Nightstand Reads: Greg Atkinson

As a food writer, I use words and letters almost without thinking. Just as whisks, rolling pins, pots and pans are incidental to the actual foodstuffs with which they interface, so words and letters, paragraphs and sentences are just a means to an end. The end is whatever meaning I hope they will eventually convey to a reader. The letters and words are vehicles and tools used to deliver a product; they are not the product itself. And yet, just as I sometimes admire and contemplate the knives and dishes I use in the kitchen, I cannot resist the urge to dwell occasionally on the wonderful tools I use when I write or speak.





Lately I have been spending any spare moment I can find with the letters of the alphabet. Each of the symbols that we use to represent a particular sound was derived from another symbol, used by other people in other times to represent another thing. As a young adult, when I first came to realize that speech and writing had an evolutionary trajectory parallel to that of human kind, I have been fascinating with the emergence of the phonetic alphabet and its impact on the subtle, sometimes-unconscious impact of what we write and say.

I suppose this all began with the marvelous illustrations of the letters in my American Heritage Dictionary.

As an introduction to each chapter, the dictionary gives a little history of how the graphic symbols emerged.

These explorations prompted me to delve a little deeper, examining runes and characters from the Hebrew alphabet, considering the sounds represented by the letters and the old Celtic idea that sounds carry meaning and power of their own, independent of the meanings we intend for them.

Recently, as a sort of writing exercise, something to help me make the transition from cooking to writing about food, I have been writing brief essays on the letters, incorporating all sorts of food words into the essays along with some mythical and biblical references and words about magic and meaning. When I set out to explore a particular letter, I spend a few days perusing the dictionary, and various food reference books to find provocative words that start with that letter.

The Oxford Companion to Food and Waverley Root’s FOOD have taken up full time residence on my desk as has my old hardcover copy of the dictionary. The reference works prompt me to discover all sorts of associations and meanings that I was never aware of before and they seem to be resounding in my mind whenever I read anything else.

Currently, I am reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491; New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I find myself searching for clues about what Americans ate before European contact; (Maize of course, and beans and squash, quinoa, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate and vanilla; salmon, deer, guinea pigs, and turkey too). But I also think about the words they might have used for these foods and the peculiar forms of writing they had. Inka scribes used elaborate knots of colored threads to record history and inventories, sort of like writing with macramé. Mixteca people had hieroglyphs, a non-phonetic written language.

Did Inka and scribes record what they ate and if so, did they consider the sounds and symbols they used to represent those foods?

Author and chef Greg Atkinson will join three other food writers at a special The Scoop on Food event to discuss creating and writing about Pacific Northwest cuisine (at the Central Library on Thursday, November 10, at 7 p.m.) Atkinson, who served as executive chef at Canlis Restaurant and IslandWood, won the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Atkinson’s newest book is At the Kitchen Table; other titles include Northwest Essentials and West Coast Cooking. You can find more of Atkinson’s book here in the Library catalog. The Scoop on Food is presented in partnership with The Seattle Times.

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