Novelist Stephanie Danler’s favorite depiction of food in literature comes from the Seamus Heaney poem “Oysters,” which begins:
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
Danler mentioned the poem in a panel discussion on food in literature titled “Food and Fiction,” one of the events at this year’s Food Book Fair, which was held at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg on May 1st and 2nd.
Danler, who wrote Sweetbitter, was joined on the panel by Jessica Tom, author of the novel Food Whore, and Helen Ellis, whose collection of humorous short stories American Housewife came out earlier this year. Cathy Erway, host of “Eat Your Words” on the Heritage Radio Network and author of The Food of Taiwan and The Art of Eating In, was the moderator.
The sensory richness of the Seamus Heaney poem that Danler cited—“my palate hung with starlight”—set a fitting tone for the Food Book Fair, which felt like a celebration of all that is beautiful in food writing and publishing.
Now in its fifth year, the Food Book Fair has been called “the Coachella of writing and eating.” It brings together writers, publishers, food purveyors, and food book enthusiasts from across the world to show off new projects, discuss the state of food in print, and, of course, sample some top-notch delicacies. In the “Food and Fiction” discussion, the panelists talked about how their own experiences with food informed their fiction.
Danler worked for years as a waitress, and while she’s careful to point out that she and her protagonist are not the same person, her insider knowledge of elite New York City restaurant culture informed her work immensely. Tom too wove her lifelong love of making and eating food, as well as her experience in restaurant industry startups, into the narrative of a young woman seeking success and culinary pleasures in the big city.
Ellis, the real-life housewife behind the deliciously funny “American Housewife” Twitter account (@WhatIDoAllDay), drew upon the spirit of home hospitality that she says is baked into her very nature. “I toothpick, I pinwheel, I casserole, I bacon. Those are all verbs. I write what I know,” Ellis said.
Beyond portraying food with mouth-watering clarity, each of the panelists described eating and cooking as a lens through which to examine broader cultural themes of gender, sexuality, and class.
Another panel, “Foodieodicals Today,” featured four editors and publishers of food periodicals: Anna Dunn of Diner Journal, Sarah Forbes Keough of Put A Egg On It, Paul Lowe of Sweet Paul, and Nick Fauchald of Short Stack Editions. Richard Martin, the vice president of editorial at media company Zero Point Zero Production, moderated the panel.
“Foodieodicals” is, as you might imagine, a portmanteau of the words “food” and “periodicals.” All of the panelists described the difficulty of starting and maintaining a magazine at a time when the print landscape is so financially fraught.
Dunn and Lowe talked about how, despite the financial challenges, they love the creative freedom of putting together their own publication. The panelists also agreed that there is a real hunger among a certain set of readers for beautiful, high quality print materials. In such a digital media-saturated time, there’s something special about a stack of pancakes dripping with glistening butter on the printed page. The feeling of holding a magazine, of flipping through pages of bountiful vegetable assemblages and exquisite pastry pictures, hasn’t gone out of style.
Further proof that food books and periodicals are still very much alive was the Foodieodicals fair. On Sunday afternoon, more than twenty food magazines, journals, and zines set up shop in the Wythe Hotel’s main hall. From the sexy Cherry Bombe to the elegant Gather to the whimsical The Runcible Spoon, the foodieodicals on display showcased an impressive array of food writing and image making.
Happily, not all the food at the Food Book Fair could be found on the printed page. There was real life three-dimensional food and drink to sample as well. Event sponsors Noosa yoghurt, Brooklyn Brewery, Vermont Creamery, and Union Market served up treats (sadly, no oysters) to foodieodical perusers. With any luck, the Food Book Fair will be back next year with all the food that’s fit to print.