Mark Kurlansky

The food sociologist

By
February 1, 2011

Oysters, fish, crème brûlée, and coffee might say dinner to you, but to award-winning author Mark Kurlansky, they’re each a lens into who we are.

In his nonfiction books, including Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster, Kurlansky has shown how foods have shaped global culture, economy, labor, and trade. In his new book, Edible Stories, Kurlansky presents 16 linked short stories, all focused on food and our visceral relationship to it. A marriage hinges on crème brûlée, soda and espresso fuel revolutions, and soup hastens love and topples politicians.

Mark Kurlansky

In addition to working occasional gigs as a commercial fisherman, a cook, and a pastry chef, Kurlansky is the author of 14 other books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, as well as an upcoming graphic novel for young readers about sustainable seafood.

How did you come to see food as a cultural touchstone?
I have a metaphorical mind; I always see things as other things. Things are only interesting to me if they stand for something more. Certainly food would not be interesting to me just as food. I always look for a good story.

Were you always thus? I can just imagine you at six and your mother giving you a hot dog and you remarking on its social implications.
As a kid, I was always eating everything — grasshoppers, anything I could find.

I’m wondering where the connection between food and stories happened for you — in the kitchen growing up? At the table?
Mealtime was all about conversation. It’s where stories were told. And where politics was argued. I represented the radical left side of my family before it was fashionable in the 1950s. You know the ban-the-bomb movement? When I was a small child, I used to harass my parents about that.

So the political and the edible got linked for you as a kid. Should food writers and chefs have a sense of social responsibility?
I think everybody should. Whatever you do, you should ask yourself what is the social-responsibility component to this. Wouldn’t it be nice if insurance executives felt that way?

One thing I very much like about the food world is that people do tend to have a sense of social responsibility. Except that whole movement does not make food that working people can afford.
I was in New York at the farmers’ market, talking to this woman who produces beautiful arugula. It’s unbelievably expensive. This is, to me, the great flaw in all of these great new movements. Having more organic, more local, better products, better simpler food, all this is great, but they can’t figure out how to do it affordably.

What else will the Mark Kurlansky of the next century say about how we eat now?
As Bill Clinton would say, it all depends on what you mean by “we.” There’s something going on this country that’s very odd. Cultures with a more natural relationship to food, like the French and the Italians, certainly find our interest in the fashionableness of food odd. Edible Stories in a lot of ways is about this — about people who talk too much about food, the whole notion of food celebrities.

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I think a lot of what’s going on in food fashion makes no sense at all. There’s a lot of food that is just put together, that’s sort of, “Look what I’ve done.” For example, the food that’s made on the Food Channel — nobody eats like that, nobody wants to eat like that. It doesn’t have any kind of cultural or historical base. I think it’s a passing fad.

Culturally, food has become completely internationalized. One of the reasons I write about food is because it reflects history and society and what’s going on. I spend a lot of time in Basque country; it has a great food tradition. Basque dishes, like the beans of Tolosa, came about because of 17th-century trade with Central America. Foods like that last because they came about through a historical process. But a lot of the famous new Basque chefs, their food is odd and curious, foods that could be from anywhere with no cultural underpinnings. So in the long view of history, it won’t have any importance.

As someone adept at both fiction and nonfiction, what do each offer you as a writer?
What nonfiction lets me do is go to a source to get my story, and go back to sources if the story isn’t working out. What fiction lets me do is imagine my way in and out of things, although it’s almost always based on something true.

I really did research the history of Orangina. It’s absolutely true. It was in Algeria, moved to France after the war, and it had this right-wing association. I was interviewed by somebody who said, “I remember that struggle in Bordeaux.”

I completely made that up. One of the rewards of writing fiction is when you make things up and convince people they’re true.

In Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue [Kurlansky’s 2005 novel], this guy has this affair with a pastry maker, and I can’t tell you how many people, including people who know me well, asked me if I had an affair with a pastry maker. I didn’t, but their asking makes me think I did something right.

Have you eaten all the foods you mention in Edible Stories?
I’ve never eaten a tofurky.

And can live a long and happy life even so.
I am a great fan of Belons.

What about the eyeball soup?
Most of my ideas come from real-life experience. Then I have trouble remembering what I made up and what really happened. I do know I met a woman who was living in a trailer in Anchorage, the last native speaker of a language called Eyak. She was lonely and couldn’t speak to anyone except anthropologists. I don’t know if I completely made the soup up or not.

How have all your food books, fiction or otherwise, affected how you live and eat?
I end up eating a lot of the food I write about — more so after the book comes out. It comes up in the promotional stuff. I do have food events coming up with the new book, so we’ll see what happens. I ate a lot of horrible stuff after the cod book came out.

I did end up using a lot more salt after the salt book. I started using salt in ways I hadn’t before. I’ve gotten stuck on salting salads. The word for salad in Latin is salted, but it’s a misrepresentation — they didn’t sprinkle salt on it, they used a brine dressing. But I like salad just with good olive oil and a fairly crunchy large crystal.

What about the WPA foods you researched for The Food of a Younger Land? Did you get to eat those?
Not a lot, but some. WBUR public radio in Boston did a very interesting thing. They have a national show called “On Point” and they brought in a Boston chef to cook a bunch of recipes from the book, and we sat around and ate them on the air. It was a great thing to do. Conversation really gets better when you’re all eating. Always serve food when you’re doing interviews — you have much better conversations.

What do you like to make when you’re in the kitchen?
I’m the one who cooks. I do a lot of things — fish and vegetables, meat and vegetables. I don’t eat much starch because I’m perfectly capable of getting fat without it.

I have a 10-year-old daughter. When you have a child in the house, that has a lot to do with what you cook. She’s an interesting eater in a lot of ways. She really loves sauces. If you make a nice sauce, then she’s happy. It’s a style of cooking I used to do years ago, but I’m back to it now. Fish she’s not that wild about except fresh grilled sardines, her absolute favorite food.

Oh, and once a week, she gets to spin a globe and I make something that comes from that place. That’s made for some very interesting meals. She keeps landing on Kazakhstan.

How do you source your ingredients?
I buy produce from the local farmers’ markets when they have it. That’s the catch in this whole locavore thing. You see a lot of canned food in Food of a Younger Land. There’s not a lot of fresh food between November and March.

I buy my meat from a butcher, fish from a fish market. I enjoy these markets and know all the people there and we talk baseball. Sometimes I go to Whole Foods — very convenient for me.

I can’t plan out my food for a week. I shop every day. I wouldn’t understand how to do it any other way.

In New York City, where I live, as in Paris and a lot of big cities, people just cook less and less and get everything delivered. What I’m mystified by is Fresh Direct — people ordering over the Internet. How can you buy food without seeing it?

Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post.

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1. by eleni tsigante on Feb 16, 2011 at 1:06 PM PST

I really appreciated Mark Kurlansky’s point about history....and the meaningless (however tasty) fashion foods in Bilbao, for example. I’m a greek, living again in Athens - here cooking really does go by the seasons and local markets. What amazes me is the sheer variety of traditional dishes my older neighbours cook - all from memory! No cookbooks! They substitute freely if an ingredient is missing, without fuss...it is as if the end goal, the dish, (I daren’t say recipe in this context, because they don’t use them)...has a recognised life of its own and they are absorbed in the instinctive swim of making it, with a loose and easy mastery. And the taste is always delicious.

We don’t really have food blogs here, though greeks talk and argue endlessly about food and go far out of their way for the best ingredients. Even in the most upper class homes, the women are out of the house by 7am at the latest and down to the central fish market, if fish is on the menu that day - choosing the freshest fish is not a job that anyone would farm out.

I suppose we make and read blogs because we are several generations removed from instinctive mastery.

2. by Karen Lin on May 9, 2013 at 3:14 PM PDT

I, too, have eaten eyes (fish eyes my husband’s Taiwase family insist are good for the eyes). The culinary trend that I’m not keen on is an egg plopped over everything. I just joined the Culinate community. Love how you explore the food and cultures. I like taking time to prepare traditional foods, and have spent years (since 1993, in fact) researching and writing a literary cookbook that includes folktales and legends about why the leaves are used, COOKING IN LEAVES. I’m doing the last minute edits on the proposal for a literary agent right now. Would you be interested in connecting with me through Culinate? FaceBook? LinkedIn? I’d love to follow what you are doing with food sociology. I write fiction and nonfiction like you and almost always have food as a theme and place recipes at the end of my novels.

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