Food writing is nominally about food but mostly about people. Another way to say that: Food is the topic but never the story.
When I begin to write about a food, I contemplate that food’s five W’s. It’s a kind of existential inquiry, an examination of the food’s lineage and trajectory from its place of origin to this example on my plate. I find it a useful exercise for nearly any food, from the essential (tomato, butter, bread) to the elaborate (pastry, consommé, curry). It’s an invitation to consider origin, evolution, and process, and whether the results are conventional or novel. It’s useful for wine, too.
The answers ground me in that food’s essence and remind me that the food is not only about my experience of it. It has a life before me, and after.
Those five questions:
What is this food? What is its constitution? Is it a raw material like a fruit or nut, lightly processed like honey or cheese, or cooked or confected like wedding cake? What are its ingredients, and how does each contribute to the whole? What does the food look like? Does it appeal, and why? What does it taste like; what are its aromas and flavors, its textures? Is it warming or cooling? Is it comforting or stimulating? Is it delicious? What is the best example of this food, and the worst?
Where does this food come from? Not only where this particular food was grown, but where the ur-food originated, where it first was made. How has that place influenced the food? When I say place, I mean not only the geology and its temperament (the weather), but also the geography, the human traditions. How do each of these elements — agriculture plus culture — affect the food? Does this food embody where-ness, or is that signal muted? How does cooking affect where-ness? Is it stronger if it’s raw? Does it matter where you eat this food: indoors, or outside? At the ballpark, on the sidewalk, in a noisy café, in quiet room?
When did this food arise historically? When was it made today (especially important in contemplating French baguette, or mozzarella di bufala, or sashimi or tartare.) How has time, long-term and short-, affected it? How has the food evolved and spread through society; what is its diaspora? Is it a seasonal dish, associated with harvest or holy days? What’s happening with this food right now? Is it having a moment or is it past its time? Or is it perhaps on the verge of something new?
Who was originally responsible for this food? In what society did it emerge and why? Who prepares it traditionally, and who makes it now? How was it customarily served, and to whom? Who enjoys this food? Is it for children or adults or everyone? Is it an acquired taste? Who cares about whether it persists? Who’s trying to transform it, or profit from it, now?
Why does this food matter? What makes it special and affective? Why are we talking about it now, writing about it now? Why do we keep making it, and eating it?