Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kirsten Dixon: A Suspicion of Nutmeg

Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.   ~ M.F.K. Fisher 
When my husband Carl and I left Anchorage to start our lives in the backcountry, I brought along a small box of cookbooks. As Carl worked on the main lodge he was building, and I remained behind in our small cabin, reading books, particularly cookbooks, occupied my day. These books became the authorities on cooking and they were the only voices available to me. Soon, I was writing and sharing my own stories, first in a small bush mailer, then in a regional commuter flight magazine, on to Alaska Magazine, the Anchorage Daily News, and beyond.

And, I cooked, I wrote and read. I read books in French, about early U.S. settlements, I read about a group of starving women interred in a Holocaust camp. They wrote a cookbook together in the night to remember meals they once cooked for families they no longer had. My walls began to fill up with books. I wrote one cookbook and then another. I went from my first stumbling dinner party to owning a cooking school, teaching people how to cook and how to write about the language and culture of food.
“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.” Opening lines from The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
 For me, a piece of good food writing is much like any other kind of writing – it is not just about the food. It is about place and time, memories and dreams, home, family, and all those human tensions that weave through our lives. The civilized competes with the wild, the rational with whimsy, constraint with abandon. Food writing can live within any writing; a scene of conflict at the table, a reflective poem of longing, a memoir, or work of nonfiction. Placing moments of food creation, consumption or reflection can offer a particular lens and focus to your writing.

One piece I love to share is MFK Fisher’s short story “Define This Word.” It’s a reflection on an afternoon stop at a restaurant where Fisher was the only diner. She stopped expecting mediocre cuisine but ended up feasting on a multi-course formal luncheon. The only dialogue is with Fisher’s enthusiastic server. It’s too long to include in entirety, but here is a small preview. Fisher has asked what flavor she tasted in the pâté she has just been served:
“Marc, Madame!” And she awarded me the proud look of a teacher whose pupil has showed unexpected intelligence. “Monsieur Paul, after he has taken equal parts of goose breast and the finest pork, and broken a certain number of egg yolks into them, and ground them very, very fine, cooks all with seasoning for some three hours. But,” she pushed her face nearer, and looked with ferocious gloating at the pâté inside me, her eyes like X-rays, “he never stops stirring it! Figure to yourself the work of it— stir, stir, never stopping! “Then he grinds in a suspicion of nutmeg, and then adds, very thoroughly, a glass of marc for each hundred grams of pâté. And is Madame not pleased?” Again I agreed, rather timidly, that Madame was much pleased, that Madame had never, indeed, tasted such an unctuous and exciting pâté.
The essay can be found in a book called The Gastronomical Me which is included in a collection of MFK Fisher books called The Art of Eating by Joan Reardon.

Here are a few other books worth reading that contain good food writing: 
  • Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History, Mark Kurlansky
  • Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, David Remnick
  • Best Food Writing by Holly Hughes  (anthology published annually)
  • American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, Molly O’Neill 
Did you notice the phrase “suspicion of nutmeg” above? There are plenty of correct phrases and slang, format rules for recipes, etc. in food writing. Two good resources to learn more about this are:
  • The Recipe Writer's Handbook, Barbara Gibbs Ostmann
  • Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More, Dianne Jacob
Jacob’s book does a good job of explaining all the opportunities for types of food writing. Both these books recommend writers to craft a personal style sheet. I think that is particularly good advice for any writer.

There’s nothing worse than a writer inserting a stilted, lifeless attempt at food culture into an otherwise decent piece of writing. Read Grubstreet’s online list of words and phrases that should be eliminated from aculinary vocabulary. Some examples are “enrobe” (rather than basting a turkey, it brings to mind Hugh Heffner standing in your kitchen), “addictive” (food is not a drug), and “epic” (Lord of the Rings is epic, dinner is not) as common offenders. You’ll have to take one of our 49 Writers classes on food writing to learn more favorites.

Finally, in a world now awash with blogs and brands, YouTube and Instagram, food writing has become both diminished and enriched by the opportunity of the entire world to participate. My little box of cookbooks that I started with holds less information than I might find in a long day of Internet searching. But, they are still there on my shelf, old dusty friends.  

There’s obviously so much more to say on this subject. I encourage those interested to start or join a food writer’s group in your community. This should involve good food and perhaps some wine (and invite me for a visit).

It’s been a pleasure to write for you this month. Please consider sharing your own voice with us all. Happy Thanksgiving!

 Kirsten Dixon owns two remote wilderness lodges in Alaska. She is the author of The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Wilderness and co-author of the Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook: Coastal Cuisine from the Wilds of Alaska. She co-owns the La Baleine Café with her daughter Mandy. She likes to know what other people are reading and uses every opportunity to find out. Her email is


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it's about food and loved ones. After reading this post, I'm inspired to go write about it! Thank you, Kirsten.

Dianne Jacob said...

Thanks for the mention of Will Write for Food, Kirsten. I love your analogy of Hugh Hefner re "enrobing."