Friday, October 7, 2016

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: On Writing About Food And Restaurants

Although I am a literary (poetry and fiction) writer who makes
his living writing about history and politics, I have throughout
my writing life devoted part of it to an ongoing conversation
about food and dining out. But I’m certain that if any of my
writing lasts for any time, it will not likely be my food

We theoretically spend one-third of our lives asleep. Unless you
are a medical doctor, physiologist or psychiatrist, there is not
much to write about this huge block  of time in our daily lives.
I calculate, however, that most of us spend 3-6 hours a day in the
purchase, preparation and consumption of food. Of course, if
you are in the food/restaurant business, that daily time is much
more. It is, therefore, not a superficial or unimportant part of
virtually everyone’s daily life.

I became a professional journalist by editing and publishing two
small newspapers. I had not intended to do this. Instead, after
getting a degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop, I went to New
York City to work as a literary editor and poet. Soon enough,
however, my lack of funds brought me to Minnesota and a plan
to create a literary publishing house, and when that proved
economically unrealistic, I began to publish two community
newspapers, one in the suburbs and one in the heart of urban
Minneapolis. What made my newspapers distinctive perhaps
was that I was a literary writer and not a trained journalist.

In those days, the early 1970s, the extraordinary food culture
renaissance we are now enjoying was in its relative infancy. High
cuisine, fine wines, specialty coffees and teas, and farm-to-table
produce had been available to the very affluent for decades, but
an incipient food culture now began to be shared by many middle
class Americans. This was often led by those from Mediterranean
backgrounds, including the Spanish, French, Italian, Balkan,
Greek and Middle Eastern. Those who originated from more
northern European cultures often came later to this culinary

I had come from a family which prized good food --- although until
I was in my teens, I had little contact with most ethnic food
cultures except my own plus the standard Chinese and Italian fare
from local restaurants in my small city. My grandmother was a
legendary cook, but the range of her menu was small. Her daughters
were all excellent cooks, but except for my childless Aunt Reta, the
food choices were limited. Aunt Reta once invited me over to her
house (when I was twelve) to make crepes Suzette from scratch, and
it was a thrill. The only problem was that it didn’t take much liqueur
to get me tipsy, and when my mother came to pick me up, she was

Trips to New York City and south Florida in my teens made me
gradually aware of more and more food cultures, and by the time
I got to Minnesota in my late 20s, I presumed I knew something
about food.

In fact, my food education had only begun.

I began writing regularly about food after being invited to be the
food critic of one of the state’s largest daily newspapers. The pay
was tiny, and I had my own newspaper, so I declined the offer and
began writing restaurant reviews for my own publication. This was
at the time when general interest in dining out was beginning to
boom. My anonymous reviews became my newspaper’s most popular
and best revenue-generating feature.

I have always tried to be very careful writing about food matters
I don’t know much about. I’m not a chef, nor am I a farmer,
nutritionist or restaurateur. I do have a wide-ranging palate, love
to eat, and am willing to explore for food adventures. I also took
the time to befriend talented young chefs and imaginative
restaurateurs. I soon became immersed in the local food culture,
and on frequent trips across the country, I went out of my way to
go to celebrated restaurants. A few years later, I began to lecture
(about politics) on transatlantic and other cruise ships where an
extraordinary range of fine dining was available. In my travels
abroad, especially in Europe, I aggressively sought out local
dining experiences.

I am still not truly an “expert” about food, although I have
acquired some knowledge about preparing food, running
restaurants, the difference between fresh and not-so fresh
produce, the experience of the world’s wines and craft beers,
and the cameraderie of sharing tables with other food lovers.

I also have noted the excesses of food snobbery, the artificial
preciousness of some food writing and descriptions, and the
all-too-frequent lack of good value in food pricing in grocery
stores, markets and restaurant menus.

But it is a special delight to be introduced to a new vegetable
or fruit, encounter a superb new recipe, enjoy well-prepared
foods, have a great restaurant experience, and be poured or
brewed an extraordinary wine, coffee or tea.

Being a storyteller, my approach is to try to put my food or
dining experience, good or bad, into the context of an
anecdotal account that might interest a reader. I constantly
look for not only new foods and recipes, but also the many
wonderful characters in the food culture who make it possible,
that is the chefs, the restaurateurs, the baristas, the sommeliers,
the waiters and waitresses, and of course those who grow and
produce the food we eat.

What I have learned most is that there is poetry, mystery,
philosophy and music in the food we eat and drink. It’s not
something you can learn in a school, or even acquire by reading
a cookbook. Thanks to our new food culture, it isn’t even
necessary to spend a lot of money (although some do).

For me, food writing is about paying homage more to what we
spend our time doing. Eating and drinking is something each of
us does every day --- in fact it takes about a sixth of every day of
our lives.

That this inevitable daily act can also include so many of
the insights and pleasures of our conscious life makes writing
about food perhaps as incomparable and revelatory as some
other subjects we usually take more seriously.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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