On Food and Writing
By Rhea Wessel
When I was working as a features writer for the Anniston Star in Alabama, my editor always tried to be gentle when she announced my next assignment for the weekly food section. My reaction was akin to that of a child who was being asked to eat spinach. Writing the food section was part of the job– and the dullest part, as far as I was concerned. I spent a year in Anniston, to write the fun stuff– stories about life, psychology, society and international cultures. Food? Well, I enjoyed eating it and cooking it. But why did I need to write about it?
One of my first assignments was to interview local cook Shirley Kirkland about Jewish cooking and the Rosh Hashanah festival. Shirley turned out to be an excellent chef and a good friend. She did a wonderful job keeping traditions alive in a small and shrinking Jewish community. Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, writing about food is like picking a basket of the freshest of each fruit. Through food, a writer can prepare a gourmet smorgasbord of issues and explore the complexity and simplicity of life. Food is a reflection of our values. How it is prepared and dished out often mark standing in a family or in society. For centuries, a woman’s domain of power was in the kitchen.
Food is universal. Every person in every country must deal with the issue daily. In some corners of this world, the question is, “How will I get enough food to keep me and my family alive one more day?” In others, people debate whether their appetite is steering them towards mozzarella and basil on olive ciabatta bread or a half-pound burger with bacon. The universality of food boils us down to our human nature. At this level, we’re not black, white, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Hindi. We’re people, and we need to eat.
Hunger and thirst, the basic human needs that bind us, can divide us, if we so choose. Foreign affairs specialists are already predicting that within this century, we’ll see wars fought for water rights. The mad-cow disease scare in England several years ago has left its mark on German butcher shops. A sign on the door of a Nuremburg store says: no dogs and no British beef.
Europeans are united, however, when it comes to their distrust and near disdain for American food. Their deep distrust is based upon the assumption that genetically altered food is the first step towards the genetic alteration of people. Europeans tend to connect with their food, and they want to know the truth about it. Simply put: Food holds a high spot in the European value system.
After eight years of living in Europe, I personally associate the idea of genetic alteration of food with an alien force diminishing some of my mental and physical powers. I don’t want mood-altering drugs or food that has the same effect (or an unknown effect). I’d rather an ill-formed apple that tastes tart and crunchy than a perfect, waxy red specimen that does more for the eye than the tongue. Americans, on the other hand, are often removed from their food. Years of adaptation to processed and fast food have dulled our senses. Our connection to the food supply has been lost. The values of fast, easy and economical have replaced the ideas of fresh, healthy and sustaining.
On my last trip home to Texas, I became what I termed a food terrorist and my attitudes caused some hurt feelings in my family. I ate a terrible meal on the plane and could get nothing but fast food for the next several meals. And I was scandalized when my health-conscious mom, who takes herbal supplements and exercises regularly, took a complete meal in a bag from the freezer and popped it in the microwave. (Apparently, I had a short memory span for the way things work in the United States.)
Finally, I took control and began shopping for and cooking my own meals. Fresh vegetables transformed into Asian stir-fry and ratatouille. The very act of selecting peppers, dicing tomatoes and sautéing eggplant were as mentally invigorating as the physical nourishment the food provided. My act led to hurt feelings for my father, who was determined to welcome me home with a good, Texas steak (probably plump full of growth hormones). I apologize, mom and dad. I don’t want to knock all American food– just some of it.
Food can become an international language, and I pledge to use it as such. As a traveler, I have always eaten my way through countries. In some places, such as India, I viewed it as an achievement if I didn’t get sick. As a foreign correspondent, I want to eat and write my way through distant lands. Food is a way to share the world. Food is a way to see things through other people’s eyes. Field chefs must serve up piping hot dishes that transport readers to a particular time and space. Those at home can first feast their intellect and then try a new recipe to indulge in their humanity.