Food Writing: Memoir

Nancy Jenkins Writing Class at Maine Media WorkshopsGetting ready for the food writing workshop I’m planning for Maine Media Workshops in Rockport in July (view link) I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite writers and discovering others previously unknown to me. One aspect of writing about food that we’ll surely discuss is the role of memoir.

Do you remember the sugar-and-cinnamon-scented fragrance of your grandmother’s kitchen? How about the wintery garlic-and-leek aromas that perfume certain sections of Paris right around lunchtime? And the crisp, frangible crust of the first fresh-from-the-oven French croissant you ever bit into? Or rounding a corner in Chinatown-wherever to confront a window full of impossibly bright-red ducks, hanging by their necks from a hook on a rod, waiting to be part of someone’s feast? Or the sizzle of falafel dropped into a kettle of bubbling hot fat at a Cairo market stall?

 Yes, we all have food memories, some pleasant, some a good deal less so. (The photo is a favorite recent memory, a pizza enjoyed with friends at a pizzeria in Ercolano, overlooking the Bay of Naples.) Much of our reaction to food is actually tied very closely to memories, so it seems natural that food writing inevitably calls on those memories, and food memoir (or, in Sandra Gilbert’s less than felicitous term, foodoir) has become an important adjunct to food writing generally. Writing memoir often involves writing about food; writing about food even more often involves writing about memories.

And yet, there are good ways and bad ways to do that. We’ll be trying some of these out, testing our memories, testing our food knowledge, and above all, testing our descriptions. But for now, here are snippets from two examples, one in my estimation bad, one good, both by the same writer, the late Judith Moore.

This is from Fat Girl (2005), and it’s actually one of the less disturbing parts of this over-all angry, self-indulgent, narcissistic memoir, which I simply gave up reading, unable to continue with her diatribe:

“I liked school foods that everyone else hated, the meatballs that tasted faintly of dog food and the cereal hot dogs and the shepherd’s pie topped with mashed potatoes that were browned underneath a broiler, the pie itself filled with lamb and olive-green canned peas, the peas mealy and faded in color, and orange carrot cubes, the carrot color also dulled.”

It’s hard to believe that Never Eat Your Heart Out (1997) was written by the person who wrote Fat Girl. Still a memoir, still in part about a desperately unhappy childhood occasionally relieved by food, this earlier book opens out to a broader world of flavors and experiences and ends up embracing readers and drawing them in to Moore’s own world. Here is one bit that may illustrate what I mean:

“I learned from the elderly widow next door, whose husband’s ladder I’d borrowed, that fruit butters could be ‘baked’ in the oven without scorching. Not only that, she said, if I used pears, half and half, with the apples, my applebutter would have ‘a nice little grit to it.’ I did as she said: cored, chopped, cooked the fruit until soft, plopped it into my wedding gift Waring blender, added sugar and spices, whirred a moment, then poured the mixture into baking pans, and baked it over low heat until thick. No more scorched butter, and for a month the little house, and our clothes and hair, were perfumed with the sweet-and-sour tang of cinnamon, nutmeg, vinegar, sugar, fruit.”

Comparing the two, one full of self-loathing, the other full of generosity and warmth, one has to ask what happened between 1997 and 2005? Alas, we may never know. Moore died about ten years ago at the age of 66. The cause of her death was colon cancer.

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