FOOD writing did not begin in the 1990s, with the rise of the celebrity chef and their (often ghostwritten) glossy tomes of recipes and pretty pictures. Mesopotamian clay tablets dating to 1750BC had recipes inscribed in a complex writing form.
While the digital revolution has seen a great, populist levelling of the field (there are 484 members of the Irish Food Bloggers’ Association, with more joining each week), a new University College Cork food writing course will focus on a vast body of work spanning centuries, deeming the craft of writing as essential to the discipline as culinary expertise, or wisdom.
Part of the English department’s new creative writing MA, the course has been put together by food historian Regina Sexton with chef/author Denis Cotter, food writer John McKenna, and chef and food writer Darina Allen.
“This course is the first of its kind in Ireland,” says Sexton, “It is a blend of academia combining with the outside, business world, meeting working practitioners of this art form, seeing how that world works and how it might apply to influencing and directing the students’ own writing.”
Cotter is chef/proprietor of the acclaimed Cork restaurant Café Paradiso, but his books have earned near-equal acclaim: Paradiso Seasons was named a Gourmand World Cookbook of the Year in 2004.
“My understanding of the aim of the course,” says Cotter, “is to help and inspire people who can already write to learn how to apply that talent to the subject of food.
“I will be examining my own writing and the process that created it, as well as looking at some of my favourite writing, and why it works.
“Food writing is becoming as increasingly diverse as the subject it covers, making its way into history, politics, culture, travel and even fiction, while still cranking out a huge array of recipe manuals.
“The relationship between writing and cooking, as distinct from the wider subject of food that the course is covering, is essentially a how-to instructional manual, and three of my four books are, first and foremost, recipe books.
“The preamble to each recipe is there to draw people into the dish. My third book, Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me, was a reversal, in the sense that the focus was on the writing and the recipes were added on to illustrate possible uses for the vegetables discussed in the text.”
While Ballymaloe Cookery School owner Allen confesses to having a “terrible inferiority complex” about her writing (‘I said to Regina, ‘I’d love to do that course’), she has a formidable body of written work, including a long-running, popular column in this newspaper, and her latest book, 30 Years of Ballymaloe Cookery School, is the current Irish Food Book of the Year.
“You have to be interested in something to write with any kind of colour at all,” says Allen.
“I love writing, and when I travel and encounter new food experiences and absorb new information, writing gives it an extra dimension.
“It is another way of reflecting on the experience and I really love passing on knowledge and skills, not just to fill a page, but hoping it will give joy and add to the bank of knowledge.”
Award-winning food writer McKenna (with his wife, Sally) is founder of the prestigious McKennas’ Guides (formerly the Bridgestone Guides): “Food writing is a noble art and craft,” says McKenna, “and it can be done by anyone who is serious about writing about food, and who wants to do so creatively and imaginatively.
“I am looking forward to introducing students to some of the greatest writers who ever wrote, and who just happened to write about food.
“Great food writers need to be able to do more than simply master one discipline, because food is in every aspect of our lives.
“You need to know about agriculture and science and health and restaurants and cookery, and be able to master each brief and then write about it in drop-dead-gorgeous prose. No pressure, then.”
The ratio of pearls to swine applies equally to printed food writing, yet some traditionalists remain sniffy about the digital medium.
Not McKenna, though, who says “blogging gives more people a better chance of getting started, and those with determination will stick at it and win an audience, and will then be picked up by the mainstream media.”
“The forms of publication are as diverse as any other genre,” says Cotter, “from highbrow hardbacks to photo-based blogging.
“Basically, if you have something to say and a format in which you like to say it, there’s probably an audience out there for it.”
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