Reflecting on why I write about food

I just started reading the book “Will Write for Food” by Dianne Jacob and here is how I know it is going to be a helpful and inspiring read. Because I have not even read thirty pages of the book yet and already feel so intrigued and encouraged. The book sets out to be “the complete guide to writing cookbooks, blogs, reviews, memoir, and more” and in one of the first sections, lists out what the characteristics of a good food writer are. Inquisitive, passionate, and professional are just a few of the traits the author Dianne Jacob describes. She also mentions one that really got me thinking: the ability to be “not stuck in nostalgia.”

So many set out to write about their past and the memories they have in the kitchen that guided them towards a love of food, cooking, and writing. Stories from when their Italian grandmother rolled out ravioli alongside them as a child or their father taught them how to perfectly prepare homemade barbecue sauce in the South, to slather on a rack of ribs, before manning the grill like a pro, inspire many to get into food writing. In the book, she basically goes on to say to make the story your own and unique and that a little bit of edginess doesn’t hurt either. No one wants to read the same warm and fuzzy kitchen stories we have heard time and time again. Though it can be inspirational and interesting and the recipes that come from such situations delicious and unforgettable, it can also be tricky to differentiate yourself.

This all got me pondering where my love for food and curiosity about recipes and cooking came from and what sparked my passion to find out everything about my cities dining scene, new products, information about chefs, and everything else around me in the food world. Because it did not happen for me at home. In my family, unfortunately all my grandparents had passed by time I was in my early twenties so although I do remember meals at my mother’s parents house that featured Jewish favorites like matzo ball soup, sadly I can’t say any recipes were passed along. Then there was my Aunt, who I do have fond food memories of. She really wowed me with her Thanksgiving spread, which always included the perfect onion cheese casserole, a golden turkey alongside a Tofurkey for my vegetarian cousin, and a dessert spread that featured my favorite ingredient, peanut butter. I recently recreated the peanut butter chocolate bars I loved back then and found the peanut butter Hershey kiss cookie recipe online that was pretty similar to hers. But in my household, my step dad cooked nothing. He was a bossy old fashioned fellow whose thought process was that the woman’s place was in the kitchen so there was no inspiration there. My mother was the kind of cook who found short cuts but made it work.

Breakfast for dinner (using already made pancake powder of course) actually did hit the spot. She used frozen chicken cutlets to make chicken parmesan with spaghetti, which I must admit; I still buy the same Perdue patties she used then, to this day, for nights I don’t want to make it homemade. She and her husband loved having a calendar so they knew what to buy at the grocery store. You could take a glance at it and know a week’s worth of upcoming dinners. Monday was fish night, which included salmon or shrimp with a big dollop of butter, maybe a sprinkling of bread crumbs, and Mrs. Dash to season it, with vegetables and a starch on the side. Tuesday and Thursdays alternated between stew, tuna casserole, meat loaf, and other easy comfort foods that were half homemade and half utilized already made soups and sauces to flavor the meats. And Wednesday was always pasta night, as I mentioned, with the chicken cutlets. Weekends were fair game to go to a friend’s house or scrounge a sandwich. A night out for dinner as a family was always at one of the local American chain restaurants. I think my parents were just creatures of habit and with my mom working 6 days a week as a Bookkeeper and Accountant and my dad having no interest in cooking, they did what they could to get food on the table.

When I look back, dinner was one of the only times we were actually in the same room in the evenings, since my parents hung out in their bedroom to watch their own shows and my sisters and I could wander from our own rooms to the den. At least we kept the tradition alive and made time to catch up over dinner, even if the food wasn’t the greatest. Don’t get me wrong, the food was fine and I didn’t mind it and I actually did like many of the quick dishes my mother whipped up, but it wasn’t anything too outrageous or outside of the box. What really stands out when I think about food and growing up, was that I always managed to get a taste of what was cooking at my friend’s houses as frequently as I could. With a well rounded group of friends, which included an Italian best friend, another Puerto Rican friend, a Russian friend, and a Kosher Jewish friend, I quickly realized that hanging at places outside my house, was when I really started up my healthy obsession with food. I found out how much I loved shrimp parmesan at Angie’s, homemade by her dad, or how I excited I would get to chow down on rice and beans with jerk chicken, to celebrate occasions at Mari’s.  I can even still remember very clearly warm challah bread straight out of the oven on a Friday night at Shabbat dinner with Whit, so it was outside of my house that some of the best food was consumed.

College when I no longer lived at home, was when I REALLY realized all the different foods out there and explored eating sushi, trying Indian, Ethiopian, and Greek food, experimenting with recipes instead of just relaying on premade packaged foods, and taking note of what the restaurants in my neighborhood had. And then I finally made the move from Connecticut to Boston, where the dining options were endless, food events frequently occurred, and the sky was the limit in regards to what I ate and made. Plus I had the freedom and money to travel and understand what makes up the perfect paella in Spain or gnocchi in Italy. Today I am so thankful to have a boyfriend with a Sicilian Italian heritage to cook for me at least once a week. Because of Sal, I have tried octopus salad on Christmas Eve to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes and learned how to make a quick marinara sauce from scratch or create lamb chops with a mint pesto on the fly.

So when the book got me thinking about where my passion about food and urge to put it all down on paper came about and my own food nostalgia, frankly it was all from within first and foremost. It wasn’t just at home with family growing up like many others have said and written about, but for me it was developed amongst my friends and their families too and today, within my own relationship. I feel when I have my own children, the love of food will be passed along and my drive to always challenge myself and set out to make and try new things will rub off on my kids. But it just goes to show, just because I might not have lived with a gourmet chef growing up, that doesn’t make my love for food any less then the next.

All these events lead me to where I am today but my own curiosity to find out what is going on in the city or what new ingredients I should use at home, fuel my passion that keeps me glued to the TV when cooking shows are on or get me motivated to head to the kitchen to try new recipes out and most of all, are what get me to write about food as much as I have in the past few years.  The best thing about food is that the trends are always evolving, but the basics are here to stay too. So there is never a shortage of things to explore, new ingredients to play with, recipes to try, and in a city like Boston, restaurants to review, making it the perfect subject to write about for me.

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5 thoughts on “Reflecting on why I write about food

  1. Thanks for opening with my book, Michelle. I read the whole post with interest. What intrigued me most was how your parents retreated to their room after dinner, leaving you and your sister to wander around the house. So much of food writing is really about love, family dynamics, and emotion.

    • Thanks for checking it out and I look forward to finishing your book! I agree and admit a disconnect between my parents and myself and look forward to breaking the chain at my own household to extend beyond the dinner table!

  2. Michelle,
    Glad to hear you are reading the book I gave you and that you are enjoying it. I could definitely not resist buying it for you and really enjoyed your article here. xoxo

  3. I know this post is a little old, but I just came across your blog when I was doing some research about why people write about food. I’m a Masters candidate in a Food Studies program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. My focus is food writing and food as communication (through words, art, culture, what it means to sit down at the table and eat together, etc.).

    I love this post, and I actually JUST purchased Will Write For Food about a week ago (funny that I came across this post about that exact book). I’ve been wanting to start a food blog, but I get tied up in the nostalgia part – because I don’t have much childhood food nostalgia, so I get self conscious about that, that I might not having anything to write about. My parents cooked very basic meals. Don’t get me wrong, I have a number of food memories from being a kid, but most of my more vivid ones come from adulthood. A lot of my food experience comes from learning how to cook, visiting other cities, exploring my own, and going out to eat.

    Your post gave me a little boost of encouragement. I’m going to keep following – you’re a lovely writer and I really enjoy finding new blogs that inspire me. I also can’t wait to tuck into Will Write for Food once my summer semester wraps up

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