Sam van Zweden




Revisiting JSF’s meat book

I’m revisiting Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I loved this book the first time around, and remember it for being a wonderfully personal take on the ethics of meat eating.

Next week, I’m doing a panel at The Wheeler Centre called ‘Green Cleaver‘ – I’ll be talking with Sam Cooney, Richard Cornish and Tammi Jonas about the role of meat in our lives and how we can do it better.

This, I suppose, in the wake of having written about why we struggle to embrace offal; and why the stories we tell about food are important.

I’m still working – always, forever – on the larger manuscript about food’s significance in our lives. In my research for that project, I hadn’t thought to revisit Jonathan Safran Foer’s book – it’s about food, but I didn’t remember it being relevant to what I’m writing.

Until now. In preparation for the panel event on Tuesday, I’m dipping back into JSF. This paragraph encapsulates so much of what I’m trying to do in my work, it’s hard to believe I’d forgotten it:

Perhaps [my grandmother’s] other stories were too difficult to tell. Or perhaps she chose her story for herself, wanting to be identified by her providing rather than her surviving. Or perhaps her surviving is contained within her providing: the story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love. As if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.

It’s succinct, and hard-hitting, and I’m finding it so energising. Deeply sad, very important, and energising.

Research and Relish

I have just finished reading Lucy Knisley‘s Relish. It’s a gorgeously drawn graphic memoir.

Last year at MWF, Estelle Tang waved Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother around before a panel, and when I chased that up, I discovered that graphic memoirs are amazing things. I loved Bechdel’s work, so when I heard about Knisley’s graphic memoir, I couldn’t say no. I love Knisley’s book. I’m not an avid comic reader, so I’m not judging with any kind of criteria other than, “it spoke to me”. 

ImageRelish is a collection of Knisley’s memories that are tied to food. The daughter of two foodies, she’s grown up around a lot of tasty things, but food functions here as something way more than sustenence or source of wonder. Food, for Knisley, provides a trigger for memories, and a framework through which she can understand her life. Experiences can be categorized by their food allegiances – Mexican sweets and coming of age. Choc-chip cookies and comforting rituals. French jammy croissants and losing her mind in pursuit of recreation. Many of Lucy’s food triggers are tied to family members, like her pearl-wearing grandmother, “the pickle whisperer”. 

Also scattered throughout the book are recipes and cooking tips. Last week I made carbonara according to Knisley’s graphic recipe and it was delicious. Books that pair recipes with memories are delightful (I was also a big fan of Charlotte Woods’ Love and Hunger), and Knisley’s consistently beautiful, funny drawings make this book a warm and welcoming reading experience. 

I’m currently (sporadically) working on a memoir project which looks at the connections between food and words. My father and brother are both chefs, and food has played a big part in our relationships. As a writer, I constantly look for the places where food and words meet – these are the things that potentially be exciting to all three of us; a meeting-point of sorts.

In researching for this project, I’ve had no trouble finding memoirs written by chefs, or by people who’ve stumbled across cooking and food as some kind of saviour. There are far fewer books that are closer to what I’m trying to do. Knisley’s Relish has been a thunderbolt moment for me – I’ve found someone who’s done what I’m trying to do, talking about family relationships with foodies, from the perspective of someone who’s not a great gastronome, but a perfectly adequate cook. 

I had this point with my memoir work about my mum, too. Reading Sandy Jeffs’ Flying With Paper Wings showed me that there is space for intellectual ideas in mental illness memoirs, and that a balance can be struck between the personal and the broader world of ideas. Similarly, Knisley has shown me that a memoir concerned with food can be about much more than direct experiences involving food, and that there is a way to combine my own non-foodie interests with the foodie stuff that has shaped me.

By combining her growing-up and food stories with a love for art and drawing, Knisley has produced an honest, non-food-porn-y memoir. I love her. I love this book. Thanks, Lucy Knisley, for your amazing work and for helping my research along at just the right time!

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