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Enough about Food

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Wally Neibart

There was a time when food writers wrote about food. They were evangelists for a particular cuisine, ingredient, or dish. Although they took literary excursions into the French countryside, or to a favorite out-of-the-way trattoria, their mission in life was to instill in the reader their passion for the sensuous pleasures of eating and drinking. They also gave good recipes. If the Sunday food column of the New York Times is any guide, food writers now mostly write about themselves.

Early this year the word "I" appeared nine times in the first paragraph of one such column. "My" pushed the personal pronoun total into double digits. Two items of food made a belated appearance at the end of the paragraph. One was fried chicken purchased from a national franchise. The food column appearing the Sunday that I am writing this column has nine personal references, although a richer variety of them: "I," "we," "my," and "us." No item of food sullies the prose until the end of the third paragraph.

My favorite bit of self-referential food writing came many months earlier, when readers of the Sunday column could follow the writer's courtship. It began with a rocky bit of sweetener incompatibility (he liked the artificial stuff and she didn't). It proceeded through the uncertain middle stages of meeting the folks and other hurdles true romance must leap. Then, one glorious Sunday, we saw the beaming couple on the Times' wedding page. By then we felt that we knew them so well that a gift would be appropriate, perhaps something by Julia Child.

I do not object to this mode of writing out of principle, or even out of nostalgia for more recipes and less author. It's self-interest. If the market is for writing about food writers, those of us who lead extremely dull lives — and wish they were even duller — can never publish a cookbook. What is to become of a food writer wannabe who met his mate on a committee and counts staying awake through a movie as a personal triumph?

One answer is to give up any hope of writing about food. Another possibility, more venal — hence more appealing — is to invent an exciting life and build a cuisine around it. In a shameless act of self-promotion (I'm trying to get in the groove), here are some cookbook prospectuses, looking for a publisher:

Cooking on the Lam: Recipes from the Witness Protection Program
If you're moving around a lot and it is "inconvenient" to be seen in public for a while, it's hard to get good home cooking. Me and the little woman want to share with you who have to "travel" on short notice some quick and tasty dishes, easily prepared in a motel room. These are fool-proof recipes, guaranteed to satisfy the inner snitch without setting off the smoke detector or otherwise attracting unwanted "attention."

The Gatsby Gastronome: Food Adventures of the Rich and Fatuous
It was an unusually stifling summer in the Hamptons when Chip and Muffy decided to try something different. "I'm bored," said Chip, "whatever can we do that we haven't done?" "Perhaps something ordinary?" "What," Chip responded, "we've already tried sex and watching television?" "I have it!" Muffy exclaimed, "Cooking." "Capital. I suppose we'll need a kitchen. I think there's one somewhere in the back of the house." Who could have guessed that out of that mundane conversation would come the little-watched PBS series Trivial Cooking with Muffy and Chip?

Cowboy Jack's Bean Cuisine
Out here in the wide open spaces, with a bunch of cows, horses, and mean hombres smellin' bad, you might think it's tough to be a vegetarian. ...

Psycho About Food: Secret Recipes From the Bates Hotel
As mother always says, even imaginary friends may have food allergies. ...

Guido, the Gourmet Gangster
Great cooks are "made," not born and they gotta learn to figure out what to do when something good and fresh comes their way out of the blue. That's how me and the guys came up with a real "family favorite" — fish in a jacket. ...

There is yet another, potentially risky, alternative: write about food and hope somebody cares.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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