Food Writing Lives: The Identity Crisis

cookNscribble – May 28, 2015

For as long as I can remember, a pink sticky note with a vinaigrette recipe scribbled in sloppy handwriting and an olive oil fingerprint in the corner has been stuck to the lamp sitting on my upstairs desk. Every time I come upstairs to look for a recipe it is the first thing I see; this evening’s dinner recipe scavenger hunt is no different.

Below it is a stack of used printer paper, cut into quarters, and fashioned into a small notebook with the unused side meant for notes. The contents: more recipes. I open the book I am looking for only to find tucked in close to the spine is another scrap torn into a triangle, this time for an entree that goes well with this particular side dish. It is an ingredients only list; there is no need for the cooking method when it is implied in the recipe title: Braised Pork Roast. Then there is the file drawer with a section for stenographer’s notebooks from back when I was organized, each simply titled ‘recipes’ with the year written underneath.

I have always felt the recipe is the easy part of creating a cookbook, so much so that I leave recipes strewn about my office as if they are bits of midnight confetti from a New Year’s party waiting for someone to sweep them away. Looking at these remnants I feel like I create nothing new. I collect them because I always have. The recipes are a daily diary of sorts with no real value.

I have been tossing the idea of a cookbook around in my head ever since I began to cook professionally. The early vision is one of complicated food. Lots of steps meant to show off, or at the very least, show I am a competent cook. It always felt like some sort of contest, though, and having never been very competitive, I never took the idea seriously.

The longer I cook, and especially now that I am out of the the commercial kitchen and my primary goal is to feed my family, the idea of a cookbook as a notch in the bed post is a turnoff. Food isn’t about the show for me anymore, but rather about nurturing. Don’t get me wrong, like an old worn out star I still occasionally jump at the chance to put on the ringmasters suit and vie for attention in the center ring, but those moments are fewer.

I am a listener. In a crowd I don’t often speak, so I have to ask myself as I always do, what do I have to add to the conversation? Who am I to compete with publishers and their teams of editors, art directors, writers, and photographers who crank out hundreds of books with recipes in them each and every day?

I shuffle some papers around and come across a piece I wrote about tomato season and my garden. I set the damp kitchen towel in my hand down on the desk amongst a stack of other papers and sit down in my desk chair. I often reread pieces months after I write them. It is my measure to whether or not they are good. I read the piece again.

“Even though I never doubt the value of preserving the harvest, I have been in the kitchen all day with the stock pots puffing steam into my face. The rows of sterile canning jars long ago lost their quaintness.”

The hairs on my arm bristle. I get goosebumps. I don’t know how my own writing is supposed to make me feel but I get emotional. Maybe I am good at this. It reads better than I remember it. I begin to feel manic.

Maybe I do have something to say but I am the little guy. I have never written a book proposal, I am not even sure where to begin. I have some giants to slay.



Tom Hirschfeld is a food writer, trained chef, and full-time dad. He lives with his family on a farm in Indiana. Tom helped FOOD52 win  2012 Best Culinary Publication by the James Beard Foundation, and he was also nominated as a 2012 IACP finalist for best culinary blog for his site Bona Fide Farm Food.