Friends who write fiction tell me that when they hit a tricky patch of writing, their eating often goes weird. They subsist on black coffee and buttered toast. Or they set up their laptop in a café, so that the responsibility for meals can be shifted onto someone else. A bestselling crime author I know sometimes lunches on cold takeaway pizza, plus a vitamin pill. Thus she feels that her basic nutritional needs have been met with minimal fuss, and she can get on with the business of dreaming up grisly murders undisturbed.
If you want to know the truth, my meals also suffer when I'm on deadline. Cooking is my favourite activity, as it should be, given that I spend my days writing about it. For the past 15 years, I've written a weekly food column in Britain, and there are still few things that make me happier than a long afternoon in the kitchen, stirring and prodding and basting, with the scents of rosemary and garlic or walnuts and sugar wafting through the steam. But this is exactly the kind of afternoon you have no time for when you are manically working to finish a knotty passage of Chapter Five before school pickup time. No matter what, I always cook an evening meal. But during a full-on writing phase, supper becomes something more prosaic and speedy than I'd like. There are more all-in-one pasta dishes and fewer elaborate sauces, puff pastries, or herbs. Nutritionally, these meals are fine, but the love is gone. It has flown somewhere else.
Writing and cooking are antithetical activities. You can lose yourself in both, but the form that the absorption takes is very different. With cooking, you are always dealing in units of time, making quick calculations about when to take a cake out of the oven before it scorches or giving green beans one more minute to go tender. As a cook, you live in the moment. That is the joy of it.
With writing, at least when it is going well, time becomes irrelevant; you are lost to the world and the accumulation of words is all that counts. As a writer, you live somewhere beyond the present moment. That is the joy of it. Food becomes something you need only as a fuel or a distraction from the main task.
During the writing of my latest book, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, this contradiction started to bother me. Either I was cooking and failing to write, or I was writing and failing to cook. The moments when I was most fully inhabiting food in my mind were likely to be the workdays when lunch was a snatched peanut-butter sandwich. The subject of the book is the tools we use to cook and eat with, from knives to fire, from pots and pans to electric rice cookers. It is about how the implements we use change what we eat, how we eat, and what we feel about what we eat. While I was writing, however, my most urgent thought about what I ate was this: let's get it over with quickly so I can get back to work. The only days I ate a good lunch were when my cooking self had thoughtfully left some homemade soup in the fridge. My writing self would gobble it childishly and hurry back to the pretend food in the book.
One section of the book is about a remarkable Victorian woman called Mrs. Marshall. In 1885, she patented a hand-cranked ice-cream maker that makes ice cream in just five minutes. It's a great example of how technology does not always improve. Mrs. Marshall's machine is far quicker than today's electric ice-cream makers, and the finished ice cream came in a range of wonderful flavors: "She has recipes," I wrote, "not just for vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, but burnt almond, gooseberry, greengage, cinnamon, apricot, pistachio, quince, orange flower water, tea and tangerine."
I remember the lunch I ate that day. I was in a library canteen, where the least horrible thing on the menu was a baked potato with tuna and a wilting side salad. It didn't matter. The dull food on the plate had become less real than the sensuous food I was writing about.
Sometimes, though, I felt slightly hypocritical. In the book, I write about the benefits that certain technologies have brought to our cooking lives: how lucky we are not to rely on open fires for roasting, the revolutionary changes wrought by gas ovens, the joy of having access to decent vegetable peelers for the first time in history. And stainless-steel tongs. With tongs, I wrote, "you become a creature capable of lifting up searing-hot chicken thighs or picking individual cardamom pods from a pilaf, with the accuracy of tweezers and the calmness of a spatula." I meant it all. But at the time, the kitchen life I was celebrating was largely in my memory. My heart would only properly return to the messy, fragrant business of cooking when the book was done.
Perhaps all writing is like this. You don't write a love story (I'm guessing) in the middle of a passionate affair, but afterwards. Similarly, when I'm sticky in my apron, preparing a feast, I store the sensations up in my mind and reproduce them only later. But there is, I have discovered, one great exception — one edible substance that can straddle the two worlds of food and writing. It is coffee, which I rely on to fuel my writing brain to an alarming extent.
I thought a lot about coffee while writing the book.
It's the perfect example of one of my main themes, which is that ingredients only tell us half the story when it comes to the things we eat and drink. "To brew coffee is to do nothing more than to mix grounds with hot water and strain out the dregs," I wrote. "But methods for doing this have varied wildly, from the Turkish ibriks used to make rich dark coffee since the sixteenth century to the MyPressi TWIST launched in 2008, a hand-held espresso machine powered with gas canisters like a cream-whipper."
I also drank a lot of coffee while writing. Unlike the rest of my cooking, my standards of coffee making went up. I'd like to think this is because a coffee break, unlike a meal, is just long enough to refresh you but not so long you lose your train of thought. More likely, it's because coffee is a drug, disguised as an innocent hot beverage. My own preferred method of making it is currently with a cheap manual device, a recent invention called the AeroPress, which makes dark coffee essence using air pressure. Like all great coffee-making methods, it has an element of ritual to it. You measure out a scoop of coffee, pour on water, and stir for 10 seconds before slowly, slowly pushing down a rubber plunger. For an Americano, more hot water is added to thin it out; for a latte, hot milk. Sometimes, though, when I wanted to force out just one more paragraph, I gulped the shot down just as it was: a short, dark, syrupy hit of caffeine.
The book is done. Some of the coffee in my life has been replaced with herbal tisanes. And my standards of cooking have returned to normal. The other night, I even made tagliatelle from scratch, yolk-yellow and silky, for a school-night supper. The children helped. We cranked each sheet of dough many times through the machine clamped to the table. We kept adjusting the rollers to make the pasta thinner and thinner, until it was as fine as a page.
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Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian, and author of four books, including Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat and Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, which was named a BBC 4 Book of the Week. Wilson served as the food columnist for the New Statesman for five years and currently writes a weekly food column for the Sunday Telegraphs Stella magazine. She was named BBC Radio's Food Writer of the year in 2002 and was a Guild of Food Writers Food Journalist of the Year in 2004, 2008, and 2009.
Books mentioned in this post
Bee Wilson is the author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat