Longreads Best of 2018: Food Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in food writing.

Zahir Janmohamed
Co-host, The Racist Sandwich Podcast.

There Is No Dalit Cuisine (Sharanya Deepac, Popula)

Sharanya Deepak is one of the most promising, and inspiring food writers, to emerge from India in as long as I can remember. So often, food and travel reporting, both from India and from outside of India, evades questions of caste, gender, and state violence. But Deepak dives right into these topics. In 100 Cups of Tea, for Taste Cooking, she talks about how food traditions are fighting on, even thriving in the midst of India’s brutal violence in the disputed area of Kashmir.  In a lesser writer, this type of story might come off as hokey, but Deepak complicates the narrative, both for Indian and non-Indian readers. My favorite piece of hers, though, is on Dalit cuisine in India for Popula. The word Dalit means “broken” and refers to about 16 percent of the Indian population who are excluded from the Hindu caste system and are often relegated to the most menial jobs in India, such as trash collection. Deepak shows us how food politics—such as the banning of cow slaughter—has been used by upper-caste Brahmins to preserve their hegemony and to deny Dalits agency. She even calls out one of India’s most celebrated food journalists, Vir Sanghvi, who she says, “reveres the upper-class and colonial vision of Indian cuisine.” This piece, and all of her pieces, is journalism at its best: uncomfortable, layered, and fearless


Naz Riahi
Writer, Consultant, Founder of Bitten.

Can We Honor Your Service with a Steak, Malibu Chicken, or the Jumpo Crispy Shrimp? (Erin Clare Brown, Eater)

This piece encompasses so much that is lovely and so much that is brutal. On its surface Brown and her father go to Sizzler’s on Veterans’ Day for the free steak, a promotion to honor those who’ve served. In that, we are placed in midst of all that is heartbreaking about America, with its promise of opportunity juxtaposed against its exploitative reality. Brown and her father, in brief moments that punctuate long silences on the subject, discuss his service in the Vietnam War. In this essay, Brown explores her complicated feelings on the subject, her relationship with her father and, perhaps, the marketing machine he inadvertently fought for.


John T. Edge
Author of The Potlikker Papers, Columnist, Oxford American.

Houston Is the New Capital of Southern Cool (Brett Martin, GQ)

This piece gave me new perspective on a city I dearly love, a place I wrote about for the Oxford American — early in this era of Houston-is-Cool revelations. I was proud of that piece and the insights I offered. But this essay is so dang much better. It’s smart and circuitous and searching, a string of observations that could be used to describe Houston itself.


 

Irina Dumitrescu
Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn, whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing and Best American Essays.

Crying in H Mart (Michelle Zauner, The New Yorker)

Those of us who like to read food writing are probably all tired of the Great Cliché: misty memories of grandma in the kitchen, stirring a pot of fragrant, utterly authentic stew from the Old Country. At the same time, food remains such a useful symbol of our entangled connections to the families and cultures that made us. The reminiscence of a meal includes barely recoverable flavors and scents, ephemeral gestures of care, and, occasionally, flashes of perfect belonging.

Michelle Zauner stumbles across her memories in H Mart, the Korean American supermarket chain. She mourns her mother among dumpling skins and refrigerators stocked with banchan. Her madeleine is the puffed-rice snack ppeongtwigi, which she used to nibble after school. A grandmother slurping jjamppong noodle soup in the food court reminds Zauner of the old age her own mother never reached. This beautiful, delicately observed essay shows how many stories are still left to be told about food, what rich associations are still to be found in immigrant restaurants and strip malls and suburban kitchens, in places “where you can find your people under one odorous roof.”


Melissa Chadburn
Essayist, Novelist.

The Tyranny and the Comfort of Government Cheese (Bobbi Dempsey, TASTE)

I grew up in poverty. I grew up with my mother’s bounced check, a scarlet letter, taped to a wall behind the check-out at the Food King. I grew up washing out stains in the bathroom sink with hot water and a bar of soap, scrubbing until my knuckles bled, sharpening pencils with a steak knife, sucking on Kool-Aid and Country Time Lemonade off my licked wet fingers dipped into a sandwich bag. I want to tell these stories, these stories need to be told, these stories are my bones, and I’m so delighted that food outlets like TASTE are publishing them.

Dear Baby Witch (Sara Finnerty, r.kv.r.y.)

I read this wrapped in grief. We’d just unexpectedly had to put a magical dog down. And I was going through a phase of hating myself taking diet pills and checking my weight frequently. The idea of eating seemed too close to letting love in, and letting love in seemed like it was reserved for someone who was not me, and Sara Finnerty wrote this beautiful essay and came to my door bearing a platter of homemade Chicken Parmesan and very specific heating instructions, and reading about a young girl kneading gnocchi in the basement with her grandmother was just the reminder I needed to continue to reach for whatever neat thing might be around the corner.


Sara B. Franklin
Writer and professor of food studies at NYU based in Kingston, NY. 

A Cajun Seasoned Boil for a Big Party (Samin Nosrat, The New York Times Magazine)

I love Samin Nosrat’s approach to writing, cooking, and life. Nosrat knows a lot —she is, after all, a bestselling cookbook author and a Netflix personality. But in her column for the Times, she approaches her subjects with great openness and genuine curiosity; you can tell she’s still hungry to learn. In an industry whose celebrities often distinguish themselves by asserting their status with obnoxious, meaningless language like “toothsome,” “mouthfeel,” and “unctuous,” Nosrat aims for approachability and humility. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in her column about Mississippi River boat pilot-cum-home cook extraordinaire, Jared Austin. In just 1,000 short words, she captures Austin in his full humanity — as idiosyncratic, unique, and hospitable as his hometown of New Orleans. (I mean, “And yes, ‘bead’ is a verb.” Come on!) In this moment when we’re questioning all the characteristics traditionally associated with power and authority, Nosrat reminds us that humility is an asset, and for that, I’m thankful.


Aaron Gilbreath
Longreads Editor, Essayist.

Hazardous Cravings (Alex McElroy, Tin House)

In a genre that includes celebrity chef profiles, best of lists, and Yelp reviews, personal essays like Alex McElroy’s prove how deep food stories can go. Growing up overweight, McElroy had a very American predicament: surrounded by food, he ate too much, and people made fun of him for it, and yet, as his weight made him a target of ridicule, his eventual dieting threatened them, and people both encouraged him to lose weight and pressured him to share in their gluttony. While working at a Dairy Queen, he became eating disordered and bulimic. In this powerful, intelligent, devilishly funny essay, McElroy calls dieting “a paradox of masculinity and emasculation.” By exploring his relationship with food and his own flesh, he shows how people mistake his large personal space for public space, and how he struggled to value what others, including himself, had mistreated for so long. It’s an incredible, memorable portrait of a journey in the land of too much food, constrictive gender norms, and body shaming, and it’s unusual to hear it told by a man. It’s also about identity: how our past selves cast an inescapable shadow over our future selves, despite who we become.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.