Food (writing) as therapy

Writing about food, eating and drinking - as distinct from how-to cookery manuals - goes back at least to antiquity, from Juvenal's biting Satires and Petronius's detailing of the excesses of Trimalchio's feast, to the dietary prohibitions of the Old Testament. It would be both interesting and a little tedious to trace food writing through the ages; however, there has always been a self-consciously literary tradition, as in Petronius's mocking exaggerations of a decadent Roman cena. In the hands of really good writers, as we've seen in our own time in the work of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, even collections of recipes can have literary worth - though this is exceptional, and most writers of recipes do not have literary pretensions, or even ambitions.

         Something new is happening, though. Julie Powell's Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which had its origins online in a blog, has turned into a movie with a magnificent role for Meryl Streep. One of the effects of this has been to make high-end food a subject for mainstream entertainment - as it has been for 25 years anyway for affluent urbanites, for whom eating out is a major leisure activity (as Social Trends reported yet again in 2006), and cooking a hobby. But perhaps the correct way to view this is as the crest of a foodie wave, in which people are thinking and writing about food in all sorts of novel ways.


A fresh literary genre has appeared recently - food writing as therapy. We're used to the idea of food itself as therapeutic; that is what accounts for the ease with which a book advocating a new slimming diet finds itself on the best-seller list. Sometimes diet books claim to make you cleverer, sexier, more productive or even happier, and there have been plenty of memoirs by cooks who find some sort of serenity at their stoves.   But these new books aren't exactly about food, or even cooking or eating, but about the comfort writing about food brings. For example, Kim Severson, now a food writer on the New York Times, has just published Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, not a Julie/Julia, but profiles of eight female cooks interspersed with misery-memoir, confessional musings about her recovery from alcoholism and coming to (happy) terms with her lesbianism. She does sometimes cook recipes garnered from her heroines. But that's not what makes her better; what does that is the sycophancy-tinged interviews she conducts with them, and the career she builds upon these. 

Matt McAllester was a foreign correspondent for Newsday, known as a war reporter, imprisoned for a week in Iraq in 2003, and for his previous books about his time in Kosovo and Iraq.  Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen (Bloomsbury  £16.99) is not the book you'd expect from a man who writes: "A year later I was back in Baghdad, sitting in my hotel room one afternoon, when a bullet ricocheted around my balcony." That was in 2005, and the result of the rifle shot was to persuade McAllester to propose marriage to his girlfriend when he returned to London in February. All in all, he seems an unlikely person to be writing a book about how he learned to cook.  But he had two crucial connections with food. The first was his father, the well-known advertising photographer, Don McAllester, who took the photographs that illustrated many of Jane Grigson's cookery columns in the Observer Magazine, and who presumably took the lovely, though uncredited family photographs that are one of the joys of Bittersweet. The other link with food is the writer's mother, Ann, who told him, "If you want to know how to cook, read Elizabeth David. She'll tell you everything. Read French Provincial Cooking. Her books are marvelous. We all learned to cook from Elizabeth David." This conversation took place on May 4th, 2005, at his mother's nursing home in Swiss Cottage, where she died, unexpectedly, of a heart attack two days later, leaving a good deal of unfinished emotional business for her son.

During that last visit his mother had asked him if he thought he was a good cook, and he answered that he thought he was "not bad." She then asked if he always left the cookery book open, so as to be able to consult the recipe while doing the cooking, and he admitted he did. "Then," she concluded, "you can't cook....If you need to keep the book open, you're not really cooking."  They had had these "companion" conversations many times before. His mother's behaviour had for many years been unpredictable, except that it was likely to be bad and embarrassing, and her appearance went from the chic woman we see in the book's illustrations to a raggedy bag lady.

Ann McAllester was alcoholic and bipolar, and it appears that the diagnosis of the latter condition came too late to treat it and save her marriage, or her relationships with her children, who had enjoyed an idyllic childhood living with their near-bohemian parents in London and Edinburgh, with holidays on the west coast of Scotland at Port an Droighionn, first in a caravan, and then in a Norwegian-designed log house they built overlooking the bay. The first cracks in the façade of family happiness appeared when he rebelled at his ambiguously religious mother's attempts to send him to a Catholic boarding school. (His mutiny took him to live and work in America, and finally to report from some of this century's most dangerous places.) Though he never really had a faith to lose, there were times during and after his mother's final illness when he derived some comfort simply from being in the beautiful, socially smart Jesuit Church at Farm Street, Mayfair. But he recognized he was there, trying "to bluff my way past my own dogged atheism," not just to conjure up happier memories of his mother, but also to try to influence the God whom he didn't believe in to help his wife conceive by IVF the child they longed for. Though he sometimes appealed to an image of the Virgin, Our Lady of Lourdes, at the Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception, what he really sought was the intercession of St Elizabeth David.

Even as a child McAllester was most in touch with his mother when they were cooking together. His grief took the strange form of trying to learn to cook as well as his mother did. On the first anniversary of her death and cremation, "I had no grave to visit so in the afternoon I went to the Waitrose on Finchley Road." But the chief thing was to get over the open-cookbook hurdle: "My form of cooking and shopping was inseparable from words on the page." Eventually McAllester does learn to internalize recipes, and approach cooking analytically - and learns from his aunts that, whatever his mother preached, she always kept the book open while cooking. By three years after Ann's death, his own "goal to memorize one hundred Elizabeth David recipes had faded away." He continues to idolize Mrs David (a bit deceived by his research in an unreliable biography of her, which he read in addition to Artemis Cooper's excellent one), and though unaware of the hard-drinking, difficult woman she became in her own old age, "I let her go. And with her, I had begun to let my mother go." Therapy complete, the patient is cured, as recounted in an elegantly written memoir. More books in this genre are already scheduled for publication; I don't expect to read another  as compelling as this one.




May 28, 2010 3:51 PM | | Comments (6)


yes my apologies I was writing about the comment

I presume you're writing about the comment rather than the blog post.......

I disagree Elizabeth David was a great writer I think you should give credit where credit is due.

I agree with you, but feel that I've already paid my dues to my friend Mary Frances, as I've published a profile of her (in my "Out to Lunch") and more recently wrote an introduction to the Folio Society edition of "An Alphabet for Gourmets." Thanks for taking the trouble to comment: It's always good to be reminded what a great writer she was.

How can you possibly talk about writing about food without mentioning MFK Fisher? Elizabeth David is fine, but Fisher makes her look like an amateur. Perhaps you should broaden your reading list?

There will be more articles; I don't expect to read many as well crafted as this one.

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on May 28, 2010 3:51 PM.

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