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What great food writing can do

Posted in Food & Entertaining

People often ask me if I watch food shows, if I am addicted to the Food Network, and they seem disappointed when I profess total ignorance in the matter. Aside from a few seasons of the Great British Baking Show I haven’t watched a food show in years. Even the beautiful documentaries on Netflix, like Chef’s Table, lose me after a season or so.

But I love reading about food. I find words to be more evocative than images – there are so many layers to a good food book, or a great cooking book, that go far beyond a single recipe or technique.

I am attracted to the stories behind the food, whether it’s historical details or personal memories. That is when food comes alive to me – not watching some badass chef building some complicated dish I am never going to taste. But writing about food in such a captivating way is hard. M.K. Fisher is the mother of the food writing I am talking about, and Gabrielle Hamilton sits on the same throne.

After getting through the first pages of Blood, Bones and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir of her early days and how she became a chef and a woman, I felt intense envy. How can someone be so talented? How unfair is it that this woman got to the top of the cooking heap and could also write so beautifully?

Made with wild rice, pasta and grapes

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef owner of Prune, a small restaurant in New York that has been a favorite of critics and lay people for many years now. I have never visited it and maybe I never will. As far as I am concerned, reading about Gabrielle’s food is enough for me.

Take her latest column for the NY Times Sunday Magazine, about some Greek rice I have never heard of. In 800 words or so, Gabrielle makes the case for a dish I am utterly unfamiliar with by reminiscing how she came about it, why she still makes it for Easter and how the dish has morphed from something involved served at her restaurant to a simpler version that now finds its place on her table at home.

All the while, she is winding the basics of this rice recipe through the tale of the years she spent on a small Greek island, isolated during the harsh winter, and how this dish now reminds her of Spring. I have never spent a winter on a Greek island – although I always wanted to – but this paragraph can take me right there:

So much of cooking is a diligent approximation. A kind of translation. A fluent and intelligent improvisation. I could surely cook the soup in an exacting way, but I could never fully take you to a long winter on a Greek island, the way the ferry stopped coming from the mainland three times a day, as it did during the summer, and instead arrived once a week, weather permitting. Your mail, mattress, medicine, fruit, the plastic pail in which you washed your T-shirts, the Albanian Gypsies in their canvas-covered diesel trucks bearing sundries — your entire lifeline connected to that boat that no longer reliably arrived.”

That paragraph alone made me want to reach for my rice and stock and peas so that maybe I could taste what Spring after a harsh winter tastes like. Which is exactly what I did.
I didn’t have any lamb stock on hand – and I wouldn’t have used it anyway – so I stuck with chicken. I also used brown rice. The end result is very similar to the classic Milanese “risi and bisi”, an ultimate comfort food. With the added benefit of being pretty healthy.

Read the entire essay and find the recipe here

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  1. I do feel that words allow our imagination greater play than images, but then I am biased towards books. 😉 Hamilton’s prose is gorgeous and I look forward to reading more of her.

    April 24, 2017
    • Good travel writing can do the same thing. If you seek Gabrielle’s book you will not be disappointed.

      April 24, 2017
  2. Grazie. Se ti interessa, nemmeno io guardo mai i programmi sul cibo, anzi, li trovo insopportabili

    April 22, 2017
    • Secondo me sono fatti per quelli che non cucinano e non cucineranno mai.

      April 22, 2017
  3. Her writing is incredible. I read a piece she wrote about Sicily (cannot remember which magazine) and it took me right there. Her memoir is one of the books I’ve read more than once. Gabrielle is so talented. I first heard about her when NY Magazine, years ago, interviewed chefs to find out what they thought about Governor Patterson’s attempted to pass a tax on sodas. Her quote regarding Coca-Cola was poetry.

    April 20, 2017

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