As an editor and a writer, I spend a lot of time reading the works of other published writers, working under the theory that only if you are exposed to great writing can you begin to emulate it. By noticing the tricks and tools that accomplished writers use, another writer can, without copying a particular style, learn to make their own work even more evocative, descriptive and informative. Which means I read a lot of food writing, ranging from poor and amateurish and bland, to pieces that are inspiring, professional and heartfelt. Food and the act of eating being somewhat sensual subject matter, finding a writer who can scatter words onto a page and create a passage as breathtaking as a night sky full of stars is a rare thing indeed.
And finding out that the same writer no longer writes for a living can cause one to do a double-take and then doubt their own abilities even more.
Such is the case with Eating My Words: How Marilyn Monroe is Like a Grilled Artichoke and Other Observations on Food
by Eve Johnson.
Johnson was the restaurant critic for the Vancouver Sun and wrote two cookbooks as well as this collection of essays before leaving her journalism career behind to start a yoga studio. The yoga world’s gain is the food world’s loss, for Johnson has such an intuitive connection with the world of food that her insight makes the reader think of every dish differently.
Most cooks peel their carrots in isolation. A painter rejected by a gallery can turn to other artists for moral support. The cook who faces a family of boors, of people with no interest in food, of culinary Jesuits who can’t possibly try anything they haven’t been eating since before the age of six, has no such support group.
In this book of essays, Johnson turns her attention to everything from evil kitchen spirits to a variety of modern non-foods such as cotton candy and cheezies. She bemoans the state of the modern factory-farmed egg, explores the ongoing fight with the last 10 pounds, and even looks at the history of the beleaguered Christmas pudding. Many of the essays, as with the Christmas pud, include recipes. She skewers silly food trends (kopi luwak coffee, anyone?), and is suitably distrustful of the Canada Food Guide that you can’t help but count her as someone for whom food is delightful but not a status symbol.
It is in the piece “Why I Quit My Job as a Restaurant Critic” (which was the piece I opened the book at while flipping through it in the store) that we learn anything of Johnson’s career – Google offers little info on the writer except in reference to her yoga studio. But more importantly, we see the true seed of Johnson’s desire to move on to another career in a passage that all food writers should take to heart;
I thought I had managed to evade the nastier parts of the role. So you can imagine my dismay when I woke up to find myself trapped inside our culture’s image of a restaurant critic – like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in the body of a giant cockroach, only I was free to go outside. I now know that at any private dinner party at least one guest will ask if I’m planning to review our host’s efforts. […] Here’s a hint: it’s comedy. To be a restaurant critic is to be, at heart, a buffoon. Nobody really takes restaurant critics seriously, not even themselves.
Perhaps the relative inaccessibility of the body of work from her Vancouver Sun days makes the little bit of Johnson that is available even more intriguing, but it seems obvious to me that Eating My Words is a collection by someone with a special way of looking at the world around her – and a brilliant manner of conveying that vision to her readers. It’s a shame Johnson has moved on to another field, but the work that is available is a potent example of what to strive for as other food writers hone their craft.