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How to Write About Food: An Interview with Sweetbitter Author Stephanie Danler

Stephanie Danler, the author of the novel Sweetbitter, talks about umami, developing an appetite, the pleasures of paying attention, and the challenges of writing about food and sex well. 

By
Kara Rota,
Episode #104

Below is an excerpt from the Clever Cookstr interview with debut novelist Stephanie Danler. To hear the full interview, listen in the top right hand player, or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify (simply search the mobile app!).

CC: Sweetbitter is a novel about a girl, Tess, who arrives in New York, gets a job at a prestigious restaurant, and over the course of a year receives an education in an entire world of sensory pleasure. I loved reading her trying things for the first timeoysters, fresh figsand developing not just a palate but an appetite. It made me wish I could eat these things again for the first time. How do we hold on to that excitement, that newness?

SD: I think you go through your life, and especially by the time we meet Tess, she's 22, and you think that you understand your senses. You think that you understand your appetites: this is what a tomato tastes like, and this is what sex is supposed to be like, and this is what a city will be like. Tess comes to New York City, and we know very little about her past. She's new, in a sense, and that newness allows us to experience everything with her as she experiences it. It's not that she's never had a tomato, it's that she's paying attention to it in a different way. And I think that's what I experienced when I moved to New York City and got a job in the food and wine industry. Even though I'd eaten in restaurants a million times, I had never been paying it the kind of worshipful, reverent attention. Once you do that, things begin exploding for you. It's the same when you use your eyes and you really pay attention to light, or to the details of the landscape. Once you invest yourself like that, the world becomes so intense. I think that we can still have those moments, even if we've had the same experience a thousand times. It's a moment that transcends itself.

CC: It’s an incredibly enjoyable book for a number of reasons, but one is just that there are such unique, and also spot on descriptions of food. The language we often use to talk about food is so repetitive. An heirloom tomato is described as “summer lightning”—there are two pages on truffles that are cinematic, for lack of a better word. Why is it so hard to write about food well? 

SD: There is so much food writing out there, and the tradition has been that food is merely a background detail, or it's a character tic, or it's purely setting, and the adjectives just kind of flow around it. That makes food forgettable for me. I kept two poems by my desk while I was working, and one was Oysters by Seamus Heaney, and one is untitled but it starts "Light clarity avocado salad in the morning" by Frank O'Hara. What I wanted to remember in those poems is that food is how you become present. It's essential to the moment and to the transformation that's taking place. And I thought a lot about that in every food scene I wrote. There were pages and pages and a whole other book of cut food scenes, because they weren't essential to the transformation that Tess was undergoing. It had to be from her voice, which is a lyrical voice, so I definitely could have taken it further, but it had to be leading her somewhere, and that's her mode of being present in that situation. There's a lot of background food, but the food scenes that stick with us, really the seasonal ones, the tomato, the oyster, the truffle, food is what is moving her from point A to point B.

CC: I’ve read so many descriptions of what umami is, but yours is my favorite—"ripeness about to ferment", "the precipice of rot." That borderline that should be disconcerting or even repulsive but instead is addictive. Can you explain umami and why it works that way?

SD: Umami is this border sense that's hard to define. Once you learn it, it's easier to taste. But it's often found in anchovies and parmesan and cheeses with mold on them, dry-aged steaks. It's a saltiness and a pungency that initially can seem off-putting. I do think of it as the precipice of rot, I think of when you see steaks that are covered in fur and you know they're going to be the best steaks. It's a salty-sweet balance that chefs are obsessed with, but identifying it and enhancing it is now such a trend. That kind of fulcrum point between pain and pleasure, and sweet and bitter, and delicious food and food that has actually turned, that isn't pungent for a good reason, that is what Tess is navigating the entire novel. And the restaurant lifestyle really lends itself to that because it's one of extremes, and there's no moderation anywhere. But eventually part of growing up is learning moderation. Even if she hasn't made so much progress by the end of the novel, she's investigated both sides and she's learned a little more about balance. 

To hear the full interview, listen in the top right hand player, or on iTunesStitcher, and Spotify (simply search the mobile app!). Don't forget to sign up for the forthcoming Clever Cookstr newsletter, full of tips and tricks from the kitchens of the world's best chefs.

Image courtesy of Nick Vorderman

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