Brooklyn ¶ It’s no surprise to find Brooklyn, epicentre of literary America, hosting yet another book festival. Perhaps less known to a UK audience is that the borough is also a hotbed of culinary craft. It was therefore the perfect site for the second annual Food Book Fair. Foodies love “local”, and local was key here. The festival took place in Williamsburg, at the new Wyeth Hotel (an ammunitions factory turned luxury accommodation, with requisite exposed brick, cement ceilings and retro chandeliers), at the nearby Purekitchen (a maker of “locally-made, healthy, responsibly sourced” kitchen cabinets), and at Smorgasburg, the food market held every Saturday on the Brooklyn waterfront. Smorgasburg typically showcases stands by independent chefs; among the goods on offer this week were artisanal pigs in blankets, Bolivian soda, and an organic schnitzel bar.
Spread over three days, the Brooklyn Food Book Fair featured panel discussions, cooking demonstrations, literary readings, special meals and events, and a comprehensive bookstore selling titles like Flavored Butter and The Brisket Book, alongside more academic collections about the history of New York’s gastronomy and the difficulties faced by contemporary female chefs. Food writers and chefs are to be expected at a food festival; more unusual speakers included journalists who report on famine, designers who manipulate the typography in food marketing, and editors who compile personal tales of eating by famous writers.
For me, the standout panel was the first session I attended, called “Food, Future and Design”.
The speakers approached food in ways I’d never envisioned, posing questions about how design — from tableware to machinery to plating techniques — can transform the ways in which people think about, react to, grow, cook, eat and play with food. Chris Lopez-Thomas, editor of the magazine White Zinfandel, invites well-known artists to respond to food-related themes such as food fights and TV dinners, and publishes photographs of the results in each issue. The artist and scientist Sissel Tolaas is currently making cheese with bacteria from all the contributors to the upcoming issue — a treat they will eat at the issue’s launch dinner. Yego Moravia, a graphic designer who designs industrial food by day, works with underground chefs by night. He recently collaborated on the cookbook Fried Punk, which features the work of Dante Fried Chicken, a South Central LA native and “militant fried chicken chef ”who has reclaimed the dish by serving it at underground art/fried chicken parties. (Fried chicken, he claims, is made with spices from Africa and batter from Scotland, and put together in America. It’s a sophisticated meal, not fast food.) Fried Punk blends recipes, biographical stories and drawings; its graphics and typography are based on Nintendo games and the Korean strip malls of Los Angeles, reflecting the influences and interests of Dante Fried Chicken. A move away from the traditional recipe book was also evident at a “Foodiodical” party, which included stands from 30 food magazines, from the Edible guides to the literary Meatpaper. (“We are ‘unfood’ writing,” was a phrase I heard over and over. “We don’t do recipes or reviews, but fiction and lifestyle.”)
“Food and Conflict” featured food writers from Israeli, Lebanese, Jewish-American and Cuban-American backgrounds. Here, food was discussed as a means both of bringing cultures together and of differentiating and setting people apart. Naama Shefi recalled an event she had attended a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv where the host, Ha’aretz food critic Ronit Vered, had provided dishes made from Palestinian cookbook The Gaza Kitchen. Vered had intended to bridge cultures through food, but the event provoked outrage from all sides. Palestinians were upset that she’d attempted their cuisine; left wing Israelis said it was immoral to eat Gaza’s food instead of demonstrating for human rights; right wing Jews were angry that Vered was offering “the food of terrorists”. Demonstrating another case of food dividing rather than uniting, Joan Nathan read an excerpt from 18th-century French book which considered Jews a “primitive race” because of their “bad taste’” and avoidance of pork, then the height of culinary sophistication.
The politics of food is inescapable. Ana Sofia Pelaez, a Cuban American food blogger, claimed that she wanted to write about Cuban food because it seemed less “political” than other elements of Cuban identity. But she recently discovered that Nitza Villapol, the “Julia Child of Cuba”, was a communist. Pelaez was shocked that no one seemed angry about this. “People ignored her political resumé because she taught them how to cook.” In one of the final series of Villapol’s television show, there was so little food in Cuba that she showed viewers how to make meals from plantain peels.
At the panel “Fathers on Food,” given by male food writers who also feed their children, it was assumed that fatherhood had changed over the past 30 years, and that more dads are now cooking. They debated whether one should aim to please child-like taste buds, how to arrange mealtimes, and why dads are now so keen to get involved in the kitchen. Some suggested that cooking felt like a way to take control of fatherhood anxieties or to contribute to their families in times of financial trouble. John Donohue, the insightful and entertaining moderator and editor of the collection Stay at Stove Dad, suggested that perhaps this cooking craze could be traced to a desire to work with the hands, to the immediate gratification of physical labour.
This last comment helped slightly to answer the question that ran through my mind the entire weekend: why food now? I enjoyed the sessions I attended, but there seemed to me a lack of self awareness about the festival. Why is it that, in 2013, the hippest events centre not on fashion or sculpture or music, but ragu? Moravia suggested that 20and 30-somethings are into local and artisanal food because they are rebelling against the processed foods they ate as children in the 1980s and 1990s and embracing food as a creative outlet. This may be, but I wish he and his fellow speakers had considered the artistic and social implications of this approach. I had hoped for more analysis of localism as a concept relevant to this particular event. Many referred to New York as a food melting pot, but I wondered how the city’s eating habits have affected its economic divides, especially in recent decades. Nathan mentioned that the last time she had been in Williamsburg she was berated for wearing a short skirt in a chasidic deli; now the hipster neighbourhood is foodie central. What did participants make of the fact that they were paying $35 for each panel — at a festival taking place in an area which, not long ago, had been firmly working class? Is the obsession with food (largely, it seems, the preserve of the affluent) a longing for difference, for cultural blending, or for a type of creativity that is neither visual nor digital? Are we simply seeking something we can hold, smell, bite into? I highly recommend the schnitzel bar.