The Critics and the Chroniclers: Four Writers on Food in Our Timesby Alison Tate Lewis
The Irish Arts Center’s Pen, Paper, and Palate literary salon this past May, a conversation among four food writers at The Half King in Chelsea, suggested two curiously opposite directions in modern food writing. On one side were the critics, not restaurant critics, but critics of the way we eat on a larger scale, proclaiming the dangers of modern agriculture to our health and to our earth.
“To me it’s the scariest goddamn thing there is,” author Jon McGoran announced to the packed crowd. He was speaking of GMOs, and how companies like Monsanto have manipulated our food supply. If the risk of monoculture is that any one wrong condition could kill off your whole crop, think of the threat of millions of acres of the exact same genome of corn; McGoran explained: anything goes wrong for that one genome, “and we’re kind of cooked.”
A science fiction and detective thriller writer by night, Jon McGoran formerly worked in food co-ops and wrote about sustainability and GMOs as his day job, until it occurred to him that what he was writing about during the day was scarier than what he was writing about at night. The ecological threats of modern agriculture were, in fact, the perfect setup for thrillers. “You’ve got shadowy multinational corporations pushing untested new life forms into the food supply of an unsuspecting public,” McGoran explained, “it’s like, my work here is done!” Dust Up, the third novel in McGoran’s series of ecological thrillers, was released by Macmillan this April.
Joel Salatin, a third generation alternative farmer, heartily agreed with McGoran’s apprehension of the state of modern American agriculture as “an existential threat.” Salatin is the author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal, a serious examination of our food: “where it comes from, its current state of abnormality—and why we shouldn’t eat most of it.” His farm, featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary film Food, Inc., services over 5,000 families, ten retail outlets, and fifty restaurants with pesticide-free, grass-fed meat and eggs, proof that more sustainable and wholesome farming techniques are possible on somewhat of a large scale, which works through rotating plants and animals in order to not deplete the soil. But Salatin warned of massive commercial farms destroying soil by doing just the opposite, and of enormous weeds—too big to be plowed down by a combine—which have grown resistant to pesticides.
McGoran and Salatin reflected a general feeling of anxiety around the food we’re eating today, which was palpable among the panelists and the audience at The Half King. An audience member commented on the amount of time she and her friends spent talking and worrying about the food they eat: fear about food today “seems so pervasive.”
“There is a good reason for us to be paranoid,” panelist Paula Butturini concurred, “These big firms are putting stuff in there that we shouldn’t be eating, and at this point, everybody knows an awful lot of people who have cancer.”
And yet—and yet! Butturini and Giulia Melucci, food writers of a different sort, sat on the stage between the two critics and quietly explained quite an opposite relationship to food and writing—even in today’s world of Monsanto and GMOs. We’ll call them the chroniclers.
Melucci, author of the best-selling I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, says that she entered adult life carrying “a sadness,” as her father died just as she was graduating college, and she found herself in a series of ridiculously bad relationships, which she tried desperately hard to make work, through elaborate feats of cooking. “You know, they say ‘Netflix and chill’—I’d be like Netflix and I’ll bake a cake for you!” Melucci managed to turn her series of failed relationships into a big book deal with Grand Central Publishing, in a humorous memoir accompanied with recipes that progress from “Risotto with Intricately Layered Hearts” to “Fuck-You Cupcakes.” Melucci recognizes now that she cooked way too much for a series of men who did not deserve the risotto or even the fuck-you cupcakes, but she also sees that the cooking was necessary for her; cooking, and later, writing about cooking, was “a way of making order out of chaos.” And as today’s proliferation of food blogs can attest, we, the modern reading public, like reading about cooking, and how cooking intersects with life.
Paula Butturini, author of Keeping the Feast, added credence to the power of cooking to heal, even in the face of tragedy. Two days before Christmas in 1989, Butturini’s husband, John Tagliabue, was shot through the lower back during the brief uprising surrounding Romania’s overthrow of its Communist dictator, while the two were working as journalists in Europe. Tagliabue survived, but with years of crippling PTSD and depression. He asked his editor at The New York Times for time off, and the couple returned to their home base in Rome, where Butturini grocery shopped at the outdoor market in the Campo de’ Fiori six days a week, and cooked three meals a day for her husband. Butturini found that her husband didn’t cry at the table, though he cried everywhere else. “So we ate a lot that year!” Years later, Butturini began to write about her husband’s experience, first by describing the path of the sniper’s bullet through his back. When she finished those pages, she was devastated. She could not go on writing straight tragedy. “So that’s when I wrote the opening of the book, which is about asparagus […] and asparagus being, you know, it’s not just a green vegetable!” Butturini laughed. “It is spring. It is a sign of the light coming back, heat and warmth coming back; it’s hope.” She went on alternating, food and tragedy, and in that way was able to tell her story.
It was difficult for the critics and the chroniclers to talk to one another, as their perspectives on food writing were so divergent. But they all seemed to agree that making a stand for good food, good cooking, is making a stand for life—both our personal lives, and the collective life of our generation and our earth.
ContributorAlison Tate Lewis