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Friday, August 22, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 4/8/2014

COMMENTARY

Something to chew on

BY MARY BILYEU
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

I was asked the other day about the importance of what I do, about “food journalism.” After all, I don’t write about crime or about politics or about climate change or about international diplomacy, or other such serious subjects.

I write about food: pie, cookies, what I’m serving for dinner. I write about fried rice, about brisket, about pasta. I write about Peeps and about pizza and about Oreos.

Is this really important? Does this really matter?

Yes, I think it does. Food is a universal topic, one that comes fraught with deep emotion, both joyful and poignant.

Writing about food is more important, I think, than it’s often given credit for; and I don’t intend that to simply be a justification for my job! Because to me, this is not about having the clout to make or break someone’s dreams, as restaurant reviewers for powerful newspapers in large cities can. I don’t even do any reviews, I don’t know who does them, and I’m as surprised as everyone else is to see which places are being featured.

But I once wrote about peanut butter pudding, and I included a picture of how to serve it in small glasses ... my beautiful, gold-embossed Moroccan tea glasses, to be precise. And a reader joked that he wasn’t too sure his Moroccan grandmother would approve of such a thing, since the glasses are intended for serving mint tea. He then told me of his grandmother’s famous secret recipe for traditional rose-scented pastries, how he was afraid the recipe would be lost when she passed away, of his attempts to recreate it, of his futile efforts to enlist cousins to help him in his mission. We talked about his family’s history, how his ancestors had emigrated, how the family had spread out, how they’d lost touch, and how cherished the foods and the tastes and the aromas and the memories were that he was trying to recapture.

I once wrote about totchos -- nachos made with tater tots instead of corn chips -- only to have a blogging buddy get inspired about making a similar dish using latkes as a base and topping them with cholent, a slow-cooked Jewish Sabbath stew. When my friend died suddenly at 37 from a massive heart attack, I featured the dish he’d inspired and dedicated it to his memory. I told the story of how we’d furiously emailed back and forth, giddily setting the parameters and devising a plan. I hoped his two sons -- and the one he and his wife were expecting, whom he never met -- would like it.

And I once wrote about the trend to not serve cake at weddings these days, the horror of which still reverberates in my soul. It is one of my most infamous blog posts. Readers chimed in with passionate arguments in favor of tradition, while others countered with equally fervent arguments in favor of breaking free of the old ways; there are so many more interesting options, such as cupcakes or pies or a dessert buffet, they wrote. And many commenters, both pro and con, told stories of their own wedding cakes from decades earlier or of happy marriages that stood the test of time even if no cake was smushed into a bride’s or a groom’s face. Readers remembered, and they either laughed at thoughts of cardboard-like cake or beamed as they told of their own ceremonies and joy.

When I write, I want you to feel as though you’re in the kitchen with me. We’re sipping coffee or wine (time dependent, of course), we’re chopping and mixing and stirring. And we’re talking about life, about love, about our children, about our friends, about our day. We’re bonding over food, we tell stories that are related to food, we share our histories and our cultures as we prepare food. You get to know me, I learn more about you in response. We’re developing a relationship, a friendship.

So, really, I don’t write about food so much as I write about people, whether directly or indirectly.

That, to me, is the critical part of what I do. And it’s what makes food writing important.

Contact Mary Bilyeu at 
mbilyeu@theblade.com
 or 419-724-6155 or on Twitter @foodfloozie.



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