Writing about food: celebrating the trivial

I am a glutton for good food writing. At its best it can transport me to far-away tables, tempt me with new tastes, prod my memories of heritage and family, confront prejudices and sharpen my sense of justice. With nothing but words, my imagination is fed and my living is challenged. I am richer for it.

That said, too much food writing is nothing more than gloss. It’s the sauce without the pudding, the garnish without the meal. From newspapers to magazines, it’s all styling, fad and celebrity.

Granted, it’s the pitfall of the genre. To write of food is to address the ephemeral. Our daily habits of gathering, cooking and feeding are so routine as to be trivial. What more should we expect of those who write about it?

The word ‘trivial’, though, is interesting. Its origin, derived from the 15th century Latin, describes ‘the place at which three roads meet’, usually at the margins of a city where immigrants of all kinds congregate. It’s a daily place of intersection and life, of shared desperation and struggle. The trivial may be far removed from the centres and conversations of power, but its significance is profound.

The triviality of food is cause for its celebration, not its dismissal. As mundane as it might be, food is where all manner of experiences and issues intersect. All of humanity hungers and eats, and all creation is implicated. At its best, good food writing addresses these intersections. It takes us beyond the gloss to our shared needs and aspirations.

One of Australia’s better food writers, Gay Bilson, has been calling her colleagues to a more significant conversation for years. In 2012 she said this:

“We need the food pages of newspapers to be inclusive. For the long, long moment they have addressed nothing but style, fashion and the novel; they are, essentially, an advertising section. If food is a shared material, economic and cultural concern for all people, then we need the food pages to include serious and informed writing about food security, food waste, food pricing, food distribution, food and health, and, especially, agriculture and all that agriculture entails — climate, soil, labour, the uses to which land is put. Even the special food issues of weekend magazines concentrate on hedonism, image, and celebrity. Instead of shutting it out, let us bring in more of the world.”

“Let us bring in more of the world.” As a celebration of the trivial, good food writing does nothing better.

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