Refinding the spark in Austin food
There are some weeks, like this one, when I struggle with something to say about the Austin food scene. It's not that there's a lack of fodder. Just last night, I was wowed by a beet, bone marrow, and cricket miso dish from chef Charles Zhou at the Odd Duck Brewed Food collaboration and then later by the cocktails at Jessica and Michael Sanders' seductive new bar, Backbeat, across the street. This week an incredibly talented Austin chef, Emmer & Rye's Kevin Fink, was named one of Food & Wine's best new chefs. This month is packed with can't-miss events, from Live Fire! to the East Austin Urban Farm Tour to the marquee Austin Food and Wine Festival. For someone who cares about food, this is an extraordinary time and place.
But sometimes, food writing seems confining. It seems flat and dry, where the experience of enjoying food is anything but. The success of Zhou's dish was in its sensuality, the way comforting smells and textures overrode any disgust one might have in eating whole crickets. It was the unexpected texture of fermented beet noodles and the salt air of the miso. It was the slightly rude smoked malt in the Jester King Gotlandsdricka it was paired with. A GIF of my eyes rolling back upon first taste might approximate the moment. The previous few sentences do not.
That is not meant to disparage my trade. Food writing can tell truths about the human condition as elegantly as fiction. No one reading M.F.K. Fisher's wartime recollections or Diana Kennedy's recently re-released classic Nothing Fancy could describe either writer as pedestrian.
Besides both of them being immeasurably talented, they had the benefit of being connected to the world. The Chronicle food section's raison d'être is local coverage. I do feel honored to be able to document Austin's cultural history, just as my predecessor, the irreplaceable Virginia B. Wood, did for so many years. There are certainly plenty of less interesting towns in the world, but when you spend too much time here, it starts to feel hopelessly provincial. If everybody already knows each other's business anyway, what use is there in telling stories? Familiarity hasn't exactly bred contempt, but it has been numbing.
I know this feeling will pass. Food is ultimately about humanity, a subject that can never really get old. There are still thousands of new people to talk to, new things to taste, new GIFs to be made when I roll back my eyes. I am a writer, so I will turn to writing to process all of those things, just as I am turning to writing to process my difficulty in writing in the first place (I know, how meta).
But maybe that's not the right approach. Sparks can only roar into fires with enough oxygen. And maybe the way to get that is to stop thinking about how I will describe the act of eating Austin food and start thinking about just eating, chewing instead of merely swallowing. (I'm willing to admit here that this whole column may be an elaborate way to put in a vacation request.)
Austin food still has all the exhilaration that drew me to it in the first place, but life can only be lived in the moment.