Best Food Writing 2012
Edited by Holly Hughes
Da Capo, 2012
Review by Rosanna Keyes
I approached this year’s Best Food Writing with reverence and a small amount of trepidation. The pages smelled fresh and sharp as carrots just pulled from the garden or the dirt dried on fingertips after hours of digging in the sun. I skimmed the table of contents, smiling in recognition and anticipation of author’s names I knew. I let it sit on my desk for a day, fingers grazing the cover in passing, waiting for just the right moment to jump in. And, as morning sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window and coffee steamed at my side, I finally began.
Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes, is filled to bursting with essays of all varieties. Divided into eight sections, the book offers a bounty of writing ranging in topic from Eric LeMay’s piece about a local dairy in Southeastern Ohio (“Snowville Creamery Has a Modest Goal: Save the World”) to the hilarious essay by David Leite, “Kitchen Confessional: Burnin’ Down Da House.”
With so many pieces to choose from—and initially a bit overwhelmed by the desire to consume all of them in one big gulp—I decided begin with simplicity, and what better embodiment of that than the intertwined philosophy and cooking of Tamar Adler. In “How to Live Well,” an excerpt from her well loved book, An Everlasting Meal, Adler deftly mixes recipes, philosophy, and humor as she shares her love for the humble bean, in all its delicious simplicity. On the topic of soaking beans she says, “I suggest you put your doubt aside, fill a pot with cold water and two cups of beans, put it on the counter and leave it there overnight. You will be on your way toward making beans that taste like they have fed laborers and fighters for centuries.” Perhaps the most beautiful and compelling aspects of Adler’s writing is that she seems to genuinely believe in the interconnectedness of eating and living simply. The sensation I kept coming back to while reading this essay was one of softness and openness, as if she were inviting the reader to truly experience what it means to nourish ourselves in a less complicated manner.
From the cool and comfort of Adler’s world I moved to a realm that is characterized by heat, sweat and sauce: southern barbecue—really, barbecue in general—is not something to which I’m particularly drawn. As a lifelong vegetarian I’m a bit grossed out by the ferocity and messiness of it. I’m also not a fan of most condiments or sauces, and so there again I am the odd girl out. I’ll never understand the difference in taste and culinary desire between the various cuts of meat (brisket, short rib, shoulder). Despite all that, I found myself strangely drawn to the few essays in the book that focus on barbecue. “Memphis in May: Pork-A-Looza,” by Wright Thompson, seems to capture perfectly the excess and manic dedication that goes into competing in a world-renowned barbecue contest. As a member of the whisky and Jell-O shot fueled Fatback Collective, Wright joins his teammates as they embark on a mission to bring back an appreciation for authentic barbecue that reflects a connection to the past, pays homage to tradition, and is heavy on the fat.
For most of us the fact that healthy land produces healthy food is a given. I've read recent stories of farmland in the Midwest that has been almost simultaneously devastated by both drought and excess rainfall and I wonder just how many people, near and far, that will impact. And the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that leaked close to 206 million gallons of oil in to the Gulf of Mexico was the worst oil disaster in American history. Communities all along the coast were severely impacted by the event. Food writers are trying to reckon with these blows to our environment and the ways we eat.
“The Gumbo Chronicles” by Rowan Jacobson is a beautiful and heartbreaking look at a community in Louisiana that has been struggling to rebound from the effect of the oil spill. On a quest for authentic, locally sourced ingredients to make a traditional gumbo, Jacobson spends time with local crabbers, oystermen and shrimpers, all of whom show him that the highly publicized cleanup has been much less successful than many in the government would have us believe. Seafood catches are significantly lower than before the spill, and in many areas there is clearly oil contamination that has impacted a range of sea life, from baby dolphins to oysters.
In the end, Jacobson does manage to pull together the necessary ingredients for a delicious gumbo. His friends gather to share the bounty, swap stories and sip beers. And on the surface, things seem normal. But Jacobson ends the essay on a sober note.
Jacobson reminds me how much we need stories such as these to show us where we’ve been and give us an inkling of where we are headed. Through food, we’re able to do so much: connect to the past, engage in the present, and plan for the future. What more could we ask for?