A foodwriter who gets it right

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Early on, I realized some words should be axed from every food writer’s vocabulary. "Delicious" was one, followed by “flavorful” and other descriptions that were similarly amorphous. Finding replacement adjectives that precisely describe tastes and textures and smells is a talent, though, and that is one reason I have long admired Tami Parr, author of the recently released book “Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest”.

(Yes, Parr is a cheese author. It sounds arcane, but stay with me here.) Cheese, once you get beyond the basics of sharp, nutty, creamy, is an unusually tough food to bring to the page. Parr is one of the rare writers who have mastered the skill of translating its flavors into words.

Parr began the blog “The Pacific Northwest Cheese Project” five years ago, looking for a more creative outlet than her work as a lawyer. The Oregon resident recently expanded her years of research into the book, and we discussed over e-mail how the book and the blog – and her own writing style – have evolved.

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In part, Parr wrote, she wanted to write a book because the medium would bring “the cheese ‘gospel’ to a broader audience.

“Not every consumer reads blogs or is hooked into the Internet. They can take a book on a road trip with them, stop at farms or farmers markets, mark it up, it has a certain usability that my blog doesn’t.” It was also a way to gather a formal record about her subject, one that wouldn’t have been fully realized had the information stayed only in blog form, buried in old posts unless readers actively, individually, searched it out.

Artisan cheeses seem to paralyze people, Parr wrote, and her goal is to tell them something about such foods in a way that makes them want to eat them.

“Most people, in the US at least, grow up with block cheddar (I know I did) and as a result all of those funky bries and blue cheeses come as kind of a shock, I guess.” If she can hook them into the story of the cheese in question, she finds, they will become interested in tasting it, “it will suddenly seem not so remote and distant.”

I didn’t see it at the time (it was one of those old buried blog posts), but Parr pointed me to an entry she wrote in 2004 about how describing cheese, a food with both subtle flavors and layers of complexity, was a daunting task for her.

She has overcome that challenge – the words now flow easily – but in her years of writing about the topic, Parr said something else has changed. Writing about cheese now, for her, is more than just isolated flavors. It’s the story of the people who made the product, the animals producing the milk and the pastures where they grazed, the cheesemaking technique, the other cheeses a particular sample evokes.

“I now see a piece of cheese as a whole universe.”

Rebekah Denn writes about food at www.eatallaboutit.com and is a regular Monitor blogger. 

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