This is part of the week-long Food for Thinkers carnival of posts hosted by Nicola Twilley over at GOOD Food HQ that all answer this question: “What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?”
If you’re somebody who’s interested in communicating big ideas, food is one of the most powerful tools you’ve got. It’s a universal, irresistible hook—the most common denominator. You can get people to think about economics, sociology, physiology, psychogeography (?!)—anything you want, really—if you simply connect it back to food. Not food policy!—I mean the real, tactile experience of food in the field and food on the plate.
And I think one way you can make it even more powerful is by combining it with another irresistible hook: fiction.
Back in October, in a paean to the great new sci-fi novel Windup Girl, I made this prediction (which was actually a pitch):
Science fiction is never really about the future—instead, it’s an interesting way to talk about the present. For decades, the genre huddled in the shade of the space race and the Cold War, because those were the dramas of the day. And it was in science fiction, I think, that we actually talked about them most honestly—about both our highest hopes (e.g. Star Trek) and our deepest fears (e.g. The Terminator—really a Cold War movie, and barely about robots at all).
So what’s present now? I think the next few really great works of science fiction—including, maybe, the next great science fiction movie—are going to be about food.
But actually, this is not such a leap from where we are now. I mean, I’ve been thinking about it, and: I’m not sure fiction even functions without food.
The places where we eat and drink are powerful junction points. In fiction, they’re the places where characters come together to share information and make new connections. Think of Monk’s from Seinfeld and Central Perk from Friends. Think of Rick’s American Cafe and the Prancing Pony. Think of the Mos Eisley Cantina!
There’s a reason every adventure starts in a tavern.
But we can take this further, right? Today, in 2011, food isn’t just part of the background; it’s right up front, in sharp focus. More people are operating as petit-gourmands than ever before, at least here in the U.S. and Europe. We think, every day, about our food’s composition and its origin. We look at labels. We ask for options. We feel waves of angst and dread. We are uncertain.
This is the perfect environment for fiction.
I mean, just think about all the drama up and down the food supply chain:
- The hustle and charm of a street food cart.
- The bustle (often bloody) of a working kitchen.
- The loyalties and betrayals of a winemaking dynasty.
- The real-life meathook horror of a factory farm.
- The rivalry and romance of a great farmer’s market.
- The secrets of a mysterious cheese shop.
What do you mean, there are no mysterious cheese shops? There ought to be mysterious cheese shops!
These people and places are story factories—just like hospitals, law firms, and all the other institutions that support long-running serial dramas. Every day, there’s a new crisis in the kitchen. Every week, some new stranger shows up at the farmer’s market.
But let me get tactical here. I’m going to talk about books, because it’s the medium I know best, and it’s where I see an opportunity—one that might make this a bit more concrete:
Right now, one of the big problems with books is that there are fewer and fewer credible places to sell them. The big chains are struggling; indies are an asterisk. Amazon is a titan, of course, but there are some other quiet giants, too: places like Wal-Mart and CostCo where thrillers and self-help books pile up four pallets deep. These are places where people mostly buy things other than books—so perhaps they constitute a new frontier.
But chew on this: there are more farmer’s markets than Whole Foods stores in the United States. So what if you set up a stand next to the radish-monger and sold books at the farmer’s market? What if wasn’t the same pulpy selection you get at Wal-Mart—the latest Lee Child and James Patterson—but instead an inventory specifically concocted to tickle the brains and tug the heart-strings of farmer’s market true believers?
Then, what about selling books at fancy food stores, wineries, and (yes) mysterious cheese shops? Don’t people have enough cook books already? Couldn’t those stores stock a little rack of cheap Food Cart Boys thrillers and sell them as impulse buys?
Maybe there’s another format that would work even better. Maybe it’s actually a rack of audio books, and you can play one in the kitchen while you make something great out of that dino kale and that mysterious cheese.
I think the market is ripe. Everybody’s wondering: okay, first vampires, then zombies… what’s next? What’s the next wave? I think it’s food: tales of weird sci-fi food, tales of illicit criminal food, tales of food and love.
I want the next wave to be food, because I think those could be amazing stories, and because I think they’re worth telling.
If Michael Pollan is right and one of the things that hurts us here in the U.S. is our lack of a coherent, deep-rooted food culture… well, maybe we need to start building that culture, at long last. But I don’t think we can do that with policy papers or New York Times Magazine articles, no matter how smart and wise they are. I think you need to do it with fiction—in every format, from books to TV to movies to video games.
But mostly books: books sold in new places, reaching new audiences, carrying new intellectual payloads.
The next boy wizard will enroll in a magical cooking school.
The next Jason Bourne will be pursued by a sinister agribusiness giant and/or the Tuna Yakuza.
The next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be a girl with a street food cart.
Read more Food for Thinkers posts over here at GOOD Food HQ!