“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.”
—M. F. K. Fisher, Gastronomical Me
When people ask me what I do for a living, I have a number of possible answers I can give them: I’m an artist. I’m a teacher (sometimes I use the phrase “adjunct professor” if I want to look like I’m wearing Fancy Pants). I guess I can also technically claim to be a food columnist. However, I never answer “I’m a writer,” even though I’ve spent large swaths of time over the last twenty years doing and that very thing. And although I’ve never really felt driven to publish anything, I have a tiny menagerie of accidental publications: one poem and one short story in minor journals, two book reviews in an Australian literary journal, a few newspaper articles, a now defunct blog about my painting life, and, of course, this blog. In one sense of the word, I am a writer—I spend lots of time writing, people sometimes read what I have to say, and a University trusts my writing skills enough to let me teach others how to do it, ergo… I’m a writer. So why don’t I claim to be one? I’ve had friends say “Oh, you should turn this into a book or write for a magazine or something,” but, alas, no. I know too many writers and artists, and I know the suffering that “Being a Writer” brings with it.
Rainer Maria Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, says “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” If you see the job of the artist or writer as tackling Beauty, in all its terrible forms, then to commit oneself to this profession is terrifying: the uncertainty of ever being able to do it well, the economic instability, the possibility that everything you do will fall on deaf ears or be cast before the blind. The dirty truth is that I’m terrified of being a failed writer. As long as I tell myself that I’m not trying to Be a Writer, then I won’t have to suffer the potential failure to be one. I ran into this problem when I decided to Be an Artist. I never felt comfortable with the title of Artist until I’d sold a few paintings and rented a studio. I had landed a few solo shows, won a few contests, made some significant money, and then one day, I put my paint splattered pants on, get some acrylic beneath my fingernails, and thought “Hey, looky, I’m an Artist.” But then my main gallery closed its doors, my sales dropped, I had to get rid of my studio, and now when I claim to be an artist, even though I have the credentials and I’m still painting, there is a voice in my head that says “No, you’re a Failed Artist.” It’s exhausting, trying to defend myself against myself.
Once I say “I want to be a Writer,” I create two possible futures: one where I’m a Successful Writer and the other where I’m a Failed Writer. Even if I accomplish the former, I will always live in fear of the latter. It’s the second Noble Truth of Buddhism: desire is the root of suffering. So, no. I don’t want to Be a Writer. I like writing about food and hunger and eating and I like doing it in the low-stakes environment of this blog—it’s a creative outlet, a way to exorcise my verbal culinary demons so they don’t distract me from the job that pays my bills. But I’m not sending out any query letters. I’m not looking for an agent. I’m not entering contests. There are no book deals, nor any freelance aspirations. This is fun. The minute I try to turn it into a career, it will become an unrequited lover, always beyond the reach of my lusty, anguished fingers.
Call it cowardice if you must, but really, I’m just trying to keep my relationship with words on an even keel. Once I bound painting up with My Identity and My Career, it never fully recovered from the performance anxiety that Being an Artist produced. And so my creative passions have found other means of escape, through the valves of language and appetite. So be it. Jonathan Franzen reminds me that this is enough: “To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t this a lot?” The medium is less important to me than the message and less important to me than the act of communion that results from great art. Whether I choose paint or words isn’t the point. If it’s true that a God sculpted us in his own likeness, the relevant fact is not so much that he made something from clay and water, but that he made something at all.
Lest you leave my table sated with words but hungry for food, let me offer one of my more creative dishes, a Carrot and Beet Relish that I invented on the fly late last summer. A friend had given me some delicate, nearly transparent carrots from her garden, and I also had a few beets left from the greens I’d made the night before. I hadn’t yet decided what to do with the beets, and I was told I would have dinner guests only hours before they arrived. I didn’t know if it would be good, and was relieved when my guests like it. The recipe is more like a guess-ipe because I’m not exactly certain of the amounts.
Carrot and Beet Salad
- 3-5 medium carrots, finely julienned (aim for toothpick-sized, mandolines are helpful tools for this kind of cut, but I use a knife…it just takes a while)
- 3-5 medium beets, finely julienned
- 1-2 finger-sized portion of fresh ginger root, finely julienned
- 1-2 lobes of shallot, julienned
- 4-5 tablespoons of a good quality orange marmalade
- 2 teaspoons of white pepper
- 1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt
- Cook the carrots and beets in separate sauce pans, adding enough water to cover them, and only cooking them until they lose their crunch, but not until they are mushy. They need to retain their shape and separate colors.
- Lightly saute the ginger and shallot until they become limp and transparent.
- In a serving bowl, combine the marmalade, ginger, pepper, and salt.
- Shock the carrots and beats in cold water, rinse and strain, and add them to the bowl.
Finally, as M. F. K. Fisher would say, serve it forth. You can also check out the blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, for their recipe for grated carrots and beets, or Bon Appetite‘s recipe for beet and carrot salad.