Food Writing with the British Library

The British Library is currently hosting its first ever Food Writing season, some of these events include tastings. Anna from Atwood Tate went along to the first one…

Food writing as we understand it has been growing for the last fifty years. The days of Mrs Beeton lumping it together with household management are long over. Recipes to memoir… three panellists explained their understanding of the genre.

Claudia Roden, a Jewish Egyptian, began writing as a way to record the oral traditions of a mosaic of communities forming the refugees from her homeland. The publication part was something of a surprise. Sumayya Usmani, a solicitor from Pakistan, decided to write in Britain and changed the attitude towards food in Pakistan, a region in which food has evolved over only 70 years. Both women come from a background of families sharing recipes through practice and a culture of entertaining in a way that Britain does not. Tim Hayward, the final panellist from the South East of England ran away to America to become an advertiser before turning to food writing with a nerdy delight.

Have you ever torn recipes out of a magazine or newspaper?

How often do you actually cook from them?

When was the last time you cooked with confidence sans recipes?

All of the panellists would rather write without recipes. Unfortunately, recipes are what sell and no publisher will countenance a food publication without recipes. Every food writer has been approached to write an article with the title something like “10 recipes with…” and offered a flat rate but they find them dull to write and targeted for SEO. Even trying to give specific timings like Jamie Oliver or Delia Smith for cooking onions: 3 minutes? It depends on the hob, the pan, the quantity of onions. The food writers teach their children skills at home, or like Usmani in cookery classes.

Examples of recipe books at the London Book Fair

Turn to the works of Roden or Usmani instead. Be transported by the prose to the places the food evokes, that the descriptions conjure. Food writing is the new travel writing.

In the Q&A session afterwards an American asked about the growing fears of cultural appropriation. The authenticity of the recipes, the veracity of voice.  The panellists acknowledged the dangers of this – Hayward as a white male especially, with British imperialism historically behind him. Roden on the other hand argued that cooking is shared and developed. Whilst researching in the Mediterranean she discovered a cook she was discussing recipes with had used Roden’s own book to develop some of her published work and Roden could not have been more delighted. Food writing also is truly global in that sense despite being region-locked by cuisine.

Yet readers rarely cook themselves. Roden observed the aisles of ready meals in supermarkets have grown in recent years and Usmani noted the descriptions of those ready meals taking inspiration from Mediterranean cuisine.

Interestingly all three panellists said that writing about fads and food they wouldn’t want to make themselves would be the hardest thing to write about. Fashion in food unless it falls within your interests is impossible to do well.

A desert island book to finish with. Roden could not choose as too many of her friends could be in the audience! Hayward unequivocally recommended The Gastronomical Me by M F K Fisher. Usmani wanted to take the family book, sort of a diary, a collection of travels she is never allowed to publish, or failing that, Allen’s book of cooking skills.

 

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