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Say It Like You Eat ItLe Manger et Le Dire

Letter to a Young Food Writer (in Asia)

  • Robert McKeown

Corps de l’article

Dear Rob,

You know me, but we’ll never actually meet. My name is Robert McKeown and I’m writing to you from cold, icy Ottawa in the year 2016. Yes, that Robert McKeown; I’m you, 14 years on, with a touch of grey in my stubble and a longer name in honor of my/your/our entry into the world of scholarship. I’m guessing you’re probably on the move, chopsticking noodles or bargaining for mangoes or crossing a border somewhere in Southeast Asia, where the weather is sticky, the sunsets magnificent, and the food spicy, sour, or sweet and redolent with members of the ginger family, depending what region you are in at the moment. It’s the fall of 2002 for you. You’re the Asia correspondent for Gourmet magazine – and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe and Slow Food - and you are just finishing three spent months living in an old Indochine town in Laos called Luang Prabang. There you’ve picked up some of the rhythmic local tongue which, like the simple salads and grills of the local cuisine, has a kinship with Northeastern Thai culture in both taste and sound.

Things are about to happen very fast for you – and maybe even faster to the world you inhabit. I’m hoping you’ll take a break from your ambitious travel, reading, and writing schedule to ruminate on what’s about to come, to re-tool before a perfect storm of mass travel, the all-access, all-the-time internet – and the never-ending engagement and commentary of its inflammatory cousin, social media - and cultural curiosity strikes all around you.

Let me start with the big picture: Ten weeks from now – after a combination of classes with missionary students and a private teacher from the legendary Southern Thai food hub, Nakhon Si Thammarat - you will speak Thai incredibly well for a first-year expatriate resident of the Kingdom, at least well enough to interview people around the country and talk to locals in a loud whiskey bar at the Sunday Market despite the DJ-fueled din. You will move into a studio above a 150 year-old market in Bangkok. You’ll use a seemingly boundless energy and passion for gastronomic discovery to chase down and – I am choosing this word very carefully - expose to your million or so readers some of the first-generation of street foods and cafes untouched-by-foreign-guests the magazine Gourmet will ever cover. You’ll discover and record, in some cases for the first time widely and publicly in the English language, the beta generation of local foods cooked from Chiang Mai and Taipei to Penang and Singapore. Your decisions to cast a Western tourist light of availability on these far-off culinary corners will have consequences.

So, I’m hoping you listen to some of the advance notice I want to give you. Broadly, it’s about how the landscape of food, travel, and media will change dramatically, and what that means for how people relate to food. Why don’t we take your beloved Thailand as an example? Tourism will become the biggest business in the world, and Thailand’s arrivals will mount every year, no matter if there’s a political coup or tsunami (yes, those happen too). Thai food will become one of the most recognized in the world. Michelin-starred Thai restaurants pushing ‘authentic’ food cooked by Caucasian chefs will pop up in London, New York, Copenhagen, San Francisco, and many other cities. The most critically acclaimed Thai restaurant in the world will be in Bangkok, but be helmed by an Australian. This will all happen so fast that the complexities behind what makes something local or regional will be overlooked as a flood of Westerners go in search of what they deem the exotic or – here this word will come again and again - or authentic [1]. Your clips will be used by writers at the New York Times and other influential publications to write about the markets or street cooks you ‘discovered’ and some will be bombarded to the point they must re-located or lose their Thai diners.

Looking back, this process will happen so fast that it will be hard to properly prime the local cooks about to be inundated with English-only Westerners, just as it will be very hard for you to contextualize how to assess or properly negotiate a seemingly simple, but actually complex interaction like ordering food on the street in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, Taipei or Seoul, or even one of the many new modern yet authentic foreign cuisine-inspired restaurants – from Peruvian to Thai street food - that will pop up in every North American city with a concentration of college-educated grads in their 20’s and 30’s.

Do you know the angst you have always felt when writing about a certain hole-in-the-wall, owner-cooks-everything type of restaurant that’s already brimming with loving regulars, diners who feel like family when eating there? Or exposing a one-of-a-kind ethnic boite (in their city, anyway) that already is almost collapsing under the pressure of a cult following? Those feelings are justified. What’s more, the impact and import of bringing these places into the extreme light of the media has more dimensions to it culturally than you could ever imagine.

If it’s okay, I want to suggest some ways to approach this. Some concepts that may resonate and help better arm you to decide what to include and exclude in your work, and how you might better represent the people you’re writing about. It may seem like I (you) am over thinking things, but please believe me when I say that everything from the pantry to the line cooks will eat, taste, talk, and assemble food with an incredibly global and nuanced perspective. You’ll want to be prepared.

First, you’ll need to really consider who you are writing about. I don’t just mean the subject, but the interaction that takes place around them. Let’s take the renowned Thai street cook, J-Fai, she of bulging forearms, bellow-fed wok fires, and hardwood char-scented seafood and noodle dishes. As a Thai speaker, you know well her food is as much about her Thai-Chinese upbringing in Bangkok’s Old Town as it is about her technical prowess and precision. To persist properly, she needs to not just be written about, but given a voice. Cooks of all places and provenance need to speak, and to transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries correctly they need someone – you…me! – to translate.

Second, every time you eat a new dish and begin the process of taking notes, forming opinions, and writing makes an impact. I don’t just mean the obvious route of media exposure. I mean you, like all diners (and travelers amongst a foreign culture), leave a gustatory footprint. Let’s call it the gastronomic or cultural taste. It begins when you first put the food at hand in your mouth.

Transcending the typical visual domination of the touristic or artistic gaze [2], the gastronomic taste is the summation of all the crucial senses that, taken together, imbue meaning to a culinary transaction. It is also a culmination – in that moment at least – of your socio-cultural experience, re-constituted in a combination of taste, scent, texture, and sound. As you take the first bite and begin to chew on, say, a red curry with duck at your favorite home cooking Thai restaurant in a garden, what you have previously experienced in the realm of taste and culture latches on to the representation of that particular dish, as translated by the cook on that particular day. As you physically dissolve the food in your mouth, this taste representation (from the cook) meets your taste expectations (from your past) and, for a certain measure of time your culinary network is momentarily expanded and linked to the actions of others. In food, many can inform this act – servers, cooks, owners roaming the restaurant floor. They might have given narration or background to what you were about to eat as it was served at the table. Or they may have made decisions based on cultural assumptions – do foreigners like spicy or pungent…or not? - related to how they cook the food you are now tasting [3]. But once you begin that process of chewing, the network is momentarily closed and your present and current are bound together under layers of flavor and meaning. With each taste, the process continues, layering meaning along the way across boundaries of nation, experience, culture, and taste.

Third, think about legacy in the context of lessons that others can consume or incorporate in their culinary lives. As a journalist, you’ve been taught to seek out details that can be recorded and, when properly deployed, grow taller in stature than their literal selves. An anthropologist would call this thick description [4], but demand more in the sense that you should also think about such small items as carrying big cultural lessons. Without being ‘preachy’, try to find the cooks, the farmers, the chefs, the restaurant owners that do things that might inspire others culturally, that might engender conversations as much as they reward each diner with flavors to remember. Don’t just write about things, inscribe them so they last beyond that week’s or month’s issue [5].

As I know you tend to zone out or move onto the next meal or bowl of noodles at about 1,500 words, I’m going to leave you now. I look forward to reading what’s to come.

Until we eat again, Robert McKeown (yes, you’ll go back to your birth name as a writer over time…)

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