Thursday, August 28, 2008

Literary Gluttony

Anyone else getting tired of food writing?

I started my freelance career writing about food. A fabulous little bi-monthly food magazine in Calgary called City Palate published my first paid article, an account of my time in Mali's Dogon country drinking millet beer with locals. I went on to write about a dozen or so pieces for the kindly editors at Palate. Nearly all the stories were about eating abroad. Those stories led to a monthly gig at another Calgary magazine writing profiles of local chefs. I hated that column - chefs are rarely as interesting as they think they are - but I managed to churn out ten profiles before abandoning it.

Suddenly, somehow, I was a food writer. My stories about cuisine and restaurants gained far more attention than any of my other work. One year I had written a story about two people I met while traveling in the Middle East: a twenty year-old female army officer and a former Palestinian terrorist-turned-tour guide. (This was pre-September 11th). The story meant a lot to me both personally and professionally, but was completely overshadowed by a puff-piece I wrote about the secret life of waiters. People still mention that waiter story.

The fact was, and still is, that food-writing sells magazines. I have far more success pitching food-related stories than I do any other kind. My first long-ish story for The Walrus was about two famous chefs from Konya, Turkey. EnRoute published a piece about a tavern meal my wife and I enjoyed in Istanbul, and will print a story about a cafe owner and a Chinese restauranteur in Jordan. City Palate still calls me once and a while to ask for material - usually my long-promised diatribe about breakfast diners and eggs - or to contribute to their annual 'Cheap Eats' column. This is surprising considering a number of the places I've recommended in the past have been shut down by the health board.

I've no problem eating food. I still obsess over cuisine when I travel. Just ask my poor wife who I dragged, starving, through Istanbul one summer in search of authentic anchovy pilaf. Just last week we were in Portland where we I visited cinemas that serve pizza and microbrews, and swooned at menus that included such delightful weirdness such as braised lamb BLT's, quail with marrow sauce, and foie gras profiteroles. And I can't wait to fill my stomach in India and Pakistan this fall.

I love the eating. I'm just weary of the writing.

Perhaps it has something to do with what has happened to food. Groceries have become status symbols. You don't believe me, check out the crowds at the Calgary Farmer's Market in their lululemon pants and zillion dollar baby-carriages. Ingredients are fads. Last year you couldn't find a menu without smoked paprika and pork belly. The year before it was pea shoots. Now we are pickling everything. Television chefs are adored for their sociopathology - only in pro-wrestling are villians so popular. Bartenders are mixologists now. Today people refer to themselves as 'foodies' in the same way they used to describe themselves as 'wine connoisseurs.' (Both terms are never used by real experts in food or wine. Mention to your waiter that you are a foodie or a connoisseur and watch his or her eyes roll). Tap water is 'in.' Writing about this stuff feels like prostitution.

Granted, there is some fine food writing out there. I just finished reading John McPhee's essay "Giving Good Weight" about the farmers' markets in New York City during the 1970s. It was fabulous. Saveur Magazine and gastronomica is full of good writing. And, quite frankly, my Konya piece, "Sufi Gourmet," is the best thing I've written in a while. I guess the key for me is that food-writing has to be about culture. Not pop-culture. If I write about food again, it will have to be a story with some meat on it. Something with relevance and real characters. No more empty calories.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cheap Books

Hello all.

It was one of those moments that eventually humbles all writers. I recently discovered that the hardcover edition of my last book, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran, has been remaindered. This means that it will soon appear on those bargain tables in front of bookstores alongside back-issues of The Believer and books about gardening.

I managed to rescue a couple of boxes of P&P from such a fate and I am selling them cheap to anyone out there in Bloggerstan who might be interested. I will unload them for $12 bucks each; that's less than half of the cover price and cheaper, even, than the paperback edition. If you live in North America, I will pay for the postage. Hell, I'll even sign them.

I am under no illusions that the book will suddenly be a hot commodity among the readers of this blog - I am no doubt related to most of you - so I am not going to set up a PayPal account or anything like that. If you want a copy just email me at harmattan(at)telus(dot)net and we can work something out.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Forgotten Wall

Here is a very brief excerpt from the piece I wrote in Banff.

It is a time of no war and no peace. The ceasefire holds but cracks are starting to show. The refugees wait, and though one man says it is courageous to be patient, it has already been more than thirty years. There are more than a hundred thousand refugees and they’ve built a nation out of nothing on wretched hard-packed sand. They are ready to cross over the wall that separates them from home.

The wall is built of sand and stone, but also of rumors, half-truths and bluster. I hear the wall is an Israeli design, and that Americans provided the radar installations. I hear the entire Moroccan army stands along its length. I hear that the minefields that line the wall are veritable catalogues of ordnance: three million mines of every brand and design. Someone tells me the wall is the only thing keeping the Saharawi people from reclaiming their territory. I hear it stretches for 2700 kilometres, and I hear it is much less than that. I hear it is the longest wall in the world.

The Saharawi refugee camps lie on the eastern side of the wall, near the city of Tindouf in the Algerian Sahara. The land is a gift of the Algerian government, but it is not much of an offering. It is called the Hamada du DraĆ¢, a rocky limestone plateau covered with sand and devoid of beauty. The few plants that survive here grow armed with thorns. This land is far from imagined desert scenes. Like most of the Sahara, there are no sudden green oases here, and no slow shift of curving dunes. Instead, there is only pallor and the whip of winter gales.

Only the Saharawi themselves interrupt the paleness. The men walk through the camps in blue or white robes that crinkle like tissue, embroidered with gold thread, and fragrant with tea steam and tobacco. The women swaddle their bodies in colors that don’t exist in the natural desert. Bold reds. Tie-dyed blues and greens and purples. The colorful fabrics keep the skin beneath cool and colourless. Pale skin, pale as the desert itself, is prized among the women here. I find this vanity strange. But then again, here on the barren plain, it is perplexing that there is any life at all.

Leaving Banff

Today is the last day of the Literary Journalism Program and my last afternoon in 'The Hemingway'. It has been a wonderfully fruitful month. With the help of a careful editor and the the suggestions of my writing mates, I have managed to put together a polished first chapter of my 'walls' project. I also made a pile of contacts in Canada's writing community, shared ideas for new stories, and drank enough wine and bourbon to float a king's ship. The post-Banff detox starts Monday.

The environment here at the centre is like no other. Besides the other writers, the place is crawling with creative types. The writers hosted a party on Thursday night that was attended by opera singers, dancers, lighting designers, actors, visual artists, costume designers, and classical musicians. I will likely never attend an event with that sort of crowd again, and so I am feeling rather melancholy about leaving this place.

When I return to Calgary I will begin planning the next research trip for this book. I will fly to India in October and look at the walls along the Pakistan, Bangladesh and, possibly, the Burma border. Then I will travel to Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf States. I am also interested in visiting Kandahar in Afghanistan. The Canadian military is building a wall of stone and brick around the university so Afghan students, especially women, can feel secure attending classes. I am unsure, however, of the logistics about traveling in a war zone.