Last week I stumbled upon some highlights of Jonah Campbell‘s recently launched book Food & Trembling, based on his excellent blog, in an article at the Toronto AV Club. I was so taken by the excerpts that I went out that night to my closest, oppressively gargantuan, big-box-bookstore and snagged a copy. I’ve had it close to hand ever since.
Food & Trembling is a wonderful collection of essays on our (I say “our”, meaning humanity‘s) obsession with food—in both the upliftingly positive and soul-crushingly negative aspects of that obsession…but mostly positive.
Mr. Campbell is clearly enamoured with M.F.K. Fisher and that special technique she had of combining intellectual inquiry and descriptions of sensual experience in her writing. I applaud (and share) his crush. But there are lots of food writers influenced by Mary Frances who seem exclusively drawn to her ability to captivate, with lucid and vivid detail, the experience of dining & eating, but not many who share something of her rigorous intellect.
Mr. Campbell seems as interested in the intersection of language and food—the way we talk about food and the etymology of food terms—as he is in the way we experience food. Many of the essays in Food & Trembling feel like they were written by a post-punk Wittgenstein trying to explore how the way we express ourselves about food is related to the way we prepare and consume…and over-consume it.
One of the most striking essays for me was the one titled Food as Destroyer. Not many food writers are willing to stare as unblinkingly into the abyss of over-indulgence:
“Somewhere in the process of this meal…I become faintly conscious that I am ‘eating to destroy’—not just the food but myself.”
In particular, Mr. Campbell is referring to that desire some of us apparently have to consume foods that are bad for us when we’re sick. This touched a nerve for me personally as I am often lured to the canned products of the late Maestro Boiardi during illness—a comfort-food association from childhood—that usually results in regret.
Food as Destroyer also has one of many footnotes scattered throughout the book—most of which are hilarious and/or illuminating, and I would not say so numerous as to be considered at excessive DFW-worshiping levels—this was one of my favourites:
“It is on faith alone that I accept that there exist those people who move through the world indifferent to what they put in their bodies, so long as it meets their basic survival need. Such characters, with their emotionless or at least emotionally uncomplicated engagements with food, will remain forever slightly opaque to me, like people who don’t read books or listen to music…”
Mr. Campbell’s essays swing wildly from erudite examination to personnel confessional to comedic reportage—a charming and highly engaging way to explore the sociological background of food while simultaneously celebrating the joy of eating it.
If I have any complaint, it’s that the book is a little too beholden to the blog of its origin. There are a couple super-brief chapters that smack of that I just had a stray cool thought so I’ma post it approach that any long-running blog endulges in occasionally. There’s nothing particularly wrong with these pieces, they just seem a little lightweight compared to most of the other essays—a minor quibble.
In an essay on the etymology of the word croissant, I think Mr. Campbell states lucidly himself the appeal of his blog and book for me:
”…it is this very lack of rigour that I think renders my company tolerable. Who really wants to suffer the smug self-satisfaction of the expert, when one could enjoy the fumbling charm of the amateur? But for all my insistence upon quality…if there’s one lesson to be drawn from my dumb life it’s that if you’re not going to do something right, you should at least enjoy doing it.”
The above passage may have been written in a spirit of self-deprecating comedy, but I find it true to my tastes. I often prefer the explorations of a bright generalist to the didactic certainty of the expert. Sometimes, at least for me, the expert can seem limited by a rigid framework of absolute certainty. Unanswered questions are in no way a limitation of a given piece of writing and can, in fact, make the reader feel more engaged—like part of the conversation. I have almost unlimited access to Google, I can look up the finer points myself if I’m really keen. There aren’t many hyper-specialized experts that can make you laugh out loud reading their dissertations.
Food & Trembling is a great little book: funny, affecting, thoughtful—winningly puerile—and wholly engaging. Pick it up.