Awaiting the 2009 edition

Food geekery (what I talk about when I talk about food writing)

You’ve got your copy of Fire & Knives.

You’ve turned it over in your hands. Admired the neat hand(man)bag size. Fondled the paper. Scanned through quickly. Wondered where to start. Felt a curious warm feeling. Loved the retro design and adverts. Touched the paper (again). Mulled over the contents, undecided whether to read from front to back, dip in randomly, pick the most enticing item first, or save it until last. You’ve held it close to your face; breathed in the wonderful print and paper aroma. Given thanks that the editor and publisher (one Mr T Hayward) had the idea in the first place AND upgraded the paper beyond the bounds of known gsm ratings (did I mention the paper already) to bring you the ultimate in new geeky food writing.

Touch it, smell it, read it.....
Touch it, smell it, read it.....


Well, its only going to last a certain time. You can devour it voraciously. You can eke it out article by article. You can re-read. But there’s only so long 108 pages can last. And its not the 3 months until the next issue is due.

So what are you going to do in the meantime? You could watch the F-Word. Or various Jamie or Hugh identikit TV programs. Flip through Olive or BBC Good Food or……you could read recipe books and blogs. But I know you’ll feel bereft. Because you’ve found something slightly offbeat, quirky, interesting. You might not have loved every article but they were all good. That’s not to say that other glossier publications, books and TV shows don’t have a place. It’s simply that sometimes you want real far out there food geekery.

Fear not. There are more quirky publications than you might imagine. Here’s some thoughts on things to try whilst you wait for the next issue of Fire & Knives. And a little tale of how one thing leads to another.

It’s all Elizabeth David’s fault….

Ah good old ED...

The first vaguely food geeky thing I read was Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. OKAY. I know. Cue eye-rolling all round. Well hang on there. Its not like I’m talking last week. And I know its tedious and a well worn path to cite ED as an inspiration blah blah blah. I didn’t learn to cook from ED; I didn’t learn to love food from ED; I had already learnt plenty of that elsewhere. What I did find was writing that made you wish you’d been there too and writing that added that extra geeky layer of information about food, its history, its provenance. Why did X do this, why was Z traditional and so on. And at the back of the book a reference to a journal dedicated to food studies and food history….

…….Petits Propos Culinaires (PPC)

PPC - most quirky....
PPC - most quirky....

So of course I subscribed, I wanted to know everything there was to know about food. Back then, and I’m only talking the late 80s, there was no blogging, no twitter, no internet community, no easy way to find other people obsessed with food. So I subscribed and I read, avidly, and I still do. PPC is a curious mix of learned border-line academic articles and good stuff written by mates (not my mates, the publishers mates), and a few things you wonder what they are doing in there. And then you realise the same people are also involved in two other off the wall food things….

….firstly….Prospect Books….

A selection from Prospect Books....
A selection from Prospect Books....

Prospect Books was (and is) the publisher of PPC. But they also publish delightfully quirky and sometimes completely nutty books. Over the years I’ve found treatises on trifle and on marmalade, facsimiles of Hannah Glasse, whole books devoted to the Mallorcan dish pa amb oli (bread and oil), or Afghan food and much more besides. Prospect books was started by the Alan Davidson with his wife. It’s now run by Tom Jaine and it’s as wonderfully quirky as ever.

and then…. the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery…..

this is about as fascinatingly quirky and geeky as it comes in the food world. Again inaugurated by Davidson with the likes of ED, Anne Willan and Nicholas Kurti being in there from the beginning, it set out to provide a place for those interested in food to discuss it in a relatively academic way. This is way way way before degrees in Gastronomic Arts started to appear. It was a curious meeting of all those who loved food and had a deep interest in it whatever their background. It wasn’t an academic conference in the sense that anyone could go (the same is true today), you pay your money you get to turn up. Along the way I’ve heard the likes of Margaret Visser, Claudia Roden, Raymond Blanc, Paul Levy, Heston Blumenthal and many others. The food has always been fantastic, how could it not have been. Its sad that H&S regs stopped the ‘bring and share’ lunch but with the likes of Fergus Henderson, Bompas & Parr and Raymond Blanc cooking up a feast this year why would you want to miss out. In my experience its pretty hard to get to present a paper unless you are in the know, but if you are after an uber eclectic experience then this is the place to find it. The papers that are presented are collected and published the following year. They are a mine of information but are not for the faint hearted.

So as I’ve delved deeper and wider into the world of food geekery I’ve come across other things worth reading too. I’ve harboured a desire to really understand and explore all aspects of food and meaning and that’s meant I’ll read everything and anything once and also means I’ve devoted more of my free time than I can count to reading about so many aspects of food. Its lead me to quite academic places, ending up with deciding to do an MA (nearly there on that with just my dissertation to complete very soon). But its been great fun. Here’s some of the other things I’ve found:

Best Food Writing:

Awaiting the 2009 edition
Awaiting the 2009 edition

Going to the Oxford Symposium and reading PPC lead me to a lot of the other things on this list, but I spotted this annually published collection on a holiday to the States and I’ve been buying it ever since. Its been another way I’ve found out about good writers and publications. Its been published since 2000 and you can still get all the back copies if you trawl around on Amazon. You’ll find some of the other people I mention here rubbing shoulders with a range of writers from primarily, but not exclusively the US. Its like reading the great writing from lots of magazines and newspapers and tends to send you out on a flurry of subscribing to RSS feeds, adding too many things to your Amazon list and the like. And I believe that the 2009 edition includes an article by the aforementioned Mr T Hayward – I am awaiting delivery of my copy any day now – hey it just arrived whilst I was loading this post :)

Simple Cooking:

Homespun charm...
Homespun charm...

This is about as home spun as it comes. Its charming and informative. John Thorne knows his stuff and is always keen to investigate the whys and wherefores of recipes, try out knew things and share what he found. Its almost blog like in the way its written, except he’s been doing this since before any of us had the internet, first in print and now in a choice of print of PDF download. Although many of the dishes are American, John eats his way round the world from his home in Massachusetts. To help you catch up there are a number of books of John’s collected writing though for me they don’t have quite the charm of receiving an email saying the next issue is ready to download and then reading from cover to cover (well actually there aren’t any covers but you know what I mean).

The Art of Eating:

Always insightful...

Another US production, this time from Edward Behr who is based in Vermont. It ranges from in depth articles on produce to restaurant and book reviews. Its primarily North American and European based in terms of cuisines but the articles and reviews are insightful, thorough and its on very nice paper.

Jeffrey Steingarten:

Torn from Vogue
Torn from Vogue

Steingarten has been the food writer at Vogue since 1989 and before his first collection of pieces (The Man who ate Everything) was published in 1997, I used to buy US Vogue just to read him, tearing the pages out to keep and throwing away the rest. He is detailed, obsessive and humorous by turns, bent on finding ways to make wonderful food at home. It’s always amazed me that Vogue was prepared to have his writing sit alongside the fashion and fluff. This is a man who blocks up the vents on his oven in an attempt to get it to proper pizza oven temperature and who talks in graphic detail about the killing of a pig in his quest to make the perfect boudin. Always interesting, always quirky. The man is brilliant. I just wish US Vogue didn’t cost about £5 a month to buy.


Nearly every copy ever...
Nearly every copy ever...

Ok we are getting quite hardcore geeky with this one. Published by the University of California Press this is starting to get fairly academic in style. Mind you its got a good line in glossy paper and provocative covers. It’s a range of social science type articles but I’d mostly say its social science ‘lite’. You don’t have to be a fully paid up anthropologist, sociologist or cultural studies person to be able to get where it’s coming from but it’s not light and fluffy either. The articles aren’t academic papers but I suspect stem from academic research. It covers a lot of ground from offbeat food related art works, old cookery books to traditional foods, issues of food supply and technology and more.

Oxford Companion to Food:

Magnum opus....
Magnum opus....

This is Alan Davidson’s magnum opus. It’s a great reference work on so many aspects of food, wonderful for dipping in and out of when you think, “I just wonder where/what/how…”. Its great but there are gaps and that’s part of the appeal, its not as all encompassing as you might like but for me that spurs the imagination to go and find out more from other resources. Of course if you don’t have all of AD’s books on fish then you should get them too, they are fascinating studies by a man who’s day job was as a diplomat and then spent his spare time being passionate about food and becoming esteemed in his own right, finally winning the Erasmus prize in 2003 for his contribution to the birth of Food Studies.

Surrounded by groaning bookcases....
Surrounded by groaning bookcases....

There’s so much I’ve missed off. I could go on and on and on. My bookcases are stuffed full of books about food and I reckon that less than a ¼ are what most people would think of as recipe books. The rest are a combination of reference books, books about a specific ingredient, or region, or country, there’s food history, food science, food culture, out and out academia, pictures and humour. Old books, new books, books for reading cover to cover, books for dipping in and out of. Biographies, magazines, journals, facsimiles, originals, unread and well thumbed. All in all I’m surrounded by in excess of 800 food related books and counting.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about food writing. Go on release you inner geek and try something new this Christmas.

17 thoughts on “Food geekery (what I talk about when I talk about food writing)”

  1. What an absolutely brilliant post! Jeffrey Steingarten in particular has been a huge inspiration for me. Before I read his stuff I felt a bit like I was almost doing something wrong by being so geeky about food but he inspired me to embrace the geekyness within. I really wanted to go to the symposium this year but then I couldn’t afford it unfortunately. I’m really going to try and save for it this year.
    .-= Helen´s last blog ..Food Stories on South City Radio =-.

  2. So interesting, and so much stuff there I have never heard of and must get into soon.

    Thanks so much, and I look forward to part 2 of your suggested geeky food reading list :)

  3. An inspirational read Linda! I love that you have more books than me :-) (phew she thinks, not the only one to have accumulated lots of food books…)

    Completely agree with you on Fire & Knives, the Art of Eating and Gastronomica (we share similar tastes in our journal subscriptions) and thrilled to learn about Prospect’s catalogue and the best food writing annuals. Will have to check them out

    we could start our own little food geekery book club ;-)
    .-= scandilicious´s last blog ..A booklover’s wishlist for Christmas =-.

  4. Wow. What an inspiring post. Like you and Helen I’m a big Steingarten fan. And often find myself completely immersed in the “Good Food Writing” books as well. Our local charity shop had a collection of them and I couldn’t resist.
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..Chez Sam in Essaouria =-.

  5. I love your list – so useful! And we could go halves on US Vogue – I’ll keep the fashion, you keep the rest? Brit Vogue used to have great food in it too, Annie Bell was followed by Nigella then Skye Gyngell. Obviously they were just recipes rather than JS’s essays – my fave was when he tried to make Southern Fried Chicken!
    .-= Alex´s last blog ..Earth: Art of a changing world =-.

  6. I’m glad to have whetted appetites for some new geeky adventures an delighted to have found some fellow geeks. There is so much great and weird food writing out there as well as all the recipe books. I think Sig is onto something with the idea of a food geekery book club, it would be brilliant we could read a book and then meet to eat and discuss :)

    The main disadvantage of having posted this is that my family have now seen how many books i have and erm probably won’t buy me any more :(

    Helen: I love the fact that Steingarten is obsessed by food and makes the quest to find out about something seem entirely normal, very funny and not in the slightest bit quirky. I’d love to go tot he symposium again especially if there were a group of us would be great fun. I think its in July this year.

    Lynne: glad to have introduced you to some new things to read.

    Grethic: Obsessed? Me? Never :0

    Scandilicious: you’ve got plenty of time to catch up…..

    Jonathan: the ‘Best Food Writing’ books are brilliant, shame there isn’t a UK based one as well I’ll bet there are plenty of great writers we haven’t found yet.

    Alex: liking the idea of halves on US Vogue. I have to admit i did look at the fashion as well but I turned to JS first.

    Dan: Glad to have opened yer Essex eyes. Cheese info on its way soon :)

  7. Linda, I can’t believe I missed this. I can only think it is due to being posted just before Christmas. It’s brilliant. You’re a clever old sausage aren’t you? ;o)

    Loved it.
    .-= Jan´s last blog ..An Ample Christmas =-.

  8. What a fantastic post ! I love the comment about unread books and well thumbed, it reminds me of the writer Umberto Eco who with a library of 30,000 books claims that the more you know on a subject the more unread books you will have.

    In the book Black Swan, Nassim Taleb talks about a library being a research tool which is exactly the point your post makes!

    .-= paul´s last blog ..Classic pot-au-feu =-.

  9. What a lovely post. I have just received my copy of Best Food Writing 2009 today and am looking forward to pouring a large glass of red and reading through some of it this evening.

    The Art of Eating is something I’m going to have to look into asap.

    Love your collection of books, and seeing them all makes me feel better about my ever growing collection too.
    .-= George@CulinaryTravels´s last blog ..The Making Of A Baker =-.

  10. Oops bit behind on responding to comments – I got lost in the library – honest!

    Jan: Not sure about being a clever old sausage more a compulsive buyer of books (and erm other stuff hmmm)

    Heavenly H: I am going for the World Record….

    Paul: I think Umberto is right the more you read the more you want to know, I love the research bit as much as the cooking and eating bits.

    George: Art of Eating is great and they are on Twitter too tho they don’t say much. And Best Food Writing is brilliant I have decide to recap from the start of the collection – I may be some time :S

Comments are closed.