After you decide you want to be a writer, the problem becomes what to write about. Every subject seems to come with a prepackaged identity: the introspective memoirist, the philosophizing critic. And then there’s “food writing,” a term so broad, it’s practically identity-free (Wikipedia’s list of food writers mentions both the Greek scholar Athenaeus and Martha Stewart, two people who, I imagine, would have very little to discuss at a dinner party).
The one thing that does seem to unite “food writing” is the widely held belief that it is frivolous, somehow “less than.” A book I read recently described someone as “too good a writer to be a food writer,” and while I’d heard versions of that before, it gnawed at me all the same. It didn’t belong there, in this book I otherwise liked.
Alexandre Dumas was fighting the same attitude when he made his food-writing debut. Dumas had already established his identity in the literary world: The Count of Monte Cristo was only, you know, the most popular book in all of Europe. So he had his reputation on the line when he decided to write about food – and he knew it.
His food book, he argued, would be different, combining “both scientific knowledge and an element of wit,” and would “perhaps deserve to be read by men of serious character.” In other words, it wasn’t just for that cookbook-reading riffraff. The result is a strange little encyclopedia, written of two minds: half food worshiper, half food apologist. The one thing Dumas can say for sure is that he just really loves potatoes.
The unexpected star of the book, potatoes take up an entire section in From Absinthe to Zest, as “a most excellent vegetable.” He details their historical significance: During the French Revolution, the royal gardens were torn up to make way for them. He also makes grand claims about their health benefits: “The alacrity with which one observes children eating baked potatoes, and feeling all the better for them, proves that they suit all dispositions.” I’m not sure about that evidence—considering the alacrity with which I ate Twix bars at that age—but he seems convinced enough.
Dumas’ main gripe is that while the potato was embraced by the masses, “absurd prejudices prevented it from being duly appreciated for a long time” by the upper classes. “Many people thought it a dangerous foodstuff, or at least a coarse one.” Dumas took it upon himself to change prejudices toward the potato … and began changing prejudices toward food writing at the same time. Now it’s up to us to finish the job.
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