How to Be an Academic Food Writer
By Anna Nguyen
I am a failed food writer. For many, many years, I have tried to write publishable food narratives, but with no real success. And yet, oddly enough, I read quite obsessively. Though not all of my reading materials revolve around food or food culture, many of my favorite reads are food-focused: essays by George Orwell; Steven Shapin’s recent efforts on wine and food histories; Haruki Murakami’s pieces about his cooking practices and eating preferences. I am keen on reading any memoir by chefs or food personalities. The list goes on. People say reading is an indicator of good writing, but I am proof that this sentiment does not hold true. The only reason I write so uncharitably of my forays in food writing is because I lack the ability to write sensorially; that is, I have not yet trained myself to write sentimentally about food using any other senses than the visual.
How does one write about taste in a way that evokes anything but just visual inventory? How does one successfully translate a fleeting, visceral moment into words shared with others? These were — and still are — questions that I always ask myself as I attempt to write. I am perhaps thinking too much about the words in use. That is, I find it extraordinarily difficult to put into words what I’ve just tasted. I try and try and try, and I still find the end result unsatisfying. There are days that I’ve come to terms with my reductionist perspective. Some days, terse paragraphs are sufficient; other days, many other days, I’m like Thomas at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. I leave many unfinished and untitled essays on food on Google Drive because I cannot muster any profound words to write what I intend to say.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of my failed career aspirations is that I’ve found focused research interests in the Gastronomy program. As I am planning my thesis, I intend to address the problem of food writing and the limitations of the language of food. In particular, I intend to try to understand the meanings of words in use — what is the inarticulate trying to articulate, and how language and epistemologies are constructed and shared.
My interests were shaped during my first year as a graduate student. While attending classes, I found myself growing fond of discourse analysis, textual analysis, phenomenology, and social theory — all things that I had at one point during my undergraduate years hated and tried to avoid. But to know theory is to be able to use and criticize what is lacking. Merely suggesting that language and knowledge are social constructs are non-answers that do not address the problems that I’m interested in, problems like the vagueness of food policies and laws, and food literacy. Nor does the concept of “social construction” add anything meaningful to ongoing academic conversations. If I am thankful for anything about my time as a graduate student in the Gastronomy program, it’s for the reason that I am able to intelligibly articulate what I don’t like with more force.
I’m still writing, though my writing has shifted focus. I tend to write with a more academic tone, but it’s probably not as academic as one imagines. Allusions to my literary background and journalistic experience are still present, though I’ve tried to dismiss unnecessary imagery. Great scholars like Arjun Appadurai, Gary Alan Fine, and Steven Shapin have written about food and culture without adhering to a strict academic template, and that’s something I wish to emulate. Perhaps it’s something I’ll attempt in my proposed thesis.
As I prepare the initial stages of thesis writing, I’m reminded that food writing existed long before food studies was birthed. During my first meeting with Walter Hopp, my thesis advisor, he heralded the chowder description in Moby Dick as being great food writing. I’ve been so buried in theory and academic texts that I’ve forgotten about literature. Perhaps on some much-needed breaks from the exhausting writings of Peter Singer and Michael Pollan, I should look back at the food writings of George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. And maybe it’s finally time to read about that damn whale.