Picture the last great meal you ate: Which foods are on the plate and what do they look like, smell like, taste like, feel like on the tongue? Are you eating alone or with others and on what occasion? What does the experience say about this moment in your life? No matter how you might answer these questions, others will likely be able to relate.
“We all eat, and food is such a personal and revealing thing about our comfort,” explains Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur. “It’s so fundamental to who we are, and it tells so much about us, too.”
It wasn’t until Brodeur published her memoir, “Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me” (2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), that readers began labeling the longtime book editor and novelist as a food writer. But Brodeur doesn’t make a distinction: Good writing is good writing. Food is just a universal access point. “You learned a lot about Malabar, about the types of things she cooked, and this angle into her love story through wild game,” says the author, whose descriptions of lavish meals prepared by her food-writer mother, Malabar Hornblower, are woven throughout the Cape Cod-based narrative. “It is an intimate, personal, and descriptive way to enter any scene and a geography.”
On March 16, Aspen Words presents “The Art of Food Writing,” an online panel discussion among luminary writers who make sense of the world through food. As if curating a dynamic dinner party, Aspen Words invites authors Padma Lakshmi, Ronni Lundy, and Toni Tipton-Martin into conversation with Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Dawn Davis. In collaboration with Aspen Institute’s solutions-based Food and Society Program — led by Corby Kummer, himself a respected magazine editor, restaurant critic, food policy columnist, and author of the first book in English on the Slow Food movement—the online event ($10) aims to “focus on breaking the bubble of food writing and cultivating diverse stories.” (See sidebar for an Aspen Words-approved reading list.)
This is the first Aspen Words panel on food writing, specifically, and the second to last in the 2021 Winter Words series, which shares talks by writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more. Though the coronavirus has shaken up cultural programming and canceled in-person events, the online format allows Winter Words to draw from a broader pool of participants who won’t have to make the costly trip to Aspen this year.
Viewers will likely recognize Lakshmi as one of the faces of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” as she has served as a head judge for all 18 (and counting) seasons of the Emmy Award-winning series. Lakshmi is also the author of three cookbooks, as well as “Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir,” which, through recipes, explores her journey from childhood in South India to international renown as a food expert, model, and TV personality in America. (The latest season of “Top Chef,” which draws an Aspen chef to the competition for the first time, premieres April 1. See an upcoming “Food Matters” column for more.)
Ronni Lundy is the author of the 2017 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year award-winning “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes,” among other cookbooks that weave together the history of food and music from the American South.
Noted food and nutrition journalist Toni Tipton-Martin earned a second James Beard Award in 2020 for her latest masterpiece, “Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking.” Sam Sifton of the New York Times calls it, “An instructional companion to Tipton-Martin’s indispensable 2015 bibliography of black cooking in America, ‘The Jemima Code.’” In “Jubilee,” the author draws from her collection of nearly 400 cookbooks, many of them rare, “to upend segregationist narratives about African-American cooking, showing how throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, black cooks were central to the development of American cuisine, taking influences from immigrant groups from coast to coast.”
Brodeur quips that nabbing Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Dawn Davis as moderator for this Winter Words panel is “a huge treat.” Formerly a vice president at Simon & Schuster, where she ran the 37 Ink imprint, which publishes works by historically marginalized authors, Davis participated in the Aspen Summer Words literary gathering as an editor in 2018. She’s the author of “If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales from Chefs and Restaurateurs,” (1999, Penguin USA), which delves into the nitty gritty of working as a kitchen professional through anecdotes from wisened pros including Rick Bayless and Bobby Flay. Since Davis assumed leadership of Bon Appétit this past August as the magazine’s first Black editor, she’s worked to incorporate fresh voices into the mix. (Her debut issue is out in March.)
“They all write about food and the connectivity of food issues — food as it relates to equity and the environment and family, and how it forges a sense of place and home,” Brodeur explains of the panelists. “Some of my favorite memoirs, when I think about it — ‘Kitchen Confidential’ (by Anthony Bourdain); ‘Blood, Bones & Butter’ (by Gabrielle Hamilton); ‘Tender at the Bone’ (by Ruth Reichl) — they’re about food. But, honestly, they’re about the lives these people led.”
So, Aspen Words invites aspiring writers, readers, and anyone who enjoys a delicious story to gather round and settle in from home.
“Someone signed up from Paris!” Brodeur says, noting that Winter Words viewership has expanded its global reach this past season. “People have tuned in from 40 states and five or six countries. It’s a whole different program this year and what’s interesting is what it will be in the future.”