92nd St Y roundtable on food writing

Christina MeullerIt hit me as I listened to last week's charming 92nd Street Y roundtable on Gourmet's August Summer Reading digest: It is really, really nice, when you hear smart writers having a conversation. And it is even nicer (as a distinctly amateur food enthusiast) when you hear smart writers having a conversation when their steel-trap brains are turned to the subject of food.

Leonard Lopate of WNYC moderated the roundtable. The participants were Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl and four of the contributors to the Gourmet digest: author Ann Patchett, humorist David Rakoff, and Road Foodies Jane and Michael Stern.

The ground covered was not particularly new–or actually related to the practice of food writing–but it was fun. The conversation ranged over food loves and hates, the rebirth of pork in the U.S., favorite restaurants, and a brief, expected riff on the politics of eating and the American diet. Patchett talked about her hysterical objection to a gold leaf-cloaked risotto ("I mean, no little gold family had to die, but still"). Rakoff talked about the food community's reaction to his veiled slam against Chez Panisse ("It was like I was coming out against motherhood"). When Jane and Michael Stern mentioned the food specialty of Akron Ohio–sauerkraut balls–Rakoff politely inquired, "Are we talking cotillions or spheres?"

The idea for the supplement, Reichl explained, grew out of the August, 2004 Consider the Lobster (.pdf) article David Foster Wallace wrote for Gourmet. Reichl admitted she didn't know how readers would respond to the article, considering its denseness and length (and rant-ey DFW-ness)–but she loved it. The supplement, then, was designed to be about more than just enjoying food–it should be about the meaning of the act of eating.

She mentioned how Gourmet has traditionally asked writers who don't necessarily write about food to do food writing; Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, for example, came from a piece for Gourmet. "I trust writers," Reichl said. "We got a lot of different voices. I just asked them, what do you feel like doing? And what I got back was great; things like Jane and Michael Stern's piece about their first book tour, which happens to be one of the funniest things I've read in my life." (PS: It is. When I started reading it, on my way to a restaurant in a cab, I had to stall under a streetlamp for five minutes so I could finish the thing in one go. There's a story about Walter Cronkite's faulty hearing aid that's just, oh, brilliant.)

Things we learned: Ann Patchett is a bad eater. Rakoff started the talk by exposing her secret comfort food, Spaghetti-Os ("Thanks," she said. "Pal."), and the poor woman spent the rest of the talk fending off friendly needling about her food habits. Turns out she hasn't eaten red meat since her 9th birthday present of a pet pig: "You're scotched as a food writer, if you don't eat the hoof." Patchett's essay is, in fact, the least food-related of the bunch. Reichl assigned her the label of "the fine living person," and sent her to the Hotel Bel Air for a week to write about what it means to be left alone. ("I was out there doing the hard work of fine living for the American people," Patchett said, straight-faced.)

The conversation pivoted for a while around Rakoff's piece on Jews and pork, a subject I'm pretty ignorant about. There was talk about the pork-friendly dispensation given by the Pittsburgh reform platform in the 1880s, and the funny transgressional waltz that modern day Jews have with treyf foods (if the Chinese food is eaten right from the carton, does it count?). Rakoff also mentioned something one of his interview subjects, Rabbi X, head rabbi from a prominent Reform congregation, said to him: that the very idea of kosher veal is an oxymoron, as it's inherently cruel.

Rakoff also made the point (thank god!) about how we're treating Gourmet salt like a sexual fetish. "I mean, would I rather not eat things impregnated with lead, with mechanical pencils?" he said. "Sure….But you're picking your salt, you're not choosing an oncologist." Reichl's vaguely arch response, as one who obviously knows her pink Hawaiian from her fleur de sel: She likes arguments about food, she loves the idea of someone saying it's absurd to get 12 types of salt at a restaurant: "I don't care what people think about food as long as they think about it." (Throughout the talk Reichl seemed to veer towards didactic…Her attempt to make it a more sober-minded, thoughtful discussion, I suppose?)

Jane and Michael Stern were breezy, delightful fonts of obscure food information, spouting exactly the stuff you want from a couple who's spent the past twenty years trolling the country for good meals. They talked about the hand-ground paprika they'd found in a Hungarian butcher shop in Akron, Ohio, the fried chicken from Bon Ton Minimart in Henderson, Kentucky, the chili rellenos from the carwash-meets-taco-joint in El Paso, TX, the excellent ribs from Curtis' Barbecue in Putney, Vermont. The only problem at Curtis', Jane said, is that you have to eat the ribs while avoiding eye contact with Mr. Curtis' massive pet pig, Isabel. "The meat really is great, though," Michael said. (Patchett looked ill.)

Reichl mentioned she found all of Jane and Michael's pieces political, as they're so clearly in love with the people they meet on the road–the Sterns are saving a disappearing piece of American culture, she said, by writing about these people and their food. (The thing I would have liked answered (something that was actually asked twice, but neatly sidestepped both times): How do the Sterns manage to write together as a pair? I mean: Are they sitting across a table from each other, lobbing sentences at each other? Are they tag-teaming paragraph by paragraph, restaurant review by restaurant review, or what?)

Here, the things each of the panelists admitted they absolutely won't eat (Patchett abstained):

Reichl [after much hesitation]: honey [cue smothered audience gasp!]. "I just, I just can't go near it," she said, visibly uncomfortable.

Rakoff [from a National Geographic street food article he discovered when he was little]: salamander skewers. "I remember reading and shrieking, tiny little shrieks," he said. "Years later I did try tiny grilled octopi, which were delicious; but at a certain point you get close to what can only be described as… the beak…. And they start getting clacky and cartilaginous."

Michael Stern: chitlins steamed in vinegar. (Well. No debates there.)

Jane Stern: On a sweltering trip to St. Louis, she and Michael stopped at a restaurant–and noticed the door prop was… a raw chicken. (Patchett: "What, so, what you won't eat is raw chicken?" JS: "No, what I won't eat is a doorstop.")

Politically, the discussion touched (of course) on Pollan's book. "It's true what he says," Reichl said. "We ought to have glass abattoirs. We would eat differently if we did, and we would think differently." She talked about a time (not so long ago) when you went to the Essex Street market and pointed at the chicken you wanted for your dinner; the rule was, give animals an honorable life and then kill them decently.

On the subject of organics: "I never thought I would be saying this, but I'm very worried that as organics become more mainstream, we'll be importing more and more, and it will be the death of US farmers," Reichl said. "Buy locally as much as you can, buy American as much as you can." (This prompted a smattering of applause; funny, though, the studied avoidance of Wal-Mart's organic policy in all this. There was a moment when Lopate mentioned it, and all the panelists seemed to become, uh, very interested in their water glasses. I get it: I understand it's a different discussion. Not to mention I'd imagine Wal-Mart's arm is pretty far-reaching: I'd rather not be on the receiving end of a Wal-Mart slap.)

At a certain point, the inevitable question came in: How do you make a living out of food writing? Patchett's response (kind of neither here nor there, though the question was pretty unanswerable, anyhow): You put in your time, she said. You have to spend the eight years at Seventeen magazine writing about "What's in your locker???" and then gradually work your way up to, you know, all-expenses-paid week-long stints at the Bel Air.

Well. Thanks, Ann.

What Reichl finished with: the sort of food writing that makes up the summer digest isn't just about food, really. At least, not to the exclusion of other subjects–food is just the common denominator, the entry point to the stories. Junot Diaz's piece isn't about eating sushi, Reichl pointed out, it's about his relationship with his father. Pat Conroy's piece is a hazy, magical little ode to Paris in the 70s. Monique Truong writes about acculturation and motherhood. And Thomas Beller talks about how selling egg creams as a teenager in New York saved his life.

Which is all to say: This is a collection of damn good writing, period. Not surprising, given the sharp conversational skills of the authors. I'm hoping Gourmet sponsors more events like this in the future.

Guest reviewer Cristina Mueller grew up in Berkeley and now lives in New York. Her fridge stayed Californian: Humboldt Fog, cilantro, half an avocado, and a ream of Trader Joes corn tortillas. As writing goes, she does a lot on perfumes and de-wrinklifying serums. She also thinks she would make a pretty successful deli florist if it ever came down to it, and would like to find somewhere within driving distance for pick-your-own blackberries. Once, she spied on Ruth Reichl as she got her breakfast muffin (a corn one) toasted and buttered at the cafeteria grill station. She is sorry for spying, but she did find her—and the corn muffin—very charming.