People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

—M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me



Food writers have been defending their choice of subject matter since M.F.K. Fisher first attempted to convince Americans that food could be more than mere sustenance. Though Fisher published the books she is best known for from 1937 to 1954, it would be decades before food writing would be universally recognized as a worthy subject.

When Alan Richman C’65, now a contributing editor at Bon Appetit and dean of food journalism at the French Culinary Institute in New York, graduated with a degree in journalism, food writing “just wasn’t done.” With the rare exception of Craig Claiborne at The New York Times, food writers weren’t taken seriously as journalists, he said in a phone interview. But then, in the 1970s, with the help of celebrity chefs such as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck, and others, “Americans discovered food.”

My own first, failed, experiment as a food writer took place in 1983, when, as a senior at Penn, I attempted to contribute to The Penn Press—not the University of Pennsylvania Press that publishes books but an alternative magazine of politics, art, and culture written and edited by Penn undergraduates. I was assigned to review a Thai restaurant. I had never eaten Thai food before. I went by myself. I had never eaten alone in a restaurant before, either. The food was so spicy I couldn’t taste anything. The waiter warned me not to drink water—it would only make the pain more intense, he said—but I didn’t listen. The experience put me off restaurant reviewing—and Thai food—for almost 20 years.

At the time this didn’t seem a great loss for my future. Food writing was not on my list of possible occupations. For the most part, in the early 1980s, a passion for fine dining or for cooking was considered merely a hobby, and not something an Ivy League-educated person might turn into a respectable career.

By the time I decided to become a food writer about three years ago, after five years in book publishing, a short detour to graduate school, and a decade running my own boutique-y design and advertising firm, the landscape had changed dramatically. With the rise of celebrity chefs, cooking shows, and eventually an entire cable channel, The Food Network, devoted to cooking and eating, food writing has become not just acceptable but a hotly competitive field, one that’s particularly attractive to writers under the age of 30, who never attached any stigma to it.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

Taste Quakers
By Nancy Davidson
Illustration by Phung Hyunh

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