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Periodic Periodical by Drew Tewksbury

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Food for Thinkers: And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Our Bread

Jan 22nd, 2011 @ 8:28 am

food network foodgasm

When music writers grow up, they become food writers. Or so says my long time friend and colleague Evan George from the veggie and beer blog, Hot Knives. Evan and I both began our journalism work at the long defunct L.A. Alternative, an alt-weekly (remember that term?) where he was an editor and I was a writer. We covered “fringe L.A.” which meant going to shows, delving into creative projects, and occasionally embarking on “adventure dining,” where he explored restaurants that had earned “C” health ratings, and I debunked the mysteries behind strip club lunches. Eventually George moved on from reviewing bands and writing about music, to take on covering health care for L.A.’s Daily Journal, cooking at the phenomenal bite-sized vegan/vegetarian restaurant Elf in Echo Park, and drinking lots of beer for Hot Knives. But he’s not the first music head to turn to the food side, the esteemed food guru Jonathan Gold, even started as a music writer. His N.W.A. cover piece for L.A. Weekly, is the stuff of legends. So why is there this overlap between music and food writing? How do they differ?

Both music and food journalism deal with writing about something intangible—something invisible. Sure, sound waves exist, but you can’t see them. And taste; there’s no accounting for it. So how do you describe something that is not there? Analogy, comparison, hyperbole, these are often the (overused) tools of a music journalist. Music journalists coin phrases and make up terms for genres that have never existed before. Chill wave? Witch House? Coke Rap? We describe something by its effects, like describing the wind by the movement of the trees. We ask how did these invisible soundwaves make a group of people dance, or cry, or riot? A concert is often described as a revelation, a moment to connect with something else out there, something unknown. Music accompanies religion whether it be in Gregorian chants, the great vibration of the Karmic Ohm , or a sweaty soul revival in a Biloxi Baptist church. We tune in, and turn it up, basking the sacredness of sound.  After a rock show, critics evaluate the moments of silence after the clamor, enjoying that ring in your ears all that’s left of an evening well-spent.

Food writing chronicles destruction by consumption. A culinary piece of art is created by an imaginative chef, then promptly destroyed by the critic. The speed and voracity by which the critic demolishes this piece is part of a chef’s success. Then the critic is left with the aftermath. There’s nothing left. Food writing deals not with the calm after the storm, but the fallout from an A-bomb appetite, a scorched earth-scenario left behind in cleared plates, empty glasses, and scattered crumbs. Shiva destroys the world, and rates the wreckage on a five-star scale.

Food writing is much more sensory related. Chemical reactions happen when tiramisu touches the tongue, or a cloud of bacon-wrapped hot dog scent wafts into the bar from the late night vendors lining the streets. So food writers utilize the language of the senses to unpack their experiences. And more often than not, this language is sexual. May we for ever forget the Top 10 Food Channel Foodgasms? The food-sex connection, much like the dancing/sex connection (Footloose was right!), is there, and food blogging at least, acknowledges that. Pornography is the only other media form that creates an actual physical reaction while viewing. Food writing does the same—especially in this age where a camera is attached to everything—as food writers capture meal, after meal in their iPhone’s eye, broadcasting to the world a taunting image, inviting to look, but don’t touch. The Food Network is Skin-a-max for Puritans. The explosion, mind the pun, of the term “food porn” in the blogosphere only further shows what we already know, but are afraid to say.

Despite these differences, food and music writing are linked. We communicate the way our bodies and imagination react to a stimulus. Food and music aren’t typically meant to be experienced alone. In restaurants and concert venues, patrons and audiences are surrounded by people, by strangers with whom they interact, and look to for cues on how to act. What is that person ordering? Should I dance to this song, or just cross my arms and sway? Choosing a restaurant, at least here in L.A., is much like going to the record store (remember those?); as you stare into the abyss of possibilities, wondering what experience you want for the day. And for music snobs, as we, ahem, they get older and fewer people are impressed by your knowledge of Black Flag B-sides or Kraut rock samples in Kanye West songs, foodie-ism is the next frontier of one-upping your friends. Can you taste the cave in cave aged cheese? Can you feel the freedom in your free-range chicken? Who knows, but it at least it sounds good. 

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD’s newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

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