The Art of the Food Essay

Published: 08th April 2006
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The Art of the Food Essay
by Pam White

The muddy earth is spotted red and green. No perfect, waxed
apples will do. I take a brown paper bag and pick up the
small, often pitted, apples with their matte finish and
uneven sides. The scent of Empire, McIntosh and North Spies
sweep over me; I am transported to the backyard of the house
my mother lived, and died, in.

The final year of her life, I traveled cross-country many
times, with two babies as my constant companions. I cooked
for her, but only the simple meals she could eat. The first
two weeks of September were so draining and sad that it
wasn't until the day she died that I saw the trees were
dropping their apples.

Needing some comfort and a way to comfort others, I put on
an apron and lifted the skirt for carrying the apples back
to the kitchen. I remember standing at the sink, too weary
to feel tired, looking into the back yard at those twisted
trunks, peeling apples, measuring flour, sugar, cinnamon,
rolling pie crust and crimping edges.

And so a food essay is born.

Think of an essay as an article turned personal. Instead of
writing objectively about events, people and news, an essay
requires the writer's emotional involvement. The individual
voice, and the writer's passion, are what make the essay so
compelling to read, and to write. I find weaving together a
story, written with the immediacy of the experience, is one
of the most honest and rewarding ways to write about food.

Writing an article provides the writer with the opportunity
for detaching from the material. Reviewing a restaurant
requires an analytical objectivity that still allows the
writer to pen the piece from a distance.

The essayist writes from emotions, ordinary or raw, taking
the reader along with her. Writing the food essay goes one
better; we provide entertainment, memories and enlightenment
about food history, cuisines, recipes and ingredients.

Essays tell stories but they differ from journalism or
critical writing. Essays are narratives, with distinctive,
intelligent and individual voices. Essays are born of raw
material available to each of us, and refined in the
writing. An advantages of writing food essays is that you
can write them where you are. No thriving metropolitan
backdrop is required; no whirlwind tour of other continents
is needed for the foundation of your essay. Write what you
like, make, bake and dream about.

In the essay we tell the truth about the world we know but
the essay combines the factual and the literary. In _Endless
Feasts_, "Down East Breakfast" by Robert P. Coffin opens
with "Weather, mother of good poetry, is also mother of good
breakfasts." With one sentence he lets the reader know where
he is going. A second essay, "Two for the Road: Havana,
North Dakota," by Jane and Michael Stern, paints the
following scene, "As dawn's mist lifts away from the black
earth west of the Bois de Sioux River and rows of sunflowers
coil up to face the daybreak like solders coming to
attention, a pot of coffee is put on to brew at the Farmer's
Inn." I love it, don't you? It is clear what's important to
the writer, that the story they are spinning is just waking
up. Like these essayists, you will write from your
particular point of view.

Experiment with inventive devices to hook the reader or
illustrate your story. Write love poems to your favorite
sweets or a limerick about Irish stew. Turn yourself into a
character in the story. Exaggerate, create a funny ending
that never took place, be playful. Take your reality and be
creative. Share recipes to illustrate your family's best
cookies. Write of epiphanies when you realized that
combining mango with chipotle chili powder made your corn
muffins award-winning.

While there are as many variations on food essays as there
are food writers, here are some categories to get you
reflecting on what you have to offer as an essayist.

Writing food memories can take you back to birthday dinners,
eating fresh picked corn, baking cookies with your children,
Thanksgiving cranberry dishes. Magazines from Women's Day to
Saveur publish food memoirs. The writer shares a moment in
time symbolized by the food cooked or eaten. Share a part of
your family's culinary history, or new things you've learned
that changed the way you share cooking with your friends and
family. The articles can vary between a first experience
with pistachios to a family recipe for milk-soaked bread.
The food doesn't have to be gourmet, or even edible.

Make the story you are telling filled with suspense, or
laugh out loud funny. Tell the story, filling it with
suspense, building up to the laugh when the reader realizes
the punchline, that the guest from England actually crunched
her way through the shell of the unfamiliar pistachio nuts.
Or tell the tale of a family tradition of eating plum
pudding on Christmas day through the eyes of a child.
Compare how it was to share the pudding when young to how it
feels to be the parent, passing on traditions.

Write nostalgic pieces on the processed foods of yesteryear,
TV dinners, road houses that faded away with the
encroachment of the Interstate. Write about penny candies
including those before your time; let the reader relive joys
of childhood. Interpret your life stories, family mythology
or future dreams through food.

Humor sells. Face it, food is fun. Celebrate it. Make your
essays funny as well as fun to read. Cooking with children,
eating fair food, scrambling pancakes and burning through
pans may be more messy, nauseating, embarrassing and
frustrating than it is laughable when you are in the middle
of it. The humor often comes from how closely readers relate
to the writing. You aren't the only one who's lost three
foot-longs from the top of a ferris wheel, or caught
pancakes on fire.

Jeffrey Steingarten's witty personality shines in this
opening paragraph from "Pain Without Gain," in _The Man Who
Ate Everything_, and he lets his wife join in on the fun:

"Last night I played the neatest trick on my wife. I grilled
a slice of my best homemade French country bread, spread it
thick with Promise Ultra Fat-Free nonfat margarine, set it
on the counter, sat back and waited. Soon the toasty aroma
drew my wife into the kitchen. Seeing the bread, she smiled
broadly and took a bite. I'll never forget the way her smile
froze, as she gagged, stumbled over to the kitchen sink, and
gave up her mouthful of bread covered with Promise Ultra
Fat-Free nonfat margarine. What fun we have together!"

Write where you are. Essays allow you to enjoy food writing
success wherever you are. You don't have to review
restaurants in a specific location, nor do you have to
travel to exotic locales to write up national cuisines. Walk
around your neighborhood. What is unique to your town or
region, can be unique to your writing. Church dinners,
birthday parties, local diners, ethnic neighborhoods are all
open to each writer's individual interpretation.

Get out there and use who you are. Your daily life is filled
with usable material. Look for the food in movies you watch,
dinners you make (or just eat), your life as a chef, caterer
or food stylist. Do research to authenticate and enhance
your essay.

Include recipes when appropriate. Have fun. Your readers
will have fun too.

Pamela White, author of "Become a Food Writer," publishes a
newsletter on food writing and teaches online courses on the topic.
Visit her and subscribe to the newsletter at

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