Why is it so hard to get a good food anthology together?

One of my coworkers forwarded me the NYT review of a new anthology of food poems, The Hungry Ear. It was an ambivalent review to say the least; overall, the reviewer didn’t dislike the book, but found the selection and editing process deeply flawed. “Getting to the good material,” he wrote, “is like working your way to the heart of an artichoke.”

I am sympathetic to both editor and reviewer. I’ve read or skimmed a lot of food literature anthologies, and the fact is that that there aren’t too many that I have found worth buying or adopting for a course. I feel it would be rude to list the ones I’ve rejected in a Google-able space, but I may one day make a Goodreads category for them to save other food scholars and teachers the trouble.  For perspective: I have about eight food literature anthologies in my house and have borrowed at least as many more from the library, but there are only two that I’d recommend: O Taste and See, a collection of poetry that has some dazzlers (Rita Dove, Li Young Lee, and Imagists galore) as well as some memorable verse from lesser-knowns (I never tire of reading “The Cookie Poem” aloud); and Eat, Memory, a solid collection of essays by some of my favorite contemporary writers (Colson Whitehead and Tom Perotta, among others) that have the advantage of been twice-curated, since they first appeared as NYT food columns. Most other collections I’ve come across seem too scattered, too prosaic, or too facile.  One is a sleek-looking collection of poems and narratives written specifically for the anthology, and the result is platitudinous and dull; they might as well have saved some money on the pretty packaging and renamed it Chicken Soup for the Eating Soul–Which Is Everybody, Am I Right?

On the other hand, how does one curate a good collection of food literature? The two linked anthologies appeal to me because I like their components, but I don’t think that either presented a comprehensive survey or a coherent argument about their contents (which was one of the NYT reviewer’s complaints).  I feel that it may be a cheap shot to play “Why isn’t this here?” with an anthology when the subject is as general as food and the units are as particular as poems, but perhaps it’s also true that without a unifying theme, an anthology has the presentation of a buffet: it’s all there for you to choose from, but you’re not expected to taste and digest everything.

One semester, I was given a new teaching assignment two weeks before the class was meant to begin. The course was Intro to Fiction, and since there were few requirements beyond teaching the literary elements of fiction to non-majors, I thought I’d save myself some trouble by (quickly!) designing the class around food literature, which I was beginning to study for my dissertation.

This was a miscalculation. I had already skimmed and dismissed several food anthologies as mentioned above, but I tore through a dozen more looking for teachable food literature. I didn’t find any one anthology to my liking.

In the end, I assigned two gorgeous novels, Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Book of Salt, and a slim, cheap collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The rest of the course assignments came from a standard Intro to Literature anthology, which I scoured for short stories that had even the faintest association with eating, drinking, cooking, or hungering. Some of these were stretching it–Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” mentions eggplant exactly once–but I didn’t assign anything I didn’t love.

The result? Meh. A few students really got into specific texts, but most of the class predictably wrote their final papers on Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants,” full of drinking) or the fairy tales. To be fair, none of them opted into a food-themed fiction class; even without the short notice, students don’t usually get to see an intro course’s theme in advance unless the TA papers the elevator with advertisements in time for course selection. I had hoped, though, to excite a little more interest in the vast array of meanings at play in the everyday act of eating.

Perhaps taste in food literature is just too individual or particular. Or perhaps it’s the range and messiness of the category: even if you narrowed a topic down to “food and sexuality” or “food and family,” you’d still find that those topics intersect with other and virtually every angle under the sun: economics, race, gender, aesthetics, pathology, on and on. Perhaps food collections tend to be overly simple because the relationship of food to individual is incredibly complex.

All the same, I bought The Hungry Ear, damning faint praise notwithstanding, and I like it. As with O Taste And See, it contains many poems that I already know and love, and a great many more I didn’t know about but will love now. And some clunkers too, yes. I don’t mind.

Do you know of any good food literature anthologies? Or, if you were to design one–for course use or for pleasure–how would you narrow the selection?

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