Issue #41, Spring 2011
Picnic in the Democratic Forest
Picnic in the Democratic Forest
I came late to writing about food. As I settled in, I read a lot of A.J. Liebling, who, in “Between Meals,” savaged Proust and his prissy madeleine. Liebling declared a preference for “small birds, stewed rabbit and stuffed tripe,” and mused that taking into account what Proust “wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite.”
I liked that. Liebling struck me as the sort of writer a truck driver could cozy up to. But I sensed I was swimming in a familiar wake. Then, a few years back, I found a less traditional but more effective muse in William Eggleston, the photographer.
I’d seen his work before, even bought a couple of his books, but until I wandered through a retrospective of Eggleston’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I hadn’t tried to make sense of his aesthetic. And I certainly hadn’t tried to apply it to my notions about which foods were (or were not) worth writing about.
I had this notion of what I call a democratic way of looking around. That nothing was more important or less important.
– William Eggleston, in “The Democratic Forest,” a 1989 book of photographs.
Born in Memphis, Tenn., and raised in the nearby Mississippi Delta town of Sumner, not far from where I live now, William Eggleston was the first artist to stage a one-man show of color photographs at The Museum of Modern Art. That show broke ground, not only for color photography but also for the art of the everyday.
Eggleston trained his lens on the made world. His subjects seemed banal: a beige farmhouse sink, gleaming beneath an overhead fluorescent; a backyard kettle grill, roaring with flames; a blue tricycle with red grips, abandoned at the curb.
In a 1995 interview, Eggleston responded to a critic who said that by focusing on the ordinary, Eggleston made “something out of nothing.” Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff, in a later and more insightful interview, suggested Eggleston’s photos were, instead, about “showing that there is something in what may at first glance look like nothing.”
Eggleston liked that tack: “A lot of people think that there is a certain hallowed list of things that are photographical,” he said. “And something else is not on that list, and I think that is just foolish.”
Eudora Welty, in her introduction to “The Democratic Forest,” argued that Eggleston trained focused attention on “the grain of the present,” which is to say, “the mundane world.” But, she added, “no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!”
The same logic, I’ve come to learn, can be applied to food. Eggleston’s curious and inclusive way of capturing our world still resonates when I see, through his viewfinder, an icebox enveloped in frost, jammed with potpies and ice cream tubs. Or a Nehi soda, three-quarters full, standing tall on the hood of a shiny black police car.
In this peculiar American moment, as the culinary world stratifies, as celebrity chefs beget rock star farmers and ingénue artisans, we writers who glean meaning from food can gain much by tramping through the metaphoric woods with Eggleston.
I’m trying to do my part. In a recent San Francisco Weekly column, Jonathan Kauffman, a generous writer, called me the “master of the mediocre food beat.” To make his point, Kauffman scrutinized “United Tastes,” the monthly column I write for The New York Times.
Specifically, he referenced an article I wrote about Majdi Wadi, a Kuwaiti native, now living in Minneapolis, who plans to sell a broad swath of America on jalapeno- and peanut butter-flavored hummus spreads. Kauffman recognized that it didn’t matter to me whether the hummus brands I wrote about were delicious.
He said the essay was “sort of about how not-authentic, how not-wonderful” such spreads are, “yet how they embody the remarkable stories of the people who make them.” Such flattery!
I hope something similar might be said of recent pieces I’ve written about grape Kool-Aid-flavored pickles, popularized by schoolchildren in the Mississippi Delta. And teriyaki corndogs, cooked by a gentleman from Puebla, Mexico, served in a Seattle restaurant owned by a native of Nepal.
Do I crave those dishes or even need to experience them again? No. Are they important to research and write about? Yes, I think so.
My goal is to use food—any food—as an entrée to explore the lives of everyday folk. To use food as a means to investigate the stuff that matters. To read food as an expression of culture. Like music. Like literature.
Truth be told, that’s an intellectual mantle I claim but have not managed to own, and lest you think I’m holding myself up as the shining example of all that’s right with writing about food, I’ll tell you here and now that, no matter my small-d democratic intent, I do a lot of backsliding toward bourgeois connoisseurship and tuna tartare.
Food is essential to life. It’s arguably our nation’s biggest industry. Food, not sex, is our most frequently indulged pleasure. Food—too much, not enough, the wrong kind, the wrong frequency—is one of our society’s greatest causes of disease and death. (I owe the brevity and clarity of those observations to a recent reading of Warren Belasco, author of, among other works, “Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food.”)
Yet, serious-minded folk often dismiss food studies. As French sociologist Jean Henri Fabre observed, “History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the names of the King’s bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.” Many academics ghettoize food, implying if not stating outright that any work done in tandem with carnal pleasure cannot carry weight or import.
That’s the old rhetoric, at least. There are a number of rationales: For starters, people who think and write about food labor under a burden of pleasure—because a white truffle shaved over a nest of tagliatelle is one of life’s great indulgences. Because, on the other end of the continuum, fried chicken, hot from the skillet or cold from the fridge, can, in the right moment, trump coitus.
In the American South, where I live, and where Eggleston did, too, the burden is heavier. The cooks of my region have historically been black, and they have historically been women, and their labor has historically been devalued. In “Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story,” Timothy Tyson put it this way: The South was, for the longest time, a place where “white men made decisions and black women made dinner.”
I’m not suggesting that in a callous effort to shoulder that burden, we all go slumming. That’s an old game—and an intellectually lazy one. I’m arguing, instead, for a recalibration of the culinary writing genre. I’m arguing for a democratic way of looking at our food culture.
Increasingly, we feel obliged to know who raised the heritage chickens that grace our middle-class tables. It’s time we similarly curate the backstories of the working-class Mexican hotdogueros in Tucson, who peddle bacon-wrapped sausages to construction workers on their lunch breaks. And the Greek restaurateurs in Salt Lake City who griddle frozen burger patties and stack them with shaved pastrami and planks of plastic cheese.
I’m suggesting it’s time we writers roll our bones out of the velvet ditch and document what real people cook, what real people eat. Not as sport. Not as dalliance. But in an honest and Egglestonian appraisal of how modern Americans define themselves in the kitchen and at the table.
John T. Edge
John T. Edge has been an Oxford American columnist for more than a decade and contributes the monthly "United Tastes" column to... read more
Fame and Obscurity (with Appreciation to Gay Talese) and our Search for the Best Creative Nonfiction
In a volume entitled The Best Creative Nonfiction, you are probably expecting work by the literary giants—Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Tom... read more