One of the best things about living in Princeton is the access to events at the university, including a lecture yesterday on “Food, Writing, Intimacy.” It was standing room only, as some of my favorite writers and chefs spoke on a topic near and dear to them (and me). In the photo above, from left to right, are Christopher Albrecht, executive chef of Eno Terra in Kingston, New Jersey; Frank Bruni, columnist and former New York Times restaurant critic, Leonard Barkan, professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, Anita Lo, owner and chef of Annisa in NYC and Gabrielle Hamilton, author and chef at Prune in NYC.
To view a video of the entire talk, go here: http://english.princeton.edu/news/critical-encounters-series-food-writing-and-other-intimacies-video-stream
Over the course of an hour and a half, the speakers discussed topics ranging from sustainable farming to writing memoir and I wished it could have continued for another hour or more.
When Enoterra entered the dining scene here in the Princeton area, it immediately secured the spot as my favorite restaurant in the region, and that’s in no small part due to Christopher Albrecht, who started his career working for Tom Colicchio at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. It’s all about quality, not quantity, he told the audience, and it all starts with the soil. “The quality of our soil is at the heart of our health,” he said. Think about the clover that grows in a pasture. If the clover is not grown on good quality soil, it will affect the diet of the sheep that graze there. If the sheep aren’t eating good clover, it will affect the wool they produce, and the quality of garments that people wear. Now transpose that reasoning to food products that we eat and our dependence on chemical fertilizers that make crops grow unnaturally fast and prolific. Those chemical fertilizers do not produce the same kinds of crops that natural fertilizers like manure can or enrich the soil as natural compost does. Albrecht, who works at the restaurant’s farm three to four days a week, said it’s important to ask growers about their farming practices. “Our children’s children will bear the effects of the neglect of our soil,” he said.
Although Professor Leonard Barkan teaches comparative literature at Princeton, he writes about food for many publications in the U.S. and abroad. His love of food goes back to his first girlfriend years ago, he said. “I was more interested in food than she was. Then I became more interested in food than in her.” But his real culinary breakthrough began after he moved to Italy for a year for academic reasons, and lived “the secret life of a food and wine maven.” He has been wine editor for Gambero Rosso (the Italian equivalent of a Michelin guide to food and wine) for many years and in 2008, published a book about his love affair with Italy called “Satyr Square.”
Gastronomy is seldom elevated to a high position on the academic ladder, he said, yet Barkan has lectured on how scholarship and food collide, referencing a painting at London’s National Gallery. It’s a depiction taken from the bible, in the chapter of St. Luke where Mary and Martha have welcomed Jesus into their home. “Nearly all the painters who illustrate the story give little notice of the savior, while they spend a vast amount of space on Martha,” he said. In the painting below, Martha dominates the scene, pounding a pestle with all the fixings for a Catalan fish soup, he said.
Anita Lo, owner of Annisa, in New York City’s Greenwich Village, talked about how her childhood affected her thoughts about identity and food. Born to a Malaysian mother, she grew up in Michigan with multi-cultural influences. Her father died when she was very young, and was cared for by a Hungarian nanny, so “Chicken paprikash is one of my favorite foods,” she said. Later, her mother married a Caucasian man and most of her schoolmates were white as well. “There were less than a handful of people of color,” she said, later instilling in her the conviction to tell the story of her identity through food. “Through food, I can be who I am.” She scoffs at the idea of “fusion food,” saying that “All food is fusion. I don’t really believe in borders. Food at its very best can make you think, show you new things and new cultures,” she said. “At the end of the day, what’s important to me, though, is that it be delicious.”
Frank Bruni needs no introduction if you read the New York Times. He’s an op-ed columnist there, but served as restaurant critic for five years and was the newspaper’s Rome bureau chief before that. “To write about food is to write about life, and to write about life is to write about food,” he said. His memoir “Born Round” was an engaging portrayal of his struggle with weight since his childhood, complicated by his life as a food critic. The book also provides an intimate look at his Italian-American family and a man coming to terms with his homosexuality.
“There is no better way to write about a place than to write about its culinary rituals, ” he said. “To write about anything, if you are writing about it well, is to write about the food.” Sprinkled throughout his memoir are funny anecdotes detailing his efforts to maintain anonymity in a job where a bad review can spell economic doom for a restaurant. Bruni will be teaching a class in food writing next year at Princeton University.
Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef at Prune in New York City, is also the author of a wildly successful memoir called “Blood, Bones and Butter.” She always wanted to be a writer, but envisioned herself becoming a novelist, never a memoirist. However, the public’s current fascination with food and her job as a chef are what got her a book deal, she admits, and what the editors wanted was memoir.
“I am very glad that the world is obsessed with food right now. I am not that interested in food.”– a surprising statement coming from someone whose restaurant is a favorite of chefs and food writers. Although she holds a M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, her kitchen skills are what really served her best in writing the book, she said. She wrote it as though she were treating a reader as a guest in her restaurant, she said. The book is forthright, frank and unpretentious, not unlike the food at Prune.
One of the reasons both her book and Frank Bruni’s memoirs are so gripping is their intimate insight into their private lives. But therein lies the rub — Just how does a writer deal with the need for honesty while not alienating family members or friends who are in the book, I asked them.
Bruni replied that “I have a ridiculously loving family – a conflict-free family,” but he added that he wasn’t seeking to expose any dirty laundry about friends or relatives. “I can hang myself out to dry but I didn’t feel I had a right to do that with my family.”
Hamilton took a different approach, giving a copy of the manuscript to family before it was published and asking them to vet parts of it. There were very few complaints, she said. Although the book feels very intimate, there’s so much the reader doesn’t know, she explained. “I felt I dodged a bullet.”
If you’ve been thinking about writing a memoir, whether food related, travel or any other theme, I can’t think of a better place to get a jump start than by joining a group of writers (and one artist) in the hauntingly beautiful village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio for the “Italy, In Other Words”
workshop this June. Click here for more information
about the workshop and here to learn more about Santo Stefano di Sessanio
. Kathryn Abajian, who teaches classes in California as well, is the talented writing coach, and I will be your cultural guide, taking you on small excursions to help you find your muse. There are only a few spots open, so act now. I promise you it will be a magical week you won’t forget.