Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dec 5, Lela Scott MacNeil: Betty Fussell is Too Excited to Shut Up

“Food is not a subject in the way that the great subjects of literature like War, Love, Death, Sex, Power, Betrayal, or Honor are subjects.”

This is how Betty Fussell begins her essay, “Eating My Words.”

It might seem a strange place to begin an essay on the importance of food in writing, but she’s not wrong. Writing about food is usually relegated to the lower rungs of literature, as evidenced by the fact that those who write it are called “food writers,” instead of just “writers.” Food writing is most often seen as disposable, the stuff of glossy magazines, an answer to the question “what should I eat for dinner?” and nothing more.

As Fussell says, “While everything eats, not everything speaks,” a truism we avoid because “we don’t fancy our table companions or our dining conditions.”

Which is to say, “We don’t like to be reminded that if dung were not caviar to the dung beetle, the earth would be covered in shit. Nor do we like to be reminded that we are steak tartare to worms. We want to be exempt, special, excused.”

This is nothing new. The Bible brands foodies as enemies of Christ. From Philippians 3:19, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is in their shame. Their minds are set on earthly things.”

Fussell directs our gaze to this enduring association when she quotes Elias Canetti as he asks if it wouldn’t be better to have one hole for food and another for words, “Or does this intimate mixing of all our utterances with the lips, teeth, tongue, throat, all those parts of the mouth that serve the business of eating—does this mixing tell us that we can never be nobler and better than we are?”

Since the dawn of history, this has been a goal of men, to transcend the squalor of the physical through religion, science, art, or philosophy. It’s no accident that such a path is not laid out for women. Because Persephone couldn’t resist those pomegranate seeds, nor Eve that apple, the body of woman is fated, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, to be perceived not as “the radiation of a subjective personality, but as a thing sunk deeply in its own immanence."

Fussell’s essay offers us a way out of this trap. She calls the single orifice for words and food “a brilliant subversion of human pretense,” and prompts us to reframe Canetti’s question: “Does not this intimate mixing suggest that the human animal is forever a bewildering compound of body parts and spirit sensors, a belcher of hymns, an angel that farts, and that wise eaters and speakers will savor the mixture?”

For Fussell, writing about food is the surest way to heal the wound of separation between the animal and the intellectual, inflicted by men for millennia.

Growing up in the chaos of a home where my paraplegic father was always about to die, the dinner table was the only place I remember us all together, happy. Most of the time my parents didn’t like each other, but they always loved to cook together. My father in his wheelchair, meticulously slicing garlic with a weather-beaten knife. My mother laughing at the stove over some fantastical sauce she had just invented.

Yet even for me, a woman whose only childhood safe space was the dinner table, it’s taken my whole life to work up the courage to really eat, much less write about food. Sometime around the age of fifteen I discovered that starving myself could grant me a magical power over men, and in the nineties, that was still the only kind of power young women were allowed to pursue. It would take me eighteen more years to unlearn the habit of viewing food purely as a way to exercise mastery over my body.

It definitely helped to stop sleeping with men and start sleeping with women. The aluminum foil tingle of Sichuan peppercorns helped too, as did the herby tang of a dirty Sapphire martini with hand stuffed blue cheese olives, and the perfect bitter char on a Neapolitan pizza crust.

And what joy that my personal gastronomical awakening has coincided with a monumental surge in the interest in and availability of excellent food. Recent years have transformed the role of chef from invisible, underpaid laborer to that of a cultural god.

Are we surprised that these “gods” are almost always white men?

When Time magazine put together its “Gods of Food” issue, they featured three men on the cover and almost no women inside. Editor Howard Chua-Eoan said, “There was no attempt to exclude women, we just went with the basic realities of what was going on and who was being talked about.” Forgetting, apparently, that he is one of the people doing the talking.

In Eater, Megan McCarron connects the dots between the misogyny of the food world and the desire to create distance between women as cooks and men as chefs. According to the sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Guiffre, this desire stems from a sense of “precarious masculinity.” The media reinforces this sense by writing profile after gushing profile defining men as innovative geniuses striving to revolutionize the way we eat, while women are presented as caregivers, relying mostly on instinct, and happy to nurture their families for free.

And indeed it was through the role of housewife that Fussell found her way into food. She taught Shakespeare at Rutgers until her husband forced her to abandon her academic aspirations to become a mother. So she threw her intellectual energies towards throwing legendary dinner parties.

She was forty by the time she started writing what she called “real words.” It took her that long, because her husband felt she had no talent, that her writing was a waste of time. But, she said, “I was too excited to shut up.”

And thank god she didn’t. She would go on to help build the modern American food movement alongside James Beard, although she doesn’t have his household name. She was an early evangelist of Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse, helping to cement Waters as one of the few women superstar chefs, and disproving the myth that the media can’t have a role in smashing the food world’s patriarchy. Says Waters of the first time Fussell visited her restaurant, “Betty got it right away. She saw pretty clearly what we were doing at the restaurant and she understood that the story wasn’t just about the food on the plate, but the bigger picture of how we were looking for the roots of taste and trying to figure out how to honor those roots while also making them relevant to the times we were living in.”

Of course Fussell got it right away. To her, food was never just anything. As she says in “Eating my Words,” “Food always condenses a happening, a plot, which unfolds like any enacted drama in the spotlit present, surrounded by shadows of the past.” Fussell has known all along what I am just starting to realize. Food is more than one of the Great Subjects of Literature. It's everything.


Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, same as the atomic bomb. She teaches creative writing at The Writers Studio. Her work has been published in Essay Daily, Gertrude, and in the Springsteen inspired noir anthology Trouble in the Heartland. She’s already planning her next meal.

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