There is no version of my life in which food does not hold incredible significance. My memories of childhood and so much of my older life all spin on an axis of eating – the roast chickens, anchovies and lemon tarts that have reached mythic status in my mind, the potato salad and apple slice-shaped etches on my heart from my grandmothers’ kitchens. Food is intertwined with so much good in my personal history; that the word 'nourishment' can refer to both the nutrients contained in food and to a kind of deep, soul-driven healing says it all.
Food is emotional but it is also complexly political. Relationships with food can be euphoric or traumatising, or both. It is a vast and vibrant subject that opens up questions about feeling, memory, class, wealth, race, labour ethics, and hierarchy, and yet the space afforded to examine such angles through writing in the mainstream media has been near nonexistent.
Food has [historically] been idealised as a way of silencing women and the people of colour and immigrants who do that labour.
Rebecca May Johnson
Columnists such as Giles Coren, with his racist commentary on the UK’s food scene spewed across the pages of a national newspaper, have been the fulcrum of food writing for years. The lack of interest in covering international cuisines with care and attention or in hiring a diverse staff of food writers from a range of backgrounds has led to the repeated demonisation of food that may simply be unfamiliar to white British audiences. Jackfruit, for example, a staple food of Southeast Asian cooking, was derided as "spectacularly ugly [and] smelly" by the Guardian in 2019.
This summer, three writers who are committed to a necessary and insightful investigation of the many strands of food’s history and social impact will release their first books, food memoirs in both a traditional and experimental sense. Angela Hui, Rebecca May Johnson and Thea Lenarduzzi are all established culture writers and editors, and each now emerges into the literary sphere with their personal reflections on their lives lived in tandem with food. Their work also suggests a new arena for women writers to reclaim narratives around food, to invest in the subject in a way that both acknowledges and moves beyond an established domestic history of women and food. In a world where calorie counts are now a menu regular and harmful beauty standards continue to disproportionately impact women, these texts are proudly, jubilantly food-focused. "I love to see women take the last of the salad, the last of the fried potatoes, the last sausage, the last lick of sauce from the plate," writes Johnson in her book Small Fires. "Take every scrap."
Celebrating the joy of Chinese takeaway food specifically, in Takeaway Hui details the history of her family’s Chinese takeaway in a Welsh town and her coming of age while helping to run the business. Hui’s accomplishment lies in her ability to navigate complexity, unfolding the trauma of the racism faced by her family in their venture and the often difficult personal dynamic between her parents alongside the inherent delight and power of the food they prepared. "Chinese takeaway food is its own thing that has been born out of resilience, out of necessity, and it should be celebrated in its own right," says Hui. Her writing and championing of the Chinese takeaway as an institution also offers a crucial lens on the history of Chinese immigration in the UK and speaks to the racial and ethical implications of food consumption. "Race is tied up with people thinking Chinese food always gives you headaches because of MSG [monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer that's often added to restaurant food]," she continues. "We also rely on delivery so much now and people don't think about how their food arrives. They don't think about the people that have to individually pack these orders, they don't think about the delivery drivers who have to deliver six orders in one hour. Especially with the pandemic, it’s shown how broken the food chain systems are."
This acknowledgement of work practices and the overlooked labour that constitutes the food industry in many parts of the world is also reflected in the content of Vittles, a food newsletter that Hui has contributed to and that recently hired Johnson as a co-editor. Founded by food writer Jonathan Nunn, Vittles explores everything from the proliferation of delivery apps during the pandemic to global farming practices and regional chippy traditions in the UK. If "mainstream media is quite straitjacketed in what it publishes as food writing," as Johnson tells me, Vittles is an expansive and illuminating antidote.
This freedom and experimentation with what food writing can be is a key facet of Johnson’s book Small Fires, a manifesto for kitchen liberation and the radical possibilities of eating. "What would thinking look like if I allowed cooking to be thinking?" Johnson asks. The question forms the basis of the book’s navigation through memoir and recipe writing and blends the two in a way that highlights the intimacy of cooking, for yourself and for other people, and the inherent connectedness of food and personal history. "I wanted the book to be quite horizontal in terms of relationships to highlight the erotics and intimacy of food," she adds. "I think that's the really nice thing about eating with people and cooking for people, you learn about the world and politics in quite an intimate way."
It’s a sentiment that has equally been captured by Lenarduzzi in her book Dandelions, a thorough and compelling portrait of her family history that foregrounds the storytelling and memory-making of her Italian grandmother, Dirce. While ostensibly not a 'food memoir' in traditional terms, food and its history in Italian culture is embedded throughout the text. The title of the book is also a particular reference to the ubiquitous plant that Lenarduzzi's Nonna would collect wherever she found it, an everyday food source to be gently wilted with olive oil and lemon. Lenarduzzi’s focus on the family matriarch allowed her to spotlight one of many "undervalued witnesses to history". "What does she have to tell us about the 20th century?" she says. "What does she have to tell us about big love stories and the huge events of history, fascism, the Second World War?" Food is the constant accompaniment to such history, ever-present alongside life’s changes and upheavals. It’s also a shorthand for memory and communication between families who have long shared the same tastes and meals. "There will always be tiramisu," Lenarduzzi says, "but when that day comes that it won’t be Nonna who’s made it, that's an earthquake. That's the end of history in a way."
The three books, while capturing poignantly specific stories of food and history, share an inclination towards illuminating an overlooked chapter of women’s history. For Lenarduzzi, "it’s the overlooked of the overlooked. We’re talking about overlooked women’s stories and food has always been the overlooked part of history. Historical studies have never until very recently thought to give food any space." Echoing this, Johnson says that "food has been idealised as a way of silencing women and the people of colour and immigrants who do that labour." Her book is a powerful call to remove such barriers to food understanding, food writing and to the enjoyment of food. Johnson adds that "one of the nicest responses I’ve had to the book is that people found it permission-giving to do the type of writing they want to do." I tell her that I was incredibly moved by the sense of permission I felt to feel pleasure towards food, to eat whatever I like.
Referencing the work of food writer and author Ruby Tandoh, Hui adds to the celebration of food and rejection of unnecessary aspiration when it comes to food writing and appreciation. "What Ruby has done with her cookbook Cook As You Are is just so needed. If you look at Ruby’s Instagram recently, she's just been cooking a lot of recipes from the book and her photos are all really ugly," she laughs. "It's like half chopped things and it's overly bright and I think that's so beautiful. There’s this accessibility that has opened up, and I like writers who highlight the mundane, shining a light on the beauty of everyday cooking. I love reading Rebecca's work, how she had this big fish sandwich from the beach. Or having a dinner party with friends. Or the beauty of just being hungover and dragging chips through ketchup and mayonnaise." It’s a special thought to know that, in these books, such honour is being paid to eating in its simplest and most meaningful forms by a new generation of food writers with the care and attention to change the narrative.