Understanding Personal Essays: Food for Thought

Abigail GreenBy Abigail Green
In “Remembrance of Things Past,” Marcel Proust waxed poetic about that quintessential French cake, the madeleine. After tasting a single spoonful of sweet, tea-soaked crumbs, he writes: “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake…”
 
If, like Proust, you enjoy writing about food almost as much as you enjoying eating it, consider the culinary-themed personal essay.
 
In an essay in the New York Times’ “Generations” department , author Rich Prior writes about asking his mother to pass down his grandmother’s Irish bread recipe. As he and his aging mother sift and measure and mix in her kitchen, Prior learns about his family history and begins to become aware of his mother’s mortality. Lesson #1: it’s not just about the baked goods.
 
This is further evidenced by Suzan Colon’s essay, “Muffin Manifesto” in a recent issue of O, the Oprah magazine. She writes that in the face of economic uncertainty and anxiety, she started baking muffins to do something practical and comforting. The essay continues by exploring the surprising reaction of her feminist friends to her new hobby. It also includes her muffin recipe. Lesson #2: it’s not just about the baked goods.
 
Even if you’re writing for a food magazine, a personal essay should never be “just” about food. The food is merely the jumping off point for the underlying theme-a relationship with a parent, a reexamination of feminism, one’s own mortality. As I tell my writing students over and over, a successful personal essay must have some movement, change, or epiphany from the beginning to the end; otherwise, it’s just a bunch of anecdotes. Or, in the case of a culinary-themed essay, a food review.
 
Food is such an intricate part of our lives that it lends itself naturally to the memories, emotions, and sensations that make a personal essay come alive. So go grab a cup of tea and a cookie and start writing!
 
  
Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at http://diaryofanewmom.blogspot.com.
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