Getting ready for the food writing workshop I’m planning for Maine Media Workshops in Rockport in July (view link) I’ve been reading and re-reading some of my favorite writers. In doing so, it occurs to me that a restaurant review, a profile of a chef or wine-maker, a discussion of technique, a recipe instruction—whatever form food writing takes, in the end, it really all boils down to flavor: What tastes good (and what tastes bad) and why. That’s why, in my humble opinion, the best training for a food writer is to taste and taste—taste widely and wildly, taste in fancy restaurants and from street food carts, taste olive oils and vinegars, taste wines, whiskeys and beers, taste home-cooked food, your own and your mother’s (or your father’s), taste raw porcini mushrooms, harvested in the wild, and then taste a microwaved frozen mushroom omelet made with egg whites that’s sold on Amazon (available here, if you’re really interested: view link).
Then sit down and write about the differences—not the differences in texture or ease of preparation, just the differences in flavor. It is, I guarantee you if you’ve never done this, an extraordinary experience.
And that’s what most food writing boils down to. One of the greatest practitioners of the investigation and description of flavor is my old friend Ed Behr, whose quarterly on-line publication, The Art of Eating, is go-to reading for people all over the world who really care about quality in food. And again, not to belabor the point, much of that quality is really all about flavor.
Here is Ed, in his book The Artful Eater (a compilation of his own writing from The Art of Eating, published in 2004), talking about country hams (slightly redacted by me for space reasons):
“An aged Southern country ham, unless it has been rubbed clean for commerce, appears as a nearly Paleolithic object to those who have seldom or never encountered one. The ham is old. Farmers who cure their own hams wait at least nine months before eating them; some devotees delay for two years. . . . The rind is an uncertain smoke brown. . . ; the exposed lean is often coated with a fine grit of black pepper over which is a harmless growth of green mold. The mold is a sign of authenticity. Without it, a ham may not have the rarefied tang that connoisseurs seek. The outside of the raw ham is only modestly redolent of smoke, pepper, and hog—compared with the intensity within. Raw or cooked, the ham is much saltier than any brined ham. . . [which] is so bland that it must be refrigerated or it will spoil. . . . Aging further dries a ham, concentrating both salt and flavor. The salt is too strong for a desalinated palate, but, once you get past the salt, the flavor spoils you for any lesser sort of ham.”
There’s a lot of information in that paragraph but what comes through strongly, although woven in and out, is the way that ham tastes: salt, smoke, pepper, hog flavors, but the one that really stands out for me is “the rarefied tang.” It makes me just want to go out and taste that Southern ham, dammit!