Michael at work. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Poring over Modernist Cuisine to review for The New York Times, a daunting task!
Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

I published this last year in the Huffington Post on September 24, 2012, and it got such a strong response, I’m reposting it. Also I’m under the gun for two major book projects and two freelance assignments all due at once for some reason, not to mention sundry book promo interviews; I guess summer is over and fall is officially here. Sigh.—M.R.

The Importance of Food?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and not least of all because I’ve always strived to distance myself from the pigeonhole called “food writer.” Food is important, obviously. If we don’t have it, we die. Writing about something so important should need no justification. And yet if I were called, say, an “environmental journalist,” wouldn’t that sound somehow more substantial, more serious than being a “food writer”? Isn’t exploring the effect of increasing levels of carbon dioxide on our environment or the ecological impact of harnessing wind energy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels more important than writing about, say, Salmon Tartare in a Savory Tuile with Red Onion and Crème Fraîche? A journalist embedded with American troops in Afghanistan versus a writer who waxes poetic on the glories of veal stock?

There are, of course, diverse and good reasons to write about food, from aesthetic pleasures to consumer advocacy. Many books in which food is the central subject have had an extraordinary impact on the way we think about food, and our lives–Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, of course, but also books by writers such as Paul Greenberg, Tracie McMillan, Mark Kurlansky, Barry Estabrook, Rowan Jacobsen (there are now too many to cite) that explore how our world is changed by the way we grow, distribute, buy, and cook food.

Food writer Monica Bhide posed this question–does food writing matter?–on her blog, and I was heartened to see many smart responses from writers. Chief among the commenters was journalist and author Annia Ciezadlo, author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (in which she writes, “I cook to comprehend a place I’ve landed in”). In response to Bhide’s question, Cizadlo simply quoted George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier, a book about class structure in 1930s England:

“I think it could plausibly be argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion. The Great War, for instance, could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented. And the history of the past four hundred years in England would have been immensely different if it had not been for the introduction of root-crops and various other vegetables at the end of the middle ages, and a little later the introduction of non-alcoholic drinks (tea, coffee, cocoa) and also of distilled liquors to which the beer-drinking English were not accustomed. Yet it is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognized. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market-gardeners.”

I’m delighted to have these words disinterred from a 75-year-old book, because it states what should be obvious. Food is all-important. To write about what is all-important should need no justification.

And yet it still seems to.

Because food is all around us, everywhere, easy and cheap, we’ve taken it for granted. Do you ever stop to wonder how it is that you can buy pea pods 365 days a year, whether you live in Maine, Montana, or Manitoba? Few do. The fact is, most people don’t think about food until they don’t have any. Then it’s pretty much all they can think about.

And we don’t think about food obsessively until it starts making us sick, which is what has happened in this country. Our food is making us sick in myriad ways. Our toddlers develop allergies unheard of when we were growing up. Children develop a type of diabetes once seen only in late adulthood. Obesity is rampant. And because of this we’ve become so hyperconscious of what we eat that we believe all kinds of nonsense. Dieticians once preached that eggs were bad for you–eggs! People far and wide still believe that fat is what makes you fat and that cutting salt and fat from one’s diet will make a healthy person even healthier. The way we produce food is destroying the land, polluting rivers and oceans, debasing the animals we raise for food and the workers who slaughter and process them. Nothing good comes from shitting where you eat, and this is what America has been doing for half a century.

People ask me the reason for today’s intense interest in food and chefs and cooking. A serious book with a jokey title was written to explore just this, David Kamp’s superb United States of Arugula. But I don’t think you need a whole book that includes Eisenhower’s highway system, war veterans returning from Europe, the increasing accessibility of international travel, and the impact of television to explain it. For me, it all comes down to the fact that we lost something vital when we stopped cooking our own food in the 1950s. And not cooking our own food has increasingly made us sick, to the point that we’ve become obsessive about food.

Obsession over food has had some positive results, such as the call to eat local, sustainable, and humanely raised food. But obsession often leads to really bad ideas, like 100% raw diets and any number of loopy food imperatives otherwise intelligent people (see Steve Jobs) put themselves on. I’d love to see a study of life-long raw-dieters and life-long vegans and the effects on their reproductive systems. I’d wager they’d quickly self-select themselves out of the population (which is why, perhaps, we don’t see many people who are life-long vegans and raw-foodists).

I believe it’s foolish to deny that we are human, which we do when we embrace nonhuman behavior.

Almost everything our bodies and minds are capable of is represented in some part of the animal kingdom; primates even demonstrate theory of mind, and one species has nonreproductive sex, once thought to be an exclusively human activity. There are only two activities that set us apart, and we should take heed. First, humans are the only animals that cook their food. If we do not cook our food, or stay close to people who do, life is unsustainable; there have been no groups documented to have survived for long on an exclusively raw diet (convincingly documented in Richard Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human).

Second, humans are the only animals that generate narrative–that is, tell stories. Telling and hearing stories is, in fact, one of our primary, life-long activities, something we do all day and throughout the night. Sleep scientists have shown that if we are prevented from telling ourselves stories when we sleep, if our brains are prevented from dreaming, life is unsustainable. Cooking and telling stories. That’s what makes us human.

So telling stories about food and cooking is not only natural, it’s necessary for our survival. It’s important to understand how something that is essential to our humanity and our well-being affects all other aspects of our lives and our humanity. No one questions the need to explore string theory and economic policy, or asks for justification for art and literature. But people do question the seriousness of writing about food. I can go weeks without quantum physics or a good movie. Can’t say that about food. I dream of a day when we no longer need to be obsessed with food, because that would mean that we had figured it out, we had all come to a common understanding of how to grow our food, distribute it, and consume it in ways that don’t make us sick and crazy, but rather healthy and happy; that, rather than being guilty, fearful, and intimidated by food, we instead rejoiced in food; that we would cook together, with our families and friends, and then sit down to share this cared-for food and tell each other the stories of our day.

This I think I was meant to do. To connect food with what I believe is fundamental to our lives and our happiness, to our humanity, and to do so through story. I will continue to write about many things, but I will never stop writing about food and cooking, what food and cooking means, to make it clear that cooking dinner is not a chore or a hassle, not simply the fulfillment of a bodily need, or even an indulgence, but is in fact fundamental to our humanity and to the health of our children and our children’s children.

It’s all-important.

If you liked this post, read:

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

 

Share

20 Wonderful responses to “Revisiting the Importance of Food Writing”

  • Rita Connelly

    Thank you Michael or, I should say, thank you again.

    I write about food. I I have been doing so professionally for about twelve years. Recently, thanks to retiring from my day job, I have more time to write and my work is getting published in more places. My most recent work actually got published in “Serious Eats” and I will be doing a monthly piece for them.

    And in many ways I have you to thank.

    It hasn’t been easy and certainly I’m not making enough to support myself, but I am fortunate that I get to do what I love (and get paid for it.)

    I have always loved your work and you have been a source of inspiration for my food writing. You also indirectly taught me about style and skills and determination. Anyone who wants to write about food should read your books, not just for inspiration but to learn how to write.

    This was a great piece.

    Thanks.
    Rita Connelly
    The Well-Fed Foodie @Facebook.com

  • Bob Y

    Are you sure you didn’t write this with a product from Le Creuset? More and more, your blog has become about product promotion and self-promotion. Such a shame, you’re a great writer and your blogs about food and its importance, plus your occasional rants, is what made your blog a great read. Now, its just meh.

    • ruhlman

      There will be a total of 6 LC videos. In each I try to offer information. I always try to offer free information and entertainment, since that’s what you seem to be interested in, but that takes time and the information I’ve worked long and hard gathering and continue to do so. There’s a Le Creuset video planned for a week from Thursday, so steer clear. Unless you want to make pizza, or have LC send you one of their most excellent pans. I don’t make a lot of money from this blog, Bob, certainly not enough to justify the time I put into. I do it because I like it and I like interacting with people who care about cooking. You didn’t like my chicken rant last week? The cocktail post, a Gibson, or the info on fat-washed whiskeys? I don’t get paid to answer questions on twitter but I do. I try to answer every goddam curing question that drops into my email box, and they are continual. I shouldn’t even be spending time responding your comment, but rather working on the new book (which will cost money, sorry). I resent your comment, if it’s not already clear. What do _you_ do for a living, Bob?

    • Shelley

      As an avid student of anything food, I have come to really love this blog. It’s educational, insightful, thought provoking and honest. I LOVE the LC series of videos and posts. I am so IN LOVE with my LC cookware, so maybe that has something to do with it. I take it you don’t own any? I just don’t see M.R. as self promoting…. I see his products and books as Helpful to people like me who want a great experience in providing my family with the best meals I can.

    • MarkR

      Did you actually watch the videos? NONE of them require LeCreuset– think of them as technique demonstrations that happen to use expensive cookware. Nor does Mr. Ruhlman spend any significant time shilling the LC line. It’s all about the techniques, and the techniques work.

      PS made croques madame with a $15 saucier pan and a $20 cast iron pan. Maybe it would’ve been better with LC products, but I doubt it.

  • Victoria

    Best quote ever = “Cooking and telling stories. That’s what makes us human.” Having dinner together around our own table at the end of the day is so important!

    I happen to enjoy your Le Creuset posts, and I believe I already told you when I was in Zabars my friend Walter rushed over to me and said “Hey, Michael Ruhlman is on a video over there making bread.” I laughed because (1) it happens to be the loaf I make all the time, and (2) he knew who you were.

    So now in this ever expanding social universe of ours, it’s acceptable to tell someone his site is “meh?” I don’t think so. (And it’s not meh.)

    Schmaltz arrived in the post yesterday. It is beautiful, a little work of art. These are not my holidays, but if they were and I was invited to break the fast at someone’s house, my hostess gift would be a copy of Schmaltz.

  • Jeff

    This is my first comment here. This was a beautiful post. Owning several of your cookbooks and checking daily for new blog posts, I love and have benefited greatly from your writing. I thank you. You make a difference in and change people’s lives. Who’d have ever thought I’d be hoarding chicken fat in my freezer?

    Please don’t let someone like Bob Y discourage you or ruin your day. The Internet is such a new form of social interaction that good manners and acceptable behavior are still being sorted out by many. Very good caring people are often guilty offenders. It must be sort of like speeding on the highway – there’s a sort of thrill of doing and getting away with something, one knows or temporarily forgets, is absolutely wrong. Bob Y is likely a very good and caring person too. You did the right thing in communicating your disappointment and my advice would be to also forgive him and carry on with your great work.

  • MandyM

    This is the first time I’ve read this article, thank you for re-posting it.

    When people have asked what I blog about, my normal response is something diminutive like, “Oh, nothing major, just recipes and stuff.”

    And now, reading your article, I think I need to apologise to myself (and other foodies!) for belittling something that I love to do. You’re right, it is important, it is worth talking about, it is worth writing about, and it is worth sharing.

    A vast majority of significant and good memories in my life involve the inclusion of food. It’s quite acceptable to write a journal or memoir, and for foodies, writing about a recipe that triggers those memories should be seen the same way. It’s an expression of who we were, who we are, and possibly who we’d like to be in the future.

    I’m going to start thinking of my writing as being a lot more important than I have currently been doing. Thank you.

  • Tags

    Keep in mind that when you take a political stance on anything, you attract people whose mission is to denigrate that stance’s supporters.

    Steering away from the dark clouds, I’d just like to mention that I get an email from Muttscomics.com (the Mutts comic strip) and they have a daily quote. This one makes me think of you and your writings about writing every time I see it;

    I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

    Peter de Vries

  • Jared

    I appreciate your blog its not just a recipe and picture show, it’s a little more involved. I know it takes a fair amount of time that could be put into other endeavors. When people ask me how to cook things or something they should try, I always send them your article on high heat roasted chicken.

    This article puts into words how I feel about food and what most people will probably never really understand.

  • Rachel

    Are you some sort of psychic-shaman-wizard-guy? Because last night I found myself in my car parked outside a supermarket, sobbing hysterically to the ever-patient boyfriend because I haven’t been able to put pen to paper lately (illness, exhaustion, valium-inducing job stress, yadda yadda).
    I thought I sounded like a total wanker as I wailed “I just wanna finish that post about natto, man, I got the photos and everything and… *insert loud wailing sob here*.

    Now I don’t feel THAT crazy after all. Thank you.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      doesn’t look like you’ve finished that post, rachel, but I hope you do. see the quote Tags ends his comment with.

      And thanks all for the kind words

  • Kathleen Flinn

    I read this post last year and keep meaning to write you about it. I’ve been talking about it since then, especially in classes in which I teach food writing. It sounds so grandiose, but food writers can change the world, either by influencing a great many people or just one reader at a time. In the research for my second book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, I went into the homes of people who acknowledged they lacked “kitchen confidence.” The experiences standing in people’s kitchens watching them try to figure out how to decipher a recipe or ransack through their cupboard stuffed with processed food made me realize just how far we’ve drifted as a society from so many simple acts, most notably feeding ourselves.

    If you can’t cook or you don’t cook, you ultimately rely on someone else to feed you — and big multinational companies that favor profit over your health or the best interests of the environment sit perched like vultures to fill that void.

    When people scoff at such a comment, I point out that you can buy frozen scrambled eggs in your local supermarket. Who would fall for such a product? Someone who doesn’t know how to cook. I know that because one of the people in my second book had a box of these rubbery pre-cooked eggs in her freezer. I showed her how to make them herself. (It took less time than microwaving the boxed stuff. Guess what? She doesn’t need to buy them anymore.

    Knowledge on any subject can be powerful. That includes food, nutrition and especially cooking. Thanks for the post, and good luck on those deadlines. I know the feeling.

  • karen downie

    i won art prizes, literary scholarships, and drama awards throughout high school. i can “play by ear”, to a certain extent. people i care about still insist i was supposed to be a fine artist. yet all of my creativity is channeled through the humble medium of food. i’m happy enough. i hope you can be, too. will rogers said it best: “we can’t all be heroes. some of us have to sit on the curb and clap as they go by,” i can live with that. plus, dinner is my favorite holiday. i celebrate it every day.

  • Lily Ramirez-Foran

    What a beautiful and insightful post Michael, came across it by accident and I am so happy I did! Absolutely true and honest. I’ll be reading your blog all the time now! There is a huge and very worrying disconnect between our plate and the original source of our food and it is down to all of us to close that gap. Love the quote ‘cooking and telling stories: that’s what makes us human’. Amen to that!

  • Mary Nichols

    I’ve never heard of you before because I don’t care to read about cooking. Nor do I care to cook. However I came across a quote of yours on another website: “I know for a fact that spending at least a few days a week preparing food with other people around, enjoying it together, is one of the best possible things in life to do, period. It’s part of what makes us human. It makes us happy in ways that are deep and good for us.” Since cooking and sharing food is what makes us human than you are saying that people who don’t like to cook aren’t human. Thanks for the insult, dude, who makes a living at it and therefore has a VERY different perspective from someone who doesn’t spend their entire life thinking about food.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1.  Meet Lois Baron, Queen of Schmaltz | Michael Ruhlman
  2.  The Internet Kitchen: What People Are Saying - Macheesmo
  3.  What We’re Reading – September 15, 2013 | Chef Deborah Reid