Friday, January 16, 2009

Julia versus Anthony.

Does good food-writing have a gender?

One of my goals for 2009 is to develop my skills at writing about food; toward that end, I've been trying to read more food writing by a diverse selection of writers, chefs, and restaurant reviewers. And in early days of this process, I seem to have struck on something: I don't like male food writing.

To explain what is probably an unfair generalization, let me compare two very different works: My Life in France by Julia Child, and A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain.

I completed My Life in France last week, and though the book was almost entirely set in France (a country that doesn't particularly interest me much), and while the stories are all about French food (which I'm not crazy about), I enjoyed the book. I started A Cook's Tour two days ago, and though the book is set in many countries around the world (several of which really interest me), and it covers both Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine (both of which I strongly enjoy), I'm having trouble pushing myself to get past the third chapter. The difference, I think, is in their attitudes toward food.

In My Life in France, Julia describes how she developed a deep love and passion for the culture and cuisine of Franceover a decade living in Paris and Marseille. Food plays a prominent role in every chapter, as her husband introduces her to the flavors of France, as she comes to know Paris through its bistros and food artisans, and as she cooks staggering meals in her awkward kitchen. She is always eating, but it's not just about the food; it is a means of connecting to others, and of experiencing the world.

In A Cook's Tour, Anthony sets out around the world in search of 'the perfect meal.' I'd been curious to read it for a long time, but it didn't take me long to lose any interest. When, in the introduction, he attempts to evoke the experience of good food by comparing it to 'Your first taste of champagne on a woman's lips' and 'a few beads of caviar, licked off a nipple', I went beyond getting the heebie-jeebies to just being put off the book entirely. I don't think it's just this hetero-normative moment that turned me off though-- it's his writing style, his voice that annoys me. In the first chapter, he witnesses a pig being slaughtered for his consumption; it's a 'challenge' for him, but one he gets past. Things get much worse in the third chapter, in which he arrives in Vietnam. He stumbles around a Saigon market, alternating gorging himself on local foods, and casting an oggling glance at some local schoolgirls. Aside from just kind of thinking of him as kind of a creep (I picked the above photo selectively), I don't like the way he establishes his relationship with food. Food seems either an object of lust to be conquered, or a challenge that he is determined to master. Really, I'm sure he has a very healthy appreciation of food, and he's likely an incredible cook (this isn't something personal about Anthony Bourdain-- if I was going to get personal, I'd suggest the photos of him in the book make him a perfect candidate for this website)-- but I find his style of writing about food fairly repulsive.

What I came down to feeling was this: Julia's relationship with food is one of appreciation; Anthony's relationship with food comes across as one of domination.

Ok, now here's where my comparison might become a generalization. This seems to be a difference in male and female voices in food writing. With the exception of a few male-authored food and travel blogs that I enjoy (and hey, I don't think I'm so bad), I almost exclusively read blogs written by women. I got really sick of a few food blogs written by men where every entry seemed to be 'I have found the BEST version of this dish in the world'-- always seeming like there was something to prove, like eating was always some sort of challenge. With definite exceptions, the food blogs by women that I enjoy are much more about the experience of food-- evoking the setting, the flavors, and the people who make the meal important. Writing about eating is less about challenging others, and more about sharing with others.

As examples, here's an incredible piece about marshmallows by Molly Wizenberg for Bon Apetit-- it gives background on the treat, poetically describes the sensation of eating, while simultaneously evoking the human side of cooking-- and this articles on sup cua by Robyn of Eating Asia -- it not only makes you feel like you can practically taste the fresh cilantro garnishing the soup, but it gives a lucid picture of the setting in which it was enjoyed.

Anyway, I'm not done reading A Cook's Tour-- maybe I'll be turned around by the last chapter. In the meantime, do you have any favorite food writers? Any male writers to restore faith in my gender?


a said...

Great post Xander. Maybe for some similar reasons, I just can't get through the Bourdain book Kitchen Confidential.

I once watched Anthony Bourdain's show where he went to India and ate some incredible looking food, after which he couldn't believe that it was both vegetarian and delicious. He normally hates vegetarian food (and vegetarians) of course. I've long hypothesized that the sometimes violent dismissal of vegetarian diets by many many males I have known is somehow tied to their masculinity and insecurities thereof.

I've long tried to put my finger on what it is that bothers me about Bourdain's approach. You're right: Tony's food adventures and discoveries are mostly about how great Anthony Bourdain is. Each country and food he tries is just another notch in the headboard.

T.R. said...

I thought in general chefs didn't/couldn't smoke as it compromised their taste buds. Is the cigarette in the picture just another affectation of his?

If I'd noticed the annoying champagne-lips-caviar-tits combo in the book store it would have never made it home. I enjoy your discovery of Julia's relationship with food -- you are right on the mark.

I have the same problem with just about any type of book written by males. But when I find one that I can relate to - it's usually extra special.

Christina said...

Bourdain clearly states in Kitchen Confidential that cooking, to him, was a way to prove his worth. He writes how he was a miserable piece of shit until he proved himself with his knife. Cooking and eating ARE about domination to him, a notch on the bedpost so to speak. I believe that is how Bourdain operates through life. Many people- not just men- do. The difference between Julia and Bourdain is that she allows experiences to happen to her as they are, in a way her sensual pleasure that she gets out of food is passive. That is the adventurous spirit in her...she lets things evolve and happen in a different way than Bourdain does. He seeks a checklist of experiences. Julia enjoys and relishes the present.

Yoli said...

Funny you should mention this, there was always something that annoyed me about him. My husband loves his show. I always found Bourdain full of himself, wanting to portray a sexy young persona. The food feels always secondary to how funny and cool he portrays himself to be.

Julia understood her food and treated it with respect.

I cannot believe he took that photograph. Honestly, it is comical. A middle aged man with a bad body holding a bone and a cig.

Yoli said...

OH GOD Xander I just clicked on the website and I am laughing my ass off!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tim said...

Nice post, Xander!

I haven't read enough women food writers to make any meaningful generalizations about gender differences in food writing, but I do think you nailed Anthony Bourdain. I like Anthony Bourdain, and I think of him as a good memoirist, storyteller, and showman, and an interesting, swashbuckling character in his own right. But as a food writer, he's a bit rubbish, isn't he? With the exception of his reminiscence about his first oyster (in Kitchen Confidential, I think), I can't remember reading any of his descriptions of food that really captured the sensations of eating. Plus, I often find that he doesn't investigate the connections between the foods he eats and the cultures that created them nearly enough; instead of discussing why people eat "weird food," he mostly just discusses how weird it is, and then eats it. His article on clubbing seals with Inuits in Canada was especially disappointing on both counts.

But I also had a similar problem with Ruth Reichl, a food writer who came highly recommended to me. She, too, was a great storyteller; her sense of context was fantastic, and the way she described her relationship with food and dining was often moving. But then when it came to the actual food, her writing seemed to fall flat. To me, her books were heartwarming but not palate-tempting.

I think that good food writing ought to draw you into the dining experience and then make you want to taste the food while also making you feel as though you have tasted it. Does that make sense? Bourdain and Reichl are good at drawing me in, but then fail when it comes to degustation.

Perhaps the only food writers I've read that really succeed on both counts are you and Jonathan Gold. Both of you write such picture-perfect descriptions of flavors, textures, and environments, and you both bring a great deal of erudition, experience, personality, and understanding to the table to keep things engaging and relevant.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is... keep up the good work! And thanks for the post, this has made me think more about my own food writing.

Heatheronhertravels said...

Hi Xander

I agree with you that female and male bloggers seem to have a different voice. In the travel blogsphere men tend to focus on the technicalities of travel, the gear & the mechanics from getting from A to B. The ladies are more interested in the experience and the destination. As that's what I enjoy, and write about, I find that most of the blogs I read are by women - yours is one of the few exceptions.

Andrea said...

What a great post. I hesitate to chalk it up completely to a male vs. female divide (aren't there entire schools of lit crit that theorize about the male/female voice?) but you pretty much summed up why I dislike Anthony Bourdain so much. He comes across as a machesmo jerk. Someone to whom you'd have to apologize for differing tastes (I love vegetarian food!). Very good, well-written post. (Not to overdo it with the parenthetical asides, but don't you yourself disprove your theory? I love you writing and you don't make me want to slap you the way Bourdain does!)

Xander said...

Wow, thanks for the comments everyone-- when I write a long entry, I'm always a little worried people will just skip over it.

Yeah, I agree that a strict male/female distinction is pretty flimsy, though I am still interested in exploring the idea more. I've just watched over time as I'm increasingly drawn to female bloggers and turned away from male bloggers (though not all male bloggers-- a few of my favorites commented above). Then my different reactions to these two books just made the divide seem so much more apparant.

I don't mean to make it strictly a matter of the anatomical difference between men and women-- I don't believe in biological determinism shaping distinct differences for 'males' and 'females'. My background is in Anthropology, where I focused mainly on gender and sexuality. So part of my interest was the way that men and women are brought up or shaped to perform certain roles. With that said, there's no reason a woman couldn't adopt a 'male' voice in writing, or a man a 'female' voice. I should point out that Julia's book was ghost-written by a man.

Also, I certainly don't want to push the suggestion too far, and make it sound like certain food writers are good just because they're women, and somehow 'naturally' better at it-- that would be pretty demeaning to their skills. Obviously it's because of that specific author's commitment to their writing, and the style and voice they've developed.

A-- I think the 'notch' is a good symbol for his writing. And he mentions hating vegetarians in this book as well, which I found pretty irritating. I'm not a vegetarian, and I enjoy eating meat, but I have a lot of respect for people for vegetarians, and more than that, I think everyone has the right to their own eating habits. Taste is so subjective, why should it matter that some people eat differently? Also, in this book he visits a farm where they raise geese for foie gras, and he makes it sound as if it's practically a resort for the ducks-- which I found a little hard to believe.

T.R.-- he does indeed smoke. It's one of the reasons he hates California so much. I was going to try and read the whole book, but when I skipped ahead and read a passage where he downs LA with the usual cliches, I no longer felt compelled.

Tim, I'm definitely going to look for Jonathon Gold- and maybe even Ruth Reichl, to see if I feel the same way about her.

Andrea-- I'm glad my writing doesn't give you the urge to slap me- I must be doing something right. The only defense I can claim is that as a gay man, I'm semi-exempt from having a heterosexual male voice-- though that's hardly airtight, since I do still identify as male. I'll need to think about this idea more!

Gennaro said...

I think there is room for both approaches to food writing or presentation. Variety is the the spice of life. I think Julia Child is a person that can last for decades thru her approach though. I can see Bourdain, who I enjoy quite a bit, wearing on people after a few years.

Prêt à Voyager said...

fascinating break down...oh, and btw, i think you should read "Julie, and Julia" - a fun read about a woman who decides to cook every single one of Julia Child's recipes during the course of a year. amazing where the project has taken the author (julie) - a movie is due out soon.


Chris said...

Couldn't agree more or appreciate your sensibilities more. Big up!

Robyn said...

Xander thanks for the compliment.

I sometimes enjoy Bourdain's show, and I get the sense he basically means well, but yeah - he grates after a while.

For excellent (male) food writing check out Edward Behr in his publication Art of Eating, or in his book The Artful Eater. You might also have a look at Peter Olney. And I know you would love (females) Elizabeth David and probably MFK Fisher as well.

And speaking of writing - nice post. A very well-written critique!

Laura Kelley said...

Another really well thought out and well written post, Xander, Thanks.

Although there are many real physiological differences between men and women as well as different ways of raising children and societal pressures that all affect our perceptions and artistic styles, I think that another issue in play in the different food-writing styles between many men and women is the difference between a professional interest in food and one that one that develops more naturally - as a hobby or a love or a lifestyle.

Anthony Bourdain's interest is professional. He became interested in food when he found out that he could cook. The roots to his love of food are deeply tied to his own professional accomplishments and self image. If we are to believe his memoirs, food gave Bourdain a life worth living. No doubt working in a commercial kitchen also influenced his early relationship with food - line cooking is no walk in the park and the pressures to perform well are intense. So the use of sexual-performance - food triad imagery that appears in his writing is probably tied to that as well. Professional cooking and styling today are Industries (note capital "I") with megabucks at stake.

Julia Child's interest grew out of being a wealthy diplomat's bored wife in Paris after she married and retired from the diplomatic/intelligence circut herself. It was an interest that was allowed to blossom over time and one to which no monetary gain was initially attached. Her professional attachment to food came years after Paris and the Cordon Bleu.

Her professional attachment to food as well came at a different pre-Martha time when Graham Kerr and Julia dominanted the etherscape. Initially, there were no tie-in books, no line of chef's tools or dinnerware to be hawked. There were only people who cooked on TV and who tried to bring American housewives a taste of the rest of the world.

People who love food - I mean really love food - usually grew up in homes in which life was to a large extent lived in the kitchen. The kitchen was a spot to lounge, relax, share - food, thoughts and anything else you could think of. Food was the anchor of their social relationships.

I watch Bourdain's show sometimes, but I don't watch it for food - for starters he drinks more than he eats in almost every episode - I watch it for him and his travel experiences and mishaps. Sometimes I find him grating, other times I kind of like the laid back - letting the world happen to him approach. I also watch it for the outstandingly stylized productions that his episodes are from a film-making point of view. I fear, however, that Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, rather than being great first steps in food and travel for the Travel Channel might represent the passing of a golden age when I see commercials for Man vs Food during which I literally have to avert my eyes as a burly man tries to eat an eight pound hamburger.

Commercialism, professionalism, the faster-pussycat, bigger, better, more Western way of life is in play because ofthe billions of dollars at stake. So, yes, I agree, men and women do have different and distinct voices when it comes to food and travel writing. But who is chasing the almighty buck is a factor as well as nature and nurture.

Sorry to blather on, but it was a great and really interesting post!

If you get to Amamzimtoti anytime soon, please bathe in its glorious, sweet waters and think of this states-bound fan!

jen laceda said...


I think Anthony Bourdain is trying too hard to work the vagabond, bad-boy, rock-and-roll-chef type. I mean, he must have some cooking skills for him to be a chef and have his own show...but then again, maybe not! Perhaps it's his whole persona / character that ultimately catapulted him into Food Network success -- because he is just so different from everyone else. I wonder if this is truly him? Or just some kind of gimmick / PR image?

RJS said...

You might try Jacques Pepin. I haven't read his memoir (yet), but I have two of his cookbooks, and he strikes me as someone with a quite different tone than Bourdain. Maybe it's an American thing, more than a gendered thing. On the distaff side, Amanda Hesser is quite likable (to read at least--I haven't met her).