I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and not least of all because I've always strived to distance myself from the pigeonhole called "food writer." Food is important, obviously. If we don't have it, we die. Writing about something so important should need no justification. And yet if I were called, say, an "environmental journalist," wouldn't that sound somehow more substantial, more serious than being a "food writer"? Isn't exploring the effect of increasing levels of carbon dioxide on our environment or the ecological impact of harnessing wind energy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels more important than writing about, say, Salmon Tartare in a Savory Tuile with Red Onion and Crème Fraîche? A journalist embedded with American troops in Afghanistan versus a writer who waxes poetic on the glories of veal stock?
There are, of course, diverse and good reasons to write about food, from aesthetic pleasures to consumer advocacy. Many books in which food is the central subject have had an extraordinary impact on the way we think about food, and our lives--Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, of course, but also books by writers such as Paul Greenberg, Tracie McMillan, Mark Kurlansky, Barry Estabrook, Rowan Jacobsen (there are now too many to cite) that explore how our world is changed by the way we grow, distribute, buy, and cook food.
Food writer Monica Bhide posed this question--does food writing matter?--on her blog, and I was heartened to see many smart responses from writers. Chief among the commenters was journalist and author Annia Ciezadlo, author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (in which she writes, "I cook to comprehend a place I've landed in"). In response to Bhide's question, Cizadlo simply quoted George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier, a book about class structure in 1930s England:
"I think it could plausibly be argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion. The Great War, for instance, could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented. And the history of the past four hundred years in England would have been immensely different if it had not been for the introduction of root-crops and various other vegetables at the end of the middle ages, and a little later the introduction of non-alcoholic drinks (tea, coffee, cocoa) and also of distilled liquors to which the beer-drinking English were not accustomed. Yet it is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognized. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market-gardeners."
I'm delighted to have these words disinterred from a 75-year-old book, because it states what should be obvious. Food is all-important. To write about what is all-important should need no justification.
And yet it still seems to.
Because food is all around us, everywhere, easy and cheap, we've taken it for granted. Do you ever stop to wonder how it is that you can buy pea pods 365 days a year, whether you live in Maine, Montana, or Manitoba? Few do. The fact is, most people don't think about food until they don't have any. Then it's pretty much all they can think about.
And we don't think about food obsessively until it starts making us sick, which is what has happened in this country. Our food is making us sick in myriad ways. Our toddlers develop allergies unheard of when we were growing up. Children develop a type of diabetes once seen only in late adulthood. Obesity is rampant. And because of this we've become so hyperconscious of what we eat that we believe all kinds of nonsense. Dieticians once preached that eggs were bad for you--eggs! People far and wide still believe that fat is what makes you fat and that cutting salt and fat from one's diet will make a healthy person even healthier. The way we produce food is destroying the land, polluting rivers and oceans, debasing the animals we raise for food and the workers who slaughter and process them. Nothing good comes from shitting where you eat, and this is what America has been doing for half a century.
People ask me the reason for today's intense interest in food and chefs and cooking. A serious book with a jokey title was written to explore just this, David Kamp's superb United States of Arugula. But I don't think you need a whole book that includes Eisenhower's highway system, war veterans returning from Europe, the increasing accessibility of international travel, and the impact of television to explain it. For me, it all comes down to the fact that we lost something vital when we stopped cooking our own food in the 1950s. And not cooking our own food has increasingly made us sick, to the point that we've become obsessive about food.
Obsession over food has had some positive results, such as the call to eat local, sustainable, and humanely raised food. But obsession often leads to really bad ideas, like 100% raw diets and any number of loopy food imperatives otherwise intelligent people (see Steve Jobs) put themselves on. I'd love to see a study of life-long raw-dieters and life-long vegans and the effects on their reproductive systems. I'd wager they'd quickly self-select themselves out of the population (which is why, perhaps, we don't see many people who are life-long vegans and raw-foodists).
I believe it's foolish to deny that we are human, which we do when we embrace nonhuman behavior.
Almost everything our bodies and minds are capable of is represented in some part of the animal kingdom; primates even demonstrate theory of mind, and one species has nonreproductive sex, once thought to be an exclusively human activity. There are only two activities that set us apart, and we should take heed. First, humans are the only animals that cook their food. If we do not cook our food, or stay close to people who do, life is unsustainable; there have been no groups documented to have survived for long on an exclusively raw diet (convincingly documented in Richard Wrangham's book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human).
Second, humans are the only animals that generate narrative--that is, tell stories. Telling and hearing stories is, in fact, one of our primary, life-long activities, something we do all day and throughout the night. Sleep scientists have shown that if we are prevented from telling ourselves stories when we sleep, if our brains are prevented from dreaming, life is unsustainable. Cooking and telling stories. That's what makes us human.
So telling stories about food and cooking is not only natural, it's necessary for our survival. It's important to understand how something that is essential to our humanity and our well-being affects all other aspects of our lives and our humanity. No one questions the need to explore string theory and economic policy, or asks for justification for art and literature. But people do question the seriousness of writing about food. I can go weeks without quantum physics or a good movie. Can't say that about food. I dream of a day when we no longer need to be obsessed with food, because that would mean that we had figured it out, we had all come to a common understanding of how to grow our food, distribute it, and consume it in ways that don't make us sick and crazy, but rather healthy and happy; that, rather than being guilty, fearful, and intimidated by food, we instead rejoiced in food; that we would cook together, with our families and friends, and then sit down to share this cared-for food and tell each other the stories of our day.
This I think I was meant to do. To connect food with what I believe is fundamental to our lives and our happiness, to our humanity, and to do so through story. I will continue to write about many things, but I will never stop writing about food and cooking, what food and cooking means, to make it clear that cooking dinner is not a chore or a hassle, not simply the fulfillment of a bodily need, or even an indulgence, but is in fact fundamental to our humanity and to the health of our children and our children's children.
Michael Ruhlman is the author of the new Kindle Single, The Main Dish, a food writer's memoir, and Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry-Curing