At the Table: From MFK Fisher to Stanley Tucci
The best thing about working as Soneva Fushi’s barefoot bookseller is the unpredictability; you never know what adventures a new week will bring. A couple of weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to have Stanley Tucci, the actor, writer and food-lover pay a visit to the resort. In London, I’d feel fortunate enough to just catch a glimpse of him at a South Bank event or perhaps a Waterstones signing, so it was with a mix of terror and exhilaration that I discovered that I was to be interviewing him for a short Q&A before the showing of one of his films at our outdoor cinema.
This was the first time that I had ever had to interview anyone so I dug deep into my research, and not only listened to his brilliant interview with Dolly Alderton but also read his fantastic new food memoir, Taste. Within it, Tucci captures the magic of tracing a life through the meals we eat and the people we share them with. There are stories of eating fermented sheep in Iceland and a 5* service in a film trailer in Paris. Mostly though there are the stories of plates piled high at family tables, and there is dish after dish of wonderful Italian food, ranging from fettuccine with Bolognese to Pizzoccheri. By telling his autobiography through the prism of food, Tucci joins this re-emerging trend for memoirs that capture a lifetime in recipes. This is a genre predominantly led by women, particularly, Ella Risberger’s Midnight Chicken and Olivia Potts’ A Half-Baked Idea as well as Jessie Ware’s Omelette.
Food has always been a way to connect us to others. From Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 book The Physiology of Taste and his famous claim, ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who are,’ to the more recent slew of modern titles that refine the early 2000s blogging and personal essay craze into a collective meditation on how food and the act of writing about it intimately places us within an identity, a culture and a private history. Anyone who has travelled has taken away one small memory of a gelato eaten or a curry that cannot be imitated elsewhere. Food places us and gives us a unique, individualised history of experiences, even if the paths we take are often well-trod.
To trace the history of any form of writing is a complicated thing; the boundaries are so malleable, writers reinvent, disregard and rebel. Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher were arguably two of the great 20th century pioneers of the food memoir, though they would perhaps resist being defined as ‘memoirists’. And it is this tension that captures the inherent difficulty in defining the line between a recipe book and a memoir. If to eat is to live, then to discover new recipes is to explore and to break away from the everyday in search of the new. Thus, a recipe book will always be an inherently personal exploration of a life. Importantly, for both women, they were unusual in the context of their class and their culture for wanting to cook, and it was a skill that they came to later in life, as this was rarely a task of necessity but more a way of expanding and augmenting their lives. They were both also rebelling against a bland post-war world and trying to reclaim the richness of their travels by introducing the pleasure and luxuries of good ingredients and fresh cooking.
But the ebbs and flows of taste diverted for the genre in the post-cold war world. The yuppie generation travelled more and the independent woman once again became seen as cosmopolitan and a committed restaurant eater, à la Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. And so, the Bourdains of the world burst onto the stage with books such as Kitchen Confidential and offered a new way of discovering life through food. But this time it was the hard-living world of the restaurant chef. Food writing became not about other cultures but instead was about the competitive edge behind the science and technicality of food. Good food became the preserves of an elite few running the world’s greatest restaurants and the dinner party at home was seen as anachronistic and old-fashioned.
However, as the millennium dawned, the internet wave heralded the rise of the amateur cook and the food blogger as the subversive alternative to the hypermasculine chef complex. The writers of these blogs were very rarely experts in their subjects and so they encouraged amateurism in their audiences. Within the world of food writing, it broke down the traditional remits and hierarchies of lifestyle magazines and newspaper sections that championed established and ‘expert’ writers. As with so much of internet culture, this was a mixed affair that both challenged the notion of who got to write about food, while also gradually eroding the early paid opportunities for a new wave of food writers to establish themselves against the vast flood of work available for free. So much of the work generated in food writing now begins through an equally privileged lens of those with the time and financial ability to dedicate hours of unpaid labour to personal projects such as Instagram accounts, which come with their own double-edged sword of promoting not only a certain kind of writing but a certain image of a person as well, usually, white, young and slim.
Despite this wave of early bloggers that convinced publishers to back the re-emergence of the personal food narrative, the most important early spark in this genre for the contemporary age was from the already revered food writer, Nigel Slater. Slater’s Toast was pivotal not only within food but also in that it heralded a new way of writing for the memoir itself. It was written in an age of the boom of the celebrity and ‘misery’ memoir, and yet here was a book offering a radically different way of recounting a life. Instead, ordinary lives could be sculpted and framed by everyday interests as long as the writing itself was beautiful enough to lift it out of the prosaic and into the captivating.
Almost twenty years on from the publication of Toast and it can often feel that the genre is on the cusp of a new wave of reinvention. MFK Fisher is once again a best-selling writer sold over the counter at Waterstones this Christmas, and the craze for the fusion of personal connection and recipes have never been stronger. But this time the evolution of food writing has moved into raising up communities of new voices, and writers from around the world use this form to make sense of mixed identities, growing up between different worlds and cultures, and looking at how recipes and flavours have formed them. Last year’s smash hit Crying in H-Mart reinvents the narrative surrounding grief and food, and the connection between a mother and cooking, with a uniquely Korean-American twist; Nina Mingya Powles’ blend of memoir and essay focuses on dislocation and bi-racial identities in Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating In Shanghai; the wonderful essay collection, Black Food, creates lay lines of spiritual connection between such subjects as jollof rice and Toni Morrison, with a host of contributors celebrating the black diaspora; and Ella Risberger’s brilliantly funny and seriously useful Midnight Chicken spoke of the struggles of her own mental health and the importance of food in recovery.
From MFK Fisher through to Stanley Tucci and Angela Hui’s forthcoming Takeaway, our food heritage is our DNA. It traces us as individuals, indelibly marking who we have been and where we have travelled. It can shed the warm glow of a roast chicken on the darkest memories and turn a plate of burnt toast into an act of love. To read about someone else’s food history is to immediately be present in the room with them. It unifies us with post-war food writers trying to capture a lost and frivolous-yet-essential art and with famous actors talking about meals prepared by their mothers. To read them is to sit at a table with these figures, listening to stories and basking in the warmth of the kitchen.