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When I ask writers for a food essay, they sometimes say they aren’t really foodie people, or don’t come from foodie people. This doesn’t mean that they have no story to tell about food, however; it often turns out that they have a more interesting story than foodie people who do come from foodie people. Instead they cling to a single hard-won memory: the egg sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, the occasional loaf of fresh bread, the red currants served with biscuits and whipped cream in an otherwise ramshackle childhood. (There are exceptions. A friend of mine once told me, rather grudgingly, how his grandfather butchered pigs and cured prosciutto in the garage of his New Jersey house, adding doubtfully, “I don’t know, is that really all that special?”)
People seem to feel that loving food and writing about it manages to be both louche and twee and maybe they’re right: all those rhapsodic descriptions of oozing cream, all those fucking cake pops. It gets to be a bit much. The other day I saw a recipe for teensy cakes cooked individually inside eggshells and it cast a poison-yellow blight across my soul, just for a moment.
Anyway, everyone assumes a food essay must be an extended appreciation for some rare or totemic item, and it’s true that there are plenty of essays like that, and also that I love them and make no apology for that. But there is a delightful, crabby exuberance to be found in the exploration of really terrible food. Sometimes it is the wasteland that sets the stage: MFK Fisher’s childhood was dominated by an abstemious grandmother with stomach issues and a Christian loathing of pleasure; whenever I think of this awful woman I think of the most dispiriting phrase in the English language: “boiled dressing.” Fisher had a few moments of gustatory pleasure as a child—that was her egg sandwich, plus the dishes made by a family cook who seemed just fine until she murdered her mother and herself—but by the time Fisher married young and moved to France she was ready to branch out in more ways than one. In her best work the food is paired with a dark little twist, be it wartime privation, loss, death, loneliness, or some unmet sexual craving.
Even more fun is when it isn’t the emotional setting that adds that necessary prickliness, but a truly matchless culinary failure. I’m not talking about mothers who served a lot of casseroles–mere boredom is not enough. I mean items like baloney cups, formed by placing a slice of baloney in the microwave with a chunk of quivering Velveeta on top and heating them up until the meat contracted into a tortured little cup of cheese. I have never actually eaten one of these, which my sister in law apparently ate a lot as a child, but sometimes when my guard is down the image of that fleshy, puckered cup floats across my brain. It has that kind of power.
This is a too-little-traveled narrative avenue for writers who have encountered real crime-against-nature food, or who have unknowingly caused themselves to be served something like a medieval-style herring pie. People think they only get to write about food if they had an Italian nonna or just returned from a jaunt to Bangkok, but I’m telling you, baloney-cup-eaters, there is room for you, too.