The culinary magazine SAVEUR (“for people who experience the world food first”) each year hosts the “Best Food Blog” awards, with blogs nominated by readers from the many, many thousands that now inhabit the blogosphere. Many of our symposiasts write blogs, and one theme for Oxford 2015 could surely be the blogging experience.
What do blogs communicate, and how? How does a blogger attract an audience? What sort of topics do they cover? What sort of feedback do bloggers get that might help them to communicate more effectively? Have any of our bloggers been nominated for, or received, awards such as the Saveur award?
The 2014 winners and runners-up are listed at http://www.saveur.com/content/best-food-blog-awards-2014-winners). The overall winner was the self-referential “i am a food blog”. Simple but effective, as all communication about food must ultimately be.
Trawling through the large collection of quotes that I might one day use in my writing, I found some off-the-wall examples and examples from unusual sources that are related (more or less) to Food and Communication, and which set me thinking about less conventional approaches to our theme.
Can you marry food?
Eric Marshall and Stuart Hample “Children’s Letters to God”.
And then there is Stephen Fry’s thought-provoking metaphor:
“As in food, so in the wider culture. Anything astringent, sharp, complex, ambiguous or difficult is ignored in favour of the colourful, the sweet, the hollow and the simple.”
Stephen Fry “The Fry Chronicles”.
Or Pooh’s apparently rather simpler approach;
““When you wake up in the morning, Pooh” said piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.”
Benjamin Hoff “The Tao of Pooh”.
How we describe our food is an obvious theme, although Terry Pratchett’s literal approach may not recommend itself to all:
“[the restaurant sticks] to conventional food like flightless bird embryos, minced organs in intestine skins, slices of hog flesh and burnt ground grass seeds dipped in animal fats: or, as it is known in their patois, eggs, soss and bacon and a fried slice.”
Terry Pratchett “Mort”.
Talking ABOUT food will undoubtedly be a popular theme:
“One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”
Laurie Colwin “Home Cooking”.
“You can’t just eat good food. You’ve got to talk about it too. And you’ve got to talk about it to somebody who understands that kind of food.”
Kurt Vonnegut “Jailbird”.
“If you are ever at a loss to support a flagging conversation, introduce the subject of eating.”
Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859).
Or maybe we could just talk TO our food:
“I talked to a calzone for fifteen minutes last night before I realized it was just an introverted pizza. I wish all my acquaintances were so tasty.”
Jarod Kintz “This Book Has No Title”.
“I moan with pleasure.
“Did you just have a foodgasm?” he asks, wiping ricotta from his lips.
“Where have you been all my life?” I ask the beautiful panini.”
Stephanie Perkins “Anna and the French Kiss”.
Finally, surely there is something to be said for the advantages of NON-communication:
“Oh, the pleasure of eating my dinner alone.”
Maybe Philip Larkin could have the last word on the non-communication, or at least inner communication, theme:
“Seriously, I think it is a grave fault in life that so much time is wasted in social matters, because it not only takes up time when you might be doing individual private things [like eating in solitude!], but it prevents you storing up the psychic energy that can then be released to create art or whatever it is. It’s terrible the way we scotch silence & solitude at every turn, quite suicidal. … It isn’t as if anything was gained by this social frivolity; It isn’t: it’s just a waste.”
Philip Larkin “Letters to Monica”.
Perhaps a totally silent meal might be an interesting idea to try at Oxford 2015!
One prominent theme for a meeting on Food and Communication must surely be the notion of tacit knowledge – that is, know-how that is only, and sometimes can only, be passed on through direct experience. A recent example from the world of science was described in the journal “Nature” (Vol. 514, pp. 139 – 140 (2014)). It concerned measurements of the quality of sapphire, now used to make laser mirrors. Russian scientists were professing very high precision that Western scientists were unable to match, and accusations of false claims abounded.
The reason was simpler. The sapphire crystals in question were suspended from thin threads, which the Russian scientists said were coated with a “fatty film”. No fat that the Western scientists tried worked. Then it came out that the film was produced by one of the Russian group running the thread across the bridge of his nose before attaching the sapphire. When Western scientists tried the same trick, they were finally able to replicate the Russians’ ultra-precise measurements.
Tricks abound in cooking. One that has a rather similar basis is always to save some used frying oil, and add a little to fresh oil before using it. This helps to prevent fish and meat from sticking to the bottom of a non-Teflon coated frying pan, because the breakdown products from the previously heated oil attach themselves to the metal to form a thin, anti-adhesive, film. There must be many similar tricks around, often unmentioned in recipe books. It will be good to learn about some of them at Oxford 2015.
Update Oct 20, 2014: Peter Hertzmannn tells a nice story about tacit knowledge when it comes to confiting duck parts: “When I learned to confit duck parts in the Dordogne, I was required to turn the meat in the fat with my bare hands, i.e., to assure that the fat would not get too hot. That temperature was about 65 °C.”
The first part is the tacit knowledge; the last part is Peter’s scientific interpretation which, as so often in science, comes a posteriori rather than a priori. Peter goes on to say: “I think the tacit knowledge aspect works for good and bad. A lot of what is taught is based on misunderstanding, and that it must be true because “that’s how I was taught.” It was a problem when I worked with surgeons and now I see it with chefs and worse with cookbook authors [see Oliver Sachs’ “Uncle Tungsten” for a wonderful example from the chemical industry}.
By way of example, if you look at old recipes for what today we call braising, only a little or no liquid was added to the pot. Now I see entire books devoted to braising where the last step before cooking is to cover the item to be cooked with liquid. To me this is simmering, not braising.”
I agree, and hope that the whole subject of tacit knowledge gets a good airing at Oxford 2015.