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On February 11, 2011, the French and English Departments of McGill University hosted The Taste of Words/Le goût des mots, a bilingual panel discussion in the heart of bilingual Montreal. Organized by Professors Paul Yachnin and Frédéric Charbonneau, the event was held at the Faculty Club in support of the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence Program, a joint initiative of the two departments. Journalists, food critics, cookbook authors, chefs, farmers, and food studies scholars joined in the conversation, sharing the delights and challenges of talking and writing about gastronomy. Featuring James Chatto, Lesley Chesterman, Marcy Goldman, and Catherine Turgeon-Gouin, and moderated by Nathalie Cooke, the discussion centred on the following questions:
How do you translate the myriad sensations associated with food and wine (visual, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, even auditory) into words? Comment traduisez-vous en mots la foule des sensations (visuelles, gustatives, olfactives, tactiles et même auditives) relatives à la nourriture et au vin ?
What genres, forms, styles do you use in your writing about food? Do you adjust these features of your writing depending on the writing task or the food you’re writing about? Quels sont les genres, les formes, les styles dont vous vous servez lorsque vous écrivez à propos de la nourriture ? Les ajustez-vous en fonction du type de texte que vous devez écrire ? du type de nourriture dont il s'agit ?
How would you explain the relationship between the pleasures of eating and drinking and the pleasures of describing eating and drinking? Comment expliqueriez-vous la relation entre les plaisirs que vous donnent les mets et les vins et ceux que vous prenez à décrire les mets et les vins ?
Listen to the full discussion (audio quality improves following opening remarks) and read the highlights below.
Nathalie Cooke: D’abord, il faut absolument remercier Frédéric Charbonneau et Paul Yachnin, les organisateurs de l’après-midi. C’est un programme dynamique qu’ils nous proposent et ils me font beaucoup d’honneur en m’invitant à jouer le rôle d’animatrice aujourd’hui. C’est une programme dynamique qu’ils nous proposent, and it’s also dynamic in part because of where it is being held. Montreal is a city that is endowed with an embarrassment of linguistic and culinary riches and our discussion today will move as freely between French and English qu’elle glissera entre les cuisines, les traditions d’écriture, et les contextes culturels. As we proceed, I hope that you’ll all feel comfortable using whichever language and disciplinary vocabulary you feel will best enhance this conversation about language and food.
Language and food are a natural pairing: both pass through our mouths, we prepare and consume both with our hands, we think of them both as having textures and finishes, either of them can be worn on our sleeves, and they fill our homes, our neighbourhoods, and a library’s worth of books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. The ways that we procure, produce, cook, consume, and think about food create our sense of cuisine. In turn, the ways that we write and talk about food contribute to the creation not only of our cultures, but also of who we are.
Today, we welcome guests who shape our food tastes and who write about our food tastes: four panelists who have done much to create and describe Montreal’s foodways both as food makers and food writers.
Rather than introduce them all, I’m going to turn to each one, inviting them to introduce themselves by answering a question about their own tastes and preferences. You’ve heard that Robert Beauchemin is ill, but rather than add another panelist we asked Catherine Turgeon-Gouin if she would come and speak because in the spirit of the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence program, which is going to alternate between the French and English languages and is a collaborative project of the two departments, she seemed like an ideal person—not only because of what she’s going to tell you, but because as a francophone graduate student writing an English-language thesis in McGill’s English Department about Québec’s national imaginary, she was a wonderful example of somebody who’s moving back and forth and has that sense of a dynamic interaction between the two cultures, the two languages, and in some sense between the two departments.
Let me start by introducing you to Lesley Chesterman, who has now been a Montreal Gazette food critic for a baker’s dozen years. Ce qui est logique, puisqu’elle est chef pâtissière de formation et compte parmi ses trois livres Boulangerie et Patisserie: Techniques de Base, publié en 2001. Lesley has branched out considerably from both pastries and books—she writes about and reviews all kinds of food and drink and her work has appeared in magazines like Gourmet and Saveur and on her website, lesleychesterman.com. Lesley, I was wondering if you could give us a sense of your own tastes: what is your favourite piece of food writing?
Lesley Chesterman: That’s a little bit tough, and I’m going to answer it in a strange way, but my favourite food writing is by P. G. Wodehouse. When I was young, I loved P. G. Wodehouse because my father loved P. G. Wodehouse. We used to read the Jeeves stories and share laughs over them—really because I love chefs. Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha had a famous chef called Anatole, and all of the upper class families fought to get Anatole away from Aunt Agatha, and I just thought it was so great that all of these aristocratic people were fighting over this French chef, whose food was so good you just die when you eat it. Anatole was in the kitchen, just cooking, couldn’t care less, in these English country homes where everything’s going sideways and they’re all hung over… I just thought, there’s something to these chefs. Other things like the TV shows Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street—when I was younger these things really affected me. They tapped into this whole era of la grande cuisine, of people in England who were doing French cooking.
NC: Marcy Goldman is also trained as a pastry chef, and also contributes to the Gazette. She is an alumna of the English Department at McGill. The idea for this event actually came out of a conversation she had with Peter Sabor—then Acting Chair of English—when she expressed an interest in teaching and working with the department around the idea of writing about food. She’s trained at l’Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec. Her work includes a number of cookbooks, like The Best of Better Baking, which is now in its second edition, and is really becoming a classic, and The Baker’s Four Seasons, which is due out this fall from HarperCollins. Her recipes have often appeared on her website, betterbaking.com, but her writing is about to get a lot shorter: she’ll be an official “tweeter” for The New York Times. Marcy, since you’ve dabbled in so many different forms of food writing, I’m wondering if there’s one piece of writing that has left you with a particularly sweet aftertaste.
Marcy Goldman: I wish I had one thing that I could choose, but I’m kind of faithless as a chef and a writer and a reader. I think for me it’s always been fiction where food is not the main theme: your incognito love is coming out through the words and voices of wonderful writers. As a kid I remember reading Herman Wouk’s The City Boy  and there’s a phenomenal scene where a father takes his 13-year-old son for a dinner of a man among men, and they bring out a pastry cart, and the young boy is listening to his father drone on to one of his peers, and he doesn’t realize that it’s only one pastry and instead he gobbles them all up one by one—to the dismay of the attendant waiter, who’s looking in horror at this kid. The description of the pastry, the gluttony of this kid who eventually gets sick, and remembers bad pastry and nausea, stuck with me. But there are other books, Like Water for Chocolate  which I guess is a no-brainer, where you have a beautiful love story but you see the anguish and the heartbreak lived out in recipes, and I think any chef, from the coolest chefs I’ve worked with to a home cook, lives out a lot of their life and their emotions in what they bring to the table, and what they prepare in the kitchen, and when you see that eloquently done in fiction, I think for me it elevates food writing. I’m always somewhat apologetic when someone asks, “are you a writer?” and I say, “well, I’m a cookbook author.” My mother—bless her—used to ask “When are you going to write a real book?” I always feel like saying that food writing at that level can articulate what is visceral, what is wholesome and exotic at the same time. I think that’s quite an aspiration. And it connects everybody.
NC: When we thought of this question, in a way we were expecting you to choose a piece of your own writing, and we’re hearing instead the power of being able to see food expressed as a story and through story. And it’s a wonderful segue because we’re turning now to our third panelist, James Chatto, who is himself a memoirist. He is also a columnist and wine critic whose work has appeared in Toronto Life and Food & Drink. His books include The Man Who Ate Toronto: Memoirs of a Restaurant Lover and a pair of memoirs about four years spent living on the Greek island of Corfu. His bibliography is a testament to his abiding love of all things culinary. Indeed, he has tasted and loved food so much that he was named a Knight of France’s Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage. James, if you were stranded on a desert island—or a Greek one—what piece of food writing would you want to have with you?
James Chatto: Well that’s a good question. I actually keep a little hold-all of my favourite books by my bed just in case there’s a fire or a burglary or something, so I can grab them and flee. I realize that I’ve been reading about food since I was a little boy, because all the best children’s books are full of tea-times, and feasts, and wonderful things like that—in Beatrix Potter, they’re always ending up having something delicious to eat. And then when I was a student and a writer (always wanting to write, never really thinking much about food) a friend of mine wrote a book with the marvelous title of Offal and the New Brutalism,  which was a very well-worked-out thesis linking Thatcherism in England with a taste for red meat and offal. I actually recognized this when Mike Harris was in charge in Ontario, we had the same phenomenon happen: a sort of surge in steakhouses. But neither of these two books I would bring with me. This is probably over-familiar to everybody, but I think it would have to be M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me,  because it’s so well written. I’m really a wordie more than I am a foodie, and you can’t beat her for prose style, it’s absolutely spectacular. Every time I go to a literary evening and novelists come up and ask me what I write and I say I write about food and then they drift away again quite rapidly, then I go home and I pick this up and I remind myself that it’s a cool thing to do, to write about food. Because, she’s really writing about everything, and food is just a little frame or a lens to begin these marvelous short stories and episodes, autobiographical usually, that comprise this wonderful book. So that’s the one I’d choose, I think. I was going to find one bit from it, but I think I’d have to have the whole book.
NC: She was really a seminal figure in terms of elevating food writing, and getting a sense of recognition to it. The interesting thing about food in children’s stories is that it often has magical properties, so that as well as representing comfort, it actually has the ability to transform: think of Alice in Wonderland,  for example, that enormous moment of transformation.
To turn to the next question, how do you translate the myriad sensations associated with food and wine into words?
MG: As a pastry chef and cookbook writer, I can’t feed everybody, so that writing and recipe is a documentation of what I do—it’s an encapsulated lesson. So there’s a certain level of language that is simple, precise, that is a teaching voice. When you’re describing food or fragrance, on the other hand, and I also write about fragrance a lot, you’re talking about something that’s edible, tangible, has texture, has taste, has scent, and yet words are the only tool you have. I tend to be a little over-the-top as a writer, and select very vital, vibrant words, a lot of metaphors. Sometimes a recipe headnote is all the writing I get to do. 50 words is all I have to seduce readers, either get them into a kitchen or enthrall them and make it like a mini-romance, whether it’s hot cross buns or rice pudding. I think my intent is probably primarily to teach, secondly to seduce.
NC: What happens if we turn it around? Is there a way in which we can think of food as telling the story?
Catherine Turgeon-Gouin: As interesting as writing being super-imposed on food can be, from food itself can come a narrative, can come the story. If we’re trying to talk about sensation, there is a promise in a recipe, yet that moment always escapes us, and I think that’s really one of the first problems with food writing—and the genius of everybody that even attempts it—this trying to come as close to the moment as we can. Sometimes we come right after, in the form of the review, which is really a recap of what happened, a storytelling or a memoir of the moment in front of that piece of pastry, or the fabulous steak that we just enjoyed. But that moment is always absent from food writing. I think that’s what makes it almost magical, and maybe why some of the panelists here have been struck with the magical elements that come through in children’s writing. That moment of magic encapsulates what’s always absent, and what we’re always trying to reach.
NC: Catherine is a homegrown scholar of food and culture. Née au Québec, elle vient de soutenir une mémoire de maitrise ici à McGill sur la cuisine nationale, c’est a dire québécoise. Elle s’adresse au végétarianisme, à la migration de la cuisine et de la nourriture et surtoût à l’écriture gastronomique et l’identité culturelle. More specifically still, she looked at two restaurants and how they illustrate la cuisine Québecoise: Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal and Au Québec, which is actually a French restaurant chain.
Next question: What genres, forms, styles do you use in your writing about food? Do you adjust these features of your writing depending on the writing task or the food you’re writing about? Quels sont les genres, les formes, les styles dont vous vous servez lorsque vous écrivez à propos de la nourriture ? Les ajustez-vous en fonction du type de texte que vous devez écrire ? du type de nourriture dont il s'agit ?
JC: Yes I do, up to a point, but as a magazine writer the format is almost prescribed. I wrote a column for 23 years for Toronto Life and I always knew it was going to be 2,750 words long every month, and they didn’t like line breaks so it was continuous long-form prose, and that suited me. The question became, how do I make this interesting, and stop myself going mad with boredom writing about chefs and restaurants? So I would play little games with myself and I had a very friendly and lovely editor there for a while who allowed me to do this. Sometimes I’d write in iambic pentameter disguised as prose, or else I wrote one of them in the style of Jorge Luis Borges on English afternoon tea—that one I didn’t get through, they didn’t allow me to use that one, but it remains very close to my heart, that piece. It’s all about the horror of innumerable teas merging into one, and it was a lot of fun to do. So I think you can write about food in different ways, and even secretive ways, like that, and have fun with it. Or else you can use different metaphors. I think metaphor is the greatest weapon we have, because there are so few words to describe deliciousness or flavour, lots more about texture. I think my favourite thing was to find metaphors that leap off the page, though you can’t do it too much, or it becomes very laboured. There are a couple that I love that aren’t mine, though I wish they were: a “dark chocolate cake as rich and bitter as a young widow,” I love that one. You can maybe have one or two per piece or it becomes too much. There’s another good one: “A lemon ice cream as smooth and cold as a Jesuit’s smile.”
I think humour’s great if you can find it. A joke is a precious thing that needs to be set just perfectly into a piece, otherwise it looks very arch and strange. I wrote a piece once about how to order a Campari and soda if you were a Shakespearean actor. That was fun.
NC: And how would you?
JC: The old actor is saying to the waiter: “One thing alone can slake my summer thirst. Find you some water, and splashing from a virgin spring as unsuspecting caught by winter’s breath and clenched to crystal, transfixèd by the cold. Tumble four cubes, like clumsy dice, into a glass: this is your Alpha. Then seek that red elixir that the Romans call “Campari,” scarlet as Satan’s tights and sweet as nectar, bitter as Iscariot’s kiss. Pour on and listen to the ice protest, cracking and squeaking in that thick embrace. Incarnadine the frozen water drowns, so swiftly reinforce the element, add other water, now, wherein the air itself doth seethe and fret its confinement. And thus in case the battle swings too surely to the wet, take thou thy knife and cut an orange slice to lie upon the top. This is your Omega. Can you do this?” “Uh, yes sir, one Campari soda.”
- Herman Wouk, City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder and His Cousin, Cliff. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948.
- Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Charlotte Du Cann, Offal and the New Brutalism: A Book About Food. London: Heinemann, 1985.
- M. F. K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943.
- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan, 1865.
With special thanks to Frédéric Charbonneau, Paul Yachnin, Luba Markovskaia, and Ariel Buckley for organizing the event, and to George Ito for recording it. Nathalie Cooke gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Scott Kushner for scripting her introductory remarks. Thanks are also due to McGill’s Dean of Arts and to the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence Program for their support, as well as to all participants and guests.