Tag Archives: best food writing

Book Note: Best Food Writing 2017

Ellen Messer

best food writing cover

Hughes, Holly (ed) 2017. Best Food Writing 2017. New York: Da Capo Press.

Highly recommended as enjoyable, informative companion reading for your travels, because it can be consumed a few pages at a time.  Food & Identity is the overall theme; most essays address identity politics related to foodways (e.g., ethnic American), often specific food items (e.g., burritos, interpreted in multiple ethnic ways). There are also some very nice human-interest stories (whole sections, with sets of essays dedicated to chefs, restaurateurs, and the folks who wash dishes or serve rather than cook the food).  Most entries are very short; some are what my Boston Globe food-writer/editor colleague Sheryl Julian would call “overwritten” (readers can decide whether or not they like unctuous style).  There are also numerous entries that would serve well as required or recommended readings for various food-studies courses, including “food and culture,” “food and the senses,” “local food,” or “food and the media.”  “History of food” aficionados (or instructors) will also find critical methods usefully woven into some chapters (e.g., who really invented the “Reuben” sandwich).  The volume as a whole obviously could serve as textbook reading for courses on food journalism.

The volume is divided into nine sections, each containing four to eight short entries, which are blogs or featured journal articles. I teach an intensive six-week summer graduate seminar, “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance,” in Boston University’s Metropolitan College Gastronomy Program.  The course during the first week explores how food values are defined and measured, and then dedicates individual weeks to considering environmental, economic, sociocultural, and biocultural values.  For the week on cultural values (which already covers Kosher, Hallal, Vegan, and certain other cultural-identity values, standards, and certifications) I was very pleased to find a section entitled “Whose Food Is It Anyway?” which included Laura Shunk’s short reflection, “Who Has the Right to Capitalize on a Culture’s Cuisine?” (from food52.com) in which she explores different types and levels of respectful awareness of particular foods’ cultural origins. I might also find place in the course readings to insert, from the book’s opening section, “The Way We Eat Now”, for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “Let It Bleed (Humanely)” from SeriousEats.com , which analyzes materials and symbolism of meat-alternative burgers.  From the section on “Foodways,” I highly recommend Elizabeth Weil’s “Who Really Invented the Reuben?” from Saveur, a piece that exhaustively investigates the origins of this elaborated corn-beef on grilled rye sandwich (Nebraska wins) and skewers well-known food writer-editor Andy Smith for his obsessive pursuit of (New York) authenticity.  In the section, “How My City Eats” I particularly enjoyed Danny Chau’s “The Burning Desire for Hot Chicken”, from TheRinger.comIt cleverly mixes cultural politics and several layers of biochemically-informed sensory experience (which left me wondering whether Hot Chicken or some similarly highly piquant dish might be a good remedy for a very grumpy friend who was “on the wagon”).

The four selections in the section, “Updating the Classics” include short entries on interpretations of “Burritos” by non-Mexican cooks, and an exploration of the inexplicable delights of “Chicken Pot Pie.”  The final four sections focus on restaurant and cooking-show professionals. “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” is about chefs, “They Also Serve” includes profiles of non-cooking restaurant personnel: a dishwasher, a piano man, and a food-science writer (profiling Harold McGee, well known author of Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen). “Down the Hatch” deals with beverages and people who serve and judge their quality; the entries here cover a full range of sensory (dimensions of wine pairing), political (local authenticity), economic (how much is too much for a glass of wine?), and cultural dimensions. The final section, “Personal Tastes” contains a grab bag of food stories,  from gluten-free diet to intergenerational ethnic food communications, which concludes with a longitudinal memoir the way restaurants (including the foods they served) connect people to place.

As you can tell from this overview, there are many overlaps connecting the sections.  The volume has the virtue that most of the journal and blog pieces are very short and likely to capture the attention of readers with very short attention spans.

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