Food Writing to Fly By


M Jane Ross

Have you noticed, airplane food has gone from mediocre via dismal to non-existent!

For better or worse, on my recent trip to Vancouver to visit my daughter, I had packed the most scrumptious and mouthwatering reading of the year: The Best Food Writing of 2008, edited by Holly Hughes. I hungrily slurped up succulent chapters on every food group from biscuits to pork butt via foie gras and mangoes. And I wolfed down detailed descriptions of meals from some of the US’s superstar chefs, all while I crunched on the only food available on two flights and five hours of flying—a couple of dry-as-cardboard granola bars I’d thrown into my purse on my way out the door. As a chaser to that dismal fare, the book was torture, but in a good way.

The 48 short chapters all originally appeared in other publications, mostly as articles in major magazines and newspapers, though several are excerpted from cookbooks and foodie memoirs. Many are written by professional food writers (ah, now there’s a job I could go for). What I came away from the book with (aside from hunger pangs) is that, in the most engaging writing, the author’s passion for their subject shines through in every element of their story.

Learning to make sausages. MJ Ross 2008. These writers don’t just tell us, “I love Cajun food.” They show it, unequivocally. They chronicle week-long excursions in search of the perfect gumbo. They risk ridicule from chefs and cooks and eviction from their family homes in their fervent desire to understand and master the preparation of a dish they’re passionate about. They describe not only the tastes, smells and textures of the subject of their passion. They research and then describe every detail they can find of their ingredients’ provenance. And wow, does this search for knowledge and flavor enliven their writing. Just the way the dollop of foie gras that they add to the hamburgers at Sweets and Savories restaurant in Chicago turns a plain old sandwich into a work of art (see Peter Sagal’s article, "Let Them Eat Paté," on p. 13 of The Best Food Writing of 2008).

Writing prompt: Show your passion for your subject: look for ways you can research the subject of your stories to enliven the writing. For example, you can look up historical details of the places you write about using the internet. Or better yet, go back to a place from your past and talk to longtime locals about their memories of the place.  Like baking bread, you’ll get a better, tastier, more authentic product if you get your hands dirty and experience the details of your story up close and as personal as you can get.

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