I woke up one morning, about ten years ago, and I was not just a food writer. I was a FOOD WRITER and everybody I met wanted my job. Being cool, I concluded, is like getting a taxi in New York City. If you stand in one spot long enough, it happens. Life, or traffic, changes and suddenly the thing you were doing—because you didn’t know what else to do—is the thing that everybody wants to do more than anything in the world.
There are reasons. Collecting food experience is cheaper than collecting, say, Rothko. Duplicating state-of-the-art dishes is within the grasp of more people than knocking off Michelangelo’s David. In an increasingly impersonal culture, food is a way of declaring one’s quirky, idiosyncratic self. In an economic and political era that leaves many feeling impotent, addressing the food system—or at least the menu—offers a satisfying way to affect change.
Writing about food offers a similar antidote to anonymity and powerlessness. To do it well, you need to get personal. In the same way that modernist paintings break the bounds of the traditional canvas, that performance art violates the proscenium, that open kitchens and food trucks eliminate the barrier between the cook and the diner, contemporary food prose brings the writer and reader face-to-face. Or at least it can, when the writer is pluming the internal swamp of essential desires, truths, conflict, regrets, and ambivalences that make us human.
One of the more curious twists in writing reality is that you have to inhabit the universal in order to communicate original thinking and personal insight.
There are lots of ways to access that part of yourself.
Writing from the senses is one. When I am stale or stuck, I carry around a little notebook and when I’m sitting on hold or waiting for a taxi, I write down everything I smell, see, taste, hear, touch. The practice makes me aware. If I simply record the sensations, they tend to lead to memory, unrecognized connections, ideas.
PROMPTS TO PRIME THE SENSES
- Sit in your favorite chair with a notebook and a fast-writing pen. Set a timer for five minutes. Then, imagine the apple on the teacher’s desk. Imagine the color and shape of that apple. Imagine the little girl who polished that apple and carried it from home and gave it to the teacher this morning. It is late afternoon. The sun through the school window is the color of a jack-o’-lantern grin. It’s been a long time since lunch. The teacher has left the room. So has everybody else. You had to stay after school. You are hungry. You jump up, race to the teacher’s desk, grab the apple and bite. What does it taste like? What does it feel like in your mouth? Describe every sensation of that first bite.
- Sit in your favorite chair with a notebook and a fast-writing pen. Set a timer for three minutes. The leaves are beginning to flutter to the ground. It is early evening, mauve colored. You should have worn a jacket. It is a five-minute walk down a wooded path to reach the barn party. You shiver. You hurry. Coming out of the woods, the world is blazing; a bonfire. What does the heat feel like against your skin? How does your sweater feel against your arms? How do your thighs feel inside your jeans? What does it feel like to be chilled and beset by some misgiving (uh-oh, shoulda worn a jacket) and then suddenly, gratefully, hot. Scribble down every sensation. Note memory as it rises, note thoughts, note feelings. But bring yourself back to the next sensation. The fire blazing on a fall night.
- Sit in your favorite chair with a notebook and a fast-writing pen. Set a timer for five minutes. There is an apple pie baking in the oven. What does it smell like? What does it remind you of? What does it make you feel? Write down every word that comes to you. Don’t make a story. Just inhale and write.
- Sit in your favorite chair with a notebook and a fast-writing pen. Set a timer for two minutes. Imagine that you are carrying a brown paper bag with handles and that you walking through an apple orchard. It is a brilliant Saturday morning. The sky is the color of Frank Sinatra’s eyes. In search of the best pickings, you scan the trees. You walk. You carry your bag. You look. Imagine each step. Write down everything you see.
- Sit in your favorite chair with a notebook and a fast-writing pen. Set a timer for three minutes. It is late September. It is Friday night. You are alone in an old-fashioned bedroom in a New England inn. You are awaiting the arrival of your weekend rendezvous. You open a window, sit in a wing chair and listen to the night. The gravel drive is below. Past it, dark open fields sprawl toward the black silhouette of the forest. What do you hear? Describe every sound. What does each feel like? What does each remind you of? Have you ever felt this sound before?