Unless you entirely missed out on the Western canon, you have surely read about Paolo and Francesca, the star-crossed lovers who Dante and Virgil encounter in the fifth canto of the Inferno. It’s one of the most widely represented tales throughout Western literature, figurative arts, and music. Just do an image search for “Paolo e Francesca” and you’ll find hundreds of images conceived by some of the greatest artists in the history of humankind.
It’s not hard to understand why women and men have found their story so compelling for hundreds of years. The tragic arc of their lives (real and imagined) was shaped by their own lustful undoing. And we humans simply can’t get enough of that sort of thing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Paolo and Francesca as I prepare my teaching plan for the seminar in Food and Wine Journalism that I’ll be leading this fall for the Master’s in Food and Wine Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.
My colleague Lydia Itoi will be co-teaching the seminar with me: She’ll cover food journalism and writing and I’ll handle food blogging and social media (I met Lydia last month in Palo Alto and I like her a lot).
Scanning and scrolling through some of the most popular food blogs in the world today (you probably don’t need me to tell you which ones), you quickly realize that the stories often most coveted by writers and editors aren’t about food at all. Many of them (although not all) are about the tragic arcs of restaurateurs’ lives and their lustful undoing. In many ways, restaurateurs are the rock stars of a generation ago in the mind of the entertainment-hungry public. The pattern is nearly identical: The meteoric rise, the stress and crisis caused by unmitigated success and excess, and the inevitable downward spiral.
The origins of pain, longing, and [mimetic] desire in food blogging today stretch back to early Greek tragedy and beyond. Yes, this trend in food writing today has also been molded by the rise of reality television. And yes, there are technical, societal, and cultural factors that have contributed to these phenomena as well.
But looking at these currents from an epistemological perspective, I ask myself: How did we get from Betty Crocker’s tips for grilling to Page Six stories about alcohol-fueled orgies at a celebrity chef’s Manhattan restaurant? What role does food culture and food writing play in our ethos — personal and national?
This is just one of the topics I’ll be covering in my seminar. Stay tuned for more…