Food Writing Lives: Escape From the Ivory Tower

cookNscribble - May 20, 2015


250px-ClevelandTowerWatercolor20060829“I hope this isn’t too weird, but I read your dissertation.” These are not the words you expect to hear from the man selling you radishes.

It was a typical Saturday morning—croissants and coffee at the bakery, buying eggs and greens in the market—until I stopped at farmer Dale’s stall and he told me that he’d Googled me and downloaded my dissertation off the Internet.

I’d known Dale at that point for years. He was my go-to farmer for potatoes and turnips and his soft-spoken demeanor and fondness for unusual varieties made him one of my favorite vendors at the market. I’d even produced a story about Dale’s organic Japanese vegetables for the local Edible magazine that I edit. Dale and I had the kind of farmer-customer love affair that brings me back to the farmers’ market week after week.

But at that moment, bag of produce in hand, standing in the aisle of our small town Indiana market, I felt as if my pants had suddenly fallen off. Some people have naked pictures of themselves online. I have my thesis.

Before you Google my dissertation, however, let me make clear that there is nothing particularly titillating about my academic magnum opus. In fact, it’s just the opposite: I’m embarrassed because my thesis is full of jargon, is a bit grandiose, and lacks a compelling narrative.

In other words, it’s a typical dissertation.

But it is not just the mediocrity of my academic writing that bothers me. My dissertation is also an embarrassment because it reminds me of a chapter of my writing life that was stilted and tiresome, one that I am glad to have ended. Writing my dissertation was a painful regimen, one that kept me awake at night mapping out arguments, or locked in a library carrel, bribing myself to type with the promise of “rewards”: a trip to the restroom after another paragraph, a break for a cup of tea at the student union after two more pages.

The experience edited my love of writing right out of me. The joy I had once felt about writing was pruned below the bud by incessant critique, most often self-inflicted (because interrogating your own ideas to the point where you can barely put words on paper is practically an unwritten PhD requirement).

thinkerStill, despite this, when I was struggling with the decision of whether to leave academia and attempt to launch a career in food writing, I worried if I would find writing about food meaningful. At the time, my academic work felt important—even if my own contributions weren’t particularly so—because I wrote about things like gender and democracy and politics. I wondered if writing about soup or chocolate or family recipes would matter, to me or anyone else.

Then I wrote my first article for Edible magazine.

My story about a hole-in-the-wall pupusería in our Midwestern town was just a short feature, but for me it was a turning point. In describing the shop’s pupusas—savory corn cakes stuffed with cheese or beans and topped with crunchy cabbage slaw—I was also writing about the shop’s owner, Doña Luz, who had escaped the war in El Salvador and built a new life for her family with little more than a bag of maseca, a hot griddle and her own hands. After the piece was published, people who had never before eaten Salvadoran food came up to me and said, “I always wondered about that place. Now I go all the time!” Years later, readers still comment on my story, and the pupusería is often so busy that I have to call ahead to order. Yes, I had a PhD, but it took writing a simple piece about one of my favorite things to eat to understand that writing about food really could matter.

The story was a sea change for me in other ways as well. When I sat down to write it, two unexpected and wonderful things happened: The words tumbled out, as if I’d unzipped an overstuffed suitcase, and I felt an intense rush of pleasure. This was nothing like writing my dissertation! In that earlier chapter of my writing life, I had struggled against an invisible current, one that sucked me into a vortex of self-doubt and frustration. But when I wrote about food, I wasn’t just keeping my head above water. I was floating—gracefully, or at least it felt that way. I was writing with my own internal tide. And it felt really, really good.

That said, writing about food for a popular audience isn’t necessarily easier than academic writing. For me, it is infinitely more pleasurable, but, in some ways, it is harder: It is more visible, more prone to public scrutiny. It demands accountability. When I write today, there is no hiding in a library carrel or behind academic jargon.

At our farmers market (which is admittedly tiny), I am far from anonymous. Just about everyone knows that I write for and edit Edible. Some, like farmer Dale, also know that I am crazy about shishito peppers and hakurei turnips—and that I’ve written a dissertation about post-revolutionary Nicaraguan politics. When I write about food, I am writing about, and for, people in my community—chefs and home cooks and, yes, farmers like Dale. Those people read my words and they often know more about what I’m writing about than I do. It’s challenging and humbling and it keeps my writing honest.

_DSC2983After Dale told me that he’d Googled me, I learned another thing about honesty: Sometimes the parts of our pasts that we keep tucked away can connect us in ways we never imagined. Dale explained that he downloaded my dissertation because before he’d started his farm, back in the 1980s, he’d been active in the Central American solidarity movement, organizing and protesting against the US-government policies that were making war in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. My farmer, it turned, out was a solidarity activist.

I blurted out that I had first traveled to Nicaragua as a part of a community solidarity organization. Dale and I grinned at each other like smitten teenagers.

Yes, it was weird, but in the best way possible.

— MAYA PARSON

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderMaya Parson is a food writer and the editor of Edible Michiana magazine. She blogs about food, culture and writing at CulturedGrub.com.

 

 

Images courtesy of: Wikipedia; Pixgood; Maya Parson