14 October 2011 0 Comments

Hacks Gorging on the Job

When I first became a journalist, a great revelation was the free food people gave me. Coming from a home in which, my mother would freely admit, the most exciting culinary moments came when the oil in the chip pan caught fire, gourmet stuff on someone else’s tab was a considerable career incentive.

For example, I can’t remember much about the interview I had with Salman Rushdie (his last before Khomeini’s fatwa) because it came at an awards dinner where two tasty public relations ladies had got me drunk on free wine. (In my defense, I can only say I was but 21 years old.) Covering Wall Street stank, except for the Christmas parties. Sucking up halachic restrictions all over the place, the Goldman Sachs yuletide fest had the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted.

Once I started to work as a foreign correspondent, the food experiences became yet more entrancing. And it was to include these culinary discoveries that I turned to crime fiction.

Because crime fiction turns on it characters at least as much as on its
intricate plotting. And the real Palestinians on whom I based the characters
of my Omar Yussef Mysteries were deeply invested in the food they ate. The
real Omar Yussef would rarely eat out. He liked his wife’s cooking and that
was that.

So I set out to describe that food. It isn’t something that journalism
required of me. As Jerusalem bureau chief for Time Magazine, I typically
wrote about the “peace process,” or the lack of it, between the Israelis and
Palestinians. But as a writer, such here-today-gone-tomorrow diplomatic
drivel wouldn’t cut it. I needed to get to the heart of the characters in my
books. And to their stomachs.

Which is why there’s clearly so much pleasure in the writing of a new set of
essays by international journalists about gorging on the job. “Eating Mud
Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food During Wartime by the World’s Leading
” is published this month by the University of California

The book, which was edited by top globe-trotting hack (a term of endearment to Brits) Matt McAllester, includes essays from China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Haiti, and naturally from Israel. There’s a piece by Tim Hetherington, who was tragically killed in Libya this year. Those of you who’ve seen his award-winning “Restrepo” documentary will want to read this.

Yours truly has an essay in the book about how fat Ariel Sharon was and how
ashamed of that fact he was. It includes details of how he hid his appetite
from photographers (and failed to share a plate of cookies with me at a
late-night meeting, snarfing the whole dozen himself.) I enjoyed writing it,
because it included all the kinds of stories that never made it into
magazine reports but which I’d always share with other correspondents.
Because these stories are more interesting than the news. So I hope you’ll
read them.

It’s also a lesson for crime writers. Our novels are about murder. Life – or
the lack of it – in the extreme. However, they’re also supposed to be fun. A
good meal, rather than something you consume because it’s good for you or
because it’s terrifying.

My memories of working as a journalist often revolve around food or weather
or scents. Certainly politics is the last thing I think of. I’ve tried to
make those elements, which tell us about the life around us, central to my
novels. “Eating Mud Crabs” gives you a chance to see how other journalists
have learned that same lesson.

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