Writing from the Table

Writing at Coffee Shop

An Introduction to Writing About Food
“An unexamined life is no more worth living in the kitchen than anywhere else,
so it is good to know that philosophical consolations can be found in cookbooks as well as in Camus.” 
– Alice Waters

Welcome to “Writing from the Table,” a class designed to get you thinking and writing about food and its impact on your life. When I first began toying with the idea of a class about food, friends and acquaintances were skeptical. Some assumed I would be teaching folks how to write highbrow restaurant reviews; others that it would be all about recipes and cookbooks. Yet another rolled her eyes and said,

“Don’t tell me you’re going to offer a class on how to get published in Woman’s Day?!”

“What’s wrong with Woman’s Day?” I asked.

“Nothing, I suppose,” she replied, “if you’re into the whole housewife thing.”

At the time, this particular friend was perched on the edge of her chair like a nervous little wren. The whole bird-like effect was reinforced by the way she continually glanced from side to side and tapped nervously on the table with the nails of her left hand. On the table in front of her was a plate with a half-eaten house salad, a cup of black coffee laced with sugar, and an arsenal of gadgets she claimed to need for work: cell phone, palm pilot, an overstuffed Day Planner, and an enormous key ring that would have made a janitor proud. We had agreed to meet for lunch, but my appetite deserted me the moment she sat down and started glancing at her watch. I felt nervous just watching her, and I didn’t even drink coffee!

“So what you’re saying is that only housewives would be interested in reading about food?” I asked.

“Housewives and foodies I suppose,” she amended, stabbing a piece of iceberg lettuce with her fork and popping it into her mouth. “I mean, let’s face it,” she went on, “people like me who have to get up and make a living every day, have more important things to worry about than what’s for dinner.”

Back at my desk later that day I thought about a society in which giving thought to what’s for dinner is no longer associated with making a living. For my friend, and many like her, what she does to earn money is far removed from the growing, harvesting, packaging, and preparation of the food she eats. In fact, food has become so abundant and readily available that it is seen as incidental and relatively unimportant when compared to meeting the latest sales quotas or turning out a report on marketing trends.

This, of course, is in sharp contrast to the lives of our ancestors, and to what a significant portion of the world’s population still experiences every day. For millions of people what’s for dinner is a major concern, and earning enough to pay for that dinner occupies most of their waking lives.

Food, I was coming to see, was both a more complex and a more elemental subject than I’d imagined at first. Though I had never, as my friends implied, planned to offer a class on writing cookbooks or snobbish restaurant reviews, I also hadn’t given a lot of thought to how culture, race, geographic location, financial circumstances, and even century of birth could have an impact on how a person thinks, feels, and writes about food. Clearly I had some research to do.

This class is the byproduct of that research and my renewed conviction that food is far from being a boring or unimportant subject for writers to tackle – quite the contrary. Food, and our relationship to it, is of vital concern to us all. In a very real sense food is woven into the very fabric of our beings. It is the source of nutrients and fuel for our physical bodies, but it is also part and parcel of how we see and interact with our world. Consider, for example, where, what, and with whom you like to eat. All three can tell you something about the emotional environment, cuisine, culture, and traditions in which you were raised, as well as something about your personal tastes and preferences. Likewise, if we stop to consider how food is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, distributed, and sold in various countries, we learn something about how food or lack of it shapes our cultures and economies.

But before you panic and begin to think you’ve signed up for some graduate level sociology class, let me reassure you that this is first and foremost a writing course designed to help you produce compelling, publishable essays about food. It is beyond the intent or scope of this class to do the in-depth, scholarly research required to write academic papers. Instead, we will be focusing on producing essays that thoughtful, well-informed readers of publications such as Gourmet, Foodtalk, Saveur, and The Art of Eating would find entertaining; the kind of essays you might also find in magazines like Woman’s Day, Redbook, and Eating Well. It’s my hope that through reading and writing about food, each of us will not only learn something about ourselves, but find a vehicle for reaching out to and sharing our thoughts, beliefs, and experiences with others as well. Isn’t that, after all, what writing is all about?


© Copyright 2003 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.