Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What's with all of those books on food?

It's been pointed out that this year has been a particularly good year for food books, and this after several years of particularly good years for food books. This year, we had Omnivore's Dilemma, which was one of the New York Times' 10 best books of the year (I agree) and The United States of Arugula, which made their 100 notable books list (I'm halfway through it, and it's very enjoyable!). But there have been cookbooks for many many years, as well as writing about food from many different viewpoints. What's changed?

Yesterday, the NYU library held an event with two goals, one of which was to answer this question. The other goal was to celebrate the donation of a huge library of food books and cookbooks to their food studies archive. Dalia Carmel, a collector of food books from all over the world, donated something like 8,000 volumes (I forget the exact number) to the library, to be pored over by generations of students and faculty for clues to gastronomic culture. I attended the panel discussion, and here are some highlights from my notes, along with this horrible cell-phone-camera photo of the panelists:

From left to right, we have Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies, Bull Buford, the New Yorker writer and author of Heat, about how he got sucked into professional cooking as part of his journalism, Laura Shapiro, a writer and journalist for a number of publications including Newsweek and Gourmet, Lidia Bastianich, the NYC chef, cookbook author, and television personality, and Dalia Carmel, the collector.

The moderator, the remarkably charismatic Clark Wolf, asked each panelist to talk about their experiences about books on food.

Amy Bentley gave the academic's perspective. She noted a "critical mass" of food books, but also said that in some sense writing about food is nothing new. Even the highly researched academic books about food are not a new thing, but in the past they would have been categorized as "political economy" instead of "food studies". This said, four factors have led to the current explosion in popular (and academic) interest in the topic in the US. First, food is very abundant now. This has led to pros (much less hunger, much less of income is spent on food), and cons (see the first section of Omnivore's Dilemma), but importantly it's led to the luxury that we can now talk about food and make choices about food. In the past, without abundance, we had very few choices. Second, the 30-40 years of counterculture has been a major effect. The environmental movement and what she describes as the "delicious food movement" have joined forces to support, for example, locally grown, seasonal, organic, heritage produce. The result is what she calls a "good food movement", which includes taste, environmental consequences of food production, and social issues of production and culture, all as components of how food decisions are made. Third, the relaxation of immigration laws in previous decades has let to a large increase in immigrants from all over the world. Some of these people opened up restaurants, and led to a wide increase in the types of food available to Americans. The multiculturalism of food is a new phenomenon. (The United States of Arugula has some great anecdotes about this, including a citation of a 1939 newspaper article that has to explain to readers how to pronounce that very foreign word: "pizza".) And fourth, all of these factors have led to a much greater interest in food by consumers, and publishers are following the money and pushing writers to write books about food.

Bill Buford then talked about how his interest in food was "drive by [his] ignorance and curiosity." He noted that while previous generations of food writers have asked "how" questions (how do you make a souffle, or how do you pair wine with food), current generations of food writers are much more asking "why" questions (how did Joy of Cooking get to be so popular, or the question that is the title of the panel).

Laura Shapiro noted that we needed a variety of food to get good food writing, and that food quality and variety has been steadily increasing for decades. In the 1980s, good food got attached to money and lifestyle in a new way, which led to attention from (advertiser-supported) magazine editors and writers. She argued that the current interest in food books started in journalism (e.g., Steingarden at Vogue), and has moved into other media only recently.

Lidia Bastianich gave her life story, talking about immigrating from Croatia (in an Italian family) to the US as a child. (She grew up in Astoria!) She originally wanted to study science and children, but ended up in food as a way to tie people to her culture and the people that were left behind.

Dalia Carmel then talked about how, as a young adult who just immigrated to New York from Israel, she realized needed to learn to cook. She joined a cookbook book club, and they kept sending her cookbooks. She became obsessed, particularly with small cookbooks from the Middle East and the Jewish Diaspora worldwide. Much of her collection are those small cookbooks published by churches and synagogues as fundraisers. She talked about her compulsion to have unique books, and how she would travel around the world and go to used bookstores looking for rarities. In the Middle East, as an Israeli-American, she would have to use all sorts of subterfuges and middlemen to get books. Apparently, only one book that she wanted to buy from a bookstore got away, over her decades of collecting.

There was then a series of questions to the panel. One set of interesting questions was about why there is so much writing now. Bill Buford said that "people write books because they have something to say." Laura Shapiro noted that journalists are now doing real research in a way they haven't previously, and that current books are having real social and political impact in a new way. Lidia Bastianich noted that her audience is now demanding more depth than previously, and so she is putting more depth into her writing than before.

There was food and wine afterwards, but I had to run off to buy groceries for dinner, so I didn't get to have any of it...



At 2:56 PM, Blogger Annie said...

Mmmmm cooking and cookbooks and cooks and... food. So sad that I couldn't escape my office drudgery to go! (Also sad that you didn't get to stay and have a drink or two with Bill Buford) Great recap of the event. Was it a packed house? Now if Tony Bourdain were there...

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Harlan said...

Hi Annie! It wasn't packed, but it was pretty well attended. I would estimate that there were about 75 people there, in a room with about 100 seats. Yeah, 4:00pm is an unfortunate time for the event...


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