William Skidelsky on food writing in a class of its own

America, home of the hamburger, leads the way when it comes to food writing

Two of the things I like most in life are food and the New Yorker magazine. So I am always delighted, come September, when the two are conjoined. The New Yorker published its first food issue just two years ago, but already it has acquired the feel of a long-established tradition. It says something about the magazine's lack of pretension that it is prepared to devote so much space to a subject which, for some, does not merit serious attention.

What is it about the New Yorker's food writing that appeals to me? I like, above all, its seriousness and straightforwardness. In Britain, despite our modish fascination with all things food-related, a faint whiff of embarrassment attaches to public discussions of the subject. There is still a sense that an interest in food needs to be apologised for, which explains our tendency to broach the subject through the prism of sex, celebrity or class. In the New Yorker food issues, there are no allusions to sex: it is rightly seen as irrelevant. And although there are pieces on celebrity chefs, their fame is seen as the least interesting thing about them. For the current issue, Adam Gopnik has written a joint profile of Fergus Henderson of St John, in London, and Alain Passard of L'Arpege in Paris. Henderson is, of course, an ardent carnivore; Passard, once famous for his roasts, has all but eradicated meat from his menus. Yet Gopnik sees an affinity in their approaches, an "appetite for perversity which is at the root, and forces the flower, of art".

As for class, it, too, is noticeably absent from Malcolm Gladwell's piece about the science of cookies. Gladwell has created a mini-genre out of writing about the technology of fast food: some years ago, he wrote an enthralling account of the doomed efforts by McDonald's to devise a low-fat burger. Gladwell writes about food with a boyish excitement, and is untroubled by embarrassment or prejudice. In Britain, burgers are too hamstrung by the class connotations of their "junk food" labels to be written about in this way.

Just as New Yorker writers are unconcerned by distinctions between high and low, so they are prepared to tackle small subjects as well as large. My favourite of the magazine's regular writers is Calvin Trillin, who specialises in rambling accounts of dotty culinary sojourns. In last year's food issue, he wrote about a trip to South Africa to eat the indigenous fish snoek (the piece contained the unbeatable line: "If mice went in for the decathlon, they'd use snoek bones as javelins"). This year, he has written about a week in Ecuador guzzling the hearty Easter soup fanesca. In Britain, we are remarkably snooty about America's junk-food culture. How ironic that it takes an

American publication to show us how food writing can be done.

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