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Litro prides itself on its straddling of disciplines. We blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, reviews and essays; we encourage our writers to make unexpected connections. We’re pleased to introduce a new column which continues in this tradition. Just as Teddy Cutler’s column This Sporting Life grappled with the literature and philosophy of sport, our latest column, Food For Thought by Concepta Cassar, will do the same with food.
For a long time, food writing was considered a poor relation in the literary world. To be sure, national newspapers would have restaurant reviews, but these would be quarantined in the dining sections – brutally dismissed as “the women’s pages”. Contrast this with other specialisms whose writers have risen to literary acclaim: rock music with its Lester Bangses and Greil Marcuses; sports with its A.J. Lieblings and George Plimptons. Food writing has no less of a canon, but it has occupied a more problematic position in popular culture. Some writers, such as the gastronomic essayists Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, have faded into obscurity, while those that do have name recognition, such as Elizabeth David or Anthony Bourdain, are known more for their cookery than their prose. When literary heavyweights have tackled culinary topics – think David Foster Wallace’s ‘Consider The Lobster’ or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals – these have been seen not as part of any food writing canon but as the latest preoccupations of their vigorous minds. Most readers of ‘Consider The Lobster’ are unlikely to connect it with the essay that gives it its name: Consider The Oyster by the pre-eminent food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who W.H. Auden called the finest prose writer in the United States.
Part of this can be considered sexism: to literature’s male gatekeepers, food was a female realm with none of the sweating, spitting muscularity of sport or rock. (Though this division can be exaggerated: few remember that Liebling, author of the iconic boxing volume The Sweet Science, was just as passionate a writer on food.) Fortunately, this state of affairs is changing. In the last decade, there has been an upsurge in fine culinary writing in publications like Gastronomica, Lucky Peach and the now-defunct meatpaper, while prestigious magazines like The New Yorker and The Oxford American now have an annual food issue. This thaw was confirmed in 2007 when LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold became the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Today’s new guard of food writers interrogate every aspect of the culinary experience. Michael Pollan explores the relationship between our food choices and the natural world; Lisa Heldke takes an anthropological look at why Westerns perceive certain foods as exotic; Shoba Narayan teases out the connections between food and memory. In the course of the column, Concepta – who has previously written on food for The Guardian, BuzzFeed and the Soil Association –will engage with food in a similarly wide-ranging way, from how food productions has changed since the Neolithic Revolution to what William Hazlitt’s exchanges with Thomas Malthus can tell us about how we feed the population. Bon appetit!