On Food and Writing (Part 1 in a 62 Part Series)

When Arthur Miller wrote “Death of a Salesman” in 1948, he built a cabin “to sit in the middle of it, and shut the door and let things happen.” He built a desk out of an old door and “started in the morning, went through the day, then had dinner, and then went back there and worked till…one or two o’clock in the morning.” The play, he says, “sort of unveiled itself. I was the stenographer. I could hear them. I could hear them, literally.” [These Miller quotes are taken from John Lahr’s priceless book of profiles, “Show and Tell.”]

For everyone with a kitchen and writerly aspirations, I have exciting news for you. I believe that your kitchen is your very own fully functional Arthur Miller cabin. A zone of meditation and deep concentrated thought, your kitchen can be your very own Yoda swamp. I believe that the skills and techniques you learn from cooking will make you a better writer. I believe that’s happened to me: not only the hair club president, but also a client.

On a very basic level, a story is like a recipe. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is structure. A basic structure starts with exposition, which we might liken to a gathering of ingredients. Here’s where we meet our characters, get our setting, our environment, our weather, our tone. And then: the point of attack. This is what sets the story in motion. We turn the oven on. We crack an egg. We get things moving. Willy’s come home from Yonkers and hasn’t made a sale. Biff and Happy are upstairs smoking. Linda’s worried that Willy’s trying to kill himself. How will this all turn out?

Cooking, like good writing, is inherently dramatic. We follow all the steps right but still, our souffle might not rise. Our asparagus may be soggy. The meatloaf may be dry. There’s risk involved: something’s at stake.

I challenge you to find a great work of literature (film, theater, books) where nothing’s at stake. You won’t. Godot’s gotta come, we gotta kill that shark, Frodo’s gotta destroy the ring or we’re all…gonna…die…

Process matters too. If we’re J.R.R. Tolkien, how are we going to get Frodo through Mordor to destroy the ring? What obstacles will he encounter? A giant spider? A gang of orcs? A tap-dancing monkey?

Similarly: if we’re the Amateur Gourmet, how are we going to light our Boeuf Bourguignon if we don’t have a lighter and getting the match close enough might incinerate our hand? Hold the match with a pair of scissors? Just drop it in? How will we fish it out?

Surprises in the kitchen are like surprises on paper: some are happy, some are not. If your character suddenly kills everyone in the room and is left, alone, on an empty stage with nothing to do–that surprise isn’t happy. You need to start again. If, however, the character reaches for a gun and falls over hitting his head on a frying pan which initiates a full-scale musical number starring Carol Channing that surprise is…well…happy or not happy depending on your fondness for Carol Channing.

It’s the same in the kitchen. You know this. You may be out of ginger and the recipe calls for 2 Tbs so you use cardamom instead or cinnamon or something different and it either tastes great or it tastes awful. These are the trials we go through as we cook up dinner and we go through the same tribulations when we cook up stories. We take risks. They often pay off and sometimes they don’t.

But here’s how we weave it all together. Back to the cabin we go. Writing, at its best, is a period of sustained concentration, meditation, and imagination. Most good writers I know have experienced “the zone.” It happens in writing like it happens in cooking. You’re standing in your kitchen and you’re whisking your filling while the tart shell cools and just at the right moment you lift the mixture from the double boiler and pour it into the crust and it settles perfectly. You put it in the oven and wait for it to brown. Will it brown? Will it brown? It does brown. Success. Glory. Hallelujah.

That’s what good writing feels like. You’re flying high. You’re hearing voices, like Arthur Miller. You can taste the results and yet you’re engrossed in the process.

Another thing occurs to me. Great writing happens when you care about what you’re writing–when the subject is close to your heart. Same with cooking. If you’re microwaving frozen noodles that sat in your freezer for eight months, the results will be dismal. If you make, from scratch, the recipe your great-grandmother smuggled across the ocean while fleeing cossacks in Russia, then the results may be spectacular. Or they may be awful. But they’ll be awful in a big way.

Then there’s the concept of sharing. You can bake a glorious pie and eat it all yourself; you can write a glorious poem and never show it to anyone. Or the opposite. Make a feast and feed swarms of happy people; write an epic fantasia on AIDS and watch it blow up into a multimillion dollar extravaganza with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. (Yes, that’s an Angels In America reference.)

The comparisons are endless. Cooking and Writing both inform each other in exciting ways. I’ve argued from the writer’s perspective how cooking helps, but even from the cook’s perspective there’s virtue in writing. After all, at some point a 4-star chef has to decide what the menu will say regarding his foie gras appetizer. He (or she) has to articulate what he wants from his sous chef in a way that ensures that ingredients and time won’t be wasted. The string of words he uses–“Fry the egg and slip it on top of the bacon”–employs the same economy of means that a good writer employs. The instincts are the same.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many writers are well-fed and so many cooks are well-read? Hemingway, in my mind, is the mascot of the well-fed writer. And Mario Batali embodies the well-read cook. (Watch just one episode of “Molto Mario” and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s no coincidence that they’re both masters of their craft.

Thus I conclude Part 1 of this 62 part series. I truly believe that nothing can serve the aspiring writer better than learning his or her way around the kitchen. It may seem loopy, but the connections are deep and true. You know how some people argue that video games will make you a better pilot? It’s kind of like that: only truer.

14 comments

  1. Nicely said. I am a writer and am also passionate about cooking. I have always seen the connection between the two — nice to know I am not alone on that. Love your blog, Adam!

  2. It’s posts such as this which serve as a fine example of why blogs are a “good thing”.

  3. Sometimes I really do believe in the collective unconscious. For the past couple of days, I’ve been pondering the link between cooking/food/writing — probably not because there’s a psychic link here, but because I just started my own food blog. But be that as it may, I keep coming across references to food and nourishment, and culinary metaphors and archetypes in a lot of non-food-related writing. Now I ask you: would MFK Fisher have been such a remarkable prose stylist if she hadn’t had all that amazing food to inspire her? Would she have eaten such delicious things and learned so much about their provenance and preparation if she hadn’t been writing about them? It’s one of those eternal, philosophical, chicken-and-egg (see, food again)sorts of questions…

  4. I’m sure you’ll probably delete this comment, but I really wanted to comment honestly. So here goes…

    While I like the idea of thinking about the links between food and writing, I think this piece is a little anodyne and facile. There’s nothing new here really. Certainly no new contribution to what brilliant food writers like MFK Fisher or Jeffrey Steingarten have already written about this same topic. The only thing new here is a new metaphor, and it’s not a terribly successful one. I think you probably are a talented writer, but this is not one of your better pieces; it’s self-important and self-congratulatory. Stick to your strengths.

  5. Paul,

    Can you point me to an article that either MFK Fisher or Jeffrey Steingarten has written drawing parallels between cooking and writing fiction? I haven’t seen any. And while I appreciate your critique (I’m not going to delete it), I don’t really agree with it. Using words like “anodyne” and “facile” doesn’t really help your case that I’m “self-important” and “self-congratulatory.” I think my tone, here, is confident and assured because this is something I care deeply about and have spent much time thinking over. I can’t promise that all the ideas in it are new, but they’re new for me so I’m happy to share them. Those are my thoughts.

    Adam

  6. I don’t see anything wrong with the metaphor likening fiction writing to cookery. Since I am both a fiction writer and culinary instructor, I completely understand what you are saying, and I agree.

    When I am writing and the story is flowing, it is rather like an active meditation; I get the ego out of the way and let the words flow through me. When I cook, the ego gets out of the way and lets the hands, heart and sense get on with the job of cooking. I have been told that when I cook, I am beautiful, because I am so relaxed and in the moment, without thought, stress or fear.

    It is a very special feeling.

  7. Well written article. How do you find the time to do this when you are occupied with

    school work?

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Some people wonder how I teach school during the day, learn Spanish at night, and still write a blog–especially the current lunacy involving the Jersey Janet Jacksen scandal of the year–but when it’s your passion, you just find time. Besides, this entry looks like it might double as a blog post and a paper for class–and if so, nice time management!

  9. …and interstingly I came across this quote today on bookcrossing.com:

    “My family can always tell when I’m well into a novel because the meals get very crummy” –Anne Tyler

    –bubbie

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