January 11, 2018
Best Food Writing 2017. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $16.99.
The First World indulgence that is food writing is by definition an exercise in wretched excess. With so many people worldwide living at subsistence levels, there is something faintly obscene in the notion of a magazine called Bon Appetit or an article about a restaurant in a neighborhood where median household income is $217,070 per year – a piece titled “In New York City, What’s the Difference Between a $240 Sushi Roll and a $6.95 Sushi Roll?” And concerns such as “Who Owns Southern Food?” and “I Want Crab, Pure Maryland Crab” are so rarefied, even by First World standards, that the audience for writing of this sort is an exceptionally self-limited and self-indulgent one. That does not, however, preclude the possibility of there being good writing on the topic, and it is that sort of writing that appears in Best Food Writing 2017, as it has in earlier editions of this book for more than 15 years.
There is pervasive irony in the way some of the writers represented here try so hard to be inclusive, for-all-people, neatly liberal and diversity-aware. One piece here is actually called “Can S.C. Barbecue Family Rise Above Their Father’s History of Racism?” Even food is all about politics; even food has the good guys and the bad guys…sorry, that’s “the good people” and “the bad people.” Yet there is a recurring sense of noblesse oblige about the articles, such as “What’s True About Pho,” whose author is described as “making a pilgrimage of sorts” by visiting Vietnam to learn about the dish. Very, very few people anywhere in the world, never mind outside the richest nations, can ever make a pilgrimage for the sake of noodles in broth. This author, Rachel Khong, who pointedly explains that it “seems relevant” to mention that she is “not Vietnamese” (all that burden of political correctness!), and who always refers to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, is determined to find ways in which differences in pho have deep meaning: “The meat in Saigon is more varied; here there is tendon and tripe in addition to the less colorful cuts found in the North [in Hanoi]. …As it turns out, pho is always a product of place and history, and of people. …Just as straitlaced Northern pho says something about the North, and Southern pho says something about the South, and pho says something about Vietnam, American pho says something about us.”
This is a typical approach for the authors in Best Food Writing 2017: find the meaning in food and in eating; never regard what is consumed merely as the necessary fuel to keep the body going. John Kessler, writing after a move north to Chicago, says, “Home. That’s surely what I miss when I miss Southern food. I get it. When I mutter that the grits at some trendy brunch place suck, I’m also saying that it shouldn’t be 42 degrees outside in May, that I miss my backyard garden and my friends, and that I fret I will never experience in Chicago that sense of food and place, of season and cook, that was the soul of every meal at Cakes & Ale in Decatur.” Food has a soul in Best Food Writing 2017; it is scarcely mere nutrition. Food is a highly competitive area, too, as Gustavo Arellano writes: “The luxe lonchera revolution has seen the children of immigrants push their mother cuisine to all sorts of levels, picking and choosing from other cultures to create dishes of dizzying heights.” And it is extremely political, and not only in the United States. Writing a piece called “The Last European Christmas,” Marina O’Loughlin laments the coming British departure from the European Union: “Brexit – ugly word, ugly situation – shines a light onto these family holidays that helps me see them with new eyes. …I don’t know what a Brexit-flavored Christmas would consist of, stripped of its elements from elsewhere. Ashes, I suspect.” Best Food Writing 2017 is all about people who have plenty of time and plenty of money to contemplate the societal implications of food, and plenty of inclination to make eating an integral part of the ever-widening sphere of discourse in which everything, everything, is political – and in which there are always good and bad sides, winners and losers. The first of the five sections of the book is called “The Way We Eat Now,” and there is something rather sad in realizing that the title is accurate – not for everybody, not even for a majority of people, but for the self-proclaimed cognoscenti who hold forth on what is good and right and admirable and forward-looking and inclusive and politically correct. Readers with sufficient leisure to see food in this context will encounter a considerable amount of piquant writing here; those not enamored of the underlying assumptions will find the book rather over-seasoned with self-importance and arrogance.