We decided that “flavoursome” wouldn’t do. “Tasty” was out, too, and “toothsome”. “Moist” was banished without a murmur of objection. When someone suggested that “grub” and “nosh” should be consigned to the bonfire of words that were unacceptable in the orderly world of food writing, I wondered if there were going to be any words left at all. I’ve always found the pool of words at the disposal of the honest gastro-scribe to be pretty limited at the best of times, and now half of those were now deemed to be off limits. It’s a gloomy prospect. Perhaps we should use sign language.
The inquisition panel in this case were the 15 women and men who had paid to spend two days learning about the finer points of writing about the world’s most important subject. On my right was Tom Parker Bowles, still young enough to be seen as a wunderkind of the genre – in a remarkably short period of time, Tom has established himself as one of the most deftly readable and stylish of contemporary food writers, with that enviable ability to inform painlessly, and divert at the same time. On my left was Bob Granleese, who is what you might call a grizzled veteran of the business of food writing – he has applied the nips and tucks to my articles in the Guardian, and to those of every luminary who has contributed to that newspaper’s food pages, for the last 12 years.
In the course, we were also joined by Tim Hayward, the driving spirit behind the small but perfectly formed Fire & Knives, a quarterly magazine devoted to intelligent, expressive food writing of a kind that has largely disappeared from the periodical tables; by Richard Corrigan, a towering figure of the restaurant universe in every sense of the word (and with Richard there are always a great many words); and by Mark Hix, a more pianissimo figure than Richard, but whose quiet articulation in the Independent and doughty support of food producers through his column and in his restaurants is a model that more might follow with credit.
The 15 guinea pigs for the first ever Guardian Food-Writing Masterclass (the word “masterclass” might also be usefully added to other verbal funeral pyre) came from diverse backgrounds. There was a much-travelled man from the United Nations, and a lady who worked for Nottingham County Council, promoting food producers in that county. There was a lawyer and a novelist, a Australian lady who worked in IT, and a civil servant. Three had been given the course as a present by grateful spouses or partners as a kind of long-service award. Ages ranged from the mid-20s to 60 or so, I would guess.
As I explained at the beginning of the first session, the purpose of the exercise was not to turn them into food writers. You can’t expect to do that in one weekend. No, it was to sketch out the broad horizons, give them the means to explore them, and add on such tips, hints, tricks and advice as the panel had gleaned over hard years at the business.
Over the two days, we galloped through a short history of food writing; touched on the basic disciplines; explored why anyone would want to write in the first place; for whom they thought they were writing, and what they were writing about. We talked about the difference between voice and style, and about our favourite books and writers, and inevitably spent a good deal of time peering at new media and assessing its relevance.
Perhaps the most electrifying part of the proceedings was the time spent with Richard Corrigan, who joined us for lunch at Hix Soho on the Saturday. Richard so galvanised the party with his unfettered views on food, other chefs, the importance (or otherwise) or restaurant critics and food writers, the politics of food, his own food childhood, the economics of running successful restaurants and a good many other topics along the way, that lunch stretched out through the afternoon, until some of us sloped off to his own restaurant, Bentley’s, on nearby Swallow Street, where Richard poured Marston’s Oyster Stout down our throats while we watched England cane the French at rugby.
I paid a mild penalty for such cheery indulgence on Sunday, but not enough to stem the flow of opinion and information. It struck me that everyone there was united by a passion for food, a good many nurturing it pretty much in solitude, and by a desire to be able to express themselves not so much better as with greater confidence. If nothing else, I think they achieved that, largely because they spent time with people who shared their excitement. The greatest encouragement of all is to discover you are not alone in this world.
Eating Your Words, Guardian Food-Writing Masterclass, http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian-masterclasses for details