Our Senior Editor and food writer Lyz Pfister reflects upon the intersection of food and writing in advance of her upcoming Workshop of Food & Writing and her Wolf + Peter literary supper club co-hosted by SAND.
I think the first time I loved food was at the age of ten. Every Friday night, my father would take my brothers and me to the college pool. We’d splash around in the lanes, avoiding the few serious late-night swimmers and daring each other to sink our toes to the bottom of the diving pool while my father swam laps. Afterwards, ears clogged with damp and the cool night wind icing our chlorine hair, we’d go to the public library to pick out a week’s worth of books.
I still remember the librarian walking me to the shelf that held my beloved yellow-spined Nancy Drews and pulling out a thick volume whose cover bore a mouse and a ship in a swirling blue ocean: Mariel of Redwall. “I think you’ll like this one,” she said.
And I did. I devoured every single Redwall book, loving the brave abbey critters and all their wild adventures, but especially lingering over Brian Jacques’s descriptions of food and feasts. The tiniest morsels made me drool: “Friar Alder and his young assistant, Cockleburr, had made crusty country pasties, and these were being served with melted yellow cheese and rough hazelnut bread.” Long before I ever loaded up a skillet of my own, those passages made me realize that writing about what we eat can sometimes be even more evocative than eating itself.
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for food in literature. Give me M.F.K. Fisher, give me Stephanie Danler, give me Lewis Carroll’s tea parties and even that bit about Big Endians and Little Endians in Gulliver’s Travels. It’s why I love reading recipes by Fergus Henderson and Yotam Ottolenghi’s discursive descriptions of Jerusalem. And It’s the only way I can stand Earnest Hemingway.
When I was poetry editor at SAND, I was always sneaking food into its pages: discarded lemons in empty bar glasses, hands sticky with sugar, grilled portobellos, devilish plums, crisping hot dog skins… And even now, a pair of gelatinous, wobbling yolks or a bottle of rye and dark salted chocolate draw me in, they make the page dance.
Food can do a lot for writing. It’s so relatable, so sensory that when an edible experience or dish is transcribed into words, it evokes an instant physiological reaction. Our mouths water, our stomachs churn. It can effectively set the scene, helping us to orient ourselves in time and space. Is there a heaping tray with “two large yams covered with butter, a pile of buckwheat cakes dripping syrup, and a large slice of ham swimming in gravy”? Then we might be in the American south, belligerent as Scarlett O’Hara in her corset. Are there “old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard; a few raisins and almonds; some cheese that [had been] declared inedible two days before; a dry roll and some bread spread with butter and salt”? Then we must be in The Metamorphosis, sickened by how seductive that disgusting spread now sounds to a newly antennaed Gregor.
But food is more than just a scene setter, it’s also metaphor, as anyone who’s ever slurped a wet and slippery oyster knows. Even the lack of it can push persistently into a poem or a story’s space, like in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, where food is an obsession, first conflated with vulgarity and excess, slowly becoming Spartan, then intensely absent.
In our own writing, the way we use food can give clues to our characters: their backgrounds, unexpressed desires, personality traits, unconscious tics. If we are memoirists, it’s a gateway to talking about nostalgia, pain, experience, the past.
Food inspires our imagination, it fires our memories, it transports us to another world, it makes us want and unwant, disgusts us, entices us. It is persistent in our lives and so is persistent in the lives we create for ourselves on the page.
So when I say I’m a food writer, what I mean is that I’m a writer, one who can’t help but be drawn to the power of food to shape the stories we tell, whether fictional or fact.
I’ll be exploring the intersection between food and literature in two upcoming events:
Eat Me. Drink Me. and Counter Service present:
October 28-29*, 2017
Cost: €80, early-bird special: €65 if you sign up by 12 Oct
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a “food writing” workshop. It’s a writing workshop that uses food as a tool and looks at it as a place of access and entry into writing about memory, experience, shame, desire, nostalgia, etc. All the good stuff.
We’ll be parsing apart how food inspires and propels good fiction and poetry, practice getting away from food clichés, and exploring sensuality, memory, first impressions, and imagination. And did we mention the interactive dinner party?
Space is limited. To reserve your spot, please email Lyz at email@example.com.
* Day 1 runs from 3:00-6:00 pm and is followed by a dinner; Day 2 runs from 10:00 am-3:00 pm.
The Wolf & Peter and SAND present:
DEVOUR: A Literary Supper Club
Some stories are so rich, they seem absolutely edible.
Join SAND and The Wolf & Peter for a night of literary feasting. Nine writers and artists present work featuring food and drink in a limited-edition chapbook served alongside a 6-course menu inspired by image and text.
We’ll be debuting handcrafted cocktails featuring Our/Berlin Vodka, beers selected by Vagabund Brauerei, and a menu of War and Peace proportions.