When I was a kid, my attention span seemed endless. I devoured huge, chunky books, from Anna Karenina to Les Miserables to Tolstoy. I read Moby Dick twice, bitches. I know I didn’t understand those novels fully, but back then I argued with the school librarian that I did. She had a “five words” rule: if she didn’t think your reading level was high enough, she’d flip through a book and pick out five words that you had to know the definition of. She made me do this once when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I knew all the words, and eventually she gave up on trying to convince me to stick with Babysitters Club or whatever.
Anyway, at some point my attention span went to hell. I still read all the time, but I shifted to magazines and news articles and blogs at some point and can barely sit through fiction. Maybe this developed at the same time I decided I wanted to be a journalist: I’m impatient with anything that’s not real.
It may not surprise you that food writing is one of very few things that holds my attention anymore. It’s like the Food Network, but for people with more vocabulary and less access to cable TV.
Lately, I’ve been reading Life is Meals, by James and Kay Satler. It’s well-written and literary, full of interesting tidbits about food and recipes and history, but also makes me want to punch these authors in the face for how nice their lives seem. The entries about their dinner parties are all about “the summer we rented a big house in Chinon, and the gardener warned us about snakes in the yard” or their summer house in Aspen, their winter home on Long Island or when they lived near the beach in southern California. When their first son was born–in France–they had a bottle of fancy red wine ready to “moisten his lips with, in the tradition of Kings.” This damn couple seems to have spent their lives merrily drinking expensive wine, living in fancy parts of Europe and the U.S. and entertaining witty literary figures.
Jerks. My personal food history is much less fancy, and features far more “when I lived off buffalo chili in a cramped, beer-bottle-ridden apartment with the fridge placed in the living room” and “my most romantic date was when my ex-boyfriend took out his septum piercing, put on a nice jacket and took me to a really good dinner at the Silk Road and then we went to a house party and drank Coors Lite.” Those are some of my most wonderful food/life memories.
My favorite piece of food writing is Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones and Butter,” because she appreciates both the finer things in life and the grungy, shitty parts for all their fucked-up beauty. She describes working at a French creperie for a winter, and vividly describes both the food, made from room-temperature eggs, cheese and lettuce, and the semi-literate, ‘shit-stinking’ local farmers who frequented the place.
Even when my life situation is screwy and I’m not cooking much, reading about food and cooking brings me nearly to the same happy mental place I’m in when I’m standing at a stove, wearing my apron and stirring something.
So if you find that to be true, I highly recommend these books and the Best Food Writing series. So good. Get them.