Bad Advice Wednesday (Creative Nonfiction: What Kind of Roast Chicken IS This, Anyway?)

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Eat This Image!

Andrea Zeeman, a very sweet and gentle friend of mine was, back in the day, a food stylist.  Not a chef, not a cook, not a sandwich maker.  What she did was prepare food to be photographed—whole menus for food magazines, sample dishes for cookbooks, convincing chef’s creations for Hollywood.  She was brilliant at her work and made a good living because she was indispensable.  And the reason the likes of Gourmet Magazine couldn’t live without her was that even the most beautiful, most appetizing dishes photographed as they were, fresh out of the oven, no matter how renowned the chef,  looked . . . plain.  And sometimes ugly.  Or even sickening.  Roasted chickens—plump and gorgeous on sterling platters—looked gray and scrawny, the silver mere metal.  Mashed potatoes—steaming, fresh, delicious—looked dull and sludgy.  Salads, forget it.  Salads looked like so many leaves raked into a pile.  Ice cream just melted into pools under the photographer’s lights.  The food stylist knows what the chef does not—that food for photos, aimed at the palate of the imagination, is not the same as food to be eaten.

So dear Andrea in her special kitchen would baste turkeys in motor oil to get the exact golden brown that on film signaled perfection.  She’d spray green beans with Lemon Pledge, and buff each bean with a chamois, hours of work till the bean bowl was full.  She made ice cream out of lard, with run-proof chips made from broken Guinness Stout bottles.  She mixed concoctions of rice and shaving cream in her blender to make convincing mashed potatoes, whipping up disgusting, odiferous white mounds that on film (with a dollop of molasses and a pat of yellow shoe polish) looked delicious, just perfect.

They weren’t perfect, of course.  They were actually poison, in many cases.  But what my ingenious friend was up to was this: bringing the truth of those meals to a flat page, trying with every tool at her disposal to fool the eyes and thence the taste buds of tens of thousands of magazine readers and movie goers into perceiving the delicious truth of an actual meal, when to simply photograph the actual meal would result in a kind of lie, rendering a magnificent creation as a limpish and ugly arrangement of soulless foods.

You’ve guessed where I’m going by now: food styling is “creative nonfiction.”

Straight photography?  Maybe that would be traditional journalism (even noting how often news photos are posed or staged).  A painting in oils?  Maybe a painting is more like fiction in this model. Of course it would be easy to push my little metaphor too far, though I’d like to say that poems are sculptures.  And it is a little metaphor, terribly reductive: creative nonfiction is no mere advertising game, but the stuff of the greatest literary art.

When I’ve talked about food styling in my classes, some sensibly skeptical listener always says, “But wait! Wouldn’t the writer of creative nonfiction do something interesting with the actual potatoes?”

Well, maybe eat them.  But the actual potatoes can never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, get onto the page, except as a spill.  What the writer of creative nonfiction gets onto the page is words, words alone, and not potatoes, no matter how hard she may try.

What the writer of nonfiction has is paper and a system of funny inked markings that somehow he is supposed to turn into a representation of reality that people will call true, a representation to which the taste buds of the soul will respond passionately.  But the marks on the page are never the reality they evoke or attempt to evoke, and never can be.  A page of words is not your father, no matter how carefully those words are arranged to approximate him, or induce a dream of him into a reader’s skull.  A column of words and numbers is not last night’s baseball game.  Only the game itself is the game, and the game is history, gone forever, irretrievably gone.  A carefully built sentence, added to another sentence and another to make a carefully built paragraph, then added to more paragraphs to make an idea clear, or to set forth an argument, is a beautiful thing—but it is not the idea itself, nor the argument.

Words and numbers on paper, whether put there by a memoirist, journalist, or essayist (or historian, scientist, and philosopher, to move into wider realms) are always attempts to recover some form of experience, and are always a form of memory, as is knowledge itself.  And memory is always faulty, no matter how well-meaning, honest, careful, factual-minded, and exact its owner.  Even the best science books are repositories of fiction after a few decades pass.  (The best books of old essays, by contrast, are still true, even hundreds of years past the writing—but that’s another matter).

All writers of nonfiction use every tool at their disposal—voice, language, drama, passion, characters, literary talent—and  every scrap of learning, to make their marks on paper create something in their readers’ minds that approximates experience, whether that experience be the writer’s father, a baseball game, an idea, or a roasted free-range chicken stuffed with oranges for fragrance (and to keep the breast meat moist).

Don’t kid yourself–the truth is not a simple thing.

(Adapted from the introduction to Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth.  Ed. Bill Roorbach.  New York, Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 2001.)

  1. John Jack writes:

    I was teaching a teeanage nephew the art of sauce making for bachelors over Christmas. We made a glistening and very well-received cheddar cheese sauce from scratch. Easy on the dishes, that’s the bachelor emphasis. It was a one-pot creation, microwave prepared in the serving dish so there would be only the serving dish, a measuring poon, and a whisk involved for us to wash up. He asked if the whisk could do duble duty as the serving utensil. It could, I said, if you’re eating alone. But never skimp on the audience presentation. The eyes do most of the tasting, the nose secondmost, the mouth least of all.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks for this, John. We accept all recipes. You need a tang to go with that poon, however–it will improve the bachelor life immeasurably! Also, you could, technically, just eat out of the serving dish, passing the whisk back and forth. If the eyes are watching football, for example.

      • John Jack writes:

        I guess I’m straight man to your gag man. Abbot to your Costello? Bing Crosby to your Bob Hope? Jerry Lewis to Dean Martin? Don Knotts to Andy Griffith? No, none of them are quite right. Maybe David Hyde Pierce to Kelsey Grammer? Oh, John Belushi sans crack to Dan Akroyd. I play an harmonica. Blues. Traditional. Folk. Let’s take it on the road and see if it flies.

  2. Lisa Schamess writes:

    this is striking — a good analogy.

    years ago when i was a single girl on the prowl, when someone i did not really care to meet approached me in a bar and asked my name and occupation, i always presented myself as Anna Calvados, food stylist.

    little did i know that, in a sense, as an essayist, i was telling the truth.

    with a liberal dose of motor oil.

    • Bill writes:

      You are funny. But it’s true–the way we form selves isn’t far from food styling, either…. I’m sorry I approached you in that bar and asked you to french braid my cornflakes…. Ah, youth…

  3. Jenny Ruth Yasi writes:

    Good one! I need that inspiration right now, working on a dog training booklet, which is non-fiction, but it shouldn’t be boring or written like a self-help book, at least I hope it won’t be. Truth is not a simple thing. It’s scary to tell the truth, sometimes it seems impossible to tell the truth. It all starts seeming like the shoe polish butter. I haven’t read the art of truth, I’ll go get it now, thanks for writing that! I need to read it!

    • Bill writes:

      Jenny, a dog-training book will be a great work of art if you’re behind it. How do you like the Monks of New Skeet?