Food writer Monica Bhide posed the question of the value of food writing via a email from a student soliciting career advice. The student wondered whether she should seek an interesting career such as food writing or a career in public service that has “worldly impact”.
After taking some justified offense at the emailer’s implication that her writing lacked impact, and listing well-known, influential food writers such as Michael Pollen, Ms. Bhide continued to think about the purpose of food writing.
But I began to wonder.. what about people who are the true artists of food writing… the people whose work is just beautiful and poetic and flows and doesn’t fall in the arena of hard-hitting journalism. Do they have a worldly impact?
What is the impact of any art? Why did Picasso paint? Did his paintings have a worldly impact? Can art exist for art’s sake? Should it?
These are profound questions because they reach to the heart of questions about the meaning of life.
Of course, food is terribly important to everyone—it sustains life and health after all—and as issues of resource depletion and sustainability become critical, writing about the politics and sociology of food becomes an urgent matter with “worldly impact”.
But much food and wine writing is more about aesthetics than politics and Bhide was write to take the question in that direction. She received many insightful responses from food writers, some well-known and some toiling in obscurity. They are worth checking out, as is Bhide’s response:
But here is what all this soul searching made me realize: I write because it is my calling. It is what I was put on this earth to do. It is who I am and what I do. The results are not something I can worry about or control. If I do my work well, perhaps in many ways, that is its own reward.
The student’s email exemplifies a profoundly mistaken view of what is important, one that unfortunately has come to dominate modern life. That is the idea that for something to be of value it must serve a purpose, be an instrument for something else. A life devoted to only instrumental value is ultimately empty since nothing is ultimately satisfying. If one lives as if A is valuable only because it contributes to B, and B is valuable only because it contributes to C, etc., a life of serial dissatisfactions awaits.
The most important things in life are, as Bhide writes, their “own reward”, or as philosopher’s would say, they have intrinsic value. Once our nutritional needs are met, the pleasures of food and wine provide us with the most accessible form of intrinsic value, since nearly everyone can learn to appreciate their virtues.
Food and wine writers, especially those who express the aesthetic dimension, are important because they help people discover and focus on intrinsic value which can easily be lost in the hubbub of daily life.
Will such writing end war, bring about social justice, and liberate the oppressed. No, but it might liberate those crushed by the idea that they are just a tool in the shed waiting to discover a purpose that seems to always be just out of reach.