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Food for Thought

Food writing: The good, the bad, and the regurgitated

For the latest course in our Food for Thought series, we have a chat with enRoute magazine editor and Edible Nonfiction Challenge judge Ilana Weitzman on the highs and lows of food writing.

What's some of the best food writing you've read recently?
There was an amazing piece on the Chicago chef Grant Achatz in The New Yorker a few years back, called "A Man of Taste." The avant-garde chef had been diagnosed with tongue cancer, and the writer, D. T. Max, documented how Achatz used the experience to understand the fundamental mechanics of taste in a way no one else could really access, rethinking our notions of food. Max covered the aching reality of the illness while zooming in on the delicate artistry of Achatz's food. It was compelling stuff. 

I can also still read Alan Richman's excoriating piece on airport dining in Conde Nast Traveler and laugh out loud. To wit: "I realize that all eating establishments are permitted a certain degree of latitude in bragging about their wares, an immunity from honesty that started the very first time a second-rate chef described his cooking as gourmet, but airport restaurants are more shameless than most. They somehow feel unconstrained, entitled to endorse themselves in whatever misleading language comes to mind. It's as though they've been granted amnesty from accuracy." 

What's the most vile food description you've ever read?

I just read that scene in The Sisters Brothers last night where the two cowboy hitmen, Eli and Charlie, find a boy starving out in the desert. The kid bolts the food offered by the brothers and then, unsurprisingly, throws it back up. He pauses for a moment to consider whether or not he should eat the regurgitated food. Somehow Patrick deWitt manages to make this funny.  
As the editor of a travel magazine, can you tell us what food can say about a place, and the culture of that place?
Outside of diplomacy, the other place you'll find the fiercest forms of national pride is in food. I mean, the Greeks have essentially trademarked feta and god forbid anyone should intimate that sparkling wine is Champagne. But that also means it's a secret doorway into the heart of a destination's culture. I remember eating a marathon dinner during a story I was doing on Lisbon for enRoute, and the chef's sister just sat herself down at our table to chat. She explained that the whole food culture massively shifted after the Salazar regime ended, which opened the doors to importing all kinds of new ingredients in the '70s. Chefs who were born around that time were the new face of Portuguese cuisine. So you could do a full reading of the political history of that place through what was on the plate. Sharing a meal with someone, as a journalist, is an intimate thing -- it gives you great access to people.  

You mentioned adjective overkill as the undoing of many fledgling food writers. Any other pitfalls you've encountered as an editor when it comes to food writing?
Please refrain from using the line, "It was the single best thing I'd ever tasted." I have read this in countless drafts. That said, I left a version of it in our December ice fishing story because I ate the dessert the writer was referring to and, well, he wasn't lying. 

You're judging our Edible Nonfiction Challenge. What will you be looking for?
A great story. If it happens to make my stomach rumble (or turn), all the better. 

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ilana.jpgIlana Weitzman is the editor-in-chief of enRoute, Air Canada's award-winning magazine. Many of the food pieces she has edited have been included in the Best Food Writing anthology alongside work from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and several have been nominated for National Magazine Awards. She has won Gold and Silver National Magazine Awards for her reporting and editing, along with an award of merit from the North American Travel Journalists Association.  

Photo credit: Malina Corpadean

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