My Conversation with Bryan Washington, Part One
Can the Meaning of a Dish Ever Be as Simple as Comfort?
Fiction writer Bryan Washington, author of Lot and Memorial, is a master of the culinary essay: a short nonfiction piece that riffs on a dish and describes how to make it, a blown-up headnote-recipe format. This may be food blogging’s foundational template, but in Bryan’s hands—his pieces for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine—it reaches new possibilities. His cooking essays touch on comfort and rejection, kinship and isolation, like a tongue probing a sore tooth to both soothe the ache and map the edges of the pain.
I spoke with Bryan by phone in early February. In this first part of our conversation, Bryan talks about cooking and relationships, open-ended resolutions, and learning to ask the questions that can yield a more honest food writing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JB: Do you consider yourself a food writer? Maybe that’s an irrelevant question, but what do you think about the title food writer?
BW: As far as monikers and titles go I’m generally amenable to whatever folks want to use for me [laughs], you know, if they’re taking the time to read something that I’ve written and then they come away from that experience describing me as a food writer that’s quite alright. If they come away from it describing me solely as a writer of fiction that’s quite alright. For both Lot and Memorial, neither was initially an attempt to ingratiate the fiction with food, or to have a massive culinary thread running through them. It just matriculated by way of what the characters were doing, the communities and the intersections of communities that they were coming from, and what their central concerns were. The ways in which folks’s culinary mores and culinary desires intersect with their lives and the lives of the folks they care about—that’s just something I gravitate toward, as someone who’s also interested in writing about what does comfort look like for someone? What’s pleasure look like for someone? Food seems to be a vehicle that’s amenable to talking about those things.
JB: I love the complicated, nuanced thing that food becomes in your writing. In Memorial, as well as those Bayou Diary pieces of yours that I really love. I think I’m going to get my hands on what food means to you but then it slips away. You seem to play with those conventions of food as a vehicle for connection but then turn right around and show it’s something that keeps us isolated. Were you conscious of taking on those clichés of food as community?
BW: I don’t know that I was conscious of broaching the assumptions and presumptions that might circle around that sort of highlighted idea that food brings folks together and promotes unity—like let’s all sit down at the same table and break bread! Because food is also labor. We’re talking about food, we’re also talking about who’s making that food. We’re talking about who has access to their culinary desires on a regular basis. You can’t have the conversation about food cultivates community without also having the conversation of what communities are deemed highlightable, or what communities are deemed most amenable for this larger image of food cultivating community. Particularly as a queer writer—what does it mean to dine at a restaurant that I think is entirely delicious but the owners are deeply homophobic? Or what does it mean to cook for family members or acquaintances who have major grievances against myself and the communities that I belong to? So I very much agree with you, this idea of food having the potential to isolate as much as it has the potential to bring folks together.
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