Special Series: Cultural capital and the Pursuit of Pleasure: Musings on the Food Memoir

This post is part of a new series that reflects on food writing, both within and outside of the academy. 

This past month was my first experience as a course lecturer/ course instructor. Facing 65 students, four days a week, delivering 2.5 hour lectures, followed by an afternoon of writing the next day's presentation, wore me out. At night I found my escape in the pages of food literature-- particularly in the work of Eric Asminov.

In May 2012, during my final year as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, I participated in a conference entitled "Foodstock," which brought together food activists, writers, academics, and students. The highlights of the conference were the discussions between radio host, Faith Middleton, and former head of Gourmet magazine and popular writer, Ruth Reichel, and the later interview with New York Times wine writer, Eric Asminov. Asminov talked in detail about his forthcoming book, How to Love Wine. That night I immediately pre-ordered the text from Amazon. But the book arrived during a time of transit and transition. Too focused on my move to Canada, I put the book on the shelf, telling myself I'd get to it later.

Over the years I would occasionally thumb through it, setting it aside in favor of required reading or the escapism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books.

Yet this May, exhausted from the wonderful experience of teaching Introduction to Women's Studies at McGill, I picked up Asminov's book again.

In the genre of food writing, a great diversity of methodological approaches to the subject matter exist. As I will explore later in this series on food writing, we can categorize food texts based on a series of traits.

Asminov has categorized his own work as a wine memoir and manifesto. Other popular writers within his genre are Barbara Kingsolver, Ruth Reichel, and Michael Pollan. Pollan's characteristic style of journalistic food memoir has become a formulaic structure in which he explores usually 3 to 5 different substances (whether they be animal, vegetable, or mineral), divided by section breaks, through which he weaves his greater political narrative. A most striking feature of the Pollan memoir style is the role of knowledge.

While preparing for my comprehensive exams on food history last year, my supervisor, Nathalie Cooke, commented that Pollan's books, particularly Cooked, rely on the assumption that one knows what good bread is. This assumption of knowledge by Pollan, marks not only his class and the assumed class of his readers, but points to a larger phenomenon in Western societies. To be an "educated," member of the middle or elite class one must do more than read the Russian authors, be able to recite Shakespeare, and understand basic scientific principles. One must additionally know how to use a large variety of technologies, from computers to phones to cars, and so forth. But one also must know about food.

To be part of the educated elite is not just about knowing the writings of famous, dead white men any longer -- but to accumulate broad swaths of knowledge regarding all aspects of the modern world. And it's not just about knowing food-- but knowing good food. The indicators of the elite, educated class, thus are not marked only by access and control of financial assets-- but also by, in the words of Pierre Bordieu, cultural capital. Maintaining this status requires the constant accumulation of new information, an experience parodied by the Portlandia sketch, "Did you read it?" Like at the end of the sketch when the characters shove the papers into their mouths, we are at the point where we literally have to eat knowledge, in order to maintain a certain status.

Here is thus where Asminov and Pollan differ. While both are food and beverage memoirists, Asminov's book and larger project is about democraticizing knowledge about wine. His ultimate thesis in How to Love Wine, is that if you want to learn the ins and outs of wine production or the difference between different regions and vineyards, that's wonderful-- but you don't need to know any of that in order to enjoy wine. He argues that wine should be about pleasure first and foremost.

I don't really love wine; I prefer beer. But loving wine is not the real lesson of Asminov's book... rather that pleasure is a worthy pursuit in and of itself.

As food writers and historians, how can we adjust our work to treat pleasure as a worthy endeavor? How can we make our research speak to the way people actually interact with the food that we write about? And how can we use our position as writers and academics as a way to democratize knowledge and make food studies more accessible rather than another form of exclusion?

(post by Alex Ketchum)