised to see me so far from the safe company of the other diners. I smiled at him and he smiled back, and I sat down at a little table by the open door into the patio, dark and strange now like a cave.

 I ordered a bottle of beer, and drank slowly at the first little glass of it until the food started coming. I asked for only a few things on the pretentious menu, but even they were too many. The stuff was abominable: a tasteless sopa de pasta, a salad of lukewarm fish, some pale meat…

I felt very sorry, but I simply could not eat it. And all the time delicious smells came from the kitchen when the waiters went past me, not from what they were carrying but from something they had just left. And I could hear laughing and talking, so that the stilted silence of the dining room was painful.

Finally the waiter brought me a little dish of bread pudding… poudingue inglesa, the menu said. There must have been something about my face that broke him then in spite of my being an uninvited unexpected diner there. He leaned over me and whispered something very rapidly. I understood only, “There is an American kitchen and there is a country kitchen, side by side out there…”

Then he disappeared. It seemed to me the smells got better as I waited for what would happen next. They were like a farm kitchen in the south of France, but with less garlic and more pepper. I was almost alone, waiting peacefully, sipping my beer. The passengers who had bought me a drink came and went, stiffly looking away from me. I was mildly sorry to have hurt them by staying apart.

 Then the waiter came back, and he was smiling and breathing hard in a pleasant excitement. He brought me what he and the others were eating in the kitchen, and it was even sitting in their dishes: a brown clay bowl and plate, with green and white birds under the thin glaze.

The bowl had beans in it, large light-tan beans cooked with some tomato and onion and many herbs. I ate them with a big spoon, and now and then rolled up a tortilla from the plate and ate it sopped in the beans.

 And the feeling of that hot strong food going down into my stomach was one of the finest I have ever had. I think it was the first thing I had really tasted since Chexbres died, the first thing that fed, in spite of my sensuous meals always. I ate everything… enough for three or four probably… and finished the beer while the waiter peered paternally at me occasionally from the kitchen door.

Columnist with The Economic Times, and author of Mrs. LC’s Table
“Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is one of my all-time favourite books because even though it is not about food but about Hemingway's early life in Paris, the Parisian cafes and food and wine are almost a character, distinct from all the other characters he sketches for us: Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. For any student of literature, it is of course fascinating to observe all these writers, struggling, working, often meeting each other in the Paris of the 1920s. In the midst of all this, for food to stand out so sharply, so that each encounter comes with its own set of what was eaten and drunk, is riveting.

You should see how Hemingway writes about food – it is actually much like a lot of his writing. Shorn of any adjectives but conveying exactly the how it must have been. You can taste the oysters, sharp and salty, when he eats them one by one, savouring the meal because a good meal is a luxury for poor writers. In the chapter on Scott Fitzgerald, being broken down as a man because of his tortured relationship with his wife, everything is over wine and whisky, so that the entire chapter seems to be enveloped in a sort of alcoholic haze!

I love the use of food as a character and as a narrative technique almost. And, of course, it is all very entertaining too. But here's my favourite passage from the book: Hemingway and his wife are going to eat out in a restaurant to celebrate his earnings at the races. (The ‘I’ is Hemingway, and Tatie is how his wife calls him).

There are several themes playing out in this piece – a young and hungry writer looking in through the window to see a more accomplished/fulfilled/prosperous writer. Restaurant dining in Paris becomes a metaphor.

Food is so much more than something we just consume, just as there are all sorts of hungers. Food fills us in many ways, sometimes it becomes a substitute for other lacks, and the way we eat has as much to do with the states of our mind and heart as the actual food on the table.

There's also the point of dining as a form of social intercourse. In fact, if we are completely wrapped up in the person we are dining with, all our senses get heightened but what we are eating itself is hardly the focus. Like the wife, when she describes the trout in those beauteous surroundings, the impression is of a significant beautiful, romantic time, but not the taste of the trout at all!

Finally, the question of memory and food. Our 'best' meals are a function of memory – so is cooking. Just like Paris is A Moveable Feast because she lives on within anyone who has lived there, so are our food memories: We carry them within us wherever we go and in many ways they shape us. My blog on restaurant dining is called A Moveable Feast precisely because of this."

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
"Do you remember I bought some wine from Aigle home to the chalet? They sold it to us at the inn. They said it should go with the trout. We brought it wrapped in copies of La Gazette de Lausanne, I think." 
"The Sion wine was even better. Do you remember how Mrs Gangeswisch cooked the trout au bleu? They were such wonderful trout Tattie, and we drank the Sion wine and ate out on the porch with the mountainside dropping off below and we could look across the lake..."

"Are you hungry again?" I said.
"Of course Tatie, aren't you?"
"Then, let's go to a wonderful place and have a truly grand dinner."
We stood outside Michaud's restaurant reading the posted menu. Michaud's was crowded and we waited for people to come out, watching the tables where people already had their coffee.
We were hungry again from the walking and Michaud's was an exciting and expensive restaurant for us. It was where Joyce ate with his family then, he and his wife against the wall, Joyce peering at the menu through his thick glasses; Nora by him, a delicate but hearty eater, Giorgio, thin, foppish, Lucia with heavy curly hair, all of them talking Italian.
Standing there I wondered how much of what we had felt on the bridge was just hunger. I asked my wife and she said, "I don't know, Tattie. There are so many sorts of hunger."
“I was being stupid, and looking in the window and seeing two tournedos being served I knew I was hungry in a simple way."

Columnist with The Mint Lounge, and author, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, Serious Men.
“I have not read a food piece in ages, but one I remember enjoying was this one by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

I remember this essay from about eight years ago for several reasons. It is a rebuke of cookbooks, which I think they long deserved. The main argument of Adam Gopnik in the piece is that following recipes often leads to disappointment because they are a form of monologue while people tend to treat them as precise science. I like how the author makes a big amused fuss over the little things, which actually reminded me of the funniest television series in the world – ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ created by Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld. For instance, Gopnik asks, in the way of pointing to the ambiguity of cookbooks, ‘How do you know when a thing “just begins to boil”?’”

Example of food writing in What's the Recipe by Adam Gopnik

Author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, and more.
“What I love about this excerpt is that it adds a dimension to the Nature-versus-Nurture debate. Also Timothy Mo turns food into an accessory, a weapon, a poem, and a life lesson; that food is truly a matter of choice and nothing else. ”

Example of food writing in Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo

Example of food writing in Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo

The first Goya Journal food writing workshop will be held this weekend at Studio Fifteen in Mumbai. If you'd like to stay posted on our upcoming events, sign up for our newsletter.