Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is This Really a Food Story?

I have a fairly expansive view of what constitutes a food story. It has to have something to do with food, and not just peripherally. But food doesn’t necessarily need to be the sole and central topic, either. Does that make sense?

If it sounds a bit vague, that’s because clarifying the criteria for a food story seems to be a bit like the infamous definition of pornography: I know it when I see it, even if I can’t quite adequately describe it. But let me try to describe it ... a food story, that is.

I think a church dinner is a fair subject for something labeled a food story. But the food, which is undoubtedly delicious, is not the point. The gathering over a meal is, by far, the more important aspect. The welcoming of those in need is the crux of it, if the particular meal is meant for those who are hungry rather than, say, being a potluck for congregants. The role of food, as it offers sustenance as well as an entree into forming friendships and creating community, is what matters more than the specific dishes or the recipes for them.

I once wrote about the ice cream vending machine in a hospital cafeteria, and how its robotic arm – which reached into a cooler to pull out the selected item – was an amusing diversion. Because when a loved one is sick, even something as simple as this can be an entertaining respite. And it can be fodder for a story that may be food-related, but really isn’t entirely about the food.

Overwhelmingly, I find that people respond better – in greater numbers but, more importantly, personally and intimately – when the story veers from the straight, narrow, and literal topic of food. Because it becomes a human story, instead, that happens to have food as an ingredient.

When writing last Thanksgiving about fractured families that don’t gather together for the holiday because of various misunderstandings and grudges and traumas, the story was about how to overcome the sense of loss as others celebrated festively. My planned menu was barely acknowledged, an aside that was irrelevant to the admission that my family wouldn’t qualify for a Norman Rockwell painting. The column may have mentioned a meal, but the story wasn’t at all about the turkey, the stuffing, or even the pie.

And when I wrote about Hobbesie, whose real name is Hobbit, I told of having found a scrawny, crying cat wandering in my neighborhood and how he proceeded to earn his name by eating several breakfasts, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and evening and bedtime snacks, too. (Hobbesie is now hefty enough that he might make a hearty meal, himself, if he lived in a different community.) Ostensibly a story about a cat, it was really about rescuing a new family member by sharing food and love ... and more food.

I don’t think readers look to me for stories that are strictly about food or recipes or cooking or shopping or restaurants. Rather, it seems my friends stop by to share in a conversation about the varied and myriad roles that food plays in our lives, the ways that it is a part of our story – individually and collectively – beyond merely what we’re serving for dinner tonight.

Folks may read what I write, some days, and wonder, “What does this have to do with food?”

But to me, the stories are always about food. I might talk very specifically about Oreos and the glut of newfangled models that don’t quite qualify for Oreo-dom. But then I’ll also write about sharing some of those new Oreos and making a friend in the process, using the cookies as a supporting player rather than casting them in a starring role.

So what constitutes a food story? I’m not sure if I’ve necessarily clarified that. A friend once told me that he thinks anything and everything could potentially be a food story, even World War II if you looked at it in terms of rationing, Spam, and victory gardens.

Simply put, I think there are far more ingredients to a food story than merely, and literally, the food.

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