I took a class last fall that made me believe food is the center of the universe.
"Cooking with Words." If you know me, you’ve heard me talk about it (and if you know Walden, you’ve been hearing him talk about it this semester). Guest professor, chef, and writer Gabrielle Hamilton showed up to the Kelly Writers House on day one in her aviator sunglasses and all–white overalls, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and grabbed a piece of chalk. Yeah, she’s old school like that. She put a prompt on the board—an unfinished sentence with which we were to begin a personal essay—and set a timer for 20 minutes.
We did this every week, what we’d call a “free write.” The task was to write about the first thing that came to mind. Each time there was a different prompt, but it always with the same guidance: to write about ourselves using food as a lens.
It was therapy. And I began to see that every relationship, every memory, every interaction I’ve ever had has some element of food attached to it. When Hamilton wrote “My situation was now an exceedingly awkward one…” on the board, I continued, “schoolyard drama became my moral dilemma, and the only right answer was to have mom stock the freezer with Breyers mint chocolate chip ice cream.” This very specific frozen dessert was the antidote for middle school heartbreak when my best friend got dumped for the first time, a bittersweet memory I had locked away after we had a falling out in high school.
When my grandma died after I’d spent years not talking to her, food was central to reconciling with that relationship. I immediately thought of her when given the prompt, “She was never easy to get along with, but…” A complicated woman, but was that really how I wanted to remember her? “My earliest memories of her are filled with the aroma of coffee and books, a scent I still adore to this day. Every time she visited she took my brother and me to Barnes and Noble where she’d buy us treats at the cafe and watch us read until we chose a book to bring home. I always got something with chocolate, and she always let me taste the foam from her cappuccino.”
"Cooking with Words" was exactly what the name suggests: not a class about food writing per se, but constructing our narratives as if we were making a recipe. Writing is cooking and cooking is writing—the physical tools and ingredients are the only difference. But we still break down and combine the elements, we taste and we tweak, we ask for a second opinion, and we create something beautiful and uniquely our own.
Every year when Dining Guide comes around, I get to relish in some of my favorite things: great food and great writing. You’ll see how flawlessly they intertwine to bring out the best in our staffers. The restaurant reviews dissect the components that produce an outstanding meal; the profiles and personal narratives demonstrate how food connects us to our communities both here and back home; there’s even a piece about all of the film scenes where characters fall in love over a bowl of spaghetti.
Food brings us together, and it brings us closer to ourselves. Writing isn’t any different.