The "Eating Our Words" panel at yesterday’s Brooklyn Book Festival featured an impressive line-up: Salon's Francis Lam, Prune chef and owner Gabrielle Hamilton, and Southern cooking expert Ted Lee, moderated by Eating for Beginners author Melanie Rehak. I was prepared to be awed by their depth of knowledge about food writing and their expertise on cooking. But hearing these well-known personalities talk about writing about food reminded me of how I felt the first time I visited the test kitchens at Gourmet. I had expected hulking stoves with massive burners, ovens that could hold 10 sheets of cookies, and gleaming copper pans hanging from custom-designed pot racks. Instead, I saw a series of galley-style kitchens that actually looked like my New York apartment's kitchen. I immediately felt better--Gourmet’s kitchens didn't have anything special that I didn't have. A similar feeling came over me as I listened to Rehak, Lam, Hamilton, and Lee talk about cooking and food writing. As if Gourmet’s kitchens were saying, “Who, us? Special? Aw, shucks. We just like to eat,” so did yesterday’s panelists offer a similarly blasé attitude toward the genre known as food writing.
Hamilton, owner of the acclaimed East Village restaurant Prune and author of Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which Random House will publish next year--and a self-professed "curmudgeon"--doesn't even consider herself a food writer, nor does she like to read books about food. "I never read food writing or cookbooks. I just like literature or books about life," Hamilton shrugged. Rehak said she likes to read cookbooks, knowing that even if she won't ever to get to make everything in the book, reading recipes gives her a mental taste of a dish. Not Hamilton: "I don't get [that] and how fascinating that is. I'm not a food writer. I don't even identify as a food writer. It's [like saying I'm a] female chef—I'm not a female chef."
Lam belied just a tad more interest in his explanation of why he writes: "I eat food because I love food, and I cook food because I love food. But I don't write about food because I love food." So what is Lam doing with a job that has him explaining how to cook beets, among other things? "I do it because I love people," Lam said. It's about communicating ideas. "If I have helped you come to a new skill, something you can make that makes you happy in your home, that's what it's about for me. It's not about the [food]."
Lee’s take on food writing was more traditional. “There's a deep, deep relationship between cooking and storytelling,” he said, even noting that “the process of recipe development and writing are very similar…. It's an opportunity to build a whole world around this taste that you're trying to communicate to the reader.”
Although Rehak suggested that maybe the panel did consist of a bunch of “self-hating food writers,” it was clear by the end that this group really did love writing about food. Just don't call what they do “food writing.”