Up and down along the steep streets of San Francisco, waiting for the largest – and most harmless – of the city’s earthquakes: the Litquake festival, the literary event that’s been attracting fans of reading, of eating, of performing from all over the world for twelve years. Words buzz through the air during the days of the festival (which lasts for one week, every October), ready to invade every corner of the city: like a verbal concert for all palates and all five senses, the Litquake is a collective, engaging experience of stories, memories, poetry, fiction – as well as personal recipes and tributes to good cooking and eating from a new generation of young food writers and lovers of food writing.
I’m at the Chronicle Books, the same publisher of the much acclaimed Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, by Jeff Potter, who’s managed to transform cooking into an entertaining science lesson, and who, during Litquake, is hosting Serving it Forth: A Feast of Food Writing. My day began with one of the city’s best cappuccinos, served in the building that is home to Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, Zoetrope, and then followed by a stop at Miette, San Francisco’s answer to an authentic French patisserie. My objective was to understand the success behind one of the most talked-about books of the festival, Miette: Recipes From San Francisco’s Most Charming Pastry Shop written by Miette’s founder, Meg Ray. And proper investigation into the matter required, of course, an extensive tasting of Miette’s flower-shaped ginger snaps that evoke the long-forgotten flavour of grandomother’s homemade butter cookies, and, well, the macaroons which launched Miette to fame – a Californian variation of the original French recipe.
It was the cookbook expert, Leslie Jonath, to remind the Litquake audience how much love and work is behind the making of a cookbook: from your grandmother’s faded, hand-written notes to recipes exchanged via blogs, Jonath gave the interested public a run-down on the world of food writing. «Internet has made getting recipes much simpler, but exchanging cooking stories brings us back to authentic traditions, and this is the real reason why we’re all here. An intuition for a good dish may come from a friend’s suggestion or a childhood memory: all you need to do is write it down on a piece of paper.»
This same love for food and cooking can be found in Anne Zimmerman’s book, An Extravagant Hunger, the new biography of America’s pre-eminent food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. The book explores the life Fisher through her own letters and stories recounted from family members, in a sympathetic, but critical examination of a life marked by many extravagant hungers. Zimmerman explains her fascination with her subject, «Although many people write about food and hunger, there are few who write about it well. Rarer still is a writer who composes prose with the precision and grace of M.F.K. Fisher. Her lines are imbued with poetry and philosophy that could make the greatest of writers weep.»
Another master of the “good sense of good taste”, is writer Tom Hudgens, who presented – accompanied by little toasts of chicken paté and red apples – his book, Commonsense Kitchen, which he describes as «an eclectic, working repertoire of dishes and democratic culinary philosophies». The book’s basic intent is to become a guide for the new generations of aspiring chefs. «I was a student, then chef, and then teacher at Deep Springs – a men’s culinary college,» Hudgens explains. «And there, I learned that the most difficult thing was teaching students to keep their feet on the ground. Ambition and enthusiasm make many of them want to learn how to cook a soufflé before learning how to peel a potato.»
And to close the day, the IT engineer from Los Angeles, Jeff Potter, the young author of the book, Cooking For Geeks. Halfway between a cookbook and a chemistry book, Cooking for Geeks breaks down the “art” of cooking into a logical, clear “science”, while managing to reveal the secrets of molecular cuisine thanks to his theory of supertasting. In order to explain this concept, Potter handed out simple white strips of what looked like ordinary paper, then asked the audience to “taste” it. Everyone obeyed, a bit skeptical. And yet only a few people in the audience made scowling faces, describing a bitter taste from the paper, while the majority of the public remained impassive and neutral. Those who experienced the paper as bitter? According to Potter, those were the supertasters.
A day that begins by indulging in the city’s best cookies and ends by licking a piece of white paper? It’s all a part of food writing.