Sunday, May 31, 2015

Food Obsessed in America @LucyBurdette

back on campus
LUCY BURDETTE: This weekend marked mumble mumble mumble years since graduating from Princeton. Though I wasn’t able to attend the weekend reunion, I did accept an invitation to be part of an alumni panel yesterday. (And John, sweet man that he is, agreed to spend our anniversary on this expedition!) The topic was FOOD OBSESSED IN AMERICA. Like most of us mystery writers, I’m well practiced at appearing on panels, usually discussing topics like “where do you get your ideas?” or “how does your setting become a character?” etc, etc. (Unless, of course, it’s a raucous Jungle Red game show panel.)

pregame huddle
But the cast of characters for this panel was different, including an integrative functional medicine physician, a woman teaching underprivileged children to cook, a food journalist, a French food blogger and Harper Collins executive, and an eating and lifestyle coach whose business grew from her own struggles to eat normally. We were each asked to comment on the question: Is America food obsessed, and if so, why? Panelists raised weighty questions such as how important mindful eating is for our health, and the epidemic of obesity in this country, so costly in terms of health and money, and trend for young people to eat out much more than cook in, and the socioeconomic divide between which of us have access to good and healthy food. And which don’t.

fun to look out on sea of orange and black!
And then my turn...I explained that I was the entertainment portion of the panel, and told them about the explosion in food-themed mysteries over the last ten years. They were amazed to hear that there are series about cheese shops, and chocolate shops, and cupcake bakeries, and clambakes, and coffee shops, and gluten-free cooks, and 5-ingredient cooks—the possibilities seem endless. My theory about all this is that readers aren’t necessarily reading these books for the recipes or the food—lots of my readers don’t cook at all. I think they are drawn to the community of characters in the books and the sense of connection that they find in these foodie mysteries. Readers consider our characters to be friends, and enjoy sitting in their kitchens, tasting their food.

As time wound down, we were asked for a brief takeaway from the session. I should have written them down, but here are a few: eat mindfully; eat with joy; food doesn’t have to be a problem…

My takeaway came from a bit of conversation between Hayley and her mother in MURDER WITH GANACHE:
    "Why is it that cooking always makes things feel a little less hopeless?” my mother mused as the vegetables softened.
    “At least we’re doing something,” I said, as she whipped the eggs with a splash of water and stirred them into the pan.
    “We feel like we’re taking care of people when there’s really nothing to be done.” I grinned. “That’s what you taught me anyway.”

Anyway, it was a stimulating day and has me thinking about the bigger questions that were raised. What do you think Reds, is America obsessed with food? And is this good or bad? 

(And just for fun, I've added the picture of me in front of the Alchemist and Barrister restaurant, where I waitressed for several years--early evidence of food obsession...)


  1. Lucy, your panel discussion sounds so interesting.
    Considering the plethora of cooking shows these days, I guess we are, to some extent, obsessed with food. On the plus side, there's lots of information about healthy eating and fresh ingredients . . . overall, I don't know if it's good or bad, but I enjoy cooking so I'm simply going to assume that it's a good thing!

  2. Lucy, on that panel you were the "amuse bouche"...

    I don't know about "Americans" but I certainly am! And I agree, you don't need to cook to be food obsessed. My mother, who rarely set foot in the kitchen except under duress, kept a stack of cookbooks on her bedside table for bedtime reading.

  3. Joan, I think that's a good perspective! We sure do know a lot more about food and eating than we used to. One of the points made in the panel is that not everyone has access to that information or the resources to act on it--should be obvious, but I was glad to be reminded of it!

  4. Hallie, amuse bouche--wish I'd thought of that yesterday! And you are so right--I have a good friend who loves loves loves to eat good food but she uses nothing in her kitchen aside from the occasional burst of microwaves...I love having her over because she admires absolutely everything I serve!

  5. One of my favorite authors is MFK Fisher who writes about food — and yet so much more, just as Lucy/Roberta does.

  6. I enjoyed this, thank you!

    I love food.

    Don't care a lot about cooking, but like Hallie's mom, I love reading cookbooks. I too have a stack near the bed that I enjoy reading at night. Some, like Pat Conroy's Cookbook, contain more than recipes.

    I blame fast food for some of our country's obesity, but also much of what we buy at the grocery store and the fact that we don't always know exactly what it really contains. Example - were the chickens and the turkeys our mothers and grandmother bought really as huge as those available today? I don't even want to talk about what our cattle's being fed.

  7. I watch the food shows, and I read all kinds of food mysteries. AND I rarely cook. I've never been able to figure out why. I'm always thinking that looks/sounds good, someday I'll make that. Never happens. ;)

  8. I'm a huge MFK Fisher fan, too, Susan - also Laurie Colwin whose live was cut much too short. Ruth Reichl. Now there's a dream panel. Add Mark Bittman and Lucy Burdette?

  9. Lucy, I'm so envious! Would love to have heard your panel. Yes, I do think Americans are obsessed with food, but not necessarily in a good way. It might be more accurate to say "obsessed with eating." There are not only all the fad diets, but the fad "bad foods," and although people worry constantly about weight, our levels of obesity keep rising. All these things take the joy out of food!

    So that's my cultural gripe. But personally, I LOVE food. I love reading about it (right now Patricia Wells' The Provence Cookbook, inspired by you, Lucy), looking for recipes, planning meals, shopping, cooking, and trying new things. It's ten o'clock in the morning and I'm thinking of olives (having read Wells' Rainbow Olives recipe, and that made me think of the my favorite olive vendor on Portobello Road, and both these things make me so happy.

  10. P.S. Lucy, you look SO cute in your pictures!!!

  11. Yes, the late great Laurie Colwin... I also love food writer John Thorne.... And yes, great picture!

  12. Such a great photo, and event, and memories, and how your life has evolved. Wonderful!

    Or, Lucy, I think you were dessert.

    (I never knew you went to Princeton!)

    I love food, too. ANd am very happy when someone brings it to me. :-)

    I am a good cook, inventive even, but my invention cells seem to be focused elsewhere these days, weird.

    But yay, Lucy/Roberta! This is wonderful. oxo

  13. I never knew you went to Princeton. How cool. One of my dearest friends, was in the first class that allowed women. People today are definitely food obsessed. Books, magazines, TV shows, radio shows, all have foodie components. Being part Italian, I was raised that food is love. It is the most basic of life's experiences. Eat to live, provide food to demonstrate you want someone to live. My personal obsession is locavore, and local recipe. The two go together. But I do love a good Cheese Whopper every now and again... Before I sign off - The my captcha was 'select all the food.' Coincidence? I think not. I think it is the Power of the Reds!

  14. thank you reds for the nice comments:). Laurie Colwin's dying so early was just wrong. Imagine what she could have written in all these years!

    Susan, I have MFK Fisher on my teetering stack--must rectify embarrassing fact that I have not read her yet.

    My favorite food writers are those that make choosing and cooking and eating simple, so anyone can feel as though good food is within their reach.

  15. Kait, I was in the third class--it was not an easy time to be there, as the numbers were very skewed male/female. And there were still students and alums who thought women should not be there at all! And I was so young and dumb...but that's another blog subject LOL.

    I love the local movement too--gardens and farmers markets and eating what's in season right where you live. Hayley finds that challenging on Key West, as there's very little land for gardening and trucking food in is expensive...but she manages to eat pretty well in spite of the challenges:)

  16. And one more thing, ps, Hank, I was the SENIOR member of this panel, which felt so strange, because in some ways it seems as though I only just left college. But on the other hand, my life (like yours) has evolved a million miles away from where I imagined it might go...

  17. Lucy, you were such the perfect person to have on that panel, with your evidence of food obsession in reading. It is a bit strange to think of you as the Senior member of the panel, as all your pictures are so cute and just exude youthfulness. I think many readers first come to your books for the food but return for the stories and characters. Although, I do so enjoy traveling around the island with Haley to the different restaurants and cuisines.

    I definitely think that America is obsessed with food. I'm trying to curtail some of my less healthy cravings these days. However, I think that there is a strong return to healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables in today's cooking and eating. My daughter is an excellent example of her generation (she's 31) seeking out fresh and healthy for herself and her family. Snacks for her children include fresh fruit, such as blueberries and strawberries. She and her peers also are much more concerned with what is in foods purchased at the grocery, especially the sugar content. She's a good influence for me.

  18. Thanks for the kind words Kathy--I so appreciate your support. And isn't it nice to hear that your daughter is a good influence on your choices--you must have brought her up well!

  19. There were very fortunate to have you there. A literary, light touch to add stability.

    "Panelists raised weighty questions such as"
    "weighty" Clever, whether intentional or just your Freudian slip showing.

  20. thanks Libby! that's definitely my Freudian slip showing:)

  21. I think we are, but for a more simple reason. We crave that feeling of sharing, and affection, we associate with family around a table. Sadly, this is often a ritual of the past.

  22. I'm not sure what "obsessed" means in relation to food, but I know that there are way more opinions than there used to be about what to eat, how to prepare, etc. My husband loves red meat, very rare -- I like red meat, but only almost burnt to a crisp. There are few vegetables he will eat, and so the daily cooking is pretty boring.

    Over Memorial Day a daughter came here with her husband and two boys -- my husband was away. I asked my daughter if I could fix something that her family would especially like, since we had one less point of view on the menu.

    My daughter said that she doesn't care what she eats, and that I should not make such a big deal.

    I ended up putting out a sort of Mexican spread -- chicken, black beans, rice, ribs, etc. They loved it, as I knew they would. But she didn't want to ask for something specific?

    I am often confused about what to serve (& I cook most meals).

    I think we are a food-confused country.

  23. Well Sherry, you and I think alike on that. Interesting that one of the panelists reminded us that we can still have the ritual of time spent over food with people we love, even if it's at a restaurant...

    Denise, boy it's hard to cook for someone who doesn't like a lot of what you like! So glad your family loved your special meal. I agree, we are confused. We are told so many different things, it's hard to pick out the truth.