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    The Art of the Food Essay

    The muddy earth is spotted red and green. No perfect, waxed apples will do. I take a brown paper bag and pick up the small, often pitted, apples with their matte finish and uneven sides. The scent of Empire, McIntosh and North Spies sweep over me; I am transported to the backyard of the house my mother lived, and died, in.

    The final year of her life, I traveled cross-country many times, with two babies as my constant companions. I cooked for her, but only the simple meals she could eat. The first two weeks of September were so draining and sad that it wasn't until the day she died that I saw the trees were dropping their apples.

    Needing some comfort and a way to comfort others, I put on an apron and lifted the skirt for carrying the apples back to the kitchen. I remember standing at the sink, too weary to feel tired, looking into the back yard at those twisted trunks, peeling apples, measuring flour, sugar, cinnamon, rolling pie crust and crimping edges.

    And so a food essay is born.

    Think of an essay as an article turned personal. Instead of writing objectively about events, people and news, an essay requires the writer's emotional involvement. The individual voice, and the writer's passion, are what make the essay so compelling to read, and to write. I find weaving together a story, written with the immediacy of the experience, is one of the most honest and rewarding ways to write about food.

    Writing an article provides the writer with the opportunity for detaching from the material. Reviewing a restaurant requires an analytical objectivity that still allows the writer to pen the piece from a distance.

    The essayist writes from emotions, ordinary or raw, taking the reader along with her. Writing the food essay goes one better; we provide entertainment, memories and enlightenment about food history, cuisines, recipes and ingredients.

    Essays tell stories but they differ from journalism or critical writing. Essays are narratives, with distinctive, intelligent and individual voices. Essays are born of raw material available to each of us, and refined in the writing. An advantages of writing food essays is that you can write them where you are. No thriving metropolitan backdrop is required; no whirlwind tour of other continents is needed for the foundation of your essay. Write what you like, make, bake and dream about.

    In the essay we tell the truth about the world we know but the essay combines the factual and the literary. In _Endless Feasts_, "Down East Breakfast" by Robert P. Coffin opens with "Weather, mother of good poetry, is also mother of good breakfasts." With one sentence he lets the reader know where he is going. A second essay, "Two for the Road: Havana, North Dakota," by Jane and Michael Stern, paints the following scene, "As dawn's mist lifts away from the black earth west of the Bois de Sioux River and rows of sunflowers coil up to face the daybreak like solders coming to attention, a pot of coffee is put on to brew at the Farmer's Inn." I love it, don't you? It is clear what's important to the writer, that the story they are spinning is just waking up. Like these essayists, you will write from your particular point of view.

    Experiment with inventive devices to hook the reader or illustrate your story. Write love poems to your favorite sweets or a limerick about Irish stew. Turn yourself into a character in the story. Exaggerate, create a funny ending that never took place, be playful. Take your reality and be creative. Share recipes to illustrate your family's best cookies. Write of epiphanies when you realized that combining mango with chipotle chili powder made your corn muffins award-winning.

    While there are as many variations on food essays as there are food writers, here are some categories to get you reflecting on what you have to offer as an essayist.

    Writing food memories can take you back to birthday dinners, eating fresh picked corn, baking cookies with your children, Thanksgiving cranberry dishes. Magazines from Women's Day to Saveur publish food memoirs. The writer shares a moment in time symbolized by the food cooked or eaten. Share a part of your family's culinary history, or new things you've learned that changed the way you share cooking with your friends and family. The articles can vary between a first experience with pistachios to a family recipe for milk-soaked bread. The food doesn't have to be gourmet, or even edible.

    Make the story you are telling filled with suspense, or laugh out loud funny. Tell the story, filling it with suspense, building up to the laugh when the reader realizes the punchline, that the guest from England actually crunched her way through the shell of the unfamiliar pistachio nuts. Or tell the tale of a family tradition of eating plum pudding on Christmas day through the eyes of a child. Compare how it was to share the pudding when young to how it feels to be the parent, passing on traditions.

    Write nostalgic pieces on the processed foods of yesteryear, TV dinners, road houses that faded away with the encroachment of the Interstate. Write about penny candies including those before your time; let the reader relive joys of childhood. Interpret your life stories, family mythology or future dreams through food.

    Humor sells. Face it, food is fun. Celebrate it. Make your essays funny as well as fun to read. Cooking with children, eating fair food, scrambling pancakes and burning through pans may be more messy, nauseating, embarrassing and frustrating than it is laughable when you are in the middle of it. The humor often comes from how closely readers relate to the writing. You aren't the only one who's lost three foot-longs from the top of a ferris wheel, or caught pancakes on fire.

    Jeffrey Steingarten's witty personality shines in this opening paragraph from "Pain Without Gain," in _The Man Who Ate Everything_, and he lets his wife join in on the fun:

    "Last night I played the neatest trick on my wife. I grilled a slice of my best homemade French country bread, spread it thick with Promise Ultra Fat-Free nonfat margarine, set it on the counter, sat back and waited. Soon the toasty aroma drew my wife into the kitchen. Seeing the bread, she smiled broadly and took a bite. I'll never forget the way her smile froze, as she gagged, stumbled over to the kitchen sink, and gave up her mouthful of bread covered with Promise Ultra Fat-Free nonfat margarine. What fun we have together!"

    Write where you are. Essays allow you to enjoy food writing success wherever you are. You don't have to review restaurants in a specific location, nor do you have to travel to exotic locales to write up national cuisines. Walk around your neighborhood. What is unique to your town or region, can be unique to your writing. Church dinners, birthday parties, local diners, ethnic neighborhoods are all open to each writer's individual interpretation.

    Get out there and use who you are. Your daily life is filled with usable material. Look for the food in movies you watch, dinners you make (or just eat), your life as a chef, caterer or food stylist. Do research to authenticate and enhance your essay.

    Include recipes when appropriate. Have fun. Your readers will have fun too.

    Copyright © 2004 Pamela White

    Pamela White, author of "Become a Food Writer," publishes a newsletter on food writing and teaches online courses on the topic. Visit her and subscribe to the newsletter at http://www.food-writing.com.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ



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