I wanted to find a really cool place to meet Ruth Reichl for coffee. I mean, you just don’t meet one of the best food writers in the world at a Starbucks! The plan was to introduce Creative Nonfiction to her, so that she would agree to be the subject of our Encounter section for this issue featuring a special essay section about food. But first things first: Where to rendezvous?
A few days earlier, I had made plans to meet an old friend for breakfast, and he had sent four suggestions. I chose a spot for my friend and me, and then selected the place with the best Web site for my meeting with Ruth. I liked another café, as well, but the one I selected seemed—at least, judging from the name—to be more chic. So I e-mailed Ruth to confirm the place and time. But the idea of suggesting a café sight unseen haunted me through the entire day and into the evening.
So I got up especially early the following morning (5 a.m.!) and walked the 20 or so blocks to the cafe—and I realized right away that my choice was a mistake. It was OK for breakfast, but not for coffee with Ruth Reichl, so I walked another 20 blocks to my alternate site. I went in, had a coffee, looked around. I had never met Ruth, but I could tell from her writing that this would be perfect. I e-mailed her the change of venue. Later she told me, “That’s one of my favorite places!”
It’s like I always tell my students: You have to do your research.
Our Encounter with Ruth starts on page 10; in it, she recounts the series of fortunate accidents that led to her career in food writing. There’s a scene in Ruth’s memoir “Comfort Me With Apples” in which she observes, “Haven’t you noticed that food all by itself is really boring to read about? It’s everything around the food that makes it interesting. The sociology. The politics. The history.”
I suppose that’s as good a summary as any of our decision to put together a food issue and of what you’ll find in the Essays section: a diverse collection of true stories that on the surface are about food, but are really about much more.
Liesl Schwabe reflects on the unusual relationship between waiters and customers, and how physical proximity is sometimes confused for actual intimacy. Dinah Lenney tells of a dinner party gone wrong despite all her best efforts as hostess. Victoria Blake investigates the mysterious process whereby “pig” becomes “pork.” Shehla Anjum takes stock of world history through pomegranates, and Matthew Gavin Frank is on a quest for chapulines.
We sponsored a Food essay contest, and I’m very pleased to announce the results. Deborah Thompson’s bittersweet piece, “Beefless,” took second place, winning $500. The $1,000 best essay prize goes to Heather A. McDonald, for “How to Fix Everything”—which, I’m delighted to tell you, is also her first publication.
This issue also contains some terrific columns: John T. Edge starts off, appropriately, with an argument for democratizing food writing—for paying the same kind of attention to hot dogs as we do to hand-crafted, artisanal cheese. Phillip Lopate debates whether the essay is an argument or an exploration, and Robert Atwan offers “A Note on E.B. White’s ‘Death of a Pig.’” Finally, I am introducing a new column, in which I will discuss how narrative fits into our culture today and where it might be headed tomorrow. All in all, this issue is a literary feast.
By the way, the café where I met Ruth—one of her favorite places? I am not sure I can reveal the name; that might represent an unauthorized endorsement. It’s enough that she is endorsing Creative Nonfiction.