“If enough voices come to­gether at the ta­ble, they form a great sym­phony of ex­pe­ri­ence that ex­presses what it means to be hu­man”

The Guardian - Cook - - Comment - by Sarah Cham­ber­lain Sarah Cham­ber­lain is a so­cial his­to­rian and food writer based in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia; @s.i.cham­ber­lain

Apa­per­back his­tory of cake proved to be the wafer-thin mint for my food writ­ing book­case. I thought it might just fit, but as I crammed it on to the shelf I heard an aw­ful, men­ac­ing creak. The sides of the book­case had bowed, pulling out screws and leav­ing its shelves to col­lapse. My book ad­dic­tion: 1, Ikea’s finest: 0.

I love read­ing about food as much as I love cook­ing it. I am for­ever brows­ing book­shops for bat­tered es­say col­lec­tions and ob­scure his­to­ries. It helps that in my day job I write about mod­ern Bri­tish food his­tory – all the more ex­cuse to find new ma­te­rial.

The best food writ­ing em­pha­sises a fun­da­men­tal truth – food is never just about what we put in our mouths. It can be about big ideas – his­tory, eco­nom­ics, so­ci­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, medicine – or the per­sonal and idio­syn­cratic. Ev­ery­one has to eat, but no one eats ex­actly the same thing. And ev­ery dish has a story be­hind it.

I blame Ruth Re­ichl for the state of my book­shelves. She started all this. Her first mem­oir, Ten­der at the Bone, re­lates her re­al­i­sa­tion “that food could be a way of mak­ing sense of the world” – an idea that has res­onated with me ever since I first read the book. My copy has moved with me from flat to flat, across the At­lantic and back again.

Re­ichl was born in 1948 and grew up on the East Coast, com­ing of age with the Amer­i­can food revo­lu­tion in the 1960s and 1970s. She was the restau­rant critic for the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times through the 1990s, be­fore be­com­ing ed­i­tor of Gourmet mag­a­zine for a decade un­til its clo­sure in 2009.

Ten­der at the Bone cov­ers Re­ichl’s first 30 years. It reads as a foodie fairy-tale, with var­i­ous god­moth­ers and god­fa­thers open­ing her eyes to the plea­sures of the ta­ble. A house­keeper shows her how to make wiener­schnitzel, just the way her dad likes it. A French class­mate’s wealthy fa­ther in­tro­duces her to the joys of foie gras, char­treuse of par­tridge, and sweet­breads. Later, a se­nior wait­ress at her first restau­rant job teaches Re­ichl to make vinai­grette by tast­ing over and over un­til she can mix the cor­rect pro­por­tions blind. These sto­ries are ro­man­tic, but Re­ichl’s voice is never sickly – there’s al­ways an un­der­ly­ing en­thu­si­asm that keeps you on her side, ex­cited to see what she dis­cov­ers next.

As in all fairy­tales, a shadow hangs over the story. Re­ichl’s mother suf­fered from bipo­lar dis­or­der, which made home life un­cer­tain – and at times chaotic. She also had a cast-iron stom­ach and a su­per­hu­man tol­er­ance for mould. Re­ichl’s de­scrip­tions of the dodgy dishes her mother con­cocted teeter between funny and grim. Re­ichl learns to tol­er­ate eat­ing badly cooked and spoiled food, but she acts as “The Guardian of the Guests”, dis­creetly sav­ing her favourite peo­ple from par­tic­u­larly poi­sonous dishes. This role con­tin­ues into early adult­hood, as she learns to use her grow­ing cook­ing skills to of­fer com­fort as well as sus­te­nance. But the in­se­cu­rity of her child­hood con­tin­ues to haunt her. Find­ing the con­fi­dence to write – about food – is how she fi­nally starts to un­der­stand who she is and what she wants.

When I read Ten­der at the Bone, I think about the peo­ple who made me the eater and the writer that I am. I think of my fa­ther’s fa­ther, a bon vi­vant who gave 12-year-old me my first oys­ter on the half shell. I think of my Ger­man grand­mother’s stash of choco­late-dipped marzi­pan and Guylian hazel­nut seashells – Euro­pean sweet­ness that tasted ex­otic on my Amer­i­can tongue. I think of my fa­ther tak­ing me out for my first whitetable­cloth meal aged eight, and be­ing as mes­merised by the el­e­gant dance of for­mal ser­vice and as I was by the choco­late peanut but­ter ice-cream pie.

Af­ter uni­ver­sity, I spent seven years in the UK, and I can al­most taste pep­pery hag­gis, the spice and fire of sin­gle malt whisky, and lush, hon­eyed green­gages as I write from my desk in Cal­i­for­nia now. In a new coun­try, food of­fered me a way in – I could start long con­ver­sa­tions about what my new friends grew up eat­ing and learn more about where they came from.

Bril­lat-Savarin is of­ten con­sid­ered the orig­i­nal food writer; his apho­rism “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are” is a bit gen­eral, but if enough voices like Re­ichl’s come to­gether at the ta­ble, they form a great sym­phony of ex­pe­ri­ence and mem­ory that ex­presses what it means to be hu­man. And here my story be­gins.

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