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A Teaching Moment
Ta-Nehisi Coates and other mentors.
The weather here in St. John’s has been monotone for weeks on end; the running theme is grey, the accents wind, rain, fog, drizzle and snow. It’s become a challenge just to maintain the efforts of the day-to-day, let alone find the will to create something.
My subscribers number nearly 100; if you could help me reach that mark by sharing with a friend, it’d be greatly appreciated. -JRS
I am fond of the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Very recently, a teacher appeared to me; let me tell you what I mean.
A question had plagued my work for months, namely, “What the Hell am I doing?” Of course, that thought never strays far from the creative mind; in my case, however, it had become less a visitor and more an unwelcome houseguest. Squatter, even. Perhaps my writing is too critical, it wondered, too negative in tone and argumentation. Maybe I should play more major chords, and fewer minor.
The student was ready, I suppose, and the teacher came in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer I’ve long admired and reread regularly. (His book Between the World and Me, for example, is a top-five favorite.)
The teaching moment: A preface that Coates had written for the reissue of Ill Fares the Land by late British-American historian Tony Judt. There, Coates describes how Judt’s work liberated his own, stating: “[Judt] freed me from cant and sloganeering, and reinforced the idea, bubbling in me, that the writer is not a clergyman.” That is, Coates came to understand that he could write without peddling hope or inspiration, without conviction that the “arc of history” bends, as if by magic, towards justice. Coates, again: “But by the time I encountered [Judt], I was already fairly convinced that there was a darkness in the world, and that the darkness often triumphed. Now I was free to say so.”
In that way, Judt – who had died in 2010 – became a teacher to Coates; and Coates in turn a teacher to me. The teaching moment, a teaching moment; the lesson, in a word: continue.
In what follows, I’ll share some other individuals who, in their own various ways, have been mentors to my work. If anything unites them, it’s that they, like me, try to tug at the many threads that comprise the complicated knot we call food. I also suspect that, if they weren’t writing about food, they’d be writing about something else – a roundabout way of saying that they are writers, first, which matters to me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
I’ll add that they also write well. This matters to me, too.
Zoe Yijing Yang
Yang’s essay, “To the Briar Patch: On the Limits of Food as Protest” ranks among my favorites. In fact, I’ve printed it out and return to it regularly.
It strikes me that food media doesn’t always take kindly to journalists reporting on food matters; this might be because one of these fields has established standards, procedures and credentials – while the other does not. I think the responses to Monbiot’s work sometimes reflects this; he’s years ahead on a number of issues.
Incredibly thoughtful, substantial and beautiful and writing on food matters.
A prolific and independent voice in food media.
Reading Ho’s considerate thoughts on food politics, I once mused on social media that she might “write herself out of a job” as food critic; indeed, a few months later she stepped down to continue working as a commentator and cultural critic. (My point there is not that I can predict the future; rather, when you really want to dig into the issues as a writer, I’d imagine it gets a little difficult to keep doing something as frivolous as “try the fish”.)
When it comes to food and the environment, the Discourse can lead you to think that there are only two ways forward: one, a tech-bro-topian solutionism driven by Silicon Valley and venture capital; the other a kind of anti-technology, locavore communitarianism. It’s Fake Meat or Lentils: choose, but choose wisely. Kateman’s work nobly (naively?) attempts to walk a line between this annoying (and rather ignorant) sectarianism.
An incredibly enlightening voice on fatphobia, diet culture, and more.
For good measure, a more conventional food writer: I enjoy reading Cloake’s well-written, almost obsessive meta-analyses of recipes and cooking. Neither cloying, nor soporific.