Among the darker moments in my writing career was the magazine meeting two years ago at which the editor announced we would be putting together a fashion issue. Not just a theme package with a couple of feature stories — a whole quarterly issue devoted to style. I tossed my pen on the table without thinking and knew instantly why I’d done it: I had nothing to say.
See, I’d wear a t-shirt and jeans to work every day if they’d let me. And if accordion-collared shirts and engraved bronze breastplates were required professional attire in Grace Hall, I’d wear that instead. The point is, I just don’t care about clothes. The magazine might as well have put me on a three-month sabbatical or sent me on a story trip to Greenland.
So when the topic of coffee conversation among the magazine staff swung around to food one morning this past semester, I thought I was reliving a nightmare, but for the opposite reason.
I love food. The truth is, I’ve never met a meal I didn’t like. Even the chicken drumsticks I reviled as a boy, because the rubbery tendons were a sure-fire trigger to my gag reflex, were served with peas or mashed potatoes or garlic bread or other things I liked a lot. I’ve eaten pretty much everything else that’s landed on my plate since. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the title of probably the most popular and influential food book of the last decade. Great book, but what dilemma? I’m a human billy goat, and unless I know for sure something will kill me – like yellow-cake uranium or a mystery fungus or the tendons in a chicken leg – I’ll probably enjoy it.
I eat things most people avoid. Chicken livers, boiled and salted. Raw oysters. Escargot. Anchovies on my pizza. Haggis. Brussels sprouts. Dad gave up trying to find things I wouldn’t eat, and — vegephobe that he is — puzzled over how I could muscle down a brimming bowl of canned green beans only to turn up my nose at the baked chicken dishes he so cherished, the exception that proves my undiscriminating, food-lovin’ rule.
And I’ll just come right out and say it. I like McDonald’s, too. I don’t care that my enlightened friends act as if they’d prefer to dine with river otters at the zoo. I wouldn’t eat fast food every day, but comedian Jim Gaffigan gets this one exactly right. “McDonald’s is like, excuse me, we sell burgers and fries. We never said we’re a farmers’ market.”
This alone disqualifies me as a food writer. If you’ve eaten out in South Bend, like we’re encouraging you to do in our print issue, let me put my lack of credibility this way: I’d jump at an invitation to dinner at the LaSalle Grill, sure. But even if the prices were equal I’d just as soon pull up to a picnic table for a burger on the back porch of The Oaken Bucket.
So my relationship to food is emotional, but these are base emotions, the blissful snorting of the hog at the trough, not the stuff of poetic or even journalistic insight. I don’t talk about food, or think about food, or play with it. I can cook maybe three things that don’t come out of a box, and I will put my scrambled eggs up against anyone’s, but that’s it. Friends have invited us for lavish, gorgeous, artistically prepared meals, often doing the cooking right in front of us. The prospect fills me with terror: I can’t reciprocate. College friends joked that if a monument were ever erected in my honor, the sculptor would depict me with my hand heroically stuffed into a bag of chips. Food is for eating, I take what’s available, and it sure is fun.
I’ve had this problem from the beginning. My relationship to food started with carrot juice. I drank it exclusively. I was like a baby koala introduced to its first meal of eucalyptus. I was content for life. Everyone else seemed to think it was fine, too, until my skin turned bright orange. My parents insist this is no exaggeration. They looked in my crib one morning and thought their son had been swapped out for an Oompa Loompa. Doctor’s orders: I had to move on.
The best food writing requires people of taste and discernment. Unfortunately, in Notre Dame Magazine’s Winter 2013-14 issue, you get me. Sorry. But look on the bright side: You also get our student intern, Meghan Thomassen, who actually cooks and thinks about food. You get Tara Hunt, who’s been to France and takes cake decorating classes and hosts fabulous dinner parties. You get Kerry Temple and Carol Schaal, who’ve been thinking deep thoughts about South Bend restaurants for years, and professional food critic Josh Ozersky, for crying out loud.
So I hope you enjoy this literary feast and count yourself blessed. Because if it weren’t for these writers and the people I met during my reporting — Notre Dame’s Executive Chef Donald Miller and his colleagues Giuseppe Macerata, Charu Pant, Laura Johnson and Danny Bloss, just to name a few of my on-the-spot educators — you’d have been stuck with a guy whose only regular lunch commitment on campus takes him to Decio Commons on Tuesdays for the chili dog special. Mmm. Chili dogs. . . .
John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.