A Cornucopia of Food Writing

Books & Literature  •  Culture & Identity

Every year, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities brings readers and writers together for a five-day celebration of books and book culture at the Virginia Festival of the Book. The Festival features works from all genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, romance, mystery, history, and more. There’s a little something for everyone, even foodies.

Jenée Libby is a writer of food, fiction, and travel, and a member of the committee responsible for the food programs at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Libby has written for UNITE Virginia, C-Ville Weekly, and the Virginia Travel Guide. Today, she hosts her own podcast, Edacious, celebrating local food communities and the individuals who work in our restaurants, on our farms, and in our stores.

Libby recently sat down with Chance Lee, a UVA student intern at VFH, to talk about food writing and the surprising variety you can find within the food programs at VFH’s Virginia Festival of the Book.

Q: What made you want to become a food writer?

A: I’ve been a writer since I was a child, but I never knew that there was a food genre beyond cookbooks. It sounds like such a cliché, but one day I came across Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential. In the book, he mentioned another food writer, Michael Ruhlman, and his book, Soul of a Chef. I remember sitting in the arts library at the University of Virginia, reading Soul of a Chef, and I thought: “You know, I can do this.” I feel like it opened a whole new world for me.

Q: How would you describe the food genre? If it’s not just cookbooks, then what is it?

A: There’s many different types of food writing. Like any type of non-fiction, you can divide it into categories. There’s political food writing, historical food writing, and even memoir based food writing where people talk about their lives in relation to what they eat. Right now, actually, I’m reading Karma and the Art of Buttered Chicken, by Monica Bhide, one of the authors featured at the festival. It’s a novel about an Indian man trying to feed his village. There is a whole world of food writing that people will never know about if they don’t read the genre.

Q: What would you say to people who think a book about food might be dry reading? Why should they come to a panel of food writers?

A: They should care about food writing because just as a great memoir presents a person’s history, that person’s story, a great piece of food writing can connect you to that person. It’s just like any excellent piece of nonfiction. If you’re a fan of biography, a fan of history, a fan of comedic essays, it’s all here in food writing. Food connects everyone together because we all eat. It is such a great jumping off point for the deeper questions in life.

Q: If food writing connects people, what can it teach us about culture?

A: Take Appalachia for example. For so long, the people of Appalachia have had that horrible hillbilly stereotype that they dance on the porch in their overalls playing the banjo all day. In reality, Appalachian cuisine is one of the most varied and resourceful in the world. In 2011 SARE even declared Appalachia the most diverse foodshed in North America. That region is one of the most bountiful in terms of foraging plant varieties, and its historically rough economy forced residents to take advantage of what they had. As a result, the food is delicious. It’s almost art from adversity. By eating these regional ingredients, you learn so much about Appalachian culture you didn’t know before. In fact, if you can only go to one food program at the festival this year, come to one of Ronni Lundy’s talks. Her book, Victuals, is an exploration of the foodways, people, and places of Appalachia. She is a font of information and has been writing for almost forty years. I always learn something new when I speak with her. That book is full of people who work in Appalachia to make the region more economically viable. They are growing things and cooking with ingredients like sorghum. People have used these ingredients in America for hundreds of years, but many people have never heard of them. All of it tastes good. I predict her book will win the James Beard award this year for food journalism and broadcast media. I’d bet money on it.

Q: And what if people can go to two food programs?

A: I would say go to Holly Hughes’ panel about the best food writing of 2016. That will be a good survey class for folks not familiar with the genre. For seventeen years, Holly, has collected food writing into an annual anthology. There will be four panelists, including Monica Bhide who wrote the book I mentioned earlier, Karma and the Art of Buttered Chicken. The anthology covers all the genres I mentioned before. Anyone interested in learning more about food writing would do well to pick up this year’s edition. It’s sure to lead you further into the genre, because all the material is excellent.

Really, the entire food program is going to be terrific. We have seven fantastic food writers coming to the festival. I’m going to try to speak with all of them on my podcast. It’s a tall order, but I think it’s worth it to talk to them. I will be putting up a new podcast on Edacious.co each day starting March, 16 where I’ll talk with a featured Festival food author and give listeners a sneak peek of what they’ll find at these events.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts for those who aren’t sold on the festival’s food programs yet?

A: The program is just a natural fit for the community. We have such a thriving food scene in Charlottesville. So many great food writers and chefs live in the region. And we’ve got the Festival of the Book, bringing in hundreds of authors to celebrate all kinds of writing. It just makes sense to bring these two communities together. I think the audience agrees because every talk we had last year was crowded to the gills. People want to go, and they want to learn more about food writing.

About Jenée Libby

Jenée Libby – courtesy of Jenée Libby

Jenée Libby is a food writer whose work has been featured in UNITE Virginia, C-Ville Weekly, the 2015 Virginia Travel Guide, and Our Local Commons. Her podcast, “Edacious,” covers all things food, and shines a light on the hardworking men and women responsible for the dishes on customers’ plates.

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