But is it literary?

The Key West Literary Seminar is underway -- we just wrapped up the first session; there's still room in the second session and if you're a literary foodie at all, this is one of those rare opportunities for your passions to combine. One topic that keeps coming up, as it has since we began discussing food as a theme for the Seminar, is the question of literariness (if that's a word). One of my fellow board members, whom I respect a lot and like even more, dislikes it when the writers get off the topic of writing and literature and just start talking about food. I disagree. And here's why:

First of all, there is plenty of talk about writing itself and to be honest, a diet of just that gets to be too much for me, especially since we're dealing with a double session here.

Second, we have gathered some of the smartest, most articulate people in the country who know from food. Why on earth would we NOT want them to talk about this subject, about which they are passionate and knowledgable -- and often quite funny. Not just the known funny people like Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount and Billy Collins, but Julia Reed was a revelation to many of us -- the woman should have her own standup act -- and even an eminence such as Madhur Jaffrey had the auditorium laughing out loud many, many times. Isn't their foodiness the very reason we brought them, along with their proven literary chops? When the subject is "more literary," say a genre like memoir, we don't object when the writers discuss some topic that is the focus of their work, do we? The whole point of the Seminar, to me, is to hear directly from the writers telling stories, about themselves, their own work and about other people, stories that are funny or sad or significant in some way. It's stuff you just wouldn't hear otherwise and it is very different hearing spoken by the writer herself than it is reading on the page.

I may be a bit oversensitive, having come from journalism and feeling like nonfiction generally is considered a literary stepchild compared to the exalted realms of fiction and poetry. And there were a few times when I agreed that the discussion veered a bit too far into the purely topical -- once about America's current crises in obesity and diabetes -- but in most cases that was driven by questions from the audience and I don't see what either the Seminar planners nor the writers can do about that.

So overall -- a rousing success, I must claim on my own behalf and that of the people who did most of the work putting this thing together, namely Miles Frieden and Arlo Haskell. There's still room to sign up for the second session, which I'm excited about -- it's going to be interesting to hear the new voices in the mix, especially the novelists (Kate Christensen, Elizabeth Berg and Nicole Mones) as well as a more historical perspective from Mark Kurlansky. And I'm excited to hear more from Madhur Jaffrey -- she's one of those people you could listen to all day even when she's just describing how to create a simple rice dish.

And here, to whet your appetite, are some of my personal highlights from the first session:

"It took a long time for American writers to feel comfortable admitting that they were actually writing about food."


"It's ironic that, just as people stopped cooking they started reading cookbooks."

-- Ruth Reichl in the opening keynote address

Jonathan Gold said he hates the term "ethnic" when applied to restaurants. "Nobody ever calls French cooking ethnic."

We had Julia Child impressions from at least four the panelists -- the best by far was from Judith Jones; the worst was Roy Blount, Jr.

Diana Abu-Jaber describing the adoption of dishes from different cultures into the American diet, such as hummus with roasted red peppers in the grocery store: "There's fusion and I guess you'd call it confusion."

"The reason there's a taboo against cannibalism is that it must have been a powerful temptation."

-- Jason Epstein, after quoting a chef who says chefs cook for other people "so they don't eat us."

Someone asked Madhur Jaffrey if we should travel to India or if it's been ruined. She replied that India is like an onion with many layers existing together, from medieval to 21st century. "It is a rich, irritating, uplifting experience to go to India," she said. She recommends it.

A check-outable feast

There's just a month to go before the next Key West Literary Seminar and just in time, we at the Key West Library have received a shipment of books by writers appearing at the Seminar. This year's subject is The Hungry Muse: Food in Literature and the offerings are indeed appetizing. (It's not, by the way, the much-feared "cookbook seminar" and it's not just straight-up food writing, either -- our panelists will include novelists and poets and historians as well as some of the finest food writers in the nation.) We already had a bunch of books by these writers in our collection but the new ones are most welcome, including Eating by Jason Epstein, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman and At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey, by the way, will be at both sessions, as will be Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount, Jr., and Billy Collins. If you're interested in attending, there are still spots left in the second session -- and if you're in Key West, don't forget the Sunday afternoon panels and readings are always free and open to the public. Bon appetit!

And if you're wondering what's up with the slide show below -- well, I'm not much of a cook, to be honest. Given a couple free hours I will invariably spend my time reading instead of shopping for and preparing food. But these are some recent culinary creations of mine worth note -- the Swedish family recipe cake I made for our Stieg Larsson Book Bites session at the library, two pies I made for Thanksgiving (the inevitable pumpkin and the always popular apple-cranberry-raisin from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook), a batch of liebkuchen from another family recipe (and my favorite Christmas treat of the many, many kinds of cookies my grandmother used to make every year) and a cocktail, a Pisco guava punch prepared at the long-distance direction of Embury Cocktails impresario and New York Times-certified cocktail expert Jason Rowan. And all of them turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. Recipes available on request.


Historical fiction ... it's hot!

This year's National Book Award nominees have been announced -- and an astounding three out of five in the fiction category are panelists who will be appearing at the Key West Literary Seminar in January. Wow. Peter Mathiessen, Marilynne Robinson and relative newcomer Rachel Kushner all made the short list. That's impressive. And there are still spots open in the second all-star weekend, so check it out. In other KWLS-related news, check out Littoral, the seminar's blog, if you don't already do so. Arlo Haskell has managed to do what many have tried and none fully pulled off before: he's publishing a high-quality Key West-centered literary journal. Single-handed. The web is a good thing, at least when it's being used for good and not to propagate thinly veiled racist political slander.

Update: Even as I was writing the above post, the New York Times' excellent book blog, Paper Cuts, was linking to Littoral. Yea Arlo! Yea Key West! We're in the big time now.

Getting ready for 09

The 20King Philip, or Metacom, as engraved by Paul Revere09 Key West Literary Seminar is looking back -- specifically at historical fiction with some history thrown in. One of the historians we've invited is Jill Lepore and I just finished reading her book The Name of War, about King Philip's War and how it has been recorded and interpreted in American history. Sadly, I managed to grow up and receive an alleged education in New England and still had no clear idea what King Philip's War was until I read "Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrick last year. I thought it was one of the French and Indian Wars, since they're named after royalty. Oops.

Philbrick's book takes King Philip's War as a kind of coda to the initial landing and establishment of the Plymouth Colony (it was Philip's father, Massasoit, who made the initial contact and alliance with the English settlers, to the Native Americans' later regret and dismay). It's popular history, written with the layperson in mind. Lepore's is more academic but still very accessible. And it's really interesting on the whole issue of who controls the narrative of history, from the English settlers who initially wrote vivid accounts of the carnage -- to help justify sending Native Americans to slavery and death -- to the early 19th century Americans who staged an overwrought play called "Metamora," starring Philip as a sort of proto-Revolutionary American.

Interesting stuff. And since I'm finally about to return this book to the Monroe County Library, others can check it out.