I read a lot of food writing. There’s so much out there — restaurant reviews, blogs, magazine articles, literary essays, cookbooks. I like a lot of it, but a lot of food writing sort of fizzles out into blandness. I think people think there’s a “right way” to write about food, but in the end, it just sounds boring. You might remember the facts, but you forget the voice.
This blog is largely a way to find my food writing voice, with a little help from some outside inspirations.
My favorite food writing is the Zingerman’s catalog. On the face of it, it’s not conventionally literary. But consider this — before she got published, my writing professor, Amy Bloom, wrote copy for the J. Peterman catalog (yes, it is real). For a fiction writer, it’s really the ultimate challenge — craft a tight, evocative story that makes you instantly know the setting, the characters and sparks a sense of yearning.
The Zingerman’s catalog has all the lyricism and transporting properties of the J. Peterman catalog, but with a highly personal, off-kilter pitch. Here are some of my favorite blurbs from the most recent catalog.
Nonnate di Pesce – Fiery little fish — This is one of those food finds that I’m not sure if anyone is going to care about except me. When we had to decide how many to order, I thought, I don’t know, we’ll either sell none or we’ll sell hundreds—it’s a total crapshoot.
Yeah, whatever. I don’t need to sell you anything. I love the attitude, confidence and challenge packed into these lines.
Antique Gruyere — Imagine the flavor of the Gruyère you know now but ten times more delicious and infinitely more interesting. Smooth, with the spiciness of a great Rhine wine. It’s got an incredible nose and a dry, yet creamy on the tongue texture.
A simple, yet fresh, description that instantly snaps into your consciousness.
8-Grain 3-Seed Bread — Cracked wheat, cracked rye, cracked barley, corn grits, oats, millet, whole wheat, whole rye, flax seed, poppy seeds, a little honey and a nearly irresistible outer crust of toasted sunflower seeds.
So many restaurant menus list ingredients and expect you to fill in the blanks. I love the “show, don’t tell” here. The list mounts into the sunflower seed climax.
Raye’s Down East Schooner Mustard — (Eight) stone ground — I think the most interesting part about J. W. Raye’s fourth-generation operation in Eastport, Maine, is that the seeds are ground in a century-old stone mill. It has a series of eight one-ton quartz grindstones that, though I haven’t seen them in person, must be a dramatic sight. As the mustard mash moves from stone to stone it gets creamier without any addition of heat, which would drive off the aromatics and lessen the flavor. It’s put into large barrels and aged about four weeks to balance and deepen its flavor. Then it’s off to us.
Straight-forward and geeked out, precise but warm and unpretentious.
And for the finale …
Pistachio Pesto — If Miuccia Prada decided to make a version of peanut butter for her fall collection, it might turn out a like this. Beautiful, stylish, incredibly precious, coveted, not made of peanuts at all. Beautiful green toasted pistachios from Agrigento, Sicily make up 70% of this recipe and 100% of the flavor and color. Peering through the bottom of the jar is like looking through a pistachio kaleidoscope: green, brown and even rose-hued nut morsels spin in golden olive oil. Scoop a little out. It drips like honey off the edge of your spoon. The flavor is like you put the taste of a thousand pistachios on the head of a pin, then poked your tongue with it. You’ll want to brainstorm some good ideas before you start doling any out. Toast some good bread and spread this on while it’s still warm. Try it on ice cream. I had a great meal in Italy with some fettucine pasta from Aldo sauced with a couple spoons of pistachio paste and a bit of chopped arugula, mint and basil.
I know that’s a long excerpt, but COME ON. Truly, a masterful description that gives me background, tasting notes, and literally makes my heart ache. This 6.8 oz jar is $28, but that copy makes it worth it.