Food writing beyond critique: exploring the universal and individual relationships we have with food

Ruby-Rose Pivet-Marsh  

Food writing spans forms, allowing us to explore so much more than just the plate in front of us. For The Early Words: Food Writing event, we spoke to our panelists Sonia Nair, Cher Tan and Gemma Mahadeo about food, writing and what they’re most excited about for EWF18.

Why do you connect with food writing—is there something you enjoy particularly about it that you don’t find elsewhere, as either a reader or writer yourself?

Sonia: I first came to food writing because I didn’t see my experience reflected anywhere else – one of a person of colour who has multiple dietary intolerances. I find the mainstream dialogue around food exclusionary, fad-driven, lacking in scientific rigour and whitewashed. My favourite food writing situates trends, eating patterns and movements in a socio-political framework that constantly questions and challenges.

Cher: A piece of writing about food can tell us a lot about society, culture, its trends and the atmosphere at any given time. It gives the saying “you are what you eat” deeper meaning. It’s inextricably intertwined with memory, emotion and the self. It helps me work out who I am, and why I make the decisions that I make.

Gem: My relationship to food hasn’t always been healthy, but one thing that always excites me about reading about it is that it’s a way to understand what another human enjoys, hates, or attaches memories to. It can be intensely joyful or pique your curiosity if it’s something you’ve never tried.

Do you have a favourite reading bev or snack? If so, what is it why?

S: So much of my reading is done while commuting or in bed, but I do enjoy a cup of tea whenever I’m reading. Peppermint specifically, because it helps with my ongoing digestive issues.

C: Both activities remain very visceral to me. While I do pair them (one after another), they don’t occur simultaneously. When I’m reading clinically, however, I tend to reach for bhuja snacks or rice crackers, while sipping on water or a beer.

G: I love tea. Massive mugs of loose leaf Earl Grey tea are my major indulgence whilst reading, and writing. It’s comforting, warming, it smells and tastes divine! I take mine with not much milk and a bit of a sugar.

Can you tell us a bit about a piece of food writing you really enjoyed recently and why?

S: I really enjoyed Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up! Ruby writes about food in such a sensuous, glorious and intelligent way. Eat Up! actively rallies against the widespread idea that food can be divided into the neat binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and recontextualises food as something that’s inherently political, but which we can find enjoyment in.

C: I found Hannah Giorgis’ recent piece Taste, & Ethiopia and Eritrea’s Long History With Lasagna; to be especially enjoyable. In my opinion, a good piece of food writing manages to combine history, culture and the self to form a bigger picture, like putting ingredients together in a loving way to form a tasty end result. Giorgis’ piece takes down notions of “authenticity” when it comes to food, which remains an important but under-discussed issue.

G: Just before the new year, I devoured Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I hadn’t read any of his work before and finished it in a day. It felt like an old, imperfect, unapologetic mate who really loves food was talking to you through his writing. It’s always lovely to read writers who don’t use an exclusionary voice, it means a lot to me, as I’ve no formal training in food. It’s going to take some time to process that he’s gone because of that generosity and boldness.

Are there any other EWF events you’re excited for? Which are they and why?

S: I’m really excited for Speakeasy: Sex – I am a big fan of all the speakers and it’s hard not to be excited by a main course prepared by Moroccan Soup Bar during what will be a highly thought-provoking, stimulating conversation about food and sex!

C: I will, unfortunately, be away on the main EWF weekend (otherwise the Sweatshop Showcase is #1 on my list!) but I’m excited for Critical Considerations and Travel Writing and Gender. As a critic myself, I’m particularly interested in listening to more established writers talk about the ethics of criticism. The other two panels, both reflect polemics that are considered marginal or subversive to mainstream writing on travel and the suburbs, and I’d like to see more of that.

G: I bought a Golden Ticket and intend to go to as many events as possible. I’m especially keen to attend my chair and co-panellist Sonia’s event for the ‘Boring Bits’ masterclass, ‘Still Water’ out in Footscray, the other Early Words sessions, the events related to poetry, 8-Bit which is at a fave beer/game nerd haunt Bar SK, as well as the other masterclasses. Am also super-excited by how diverse (ie. all ages – because not all emerging writers are young) the line-up is, and has events which can cater for different levels of accessibility.

Kick up your heels, and bring out your feels for the EWF Closing Night Party, and help us celebrate another successful year of the festival.