Longreads Best of 2020: Food

Our top picks in food writing for 2020.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting the food stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Whether you are a fan of marmalade, bagels, or sushi, we hope you find something you enjoy. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

* * *

Flimsy Plastic Knives, a Single Microwave, and Empty Popcorn Bags: How 50 Inmates Inside a Michigan Prison Prepared a Feast to Celebrate the Life of George Floyd (Tana Ganeva, The Counter)

This is a story that puts you through a whole gamut of emotion — from frustration, admiration, joy, to sadness — all while discussing fried rice on a bagel.

The protagonist behind the bagel is Michael Thompson, an inmate of Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan, who has served 25 years of a 40- to 60-year sentence for selling marijuana in Michigan, a state where cannabis is now legal. But it is not his own plight that is concerning Thompson — he has been moved by the story of a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer — George Floyd.

Wanting to find a way to mark Floyd’s death, Thompson decided to share a special meal with his inmates in a “celebration” honoring Floyd’s life. Such a simple concept is a monumental task in prison — and you feel great pride in the inmates you are joining on this mission. First, there is the issue of money — Thompson wanted to feed the whole unit, but resources meant it had to be capped at 50 inmates. Some food was donated, and the rest Thompson bought from the commissary. Then there were tools — the entire operation had to be carried out using “only flimsy plastic knives, a single microwave, and empty popcorn bags.” The men struggled, tearing their hands up with plastic while cutting, but at the end, each “attendee was served one celebration bagel, a bag of chips, and a soda.” And that food was so appreciated — for some, the first cold pop they had drunk for decades.

More than just the enjoyment of the food, this meal brought the men together, even though they had to eat separately, because: “After they returned to their cells, each man sat in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And then they began to eat.”

Why Grocery Shopping Is on Its Way Out (Cory Mintz, The Walrus)

As a food writer, Corey Mintz loves a supermarket more than most — in fact, he got married in one: “between the cash register, the root-vegetable table, a group of … friends and family, and a display of maple syrup.” In this piece, he gives us a fascinating history of the supermarket, whilst bemoaning what is unwittingly being lost by more and more people as they choose to order their groceries online.

Written just before COVID-19 hit in full force, the topic is eerily prophetic of things to come. When Mintz discusses the loss of “getting out of the house; the freedom of choice; being in a large, expansive space; the visual stimulation of all that abundance on the shelves,” he was unaware that the arrival of the pandemic was soon to rush this reality to the fore for millions. However, as mental health deteriorates alongside isolation in 2020, the accuracy of some of Mintz’s other points is undeniable: The idea that interactions with local storeowners — or “weak ties” — “improve physical and mental health and … reduces loneliness.”

This year supermarkets have been bombarded by a new wave of online customers, and the herculean feat it takes to get a delivery slot suggests that the figures in this article — that 1.5 ­percent of people in Canada and 3 percent in the U.S. order their food online — are already out of date. Now that people have discovered the delight of bananas and chocolate biscuits turning up at their door will they ever go back to their local supermarkets? If these community interactions are lost on a permanent basis, what is the long-term cost?

Mintz will certainly be hoping that in the future we remember that “while other human beings can be annoying—clipping our nails on the subway, calling instead of texting, disrespecting the unwritten rule that the middle seat on a plane gets armrest preference—we need one another.”

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads)

This essay resonates with the pure joy that a particular food can bring, but it’s not the most obvious of foods — a bitter citrus fruit boiled in sugar to create a breakfast condiment … a.k.a marmalade.

Potts’ language draws you into the kitchen with her as she brews up her concoctions, so you can almost feel the steam and stickiness as she drops “saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads.” The pleasure she derives from her “potted sunshine” is apparent, but more fascinating is the complicated world of marmalade that she explores. A central theme of British culture — eaten by Samuel Pepys, James Bond, and Paddington Bear — it inspires fanaticism. Invited to judge at the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, Potts discovers that “the tricky, maddening nature of marmalade is precisely why people love making it.”

Along with Potts, we brace ourselves “for the marmalade obsessives” she would find while judging for four days at Dalemain. And yes, 50 sheep were dyed orange in readiness for this year’s festival, but despite herself, Potts finds herself entranced by this eccentric world, and when she is the first to try the marmalade that ultimately won the Double Gold International Marmalade award in the artisan category, she “wanted to ring everyone I know and tell them about this stuff.” It turns out the subculture of marmalade is rather delightful.

Once back at home, and in a global lockdown, Potts finds comfort in making her own marmalade: “there is something inherently optimistic about preservation, about putting something away for your future.”

Read this loving homage to marmalade, and you too will find “a small optimism, a hope of orange-colored happiness in your future.”

The Sacred Ritual of Meals with My Mother (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Elle)

In this essay, Marie Mutsuki Mockett evokes the vivid associations we can have with food. She argues that the food of our youth — given to us by our mothers — formulates our palette for the rest of our lives. As a teenager, in the hospital with pneumonia, Mockett craved “Japanese soul food” — her mother brought her pickled sour plums, rice, and seasoned ground beef, and her “body reconstituted itself out of her nourishment.” Even today, when she is sick, she yearns for those flavors.

Now the tables have turned, and with her mother aging, it is Mockett who is bringing meals that bring her comfort, such as elegant flats of sushi with “the spinach … steamed, the water squeezed out, and the leaves placed into strips.” Despite her mother leaving Japan for the United States decades earlier, it is the food she grew up with, and taught her daughter to love, that they share — their personal and regional history interwoven.

COVID-19 has now robbed Mockett of the chance to share meals with her mother — whose nursing home was one of the first to shut its doors to visitors. She manages to express her devastation with a simple, yet searing, description: “Sometimes I get a photo of her eating her meals. There is no sushi on her plate.”

My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? (Gabrielle Hamilton, New York Times Magazine)

This year has been a struggle for many small restaurants — with so many having to shut their doors. In this piece, Gabrielle Hamilton tells the story of the closure hers — Prune — but it is the tale of many. Written from a first-person perspective this is a deeply personal essay that exposes the pain of shuttering a lifelong dream.

Prune was 20 years old when the gates were finally rolled down. A bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, when it was born “there was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene.” Hamilton worked seven nights a week “driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand.” However, once she cut her first payroll check, she understood, that poetic notion aside, she was running a business. When COVID-19 hit there was “one piece of unemotional data to work with: the checking account balance,” and there was not enough in it.

It took a week to shut the restaurant. A week of cleaning and “burying par-cooked chickens under a tight seal of duck fat to see if we could keep them perfectly preserved in their airtight coffins.”

Then followed weeks of paperwork — desperately applying for grants and unemployment that failed to appear. Then further weeks of idleness and quarantine, and the realization that although there was still a month of food in the freezer, what about somehow getting hurt and needing serious medical care with no insurance? More questions followed: Is Prune necessary? Will restaurants survive the pandemic?

Having decided against delivery and going online, sticking to her vision of her restaurant “as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder,” Prune’s shutters are still down.

* * *

Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.