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Giving Good Weight: Unmasking Food Writer John McPhee

Giving Good Weight: Unmasking Food Writer John McPhee

A fruit and nut vendor's cart in Puglia, ItalyMy all time favorite food essayist is John McPhee. This may come as a surprise, mainly because McPhee writes about so many things (his interests are even more eclectic than mine, it seems) that some might not consider him a food writer. But he is, certainly in the broadest sense considering food with a small “f.”

I have read most of McPhee’s work and I find his food related essays about as delightful as anything he has done. Maybe that is because they are shorter than a lot of his other writings. And, while I am at it, I find McPhee’s environmental advocacy essays and books top notch, especially Conversation’s with the Archdruid and Coming into the Country, about Alaska. But, back to food. . . .

Most of McPhee’s essays are published in collections of his essays. You have to hunt the food related essays down, one by one. One of my favorites is Giving Good Weight first published in 1979 (still in print). The title refers to the lead essay about farmer’s markets and wholesale markets in the New York City area and refers to the kindest complement that can be given to a green grocer in the marketplace. Someone who “gives good weight” is honest and gives a full pound plus when weighing out the goods. Another essay in this collection is “Brigade de Cuisine,” about a perfectionist artisan chef in upstate New York, we presume, as McPhee was sworn to secrecy not to reveal his identity. By his account, the author has had at least the top five meals in his life in this restaurant (and counting, he advises).

I like John McPhee’s essays so much because they are about food, people and process. They are about the ties that bind all of these and about the love the protagonists in his writings have for their work, for the food they produce, collect, sell and prepare. Mr. McPhee takes you by the hand and leads you through the market, the kitchen, and the minds of the people whom he selects as his protagonists. Often, you’ll read explanations through the words of those protagonists as McPhee quotes them so effectively:

“What is that stuff on these peaches?”

“It’s called fuzz.”

“It was on your peaches last week, too.”

“We don’t take it off. When you buy peaches in the store the fuzz has been rubbed off.”

“Well, I never.”

“You never saw peach fuzz before? You’re kidding.”

“I don’t like that fuzz. It makes me itchy. How much are the tomatoes?”

“Three pounds for a dollar.”

“Give me three pounds. Tomatoes don’t have fuzz.”

McPhee’s “Travels in Georgia,” essay has to be one of the funniest and interesting you’ll read. And it just might send you to the Joy of Cooking out of curiosity for recipes for squirrel, possum, raccoon, beaver, muskrat and more. (Yes, they are all listed!) This particularly essay is about a biologist who collects road kill specimens for the University of Georgia and stopped buying meat because of the abundance of her harvest. Okay, maybe this one is not strictly food writing but it’s a close cousin.

“Travels in Georgia” is in the collection called Pieces of the Frame. “Josie’s Well”, about artisanal Scotch distillers (excuse me, I mean “whisky” distillers) is also in this collection. I chuckle as I write this and as I recall my mother’s story about ordering a “Scotch” in Scotland. She was about sixty-five at the time. As she told the story with a gleam in her eye, the barkeep leaned across the bar and half whispered to her, “we call it whisky, luv.”

Maybe I like McPhee so much because he is interested in both food and place as much as I am. For him, linking food back to its source is important as witnessed in his book-length essay, Oranges. You’ll learn about the history, trade, cultivation, and people who’ve made the orange what it is in today’s society. He misses out on an opportunity to write about orange blossom honey, though. Now there’s an idea. What we really need is for McPhee to write about single-flower honeys! But that’s a topic for another essay!

(And for those who want to pursue this genre of essays about food, Marlowe & Company, an Imprint of Avalon Publishing Group collects the Best Food Writing 2004 from magazines and periodicals around the country. This is a great collection under Editor Holly Hughes. There is so much bad food writing it’s a pleasure to have someone select the best for you.)