Ruhlman Rebuttal

I like Michael Ruhlman. Hell, I recently bought two of his books.  However, I struggled with a recent Ruhlman blog post on the subject of food writing, and the applause in the comments. I am going to bypass the truisms (work hard, learn to write well, write often, write for an audience beyond yourself, don’t expect riches) and focus on the quotes that tripped me up, which lead each paragraph below in italics:

  • “Writing is not about the ‘me,’ it’s about the ‘not me.'” —  A pithy statement for sure, but riddled with confusion.  If one is talking about being mindful of the reader, then there is no argument from me, especially since much of food writing is a craft rather than an art. If one is talking about content, then the line between the two can get rather blurry.  Take Molly Wizenberg’s recent success, A Homemade Life.  I do not see how one can call this lovely book “not-me” without some philosophical pretzel-twists.  The same goes for cookbooks. Many authors, whether Bertolli in Cooking by Hand or Olney in Simple French Food, are not afraid to let the “me” shine through.  Actually, the “me” brings their books to life.
  • “It’s my belief  that there are too many cookbooks out there already and the unnecessary ones prevent the good ones from being seen.” — Dear Michael Ruhlman, how does someone who just published a new cookbook say such a thing?  And could you not make the same statement about any creative output?  It lays the foundation for a marvelously distopian setting: gothic street corner, hunkered masses, loudspeaker blaring: “This is a public service announcement to all artists, authors, producers and entertainers.  Cease and desist.  You are distracting the public from the True Quality.  If you are True Quality, you will know it because Enlightened Management will tell you that you are True Quality. Have an Obedient Day.”
  • “Blogs, of course, are still so new it’s hard to predict what they will look like in 10 years and who will be making money from them.  And, unlike any other form of engaging writing, they are almost always about the ‘me.'” — Back to the me/not-me issue.  Engaging writing?  I would argue that a huge amount of fiction is actually “me” highly disguised as “not-me” (and sometimes not so highly).  Nor do I think this surprising when many authors follow the advice “write what you know.”  Actually, I am coming to the conclusion that the terms me/not-me must mean different things to Michael Ruhlman and me, er wait, I mean “not-me”, or is that “him who is I”?
  • “Bottom line: don’t write if you can help it, and don’t write expecting to make money.  The only really good reason to write is because you have to.” — and hello curmudgeon Ruhlman!  I will grant that the odds are against having financial success as a writer (or most forms of creative expression). The odds are not impossible but they are tough.  I also have to grant that Ruhlman is probably talking about writing for a living, but I just cannot let such a sweeping statement go by.  The only good reason to write?! What stuff! Write if you love to! Write if you are determined to! Write if you want to improve your mind! Write if you want to express yourself! Write because you have the freedom to do so, and revel in that freedom! It has not always been so.

In the end, I suspect that some of Ruhlman’s comments are the result of people looking for shortcuts in a very tough, competitive, grueling profession (albeit not the only profession to deserve those descriptors).  Still, I prefer to applaud attempts to embrace the artistic.  A dose of realism is possible without trying to stamp a tender sapling into the ground.

Bittman, back to basics

A colleague of mine recently pointed me to Mark Bittman’s speech at the TED conference, which definitely shares an interesting perspective on trends in American eating and the impact of the livestock industry on the environment.

He also was kind enough to send me two Bittman cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything. I really like what I have read so far — it is unpretentious and back-to-basics. I don’t think that anybody, in any profession, is ever so far advanced that they cannot benefit from a return to the basics, let alone someone like me who still a relative beginner in this realm. Bittman, for example, has a whole section on beans — not just bean recipes, but an explanation of different kinds, dried versus canned, and the theory behind different approaches to cooking beans. That kind of information is surprisingly hard to find.

One can copy a complex Boulud recipe and certainly learn a lot by doing so, but to truly treat food like an art medium (which is why I love it), you need to understand the root theory and the building blocks. Painting is no different — prior to the 20th century’s foray into abstraction, artists were trained by drawing simple building blocks. Cezanne once wrote, “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth … lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.

Still, there are basics and then there is the scientific foundation (how far people go usually depends on their artistic versus engineering bent). You don’t need to know what a monosaccharide is to cook, but there is an interesting blend of chef/chemist/innovator emerging these days (or maybe it’s always been here and I’m just clueing in now). Ideas in Food is an interesting blog that balances exploration without the reader needing a chemistry PhD.

Speaking of basics, I haven’t been writing here about the very simple dishes I do (last night’s speed meal was grilled lamb with a fennel seed, lemon & yogurt dressing, and steamed broccoli) because I figure they are boring. Still, in food as in life, the basics are important and I look forward to doing some more hands-on exploration of Bittman’s cookbooks.

P.S. I have no segue into this, but check out this very funny New Yorker bit on Fourteen Passive-Aggressive Appetizers