Last week, a small group of writers joined me in upstate New York for an few intensive days of work. We stayed at a rambling 19th century farmhouse on 400 acres that, depending on which window you stare through, looks out toward the Catskills, Berkshires and Adirondacks. It was too bucolic a spot for the bunker we created. One writer finished her first book; another found the narrative arc in the collection of autobiographical sketches he’s written over the past year; another found a book; and another shifted some tectonic plates in a long-form, “investigative poem” about fracking and the environment.
I edited and commented. I ducked the occasional animus, wiped a few tears, but I didn’t write a word. Normally, days without writing turns me into a maniac. However, last week I felt more like Ms Buddha than an psychotic in need of medication. Inhabiting the work of others works the mind similar to the way that writing does, its also a connection to the people who shaped me, the editors and mentors whose voices live inside my head. Over the years, their voices have become instincts. I don’t hear them as much as my hands respond to their echo and go scaling across the keyboard as I read my own words.
The first was Donald Forst, an irascible newsman who came out of the New York Times, moved to the Tribune, and was editing Boston Magazine the day he called me in 1982. It is surprising that I could reach the phone when it rang. I’d published my first piece in the Boston Globe and was swollen with pride and flying higher than the Goodyear blimp.
“I read your piece. If you want to be an ordinary food writer you just keep going,” he said, “if you want to be extraordinary, come work for me.”
For reasons that can only be explained by having been raised by a professional athlete, I went. And perhaps because he was bored in what was then a journalistic backwater of a town, a guy used to daily deadlines trying to find an adrenalin fix in a monthly magazine, he took extraordinary time with my tortured little stories about the New American Cuisine, New England vineyards, and who had the best clam chowder on the east coast.
I was looking for deep and meaningful poetry. He was looking for publishable food features. He taught me how to report.
“If you know the story you can tell it,” he said, day after day for nearly seven years, “if you don’t know it, you’ve got to write the sucker.”
The phrase was a knife through the cold butter of all the emotional morass and poetic yearning I brought, early on, to the page. I find myself using variations of his quote with writers mired in emotion and stuck. I hear myself saying it again and again when the language overwhelms the information.
Mr. Forst’s pronouncement was already in my head when I worked with Lillian Hellman, on what became the final book of her life, “Eating Together,” the culinary memoir she co-authored with Peter Feibleman. My task was to test and write her recipes. She was dying at Massachusetts General Hospital. If she said that I’d have pages on Monday, the pages were delivered to my little studio on Beacon Hill, by hand, on Sunday night. When I visited her, she rose up off the bed, a wraithlike bundle of fury, jostling the tether of tubes and the hands of nurses.
“I have to make a goddamned living,” she bellowed.
Mr. Forst tried to teach me how write like a professional, Ms Hellman scared me into thinking like one.
Not long after, I met Julia Child. I could see her house from the window I rented in Cambridge, knew the sound of the VW Rabbit she drove, in a manner reminiscent of a scene from Harold & Maud. We met at Savenor’s, the grocery store around the corner. I was still running the kitchen at Ciro & Sal’s in those early days of writing. Julia found a way around my Italian leanings.
“Pasta,” she trilled, “is what people who can’t cook make for dinner, Dear. But you did go to La Varenne, so that must not be the case.” More than my unspoken conviction that pesto trumps pistou, Julia was concerned about my gravity.
“What fun!” she’d say when I measured ingredients and scribbled notes as she cooked.
“Aren’t we just the luckiest people? ” she’d say as I ran out the door to cook another ten-hour shift in the restaurant. “What if we had to work?”
After a decade in professional kitchens, I approached writing more like a coal miner than an artist. It took several decades to loosen my grip. In that time, our roles shifted, slightly. Julia became convinced that the health-obsessed would ruin good cooking. While writing the food columns in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the phone in my loft rang at 6:30 a.m. every Sunday morning. My head throbbed. The answering machine picked up.
“Is that Molly? I’m reading your column, dear. It’s all about vegetables again. Those vegetarians didn’t get you did they?”
I still don’t know if she was serious or simply determined to keep me laughing. Julia wasn’t, she said, “the writer, you are dear,” she didn’t comment on my writing and, except for once when she tried to get me to write about how people who objected to veal were part of a vegetarian conspiracy, she never suggested stories. However, she taught me how to sell a cookbook and how to abide taxing situations.
One night in the 1990s, she invited me to join her and several advertising executives from a company that sponsored her television show at Chez Panisse. The food was great; our companions were right out of Mad Men. When I glanced across the table at her after one of their particularly egregious exchanges, she held my eye, arched a brow, ran her finger around her wine glass, and nodded to mine, which was untouched.
“Delicious, isn’t it?” she said. If not determined to keep me laughing, she was, at the very least, committed to regularly reminding me that what we do has to spring from generosity and joy. I tried to thank her, as I tried to thank the others who spent endless hours showing me how to write and how to live a writer’s life. She waved it off.
“I learn more from you than you will ever learn from me, Dear.”
I didn’t know what she meant until I’d learned enough to have something to teach. When you teach, you have to articulate little habits and many techniques that have been part of you for so long that you’ve forgotten their names. Teaching is a constant encounter with my younger writer self. What I spot in student work, I generally got in my own. Seeing it makes me a better writer.
Mr. Forst would take great exception to the claim above. I have, you see, backed into my lead. I meant to write a little ode to mentoring. Last week’s Food Writers’ Colony reminds me of how important it is, and how satisfying it can be. Like cooking, food writing is best learned from people who work at the craft.
For six years toward the end of her life, I visited MFK Fisher at her house in Sonoma in the spring. I read the pieces I’d written in the year between our visit; she made lunch and tore my stories apart. I slept on a screened porch. Her eyesight was failing. In the mornings, I transcribed some of her work, and I read it back to her. In that time, my trajectory - from an adolescent poet, to a professional wordsmith – arched back, returning me to where I began, but older.
I began trying to do more than tell stories, started trying to use words in a way that allowed readers to experience them. I’m not sure I would have kept pushing my own limits were I not reading aloud to Mrs. Fisher. When she reached for the sippy cup of vermouth blend that she kept on a small table near her chair, I felt as banal as the boys with whom Julia and I dined in Berkeley.
Reading Mrs. Fisher’s work, listening as she added footnotes about Nicoise olives and brandade, bouillabaisse, aioli, tarte aux abricot, I began to hear spoken poetry about love and loss, fantasy and reality, self-deception, and self-acceptance. I started to identify the flavor of my own experiences.
I’d been thinking a lot about these people who shaped me in the weeks since reading a post on the IACP site called Faking It, by Amy Reiley.
A session called “Bloggers & Marketers: Crafting a Rewarding Alliance” at the organization’s annual conference in New York City had disturbed the author. She is of the opinion that creating quality work is the surest path to “rewarding alliances,” she worries our culinary legacy. I share her view and her concern. What I hope never to share, however, is the author’s view of “us,” those who’ve labored long enough in the vineyards of food writing to know how to test and write a decent recipe and frame an original and compelling story; and “them,” emerging writers who are learning on the job and are trying to figure out how to support themselves in the process.
I was shaped by the kindness as well as the patience, forbearance, and generosity of strangers; I feel an obligation to pass it along. Teaching and sharing are also self-serving: they help preserve a world that’s kept my life interesting, unpredictable, full of opportunity, challenge, and a whole heck of a lot of fun.
What I originally loved about the genre is that food writing is a repository of the liberal arts impulse, a field that demands knowing a little about a lot of things, of remaining curious, of mastering little slivers and remaining an eternal amateur, inquisitive and game for more, always more. Learning to write about food is a lot like learning to cook it; it is best done at the side of someone who does it a little better than you.
Today, the food world is increasingly more professionalized and aspired toward. The intimacy and informality of mentoring and of being mentored is a single shot at preserving that Plan B spirit in preserving a spot where the poetic, the personal, the sensual and the uniquely individual can thrive.
There are reasons, real and pressing economic reasons, why the US-es might rail against those interloping THEMs. But, that’s a topic for another, God-willing less rambling, post. Today, I’m thinking about how the act of sharing what I know makes me better at what I do.
The hot breath of competition on the back of my neck might make me write faster. Fearing it or judging it could just slow me down.