We Are What We Ate
Edited by Mark Weingarten

1998. 230 pages.

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Here's a fresh twist on food writing: We Are What We Ate is a collection of essays by writers who are not steeped in the world of food. This is not the rarefied atmosphere of food mavens writing for fellow gastronomes. Some of the essays will make militant foodies shudder. Writer Jill McKorkle rhapsodizes about "the fluorescent brilliance of a crunchy Cheeto". Julia Alvarez' writes that her idea of dinner was "cheese and crackers or a salad and anything else I had lying around thrown in" until she married a full-fledged foodie. (She's still puzzled by what all the fuss is about.)

Over the course of the twenty-four essays we meet food as love, food as punishment, food as entertainment, food as survival, food as culture, and most of all, food as memory.

Some essays are solemn: Wendell Berry, renown conservationist, delivers a heart-felt polemic on the politics of food. Some essays are nostalgic; Janet Burroway' writes an elegiac ode to the glorious vegetable garden which offered her solace and joy many years ago. Some essays are irreverent; John Dufesne gives black-humored run-down of the bleak weekly menu of "discomfort" food served in his house when he was growing up. One piece offers thought-provoking armchair travel as Madison Smart Bell describes his visit to Haiti and how after his return to the U.S. "overeating felt truly shameful".

Varied as the essays are, a recurring theme is childhood memories of food. Just as Proust's madeleine evoked his "remembrance of things past", we each have our own personal madeleines. For Beverly Lowry the smell of bourbon will always bring back childhood memories of her parents' boozy parties around the barbecue. For Mark Weingarten, the editor of We Are What We Ate, those American classics like Hamburger Helper, Jell-o, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese are the culinary channelers to his past. Josip Novakovich tells the story of a survivor of the Holocaust for whom honey cakes, like the one given to him by a Nazi doctor during the war, becomes a symbol of both good and evil.

This is not only a good, food-for-thought book, it's written for a good, food-for-people cause. Share Our Strength is an organization whose goals are to help alleviate hunger and poverty. If you want to find out more, write to: Share our Strength, 151 K Street, NW, 940, Washington, DC 20005.