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The Best Food Writings of America Gathered into One Book

Every year the best writings on the topic of food are collected and combined into one book entitled “The Best American Food Writing.” 

The 2021 version reflected upon a year of quarantining, closed restaurants and pandemic food trends, as would be expected.  

“A year that stopped our food world in its tracks,” said Gabrielle Hamilton who is the guest editor of this year’s edition. 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was stuck in their homes, however, Kaitlin Menza spent her time in quarantine with her boyfriend who is a professional chef. Menza’s story entitled, “What it’s Like to Self-Quarantine with a Michelin-Starred Chef” from Grub Street gave all of the details. 

Menza talked about her and her boyfriend’s dynamics in the kitchen. She said that she tried to help out some but always felt the judgment in his eyes. 

“I try to contribute by chopping veggies or stirring pots, and he controls his face and his breathing very well,” said Menza. “But I can still feel his pupils dilating when I burn the very basic scrambled eggs or get the timing wrong when sautéing onions” 

However, Menza was not the only one struggling in her kitchen during the pandemic. In “Stewed Awaking” by Navneet Alang from Eater, the writer discussed the rise to fame of Bon Appétit stars like Alison Roman as the COVID-19 pandemic required many to put their cooking skills to the test. 

Alang says that people were forced to turn to the internet for recipes, kitchen skills and food inspiration since eating out for dinner was no longer an option during the pandemic. This led to an increase of food media and placed pressure on food personalities to provide easy, but trendy recipes. 

“Alison Roman is the ‘prom queen of the pandemic.’ Or, at least, she was,” Alang said. “The cookbook author and YouTube star, who rose to fame on the strength of her heady-yet-approachable recipes, low-key glamour, and self-effacing charm.”

Online recipes were not the only major food trend in 2020. The spark of veganism also played a role in the food culture during this year. 

In “Soli/dairy/ty” from Longreads, author Liza Monroy talked through the reason why she decided to choose this new diet lifestyle. 

Without any prior rationale, Monroy chose to become vegan from a random hunch she encountered. However, she said that she began asking herself why she had made that life-altering decision without reason. 

Monroy attended VegFest and finally discovered why she would continue her vegan diet. She said she learned that cows must frequently give birth in order to produce enough milk to sell. After learning this fact, she began thinking about the cow’s emotions around being forced to pump their milk for human consumption rather than nurture their babies. 

“The timing of having recently become a small-scale milk producer again made it obvious in retrospect: milk wasn’t just in there, in mammals’ mammary glands,” Monroy said. “You had to have a baby to get it in there.”

This realization provoked emotions of her own when she started to think how these mother cows must feel to get their babies taken away. 

While being stuck at home and veganism were major themes of this pandemic year, the best food writings were not all COVID-19 related.   

The younger generation has been choosing new diets for years now. Amy Irvine writes about her daughter choosing to become vegetarian after a traumatic experience in “Close to the Bone” from Orion. 

When Irvine’s daughter was three, she fell off a stool while trying to take a bite of a fresh buck hanging from the ceiling. Five years later, her daughter pledged to never eat meat again. Irvine said that she attempted to reason with her given their family’s love of meat.

Throughout the rest of Irvine’s story, she analyzes why her daughter chose this diet and writes about historical evidence of why humans are meant to eat meat. She cuts the story with anecdotes about her daughter still choosing vegetarianism. By the end, she has come to terms with her daughter’s choice, but for Irvine, meat will always be in her diet. 

“For the rest of winter, into the next one, I cook packets of roadkill stew in the Dutch oven,” said Irvine, “and we partake of an animal born to this rough country, who knew danger and hunger, weather and wildness, in all the ways we’ve forgotten.”

Like Irvine’s daughter, a Chinese-American chef, Cecilia Chiang, also had an interesting childhood. Jade Chang wrote about Chiang’s life in a story entitled, “Cecilia Chang” in the New York Times Magazine. 

Following Chiang’s childhood of wars in China, Chang said that she landed in America where she introduced a new type of Asian cooking. Even though Chiang ran a successful restaurant in the decade before, after the war, she decided to stay in America and show her kind of Chinese food. 

“America was, in all ways, a new world. Most Chinese restaurants at the time were Cantonese, with simple chop-suey menus tailored to supposed Western tastes,” said Chang. “but Chiang was determined to present her version of China, with distinct regional preparations from Sichuan, Shanghai and Beijing.”

Chiang’s Chinese food legacy will now always be part of food’s history along with the history of all of the other foods humans consume. This rich history of food sparked Dayna Evans interest enough to write, “Who Will Save the Food Timeline?” from Eater that discussed an all-inclusive list of the food timeline. 

Evans told the story of Lynne Olver, a passionate librarian who decided to compile the prolonged food timeline. Evans said that Olver maintained the food timeline and answered questions of readers until she passed away in 2015. Since then, no one has taken over this project because Olver’s family felt like they could not do her work justice. 

“To anyone willing and able to maintain Olver’s vision of an ad-free, simply designed, easy-to-access resource on food history, the family members say that the website and her library are theirs, for free,” said Evans. “A couple of people have put forward their names, but the family felt that their hearts weren’t in the right place.”

With all of the fake news on the internet today, Evans said that if no one comes forward to take on Olver’s life’s work, her timeline will eventually be lost forever. 

The Best American Food Writing brought forth some of the most tragic, humorous and innovative stories of 2020. Hamilton said that she was honored to be chosen to gather the greatest food writing pieces of such an unusual year. 

“It was a year that crippled, felled, and extinguished,” said Hamilton. “And that sprouted, ignited, and shone.”