Terroir for Writers


Terroir for Writers

Long ago, I got some terrible advice from a writing teacher. She cautioned me about using food in my work as a way into culture. “It can’t just be food,” I think she said. This froze my writing. I was young and didn’t think about who this advice was coming from, an older white woman with very different life experience, perhaps someone who had been cautioned about looking at someone else’s culture solely through the “easy” lens of food. 

Decades later, I finally understand why this advice was particularly terrible for me. If one has a deep relationship to any topic, you can get somewhere meaningful. (It’s not so much about the food as about one’s relationship to it.) Acclaimed food writer Claudia Roden, for instance, explores how food can contain clues to history. She writes about how the cumin seeds that cover roasted pork belly in Granada, Spain tell us that the dish dates to the Inquisition, where newly converted Jews and Muslims began eating pork for the first time. They prepared the pork with cumin, the way they had prepared lamb. Suffice it to say, Roden is someone who can look deeply into food.

My own aha moment came through attending a virtual emergence magazine event on the cultural healing power of food. Here I heard seedsaver and Mohawk woman Rowen White speak about the loss of culture when her mother was sent to a boarding school and forced to abandon the rituals of her people. Despite that rupture of culture, White took it upon herself to learn about what her ancestors had eaten and find ways to grow those foods. She spoke movingly at the event about when she first put her hands into the soil to plant and the strong feeling she had of her ancestors welcoming her. 

You may think this is woo- woo, but I believe it. More and more, I notice that participating in certain activities carry more personal meaning, give us a deeper sense of self, sometimes even allowing us to feel connected to our ancestors, while other activities take us away from ourselves, make us feel at odds.

Terroir is a culinary term you’ve probably heard most frequently as it relates to wine. The taste of a particular Chablis is the result of the grape vines having grown in a particular stony, mineral-rich soil. That note of minerality can later be found in your white wine sip. Or, maybe you’ve heard a cheesemonger tell you about the clover or licorice the goats ate in the pasture and the resulting subtle flavor in the chevre you purchase. The idea is that an area’s topology, soil, and climate can impart particular characteristics that show up later, even a lot later. 

Considering terroir in writing can be particularly valuable for BIPOC writers or writers who have been displaced, separated geographically from the locale of their lineage. What in the flora or in the natural elements of a character’s present situation is the same as it was for their ancestors? In my own story, “La-La Land,” the turning point in the writing, the moment something wholly new was uncovered, was when the character Tara saw the same type of shells on a Goan beach as she had on an American beach. The shells, artifacts of a deeper sense of home, were located in one place and another. 

So, what would it take to consider terroir in your own work? Here are some tips!

Understanding terroir in your own work may start with looking inward before looking outward. What are the artifacts of your ancestry? What ingredients, what land, what land-based rituals made up your people and you? If you don’t have access to that information, you may try paying attention to what naturally calls you – which environments, which foods (even if the why behind the connection remains a mystery). What are the landscapes that make you (or your characters) feel most energized?

Of course, eventually, you can also do research. In addition to online research, or travel research, or interviewing relatives, you may also try the good ol’ library. During November, National Novel Writing Month, the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum opened their doors to writers on Mondays, inviting them to walk the grounds and offering librarian help to find research materials. This could mean anything from locating books related to gardening to articles on legends associated with particular fruits and vegetables. My own research covered mushrooms, ghost forests, and the flora of the Florida Keys. This niche library and others across the country are valuable resources open to the public.

The advice I received from the writing teacher was problematic because the culture in question was my own; the scene was a wedding scene based on my own parents’ wedding. Shortly after the conversation, I abandoned the piece of writing. I think at the time, I felt frozen because I didn’t have some of the typical connections other children of immigrants had in terms of being able to speak my parents’ language or even having spent a lot of time in my parents’ homeland. The food, in some ways, felt like some of the most tangible cultural proof I had. 

I wonder if I had been given the opposite advice, to double down on food and go as far into it as it would have taken me, if I would have stuck with the project or created something new or extraordinary from it. I think of one of my favorite stories, “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek, and how it hinges on how food (the pet milk! the King Alphonse!) can be the portal to a character’s most vivid life memories. Or, look at what artist Adebunmi Gbadebo did using dirt from the plantation (later turned into a golf course) where her ancestors were enslaved. We writers can think of terroir in terms of construction materials, too.

Now that I’m older, I know that listening to myself and following my own instincts can be a better teacher than the particular “rules” an instructor shares. What may be true for a teacher might not always be true for me. If I do have an outsized reaction to a piece of feedback, I note, honor, and explore that strong feeling and let that be my guide back into my writing, allowing me to find my own way through.