Personal essays — ostensively about food — tug at your heart by bringing up emotions. No matter if you’re writing about Chinese food, your trip to Bolivia or your dad’s obsession with poutine, all contain deeper thoughts and meanings.
This type of writing incorporates universal themes about love, loss, and other emotions that we can all relate to. They can also include food history, politics — just about any subject — written through the lens of your own thoughts.
That’s because personal essays are about you, even when you’re writing about someone else. At the end, you are supposed to have learned, changed or grown. And you don’t have to spell it all out. The best essays offer insights that help readers reach their own conclusions.
And that leads me to say congratulations to Jamie Schler for her second personal essay published in the Washington Post. This time it’s about her French mother-in-law’s cooking (I hope you can read it — there’s a paywall). It’s a moving story about Jamie’s gradual acceptance of an important family member who thinks differently about French food. But Jamie comes to respect her, and offers recipes for two of her favorite simple dishes.
Jamie and I have known each other for years as colleagues and friends. In case you haven’t read this a million times already, we are co-teaching a December 5-9 retreat on personal essay writing at her beautiful hotel in medieval Chinon, France.
Here are three favorite personal essays and why they’re so good:
- The Sad, Sexist Past of Bengali Cuisine, by Mayukh Sen. A story about how his great-grandmother was required to give up meat and fish, simply because she became a widow. But it is also by a great-grandson angered by this law, who morns never meeting her; the splendor of Bengali cuisine; and a woman’s dominant spirit.
- The Chef Who Saved My Life, by Brett Martin. How after a breakup, the author, “lost and deep in dark waters,” ate a pleasureable meal with Jacques Pépin and got his life back. He started eating and cooking again (from Pépin’s cookbooks, of course). Even though it’s a story about Pépin, Martin manages to writes an affectionate profile of him simultaneously. This piece creates a sense of intimacy, because the author is willing to reveal himself. It’s also relatable, as all of us have been through a difficult time where we didn’t feel like eating.
- Good Graces, by Carolyn Phillips. The author researched her new mother-in-law’s favorite dishes and decided to make them to establish a bond. The scene in the first few paragraphs establishes tension and creates interest in how the story will turn out. Phillips uses vivid imagery and sensuous details about the food she cooks to enhance the tale. You can read more about her writing style here.
You too have lots of stories to tell about your life through food. If you’d like to learn how to write them and get them published, come join me at an event this year.
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