Eating Words:
A Norton Anthology of Food Writing

W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

Edited by Prof. Roger Porter and Sandra M. Gilbert

Eating Words

For decades, the Norton anthologies have helped define the literary canon. For its first food anthology, the publisher anointed Prof. Roger Porter [English 1961-2015] (a James Beard-nominated food writer) and literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert to select and annotate what they see as the essential food writing of the last 2,500 years. 

It’s an impossible task, of course—nobody could do it in the allotted 464 pages—but these 96 entries, from Leviticus and Rabelais to Anthony Bourdain and Barbara Kingsolver, constitute a groaning board of literary delights, far too rich and expansive to be devoured in a single sitting. 

Roger Porter

Literary gourmet Prof. Roger Porter.

Even the six-page foreword by literary gourmet Ruth Reichl is no mere garnish but a perfect little essay in itself, drawing a line from M.F.K. Fisher’s famous defense of her food writing (“Like most other humans, I am hungry”) to the current culinary golden age, in which food writers no longer feel obliged to justify themselves. 

It’s a bit ironic, then, that the collection kicks off with the Old Testament’s Leviticus 11, a list of all those potential foodstuffs that God-fearing Hebrews may not eat. But then we are ensconced in Horace’s cozy dinner invitation to a friend and the Satyricon’s feast-as-performance-art. A few quick centuries later and Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal is shocking us all over again with its savage wit.

Many of the selections are delightfully unfamiliar. Food being an inescapable cultural marker, the memoirs of the marginalized often revolve around their culinary traditions and transgressions. Diana Abu-Jaber’s Jordanian father scandalizes his suburban Syracuse neighbors by holding a barbecue in his front yard. Linda Furiya furtively devours her mother’s onigiri in a bathroom stall instead of the school cafeteria. Henry Louis Gates grew up wondering why civil rights activists were so eager to integrate restaurants and lunch counters. “White people couldn’t cook; everybody knew that. Which made it a puzzle.”

Eating Words covers so many aspects of food, from the metaphysical to the political, that I contacted Prof. Porter to ask him what had to be left out. Among his regrets were food poems by Neruda, Allen Ginsberg, and Billy Collins, and an essay on the Iron Chef television shows. He added, “Of course each of us had our favorites, and there was a great deal of back-and-forth negotiating and horse-trading. I love John Thorne, and had to argue for his piece attacking food processors and the microwave. Sandra insisted on Rachel Laudan’s diatribe against locavores and the slow food movement.”

The delicious creative tension between the editors has produced a true literary feast on a subject that is always ripe for discussion. 

—Angie Jabine ’79