An Insomniac’s Notes on Becoming a Food Writer

An Insomniac's Notes on Becoming a Food Writer

I’m awake all night, eyes wide, ears full of my husband’s snoring. After hours of thinking when I want to be dreaming, I finally move to the couch, flip on a light and dive into The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. He’s been praised for his “quiet detours” that lend great meaning; and he’s been assailed as possibly “the windiest windbag in newspaper history.” Either I’ll fall fast asleep or indulge in a great read. I can’t go wrong.

So I’m following Klinkenborg’s poetic journey through the natural world as it traces the calendar’s seasonal routines. Winter is bleak. Often, it’s icy. When rain falls on a frozen ground, forming a “vile compost tea,” I think of the winters back home.

Home, being Wisconsin, the place where I grew up; the place I’m visiting next week to help family through a number of household tasks.

I spend my insomniac night alternately reading Klinkenborg lines and recalling the winter my husband and I spent on a lake 40 minutes from my childhood home. Hard to believe, that was nine years ago. We needed a respite between stints overseas. So there we stayed, on Silver Lake. And there, back then, we lay awake at night listening to the ice grow. It moaned and groaned, then sounded like gunshots with heart-rattling bangs.

By day, we cozied up to our computers, editing photos and pitching magazines with the stories we’d compiled during our time away. In the bitter Wisconsin cold, I made thick peanut curries and ginger-bean soup the way Shan State villagers had taught me. It had poured for several days straight as we hiked to their homes along the muddy trails dissecting rural Upper Burma. The villagers welcomed us with hot tea, warm fires and food. And together, we talked about our different worlds.

All those memories come flooding back, now, as I read and think in the wee hours—because our minds tend to work overtime when our bodies seek sleep.

I think about the stories I cobbled together as the snow fell and the lake froze. I began with the notes I’d taken at a little sidewalk coffee shop in Phnom Penh. The family in charge served rich, pungent thimbles of jet fuel, tempered with sweetened condensed milk. The coffee was cheap, the customers intriguing, their opinions counter to prominent ruling-party thought. We asked questions, took pictures and uncovered a story of history and politics, centered on unassuming cups of coffee.

Later, back in the States, I remember sitting in the West Bend Library, paging through back issues—back when people read print and libraries kept archives—of magazines I hoped to interest. Sometime down the road, the editors at Gourmet decided they liked my coffee idea, and they liked my words enough to put my name on the masthead. Until then, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a food writer, per se. Until that winter on an ice rink, I’d never queried a food magazine with an article idea.

But of course, I’d always been a food writer. When a reporter reports on farmers, fishers and foragers who work the land and water to survive, food becomes the entrée to their lives. Food is the welcome mat, the conversation piece. It’s the hope, the dream, the biggest worry. It’s the driving force behind countless migrations—from farm to city, city to farm. It’s the culture that binds populations—and tears them apart. It’s the economic life of some, the economic death of others. Food is the thing that sustains us, and the thing that kills us. And it is the one subject everyone sees fit to discuss. When you get right down to it, most stories of people are in some way stories of food.

This is the journey of my sleepless mind: from a Klinkenborg winter to a cornucopia of reasons I choose to write what I do.

If we can understand a person’s food, and all the beauty and all the baggage that entails, we just might understand the person.

I believe that more and more every day.

(Incidentally, as often happens in print, the coffee shop story ran at a fraction of the length originally commissioned. It was edited down to fit space. The full-length version never ran. I’m posting it now on Rambling Spoon. You can also click here for a gallery of Jerry Redfern’s photos from the coffee shop.)

When she’s not running up mountains or sweating through a buggy jungle, Karen Coates covers food, environment, science, health and social issues. She is a 2010-2011 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environ ...read more

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