by Luis Jaramillo
Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at The New Yorker, a celebrated poet, and the author of the new book Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture. She recently visited The New School to have a conversation with Luis Jaramillo about writing, extreme eating, and the frontiers of food culture.
LJ: In Anything That Moves you write a lot about danger and death. Food is of course nourishment, but so many of the stories in the book have to do with people pushing themselves to eat something they don’t want to eat—because of bacteria in the food, because the food is a scorpion. There’s a lot of death having to do with animals, and you even write about eating live animals, so I guess my question is—
DG: What’s up with that?
LJ: What’s up with that?
DG: Lurking in our sense of pleasure in food is a sense of the risk that eating entails. My interest in this subject matter began with the observation that in this moment of great celebration around food, there a shadow side that often goes unnoticed. That tension interested me a lot. That’s the vague notion that I started with and the reason that I wanted to write about food at all. To see the “dangerous” and the “disgusting” be recast as sublime really interested me. There are a million stories you can tell about food that will delight and titillate people, but food as food has certain limitations as a subject matter. Food as a metaphor for culture is endlessly interesting.
LJ: In this book you’re looking at American food and Americans eating food from other countries. You’re not writing about deprivation even though you’re writing about food that comes from deprivation.
DG: So many of the foods that have been exalted as part of this new food movement really are the foods of poverty. I was curious about that. What does it say about how we feel about ourselves at this moment that we are slapping $250 price tags on tasting menus composed of ingredients that a starving person in the woods would eat as a measure of last resort? What’s fascinating is that chefs are telling us that this food is delicious and that it can be nourishing. But I also think it’s part of a larger resistance to industrialized food. In the effort to eliminate risk with a regulatory system, we have introduced all kinds of new risk. What this food movement seems to want to do—although people approach it in different ways and they don’t always agree—is to reintroduce risk into eating. There’s an attempt to roll back some of that regulation, and when the changes don’t come politically or legislatively, things happen under the radar. And people are excited about that. People are excited about doing something illegal with food, which I find really fascinating.
LJ: You’re also writing about the extremes of this movement. Like about the woman who really likes the “pooey” eggs.
DG: I went back and forth about including that quote many times.
LJ: I love it. It paints a picture, for sure. What is it about the people on the fringes of the food movement that drew you to them?
DG: They’re the vanguard, and they are influencing the mainstream. It’s dangerous to write about the future, because who wants to be wrong? But living in California you often feel that you’re on the cusp of something, and a lot of these stories are set in California. Writing about the extreme fringe allowed me to write about the future in the present, not to be making predictions, but to be saying, look, this is actually happening. Pig ears are already a cliché on menus and five years ago they were a real shocker. The ideas of the food avant garde are being absorbed by the mainstream much more quickly than before, maybe because of all the public enthusiasm for food, maybe because there’s been all this pent up desire for this kind of thing. A different kind of fear is starting to be the dominant fear. It’s not the fear of eating a certain part of an animal as much, but a fear of environmental collapse. What is this system that standardizes everything, that gives us big fat juicy steaks for every person every day of the week, what’s that going to do? It’s a matter of competing anxieties, and the anxiety about sustainability has become the dominant one.
LJ: You write a lot about meat, but you also have the great chapter about insects.
DG: The new meat. Eco meat.
LJ: What was the term you used? Small livestock?
DG: Mini livestock.
LJ: I love that term. Where did you get it?
DG: I read it in a scientific paper that was published in an entomology journal—entomologists had analyzed the protein content of insects. It’s so perfect, microgreens and mini livestock.
LJ: It makes insects sound appetizing.
DG: It really does, it sounds really cute.
LJ: Tiny little cows.
DG: When you grow up in America eating American-style, you have an instinctive negative reaction to the idea of eating bugs. That is generations deep and hard to overcome, but who can really argue that eating a cow is a much better idea, when you know how cows are typically raised? What makes eating a cow possible and appealing is all a matter of culture.
LJ: It’s culture but you have the great example of the kid who will eat the dragonfly’s head, but only if someone licks the mustard off of it for him.
DG: That might come from kid culture, which is to say, not yet afraid of insects but has been told that mustard is gross, or maybe his palate hadn’t developed to be able to accept the strident flavor of mustard. There is also individual taste to consider, and that is as various as individuals are various. But we do have these collective ideas, like we say “yech” if someone asks, “would you like to eat a worm?” And I would have said that too. But then I found out that worms are good.
LJ: You eat a lot of things over the course of this book. Whale. The balut [ed: partially developed duck embryos boiled alive and eaten from the shell]. Were you eating all these things because you were writing this book?
DG: I couldn’t be the guide I needed to be for my readers if I were not willing to try these things. But my own inhibitions were challenged. For one thing, I realized that I have them. I didn’t think I did. I didn’t think I was the most macho eater in the world, but I did think I would try anything once. I couldn’t eat the century egg—basically a rotten preserved egg—I just couldn’t eat it.
LJ: It’s cooked and then preserved?
DG: It’s traditionally packed in ash and then buried, not for a hundred years, but for a couple of weeks, and then it essentially ferments. It’s preserved but spoiled—you know that in between state? And I thought, I’ve got to do it, everyone’s watching me. I kind of faked it. I thought that that would be something I would never try. However. Three nights ago I was at an incredible restaurant in San Francisco called Benu, eating the tasting menu and the first thing on the menu was thousand-year-old quail egg in potage. It was absolutely delicious. The context contributed a lot—the potage, the ginger. The century egg was served in Styrofoam in the parking lot of a Chinese grocery store, and while that context was exciting and stimulating in other ways, there were no accompaniments to soften the blow. And it was much larger. [At Benu there] was just a little slice of it, it was more greyish. It was more a texture than a flavor, which was not unpleasant. So yes, there were moments in the reporting when I really discovered there are things I can’t eat. I also discovered there were things I’d be more than happy to eat. Ant eggs, for instance. I don’t like the way the term “ant eggs” sounds, and they’re not even the eggs, they’re the larvae and pupae, but when you say that it doesn’t sound better. Terminology can be important.
LJ: So if they’re escamoles [ed: the Spanish term] it’s better?
DG: Escamoles sounds much better.
LJ: One of the places you’re not able to eat is at the buffet hosted by Aajonus Vonderplantiz. It sounds really repulsive. It was just all raw, rotted meat?
DG: And a lot of raw dairy. Plates of raw meat. Some of it had been unrefrigerated for goodness knows how long, and then a lot of people were eating that with big hunks of the raw butter I brought. I didn’t want to eat any of it anyway, but because I was pregnant I didn’t feel comfortable eating any of it. Being pregnant was an interesting dimension, which I first thought of as this problem, as this thing I had to hide, both in the moment of reporting and in the writing. I didn’t want the book to be the story of a pregnant lady who goes extreme eating. But then I realized that it gave some stakes, and it made me more sensitive to the risks that were involved. It put me more in the mind frame of the average reader. I had this “say yes” policy—“try it once, it’s not going to kill you”—but the responsibility of being pregnant made me think twice about some things.
LJ: The book is made up of mostly profiles, but you enter into the book here and there. How did you decide when you were going to bring yourself to the forefront of the narrative?
DG: This is the eternal question. I tend to stay in the background. That’s how I’ve learned to report and how to write, and I had to really force myself into this story. My instinct is to hold up Exhibit A and Exhibit B and assume that everyone comes to the same conclusion that I do. I think that may explain why I’m attracted to poems, why I write poems. You let the white space do a lot of work for you. You don’t have to bridge everything for the reader. But when I put the book together, I gave it to a couple of friends, and the overwhelming response was, “this is kind of a scary world, and you’re nice, can you hold our hands and take us through this world?” The logical way of doing that was to use “I” a little bit more than I ordinarily would.
LJ: You spend a lot of time with people in the book. How do you keep track of everything? How do you synthesize it when you’re home with your recordings or notes?
DG: I often do both, make recordings and take notes. Some of it is practical. If I’m in a car with someone writing notes makes me carsick, so I have to have a tape recorder. It’s great to sit in the passenger’s seat while your subject drives. It’s a great way to get people talking. They’re in their car, they’re comfortable, you’re sitting in a spot reserved for friends. This is advice someone else gave me a long time ago, and now I pretend it’s my advice and I give it to other people. I think it’s useful to have a tape recorder for practical reasons, but I try not to rely on tape recorders because they can fail. And on a tape recorder, you’re not going to also say so it’s recorded “when he said that, his left eyebrow shot up in a funny way.” You can’t get the humanness. You can get the exact words, but it’s hard to really describe a person or make it sound like a real person if you don’t also have notes about their physical appearance, their behavior, and the air in the room. I think it’s pretty important. I write a lot, constantly, nervously, because I’m afraid I’ll come home and find I have nothing in my notebook. I go a little overboard, but then I have more to choose from. Unless I’m really pinched for time, or if I know [a subject] is going to be for pure information and not going to be a major figure I do the transcribing myself. That takes a long time. You rehear everything and you process it again differently. I make some sort of weird outline, ending up writing a section that has a bloated three thousand-word thing in the middle, and then I feel safe, something is on the page. I know where I’m beginning, and then the ending comes later. I spend a lot of my reporting time waiting for somebody to say the thing that crystalizes everything, because then I can go home.
LJ: You’re a poet—there’s a lot of really great language in this book. The prose is very clean but there are lots of great words, like chitinous, it sounds like what it is. You also include other people’s language, like the phrase, “the most organy, taily, nosy, brainy,” or the “cow butt flavor” of raw milk. There’s so much great, sharp language. Is that something you listen for?
DG: I’m listening for that rich, specific language. I feel like saying, “Thank you!” when I hear it. What’s fun about entering other people’s universes is that the language is totally different. And that’s where the authenticity comes from, other people’s beautiful, weird ways of describing the things that are ordinary to them. My job is to set up the interesting things that other people say and know. Even if now I know something about food, I’m still going into these specific sub realms I don’t know. My role is to understand what’s basically true and distill that for the reader and then set up the people who really are the authorities and really know what they’re talking about, or really don’t know what they’re talking and are funny because of that. I don’t see myself as a critic passing judgment on these foods, these restaurants, these worlds. I see myself as more of a stage mother, [claps] “Come on everybody, gather around. Now you go, because you’re going to say something really great right now.” Hopefully it’s an entertaining play for the audience.
LJ: Writing an essay is different than writing a book. How did you put these pieces together?
DG: I struggled with it. For a New Yorker story, the shape of a story has to be fairly well understood before you even embark on it: who the characters are, why these characters, why the reader cares, why does the reader need to read this next week. I knew I wanted to explore the subject of meat but I couldn’t go to The New Yorker and say, “Meat. I want to report meat.” But the reporting for the book was different because I could enter a subject and wander around in it. Being untethered was sometimes nerve wracking. The question of how to frame it perplexed me until the book was due. To make an arc the narrative had to be inclusive enough so that these very varied worlds could exist under its protective shape. After I’d been reporting long enough, I realized that this really is a little world. I started running into my subjects unexpectedly. That gave me confidence that the arc this wasn’t going to be a false arc. These people really do belong together, and they really are carving out a new way of eating.
LJ: You live in LA and report in LA. The book is a really great portrait of LA’s vast diversity.
DG: There’s so much going on there. The LA attitude toward food is becoming the prevalent attitude toward food. Its geographical location and the influence of the immigrants that live there with their cultures preserved intact is a big part of it. Jonathan Gold has charted a lot of that territory. People haven’t traditionally thought of LA as a food city, but it is a future food city. It’s a bit the Blade Runner thing, but it’s also a landscape of undiluted original cultures living side by side. The chefs working in LA tend to be really experimental. They’re not burdened by the sense that LA is a great food city and they have to make it there. They’re free because of the low opinion that New York and Chicago and San Francisco have had of LA food. There’s not a prevailing European tradition there. It’s got a Wild West aspect to it. I’m interested in the people who are defying the prevailing norms, and breaking some rules, and doing things that other people haven’t thought to do. And being really radically open when it comes to what they think of as food.
LJ: One of the personal narratives that emerges is about what you will eat and not eat—I mean you, personally—and you formulate some rules at the end of the book. You’ll try anything once, but you don’t want to be the first person to eat something ever, and you don’t want to be the lasDG: I had to question what I had done—my bounderish adventurism in eating the whale. I didn’t know enough to make that choice. Maybe it’s an endless problem. Would I eliminate all food options for myself if I knew everything about every aspect of risk, both microbiological and macro ecological? What would I be left eating? Each person has to find her own way in the world with this. When I learned what I learned about whales I realized I’d made an irresponsible decision. I’d made a polite decision, an I’m-a-traveller-up-for-anything decision. But I didn’t know what kind of species it was. It was probably minke because that is what usually is served in Iceland. I didn’t know the relative population health of minke or anything like that, so I did come to that rule. It’s complicated, though. The cultural norms about whale eating have shifted completely in a very short span of time. The righteousness with which someone would say “oh my gosh you ate whale,” is pretty false, because if you go back fifty years, our government is telling us to eat whale, and our government is telling the Japanese to eat whale. Now we prosecute Japanese chefs who serve it here.
LJ: I like how you say that there is a fair amount of xenophobia in even the idea that whale is taboo.
DG: There is. We have such a short memory for these things. However, that’s not a reason to eat something that might be an endangered species. And it wasn’t even good.
LG: I love the chapter that starts with neophilia and neophobia, “loving and fearing the new.”
DG: Those responses are built into being human. We are curious about food. Novelty and food have always gone hand and hand. We are almost hard wired for food fads; there’s a biological drive there, a survival instinct to find something new to eat. The fear is self-protection. As an eater, I’m stimulated by new things—hence my “say yes” policy. But there are some risks that are too burdensome. Like the tailless whip scorpion. There’s no history of eating the thing. I’m interested in eating new things because they expose me to new cultures, not eating things that have never been eaten. A culinary tradition is a good thing.
LJ: You wouldn’t have balut again.
LJ: Oof, that description of something that felt like a soft tooth when you were chewing.
DG: It was so horrible. Horrible. I did think that it was kind of the perfect food. You know exactly what it is, you haven’t been alienated from the source. It’s a complete meal. It’s convenient. I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day. If I were on a diet I would make myself eat a balut every other day. After eating it I really was full all day, full physically and full mentally.
LJ: It doesn’t worry you to eat brains?
DG: I know it’s not a great idea, the calves’ brains. I don’t like eating brains, but I haven’t tuned into my anxiety about the pathology. I’m tuned into my anxiety about the injustice of it. It just feels wrong. I have an emotional reaction to it. That was one of the big lessons about this research. People do have emotional reactions to things. And you can’t think your way out of all of them.
Luis Jaramillo is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Inquisitive Eater and the Interim Director of the School of Writing at The New School. His is the author of The Doctor’s Wife, a book of short stories.