You may know Ruby Tandoh as the runner-up from season 4 of The Great British Bake Off; you may not know that she’s a thoughtful writer working hard to stretch the boundaries of what “food writing” means. In Vice UK, she uses the life of ur-food writer M.F.K. Fisher — whose Consider the Oyster is about to be republished — as fertile ground for an exploration of the limits and potential of food writing.

The boundaries of food writing are hard to trace, but what is clear is that in spite of the soaring popularity of the food memoir and its ilk, little editorial time and space is being given to topics that sit in more overtly political territories. The Guardian‘s Feast magazine, and many other national food supplements, are rich with imagery, whimsy, and culinary flights of fancy, but largely apolitical. Famine, urban food deserts, food legislation, and the workplace rights of restaurant employees lie outside of the remit of much contemporary food writing, shoved sideways instead into environmental or political journalism and often taken off the plate entirely…

“Pearls,” Fisher explains, “grow slowly, secretly, gleaming ‘worm-coffins’ built in what may be pain around the bodies that have crept inside the shells.” Just as the parasite, the wound and the body converge in the milky stillness of a pearl, food writing must allow itself to crystallise around points of tenderness. Moving away from the assertive “you are what you eat,” we can venture into a more uncertain, questioning space: Why do you eat what you eat? Who has the freedom to eat for pleasure, and who does not? Why does food matter at all? We start, but do not finish, with the Fisher-esque culinary selfie. The gastronomical “me” is no longer a monolith but an anchor point: a place in time, space, family, and culture from which we might turn our lens outwards to explore issues of hunger as well as comfort, suffering as well as joy.

Read the essay