Elissa Altman: The writing that eats away at you

Everyone told Elissa Altman no one would read long-form food narratives online. Two memoirs and a James Beard Award later, Altman can finally say: Everyone was wrong.

Elissa Altman

 

Elissa Altman began her wordsmith career as an editor of cookbooks, but today Altman is better known as the proprietor of the blog Poor Man’s Feast and the author of two memoirs, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking and Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, which was released in September.

Poor Man’s Feast began as a food blog, but Altman’s thoughtful and often lengthy posts helped the site grow into something else entirely.

“Food is about so much more than just the table and eating and assembling one’s plate,” Altman says.

We spoke with the James Beard Award winner about the evolution of her writing, what it’s like to open up online, and writing about food without always posting a recipe.

 


 

 

Your blog is generally designated a “food blog” but it’s about so much more than food – the topics you write on seem to have evolved over the years. Were you worried about losing readers when you started exploring other topics? How did that evolution happen?

When I started to write Poor Man’s Feast [the blog] back in 2007 or so, I launched it for two reasons: first, I had been – and still am, from time to time – an editor focusing primarily on food, but also on narrative.

Until 2012, I was editor-at-large at Rodale Books and previously had been at HarperCollins for almost a decade. I had been following narrative blogs for a while when I began to wonder if there was any room online for long-form narrative “food” blogging.

Would people read it? Would they spend the time? Would they engage? Who, exactly, would come to it and who would stay?

I launched Poor Man’s Feast early on as an experiment; I wanted to know the answers to these questions directly rather than anecdotally.

Everyone at meetings like IACP [International Association of Culinary Professionals] and elsewhere said “Oh NO. NO ONE will read long-form. Who do you think you are?”

I had a hunch that they weren’t right – that there was room if the writing hit a nerve. There will always be room if the writing hits a nerve. And I was (mostly) right.

The second reason: I was in a stopgap-measure, non-traditional editorial job at a now-defunct company. It was so mind-bogglingly hideous – like the beginning scenes in Joe Versus the Volcano, right down to the buzzing overhead fluorescent lights – that I found I could do a solid week’s worth of work in two days, which meant that I had a lot of extra creative time on my hands.

So I closed my door and wrote. It was like being shot out of a cannon, creatively. I was writing constantly – literally, all the time.

All of this said, I also knew that Poor Man’s Feast had to provide something – these were the early days of 101 Cookbooks and Leite’s Culinaria and Orangette; all of them were very well-written, beautiful, and well-produced, and all of them offered trustworthy and engaging food content – and so I endeavored to (almost) always give readers an inexpensive, easy-to-prepare recipe at the end of a post. I thought it was a requirement.

Sometimes the recipe was my own; sometimes it was attributed elsewhere. I made no bones about the fact that I was not (and am not) a food photographer: I leave that to the experts. Sometimes I posted a nice food image, and sometimes – if what I was writing about was more arcane and difficult to capture – I included an image from an excellent stock house (and said so, upfront).

I was inadvertently building a brand. I didn’t set out to build a brand, per se; I set out to create a landing place for long-form narrative, and so I knew that I would run the risk of alienating some of my readers as the blog changed narratively.

Most of them came along with me, I am happy to say. A few left, but that’s understandable. Some people don’t like change. I’m comfortable with that.

Eventually, though, all of this evolved. I began to get a little bit bored doing the same thing all the time, and I found myself wanting to experiment with other kinds of content, in different narrative forms.

I was reading fewer and fewer cookbooks, and more and more memoir and other kinds of creative nonfiction (and fiction and a lot of poetry), and I realized that food is simply a necessary sliver of life, like air and water.

We live in a world that is carnal – of the body. Not always sexual but that too, and very much of the mind and memory, as well as the table.

Ours is a constantly changing, often violent and divisive place where art and history and time impact every one of us whether we choose to recognize it or not.

The creative impulse – the profound need for people to write, to produce, to paint, to compose – in order to capture the world around us (at the table but also very far beyond), to tell its story and keep it alive, comes from this place, I think.

Paula Wolfert wrote about Egypt; so did Elizabeth David and [Constantine] Cavafy and Michael Ondaatje and E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell. Look at Syria. The written memories of Aleppo – the food, the culture, the art, the literature – are all we have left.

The creative impulse, however it manifests itself, keeps the world living and breathing; it keeps memory alive. Food is simply a fragment of that world.

 

 

What makes blogging different from all the various types of writing and editing you’ve done?

This is the editor in me speaking: the most jarring, immediate difference between blogging and writing books or essays or newspaper columns is that one is unedited, unless one goes out and hires an editor.

This is a very serious thing. Bloggers can press the PUBLISH button without ever having run their content through the editorial process.

A lot of people say to me, “Oh, but you’re also an editor: you probably don’t need one.” WRONG. We all need an editor, and the better and stronger the editor is, the better off the writer and reader are.

I’m not sure who in the blogosphere first began dropping the preposition of (as in “I ate a couple apples” as opposed to “I ate a couple of apples”), but it makes me want to tear my face off both as editor and reader. I see it everywhere and it tortures me. It’s careless. It’s also not colloquial, as some people argue. It’s not cute. It’s just wrong.

Substantively (and personally) speaking, blogging can be as experimental – or not – as I want it to be. I tend to write in a far more brazen manner on Poor Man’s Feast, both food-related and not. I can be more opinionated, or not.

But the primary difference is practical: mistakes can be changed. Posts can be pulled. Comments can be opened or closed.

On the upside, you get to hear from your readers immediately, which is (usually) a good thing. You can begin an exchange with them mere moments post-publication. Not so with books, or other kinds of publications.

 

 

 

Did your approach to blogging change at all after going through the process of writing your memoir?

Without question, and it’s been unsettling for some. We live in a narrative Treyfculture where we’ve been trained to expect all the ends of a story to be tied up in a neat little package: . . . and they all lived happily every after.

But what I learned as I wrote Poor Man’s Feast the memoir (and even more so in my new book, Treyf, which is a memoir about the forbidden) is that life is not really this way: we don’t all live happily ever after. That’s fantasy; that’s fairy tale.

Reality is steeped in the unknown, the discomfiting, the ambiguous. And here’s a shock: it’s OK to say that, to imply it, to leave the reader hanging a little bit, because this is life.

I learned that in my writing – blog, essay, book, short fiction, whatever – it’s not only OK to leave threads a little untied; it’s utterly human.

Try as we might to shoehorn it into some sort of tidiness, life – at the table, away from the table, everywhere in between – is ambiguous. And my blogging started to reflect that realization after the first book came out.

Some folks write to me and say, “Hey, but you didn’t finish your story.” Ah, but I did.

 

 

How have you found the confidence to write about your personal life on the internet for all to read? Is there anything you don’t feel comfortable writing about? Where do you draw the line?

Early on, I knew in my heart that I’d be writing a lot of memoir both online (in the blog) and off. But how does anyone have the confidence to write about their personal life in such a public sphere?

Like most memoir writers, I have a compulsion to tell my story – if for no one else than myself – to try to understand my life better.

Elie Wiesel said, “I write to understand as much as to be understood.” I think that’s true for all of us. When I write about my personal life, I do so because I want to understand what motivates me, but also the people around me – the ones I love and the ones I don’t.

I want to understand the people who have meant the most to me (my parents, my family, my friends) through the prism of time, distance, and experience.

It’s a two-edged sword, for sure: When my first book came out, I related a story that was deeply personal. It was about something that happened to my father when he was a child; he fed that story to me like pabulum, and it impacted me throughout my life at the most visceral level.

But what I didn’t know was that some of my cousins didn’t even know about it until the book came out, because my aunt, unlike my father, had chosen to hide it from them. I have lost many of those people, even though the incident was almost a century old.

So if you must write about something that eats away at you, that’s part of who you are like the color of your eyes, do so. But be aware that there are often consequences.

Are there limits? Absolutely. I try, very hard, to never write in an unkind or cruel way. Cruelty is a cheap shot, steeped in envy and shame. Writing about people cruelly is wholly unacceptable.

 

 

 

Many food bloggers feel the need to ALWAYS post a recipe. Why don’t you feel this pressure, or if you do, how do you resist it?

Because food is about so much more than just the table, and eating, and assembling one’s plate. It’s about culture and history and time. I think of it as essence rather than fuel.

Moreover, when I do write about process – the actual process of cooking – I usually do it in a narrative manner, and I embed that process narrative within the body of the text.

There are some truly wonderful places to go for traditional recipes: Food52, Serious Eats, Epicurious, Orangette, 101 Cookbooks. Some marry story to recipe, and they’re terrific: I have tremendous respect for these people. But we’re about as different from each other as night and day, and that’s fine.

 

 

 

How did your life change after winning the James Beard Award for your blog?

Certainly, it was an acknowledgement of time, effort, and narrative quality, and I was and remain deeply honored to have received it. Oddly enough, my readership didn’t change that much.

I also knew that the blog, even at the time I won the award, was already morphing, and that that would be a challenge. There were a lot of folks who tried to keep me within the parameters of what they deemed [a] proper “food writer” and were sometimes disappointed to find me writing about other things that involved the table, but not specifically.

With every passing year, the Beard nominees become more and more diverse and far-reaching in their style and scope, and I, for one, applaud that fact loudly. I also applaud the James Beard folks for allowing that to happen and recognizing that we live in a world where nothing stays the same.

 

 

 

How do you avoid sounding preachy when writing about issues about which you have very strong opinions?

My goal isn’t to change readers’ minds, or to browbeat them into believing or thinking a certain way; I try, when I’m attempting to get a point across, to do it within the strata of narrative and storytelling.

My readers can make up their own minds; their opinions are their own, as are mine. Just the fact that they are willing to read my work means to me that there’s room for discussion. And that’s invaluable.

 

 

 

Megan Kaplon is a frequent contributor to The Writer.