Food writers can learn a few important lessons from a blackberry pie, poet (and frequent contributor to Voracious' Producing Poetry series) Kate Lebo told students at a Richard Hugo House workshop this weekend.
For "Making the Pie Higher: Writing the Modern American Food Poem," Lebo alternated a pie-making demonstration with poetry readings and writing exercises, all of which were designed to showcase common shortcomings of food writing. According to Lebo, food writers often fail because they doesn't properly negotiate the boundary between oneself and the rest of the eating world.
"A pie is a public form," Lebo said, adding that it was once considered bad luck to cut a single slice of pie, since the meat and fruit beneath its protective crust were typically communal property. "Whereas a yogurt cup, that form is an individual form."
Too many food bloggers are contenting themselves with the literary versions of yogurt cups, producing posts in which nobody else can share, because readers weren't at the table where the sheep's eye was served or aren't acquainted with the writer's goulash-making grandmother.
"Writing moves along the continuum from a piece of therapy to a piece of art," Lebo reminded her students. "My students always want to write poems about love and loss. I say give me poems about lawnmowers and spatulas."
Modern bloggers aren't the only writers guilty of self-absorption: Lebo used Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying" as an example of food writing that's inherently unrelatable.
But Lebo warned that food writers can also err in the opposite direction. When food writers don't locate the personal significance of a universal food experience, they risk producing meaningless poems or prose.
"If you just say the word 'strawberry,' it's easy, we all know what that looks like," Lebo says. "That's lazy. You need to make it private."
Pie, of course, reflects the idiosyncrasies of its baker. And it rarely turns out exactly as intended, whether it's because the oven didn't heat correctly or the berries were juicier than anticipated. Great food writing incorporates twists, turns and disappointments, Lebo said.
"When I see bad food writing, it's bad because it's boring," she said. "It creates the expectation that there's going to be a happy ending. It's not that a measurable expectation is bad. The thing is, it happens every time."