content note: food, diet, appetite*
To say this has been a baptism of fire (out of the frying pan, etc.) would be about fair. I probably vastly misjudged the amount of work it is possible for one person to do. I’ve read and responded to five hundred submissions from half that number of writers. I’ve watched SPOONFEED grow from an idea borne from one person’s hunger to a vibrant, supportive writing community, which is expanding daily. I’ve thought of enough food puns to fill the kitchen sink, or however that idiom goes.
It’s also got me thinking about appetite. That the readers and writers of contemporary literature have an appetite for food writing seems to be true — the response to this issue has far surpassed anything I initially imagined. Yet appetite is something which carries a great societal shame. Shame here is the resultant compound of introducing sensual lust (reactive) to biological need (neutral): the humiliation risked by making public the pleasures of the body. This is why food is so often characterised as naughty — think of Nigella licking the mixing spoon, or sneaking downstairs in her négligée for a midnight slice of cake. The guilty pleasures of the oral erogenous zone. The stigma of a body shapeshifting in response. Calories, calories, calories.
Appetite and gender are two constructs which participate in a particularly fraught relationship in Western society: it is unfeminine to demonstrate one’s appetite; it is unmasculine to indulge one’s appetite delicately. Meat is for men and salad is for women. As Carol J. Adams puts it, ‘Being a man in our [Western] culture is tied to identities that they either claim or disown — what “real” men do and don’t do. “Real” men don’t eat quiche.’ (Adams, 2000. Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat). It is impossible to ignore fatphobia as an element in this interplay. Appetite is imposed upon and distorted by cultural ideals: it is impolite to accept a second helping — or, it is impolite not to. So often, people express mistrust in their appetites, unsure if they are hungry or bored, hungry or tired, hungry or unwell. Is that hollow ache one of need or lust?
A paper in First Monday (here) describes how data harvested from positive Yelp reviews in the US can be broadly split into two categories: ‘foodcrack’ and ‘foodgasms’. ‘Foodcrack’ refers to reviews employing ‘drug and addiction narratives’ — these cup cakes [sic] are like crack; be warned the wings are addicting — and were applied to businesses selling the foods we’re told we shouldn’t be eating (fast food, “junk” food, foods high in sugars and fats). ‘Foodgasms’, on the other hand, are reviews which use sex metaphors — succulent pork belly paired with seductively seared foie gras — by which ‘the reviewer further portrays themselves as a food lover attuned to the sensual and hedonic element of cuisine.’ What the research found was that the use of either category directly correlated with the price of the food. Cheap food is addictive; expensive food is seductive. Or: the working classes are addicts; higher socioeconomic classes are sensualists. Thus the biology-sensuality compound is complicated further — if appetite necessarily contains sensuality, but sensuality is restricted by economics, does capital buy appetite? Are working-class people limited to pleasureless biology only — the input/output of survival — except for the false pleasures of addiction?
‘Reviews,’ Jurafsky et. al. write, ‘are fundamentally a kind of social discourse’. The same is true of literary food writing. To make a probably unforgivable generalisation, what separates literature — or creative writing — from other written forms is attention to linguistic choices. If these reviews betrayed (thinking generously) unconscious biases, what more could be illuminated, hidden, hinted, when lexis is chosen deliberately? Selecting one word over another is a political action. This is the food writer’s challenge. The very best at their craft, twenty-two of whom are published in this issue, are those who understand the constraints, possibilities, and politics of appetite, and write through them — not about them, necessarily, but through them.
The pieces in this issue demonstrate the full flavour spectrum of literary food writing happening in the English language today. We sample grapes, hot cross buns, paratha, dates. We dine with grandparents, adopted children, mothers-in-law, seals, starlets, an artificial neural network. We eat in a cafe, by a deathbed, from the earth, with a cider in the summer air.
We are made hungry, sated, overstuffed. Our appetites are indulged and denied.
Kat Payne Ware
* Please be aware that due to the focus of the magazine, this note applies to the whole issue