A Review of Kathy Biehl’s Eat, Drink, and Be Wary

January 14, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Keema Waterfield

Twenty-one months into pandemic parenthood, the thing I most often pine for (after a vaccine for my toddler) is a mail-order intravenous food option for my entire household.

My youngest child was eighteen months old when we first locked down. He’d just recently been assessed by an oral therapist, because he grew so tired while chewing that he’d pocket his food in his cheeks like a squirrel, only to choke on it later. This was when I pre-chewed his food for him like a mad woman. My oldest had just turned four and was going through a taste change. Foods she’d previously adored were suddenly repellent. Goodbye curry and strawberries and garlic potatoes. Goodbye pepper. Goodbye quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese!

Now I was ordering groceries online in a small city with limited options, because I wasn’t taking my rambunctious offspring inside a grocery store where they could lay all sixteen octopus tentacles on every surface in sight. But fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t always available for delivery. I had to get creative with a game I call Pandemic Whack-a-Mole. Will they eat frozen carrots and peas? Nope. Canned corn and peas? Acceptable, but rarely. Forget the canned beans. By five o’clock, after preparing three experimental meals and four hundred snacks for my littles, I despaired at the thought of thawing, roasting, dicing, and plating my own grown-up dinner.

“One day I’m going to take you to a restaurant and let someone else break your heart by putting jam on your toast,” I told my youngest last week. Then it hit me: he doesn’t remember restaurants. I barely do. It’s been so long since I’ve experienced indoor dining, or cooking for pleasure, that I’ve forgotten what that forbidden fruit even tastes like.

This is what makes Kathy Biehl’s witty food memoir Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales such a delicious reminder of what awaits me on the other side of the food desert I’ve been living in.

The collection is neither straight memoir nor explicit food critique. Most of the works gathered here fell through the cracks of mainstream assignments over her three decades of food writing in Houston and New York, many culled from Biehl’s self-published zine and related blogs. It’s a foodie’s photo album in narrative form, with vignettes ranging from philosophical musings on the timeless power and connection of food in “The Cellular Memory of Food” to fantastically absurd situational humor. “The Omni-Directional Scud Lust Missile Rears Its Unwelcome Head Again (And This Time She’s Brought a Friend)” reads like a scene written from the point of view of Tom Cruise’s mask at the ball in Eyes Wide Shut.

There is cuisine, yes, of the fine and ordinary varieties. And crowded venues, empty bars, fascinating guests, a few recipes, and dreamy far-off places. But you won’t find the next hot eatery here. Instead, Biehl’s conversational joviality is an invitation to join her in recalling this hole-in-the wall someone told her about. Taste the chicken, smell the bleached Formica, hear the pans rattling on a stove just out of reach, and gorge on the unexpectedness of it all.

With Biehl as my guide, I wandered into memories I haven’t allowed myself to touch in nearly two years. I sat alone at a table with her, nearly swooning when she says of her solo outings, “I don’t feel lonely at all; I feel lucky to be alone.” Through her, I recalled the revelation of a new menu, the power of junk food, the connection a shared plate brings. When her friend finds an insect in his Scotch, I time travelled to the moment, a decade ago, when I discovered a fried cockroach in my takeaway burrito (half eaten, alas).

“What’s so great about going out to eat?” my son asked, when he caught me laughing at an early chapter, where Biehl is ensnared by a food surveyor at the mall and asked to participate in a mayonnaise review. (“[A]n offer no self-respecting magnet for weird could pass up.”) 

I had to think about it. What is wondrous about the experience for children? I can’t really say. I only grew comfortable at restaurants deep into adulthood.

Dining out was such a rare treat growing up that it holds a place more precious than Christmas in my memory. Except during one brief spell, when my single mother worked part-time as a server at the Armadillo Tex-Mex Café in Juneau, Alaska. Unlike her house cleaning gigs, with this job I could sometimes stop in and share her shift meal with her, always crunchy nachos piled high with chicken, beans, olives, tomatoes and jalapeños. She was usually too tired to talk, so I quietly admired the way she made a silk neck scarf seem fancy beyond our means while picking at the crusty cheese on our plate. I’ve never held a taste on my tongue so perfect, before or since.

For my kids, it’s a global crisis, rather than poverty, depriving them of the marvel of cramming eight chairs around a four top simply to break bread and bump elbows somewhere not home, while practicing having a say about what they graze on.

For the first time, it occurred to me that my son may never enjoy the noise and energy of dining out. His eyes glaze over in crowds, and he claps his ears at loud sounds. He still has trouble chewing. I can’t predict how he’ll move in the world after spending half his life apart from it. I hope he’ll find, as Biehl has, that it’s about more than being fed.

“I’m looking to be nourished,” she writes, contemplating what’s left after the novelty of thirty years of food writing has worn off, “to be amused, at least, entertained at best, and, if I’m lucky, to be so surprised and delighted that I want to stomp my feet or pound my hand on the table.”

“I don’t know what will be great about going out to eat for you,” I told him. “Maybe you’ll love it, and maybe you won’t. I hope we get to find out soon.”

For now, I’m grateful for the reminder Eat, Drink & Be Wary brings: there is gobsmackingly good food out there waiting for us, and good people who can’t wait to share it with us.
____

Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of Southeast Alaska. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesWIREDBrevity, and others. She resides in Missoula, Montana, with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @keemasaurusrex.

Devotion: Writing about Food

November 18, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Amy Rogers

Merriam Webster had just featured Kathy Biehl in their “Word of the Day” on October 22 when I rang the author to chat.

Her word? Devotion.

The example cited: “Restaurant loyalties run deep. Look at the scads of eateries that have drawn devotion for decades in the Park Cities, Preston Hollow, and environs.”

Biehl used the term to describe not a familial or romantic attachment – but a devotion to food. She doesn’t know how she was chosen, but it gave us a perfect entrée to talk about her award-winning journalism and her new book, Eat, Drink and Be Wary: Cautionary Tales (9th House Publishing).

Setting aside Biehl’s accomplishments covering topics that range from law to astrology, we focused on her food writing for this interview. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity, and of course, brevity.

Q: Tell me how you got into food writing. What was your entry point?

A: My entry point was answering the phone. Seriously, I’ve been a writer for a long, long time. I was a feature editor at my high school newspaper. I started out as a journalism major in college. When I got disillusioned, I started doing a lot of freelance writing.

I’ve always been interested in the story, and in people. I have a snappy way of getting people’s attention. Someone I had dated had done the bar listings for Houston Texas Monthly, was going to quit, and phoned me. He said, “You want it?” and I went, “Yep.”

So I started having to encapsulate the atmosphere of vastly different bars, in really short amounts of words, like 60 words, and it was like I was writing poetry.

Q: When was that?

A: In the 1980s. And meanwhile, my freelance writing was expanding into all kinds of offbeat writing and things that show the flowering of the human spirit in weird and quirky ways.

Kathy Biehl

Q: Was there a point at which you declared yourself a food writer?

Well, here’s what happened. I walked into a bar one night, and a guy I had dated – there’s a theme here – who was a reporter for the Houston Business Journal, pulled me aside and said, “We’ve lost our restaurant critic. You’ve got the style. Do you want me to recommend you?”

I honed in on quirky places or unusual places, or found what was distinctive about what was going on. I came at it as a writer. I learned about the food aspect but I always approached it as a total experience.

Q: I love the piece in the book where you discuss the differences between snack food and junk food, because I’ve got to tell you, until today I never made a distinction. But now I do. I think those sly, sneaky, smart lessons are what sets a food writer apart, like writers such as Calvin Trillin. I hope you don’t take offense at me comparing you.

A: Oh, no. I’ve been compared to Hunter S Thompson. I’ll take that. I will take that.

Q: My favorite story in the book is the one about the all-night party at your friends’ estate in Britain, where you cavort about with all manner of food, music, and mayhem until the wee hours. I could just picture it and it was so lovely. Do you have advice or wisdom for writers who want to use the lens of food in their own practice and growth?

A: I really do believe that there’s a visceral, subconscious, cellular impact food has on us, and I really enjoy making sense of that. Writing about food challenges you to convey what you’re experiencing. It really challenges your use of language, because you can’t just say, “This is good,” or “This is tasty.” That doesn’t have any information in it. So you have to become aware of the language as actually translating your physical experience.

Amy Rogers

Q: I think this book can be a place for people to start to understand that food writing is more than restaurant reviews, and even though you’ve done a lifetime of those, the stories that accompany the experiences are what makes this so universal. Anything else that you would want to say on the topic of the writing life, the trials and tribulations, the joys or the heartbreak?

A: I’ve come to discover that there is a vibrant online publication community. I can remember sitting at the edge of the food journalists’ conferences and the people who had staff jobs would treat all of the freelancers like there was something inherently – a lack of journalistic integrity in us. I looked at them and thought, “We are the wave of the future. Just you wait.”

_________________________________________

Kathy Biehl is an award-winning writer and observer of human quirks. For three decades she covered food, drink and the behaviors they inspire. Her writing has also focused on off-beat travel and translating the technicalities of law as well as astrology to the mainstream. Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales is available on Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.

Amy Rogers is an award-winning writer, editor and independent press publisher. Books she has written include Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas and Red Pepper Fudge and Blue Ribbon Biscuits. Rogers is a frequent food and culture commentator for National Public Radio station WFAE, and a current contributor for The Food Network.

A Review of Nicole Walker’s Processed Meats

March 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jenn Gibbs

Parenthood is meeting daily the hypocrite within.

Standing in the produce aisle, I weigh my kids’ need to eat greens against the karmic repercussions of a plastic clamshell. Should I buy the unwashed bulk kale? When I’m on deadline (which is always), that is a sure path to a container of slime behind the mayo. And it’s been hard enough propelling two teen boys through the agonies of online school to add food prep to their chores.

Also, and this is important, that meaty bulk kale doesn’t taste as good as this tender baby kale. Which is organic, by the way. Surely that tips the scales. I put two in my cart and roll on over to Meat where I’ll agonize over the affordable, monstrous Valu-Pak chicken that elder teen can mow through in two days versus my preferred yet painfully priced and teensy packages of the humanely-raised, cage-free, organic stuff. I will again consider pescatarianism then recount all the reasons that hasn’t worked for us. I will repeat this ritual in front of the beef, pork, and sausage. When I finally get home, exhausted, my partner will tease me about how long I’ve been gone.

Nicole Walker would understand why grocery shopping can be a fraught ethical exercise for all but the purest of eco-warriors and climate deniers. The poet and essayist’s latest collection of creative nonfiction, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, is all about the tension between our appetites and ideals, our need for change and our habits as individuals and as a collective. With wit and wide-ranging imagery, she places her own warring drives and impulses in the center of the plate, revealing how a self can be a microcosm of a society that can’t seem to bring the body in line with the logic for a healthier planet.

The collection opens with “Salmon of the Apocalypse,” on cooking fish in the desert to ward off the hypothetical crisis of Y2K, and ends with the very real crisis caused by COVID-19 in “Impurities” and “The Body.” Throughout, Walker wrangles with a chronic dissonance between appreciating the case for zero population growth and meatless living on one side and a deep desire to create babies and eat bacon and beefsteak on the other. “My dream of becoming a pure vegetarian fails,” she admits, “just like any of my dreams of being purely pure.”

Throughout the book, Walker presents the joy and terror of motherhood refreshingly free of sentimentality and mingled with ecological concerns. “What the Dirt Knows” juxtaposes an inability to get pregnant with the difficulty of growing tomatoes after environmental degradation—both conditions made more puzzling against a family history of prolific fertility of both womb and garden. “Anti-Bodies,” “Veal,” and “Move Out” set harrowing experiences with a premature infant alongside botulism, meat production, and air quality. “Pork Technologies” intersperses the anxiety of listening for wheezing lungs during the H1N1 pandemic and solutions for CO2 overload in the atmosphere with a hodgepodge of porcine-related ponderings such as how to prepare pork belly and one highly memorable way that housing a pig in an apartment can go awry. (My note in the margin there: “I can’t unsee this.”)

These essays are studded with moments of delight, many the result of low-simmering, situational humor bubbling up. Did someone mean to compliment Walker’s restraint at limiting herself to two kids—or two steaks? And while Walker doesn’t mug for her audience, I could swear she’s inviting us to laugh along as she serves poached salmon that falls squarely into the trap her cousin’s boyfriend (irritatingly, to this reader at least) warned against? Environmental writing skews toward the somber for good reason, and while Walker hits low and mid-range notes beautifully as well, a bit of levity is part of living at the intersection of competing values. There’s a compassionate wisdom to the wit in this collection, an understanding that we sometimes have to fumble along with ambiguity or the consequences of making what, in retrospect, proves to have been a bad call. After all, without joy, hope, or pleasure, what is the point? “[T]hese babies and these steaks are so delicious and there is only one life to live and we should dig in an enjoy it.”

For readers accustomed to essays structured around chronological, causal relationships, Walker’s lyric-dominant approach to form may feel as disconcerting as being served a taco with everything but the tortilla that holds it together—a dish described in “What the Dirt Knows.” Narrative is an important yet secondary ingredient in this book, where transitions tend to be associative. “Trying to get pregnant is lot like trying to make cheese,” opens the brief and delightful “How to Make Mozzarella,” which then leaps, not to cheese (which comes along in a moment), but to climate change. Yet these junctures are more than quirks of Walker’s style; they contribute to the book’s theme: the interdependence of individual and collective bodies, culture, and the environment.

Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, always peripatetic, Walker’s meditations offer not answers but companionship for anyone who tries and fails to align rational mind with all the other parts that come into play when guiding the choices we make for ourselves, our dependents, and the wider world. Processed Meats makes the point that we’re in the thick of it, here and now, together. As Walker writes, “We establish boundaries between you and I but what if there really is no separation?” Whether or not we buy the prewashed greens encased in plastic, eat the steak, or have the babies, we are inseparable from one another, our planet, and all that we turn to for nourishment.
___

Jenn Gibbs is a writer, editor, and communication Swiss Army knife specializing in prose forms and the creative process. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, Ocean State Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Literature and Racial Ambiguity. She makes art, a living, and a life in Salt Lake City.

On the Food-gasm, or, Why We Feel So Passionately about “Regional” Dishes

December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments

Mad Feast mech.inddA guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:

After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled.  People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region.  I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.

Matthew Gavin Frank

Matthew Gavin Frank

Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people.  These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world.  That’s why home is where the heart is.  That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood.  If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us.  What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many.  As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts.  And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein.  Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality.  Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.

On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.”  Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state.  The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we.  No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.

Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms).  Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability.  There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door.  It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim.  To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix.  Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over.  The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other.  A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth.  It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair.  We kiss with the same mouths we eat with.  We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically.  The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.

Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism).  These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors.  This is our private territory.  Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts.  In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others.  Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential.  It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself.  In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
__
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books.  In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.

Still Time to Register for Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Workshops

February 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

The registrations deadline for the pre-conference workshops at the
through Tuesday, February 19. The workshops will focus on the art, craft,
and business of writing. Established writers looking to expand their range
as well as those just beginning to think about a career in writing will
find that these workshops provide concrete tips strengthening and
marketing their writing. Topics include structuring creative nonfiction,
writing in scenes, book proposals and query letters, writing about food,
beginning a memoir, and profiling places and people. Two manuscript
workshops are also being offered. Workshops can be attended separately or
in conjunction with the conference.
To register or for more information, please visit
www.creativenonfiction.org, or call (412) 688-0304.

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