It’s Thanksgiving. My husband and I are staying home, and we’ve decided to shake up tradition and nix the turkey. I’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer, and I won’t overwhelm you with the details—I apparently talk about it too much and it ruins appetites—but I don’t do turkey ever really, so we’re going wild, buying from a butcher in the area that specializes in cuts of venison and boar and elk. I’ve never cooked elk. I grew up eating the kills of family huntsmen, but I never actually prepared any.
So I research going wild, and after reading a few recipes and tip lists, I find myself falling—as I am prone to do—into four hours of reading one essay after another, leading me to my writerly thanksgiving realization of gratitude: I am thankful for food writing.
On our farm in rural Pennsylvania, food was the marker of my family’s daily schedule. At breakfast, we’d discuss what we’d eat for lunch. By mid-afternoon, plans for dinner were announced, and while eating that meal, we’d talk about what meals we could have the next day. Food was progress, care and joy. Food is a first offering of parental love, it is tradition and culture and biology. Food is so much, and the writing about it is so varied, in both meaning and craft.
Having started my research in connection with wild game, I first fell into Kristen Gunther’s essay about the culture of ‘hunting to eat’ in our modern world. “When the topic of hunting comes up,” she writes, “many non-hunters picture rec rooms full of taxidermy and incessant talk of trophy bucks, but nearly all hunting in America is, at a basic level, hunting for food. […] To kill an elk and leave its unbutchered body in the mountains is illegal. Worse, to most hunters it’s unethical, unthinkable.” To eat that meat, taken from the earth, is to directly participate in the ecosystems that support human life. In writing about her experience hunting, Gunther describes falling to her knees and weeping at the sight of the dead mule deer she shot, about feeling the honor and weariness of its butchery, and about remembering each step of her food prep in the eating of it. Her openness and humility leads the essay to the philosophy that “food has the visceral power to cut a path back to the wildlands each time a piece of deer, rabbit, or even rattlesnake makes its way to a plate.”
That same power lives in the vegetarian sides as well. In “Mushroom Hunting at the End of the World,” Danny Palumbo describes escaping to the woods and finding clarity in the chanterelle hunt, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. His work demonstrates the sensory power of food writing. In finding his first mushroom, he details, “When one chanterelle appears, more will follow. A few steps off the trail and they emerged in droves. Soon, my bag was filled with corpulent, spore-bearing fungi — big chanterelles with deep-orange hues and fantastical shapes, like something a Nintendo animator might draw.” My whole childhood lives in these lines—the hikes, the wild-caught Pennsylvania mushrooms and even old-school Nintendo. Still, the food leads to something more, for it is in the act of collecting fungus that Palumbo gains relief from this “fire tornado of anxiety” that is our modern age. “The dopamine you receive from finding a cluster of chanterelle mushrooms in the damp woods is immense, somehow both frivolous and survivalist. There’s a real sense of childlike treasure-hunting tied to foraging.”
And it’s not just the finding of food that incites us. It is the giving of it. In Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi not only uses Ghanaian dishes as characteristics of the culture, but also as attempts of connection between daughter and mother. The narrator of the novel takes on the care of her mother, who suffers from depression, and to get her to eat, Gifty returns to a dish from her own childhood, koko. “I’d had to go to three different stores to find the right kind of millet, the right kind of corn husks, the right peanuts to sprinkle on top. I hoped the porridge would go down thoughtlessly. I’d leave a bowl of it by her bedside in the morning before I went to work, and when I returned the top layer would be covered in film; the layer underneath that hardened so that when I scraped it into the sink I felt the effort of it.” In these three lines, Gyasi characterizes both women and what sits between them with a bowl of porridge.
Food is struggle, necessity and privilege, what we know, how we share and how we take. In John Leavitt’s graphic narrative, “I Keep a Stack of Kraft Singles in the Fridge,” the narrator’s life is mile-marked by a simple dish he learned to cook when he had to stay home alone as a kid. In Wendy Cope’s poem “The Orange,” a snack proves a simple reminder that the speaker exists and it is good. The love of a father for his recently incarcerated son lies in Big Roy’s salmon croquettes in Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. In There There, Tommy Orange demonstrates the paradox in the tradition of non-traditional Indian tacos made with fry bread.
In our lives, the food we eat and how we eat it characterizes us. In writing, food does the same. It portrays the restaurant and the chef, the table and the family dynamic, the human and his place in the natural world. So for this Thanksgiving holiday, I look to food writing to be reminded of how our food and where it comes from matters, and as a writer, how depicting it in the written word does so much more than display our physical need for calories, whether from turkey or elk, oranges or porridge.
is phoebe’s editor-in-chief and a 3rd-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s been awarded the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her current novel project concerning assisted-suicide tourism in Switzerland. And, last spring, she won the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award for her dystopian short story, “The Wholeness Institute.” When not writing and working for phoebe, she teaches writing courses with PEN/Faulkner and runs her own photography business.