Food writing: from gourmet to gourmand

Just when you think you’ve read all the greats, along come Russell Chatham and Jim Harrison

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Photography by J. Allen

I can’t remember how I first became interested in food writing. But I think it might’ve had something to do with reading Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. I bought it after seeing her TV show, Nigella Bites, in 2000, thinking it was a cookbook. And it is, but the tome ended up on my night table for weeks because amongst the recipes are beautifully written anecdotes about all that stuff that happens in between mealtimes: you know, life.

Nigella led me to Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher. And over the next several years I plowed through the pantheon of usual suspects, both old and new, including Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Craig Claiborne, Bill Buford, Anthony Bourdain, Nigel Slater, Gabrielle Hamilton and Calvin Trillin. I may have bought a food writing anthology or two, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anyone. And then I decided that I’d read everything on the matter. Call it the cockiness of youth. Or just laziness.

I saw the error of my ways last November. I was going through my mom’s copy of Edna Staebler’s Food that Really Schmecks, a collection of Mennonite recipes from Waterloo County, looking for the banana bread recipe of my youth. And there, amongst the shoo-fly pie, Marje Moyer’s noodle casserole and pigs knuckles and sauerkraut, was more of the prose that I’ve come to associate with my favourite food writers; writing that’s never fussy, just honest, warm, sometimes humourous, and usually oozing with nostalgia. (Coincidently, Staebler frequently wrote for Maclean’s in the 1950s.)

And then, on a streetcar ride home on a chilly night in December, I came across two short stories in the second issue of Lucky Peach (the magazine put out by Momofuku chef David Chang and McSweeney’s) by someone named Russel Chatham. And I devoured them. Who was this Chatham? A new hotshot food writer who could wax poetic about fishing, bird hunting, sea urchins drowned in beurre blanc, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, how to cook a perfect wild duck, and women’s breasts all with the same intensity and vigour? Russell Chatham, as many of you know, is not new, and he’s not even primarily a writer. He’s an American painter, whose beautiful, soft and hazy landscapes are collected by the likes of Jack Nicholson. And the two stories in Lucky Peach were both from Dark Waters, a collection of short stories dating back to 1988.

Chatham led me to his friend, writer Jim Harrison, whom you may know as the author of the novella Legends of the Fall. Harrison also writes poetry and non-fiction, and the matter of food permeates the latter in the same visceral fashion as in Chatham’s work, albeit with slightly more finesse. On the weekend I plowed through Just Before Dark, a collection of Harrison’s prose that appeared in Esquire and the New Yorker, among others, and it was sublime.

I stumbled on Chatham and Harrison by chance. And it’s made me anxious to think I’ve missed more worthy food writers out there.  My suspicions were confirmed after watching a screener copy of Anthony Bourdain’s new TV show, The Layover, on Monday night. In one scene Bourdain pulls down choice selections from the shelves of his favourite New York book store, including  Le Bonne Table by Ludwig Bemelmans and The Whole Beast by Fergus Henderson, and admonishes anyone who hasn’t read them. That would include me.

So, I’m starting a list of food writers that I haven’t yet read. And I’m inspired to crack open the spines of titles that I’ve been given, or have bought, but still haven’t opened, like Jennifer McLagan’s Bones. I also have a feeling that I need to pick up a copy of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef immediately, because after overhearing some pretty colourful commentary from one half of the team behind the Montreal restaurant, Dave McMillan, at Martin Picard’s Sugar Shack—and after reading “The Art of Toilet Cleanliness according to Joe Beef” in the third issue of  Lucky Peach—I suspect I will enjoy McMillan and Fred Morin’s style of writing very much indeed.

What other food writers have I been neglecting?  I trust you will let me know.