Monday, December 1, 2014

Why I Will Never Be a Food Writer

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Madhur Jaffrey speak. Jaffrey is the well-known writer of Indian cookbooks, and her first, from 1973, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, is considered a classic among those of us who love Indian food. She had recently published her memoir, Climbing the
Mango Trees, and I was eager to hear her speak. Her talk covered stories from her book but one thing stood out. When she described her first taste of something, I could taste it too. Her descriptions of meals in her childhood home covered every aspect, from the smallest arrangement of eggs on a plate to the proper presentation of salt and jams. After reading her memoir I scurried to the kitchen to make one of her recipes. She is popular as a cookbook author partly because she understands how a western kitchen works, and what constitutes a meal in the West.

In my most recent Anita Ray mystery novel I thought about including a description of a favorite taste, or an experience of discovering a delicious food, but when I began to write I knew I would never be a food writer or critic. When I was a teenager I took a tour to Europe and one day, famished from walking all over Copenhagen alone and impatient for a dinner that was yet several hours away, I stopped at a small cafe and ordered a cup of tea and read the menu. The waiter brought bread and butter, and I took a piece, something akin to a baguette, and slathered on the butter. I had homemade butter as a child on a farm but this taste was entirely new. I can't describe it but I can describe the amusement the waiter exhibited when I showed up the next day, with a friend, and we ordered bread and butter. The taste has faded but the scene is vivid.

A few years ago I traveled to Kanya Kumari, at the southern tip of India, to be blessed by water where three oceans meet. This is a tourist site of long standing, with little glamour to be found anywhere. My two friends, both elderly Indian women who spoke little or no English, and I stopped at a cafe for lunch. Without them I wouldn't have dared eat anything prepared there, but Lakshmee insisted and we sat down. The waiter ignored me, gave menus to my friends, and proceeded to ask them for their order. Lakshmee was furious at my being ignored but I understood this was the silent protest of the Tamil sick of foreigners invading his land. He brought our dosas and chutney and to this day that is the best coconut chutney I have ever had. No other version has ever come close. The memory is almost--almost--overwhelmed by the story of the waiter.

As a writer I'm alert to the world around me, always ready to see an image that will enrich a story setting, or a line of dialogue that will nail a character perfectly. Fragrances capture me easily and immediately, but I cannot write of any of these without also telling the story of how they came to me. In her memoir, it's clear that the experience of the meals and food is the story of Madhur Jaffrey's life, as it can never be of mine. I will never be a food writer or critic but I will certainly have experiences around food that will enrich my fiction.


  1. That's very interesting, Susan, and I can relate to it. I also have memories of events surrounding food but I've always thought my taste buds are entirely pedestrian--to me bread and butter is just as good as the most delicate cake. However, three oceans coming together sends my mind soaring.

  2. The butter was unbelievable. I've visited Kanya Kumari several times and it's always wonderful.

  3. I have two of Jaffrey's cookbooks and use them frequently. Would love to hear her speak! Must read the memoir. And yes, good butter is heavenly.

  4. Edith, she came to speak at the Peabody Essex Museum a few years ago, and the room was packed. She's done about 40 cookbooks, I think, but I only have two.

  5. I love food myself, but would never attempt a cookbook. I keep my cooking simple.

  6. Most of my cooking is simple, but I love Indian food (which is anything but simple) and I love Indian cookbooks, though I would never try writing one. Thanks for coming by, Jacquie.