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Eat your words

Jonathan Nunn is the founder and co-editor of Vittles, a food and culture newsletter. Formed in reaction to a monocultural British food media and its central London orbit, Vittles has gained renown for focusing on restaurants beyond the capital’s centre in rigorous, opinionated, deeply-researched prose. The meals that people actually eat – in supermarket car parks, at service stations and football games – describe life in the city in a far more sophisticated diagram than the hype-seeking, image-conscious food writing found in newspapers. 

A second edition of London Feeds Itself, Nunn’s first book as an editor, has recently been published by Open City in collaboration with Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is a collection of 26 essays by 26 contributors that examine everyday food culture in London. For TANK, Nunn made a reading list of books on food and the city from his collection, and spoke to us on countercultural drift, the cost of cocaine and tomato sauce as performance.

TANK Let’s start with Lucky Peach, an American magazine started by chef David Chang and critic Peter Meehan, which ran from 2011 to 2017.

Jonathan Nunn When I went to New York for the first time, I picked up an issue of Lucky Peach, which included an article about a mithai shop called Jaaneman Sweet Centre, a five-minute walk from my childhood home. It was the first time I’d ever read something about suburban London food that took the subject seriously. I was unnerved. Why was this American magazine talking about my childhood sweetshop on the North Circular? I’ve come to learn that there’s an American way of talking about restaurants and the mythos of certain neighbourhoods that is absent from British restaurant writing. We could learn from it – while not taking it too far, because New Yorkers can be annoying self-publicists. There’s a fine line between myth-making and bending the truth. Everything that interests me in food writing right now is going on in magazines and zines rather than newspapers, and I see Vittles as a continuation of magazine culture even though it’s not physical. One of the things I liked about Lucky Peach was its anarchism and irreverence, which can be difficult to appreciate now because so much food writing looks like Lucky Peach. This particular issue [below right] was published when they were fairly established and it was clear they were changing food writing in legacy American publications, often without attribution – so for the Fantasy issue, they copied the style and logo of Bon Appetit magazine. I admire that form of trolling, changing something so fundamental about your magazine to take the piss out of someone else.


Lucky Peach, the Los Angeles issue, autumn 2016 and the Fantasy issue, autumn 2015

TANKWhetstone has a different feel.

JNWhetstone is part of a turn in American food writing, almost an anti-Lucky Peach. It’s very sincere, beautifully photographed, very pristine, and it mainly talks about food origins. I think Vittles has the tone of Lucky Peach but looks more like Whetstone, certainly in the way Whetstone commissions, taking pieces lots of other food media wouldn’t touch or by people who wouldn’t normally get bylines.


Whetstone, summer 2021

TANKPPC [Petits Propos Culinaires] also seems like a traditional publication.

JN PPC publishes really specific academic articles about food, which are very hobbyist but still serious. It’s also quite funny in that deadpan British way. On the back of one of their issues, there’s an advert which promises “two perfect candidates for Christmas”, one of which is a book called Tripe: A Most Excellent Dish (2011) by Marjorie Houlihan and the other called Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture (2011) by Blandine Vié. And they mean it. I like that it’s a magazine made for nerds and they’re not going to change how they publish to make themselves more accessible. Their publisher, Prospect Books, also published Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed (1986), and that book is a masterpiece because it is so uncompromising, so uncommercial, and so weird. It gives no thought whatsoever as to who can actually follow the recipes – so many of its recipes you can only do if you are Patience Gray living in Puglia and have access to the type of kitchen that she has. But it’s a beautiful book.

TANK  Tell us about Poison Lasagna.

JN  Poison Lasagna is an Arsenal fanzine which was sent to me by its co-editor Ed Fenwick. I’m including it because he did a whole project within the zine on where to go for food on match day. There’s a little map of everything around Blackstock Road: Dilara, Roti Joupa, Algerian sandwich shops.


TANK  Do you ever scroll through the @FootyScran Twitter account?

JN  Yeah, that’s a great example of someone documenting a form of food that so many people eat but no one thinks to write about. And in many cases, why would you? The Emirates [Stadium] has terrible food, for instance. But I like how it looks at what’s possible within the strictures of corporate catering provision that normally tends towards bad sandwiches and burgers. Every so often, in the lower leagues, you come across something that you actually want to eat.


TANK Tell us about chicken + bread.

JN chicken + bread is a new zine that’s only been going for three issues, edited by Hope Cunningham. One of the reasons why I love this zine is because it feels like a more developed version of what I was trying to do with season one of Vittles, which was more anarchic and zine-like, mainly working with new writers. As we have more regular features and columnists, we have less space to work with new writers, although we still try to do so. Magazines like this are vital for developing new talent, because the food writing space is so crowded, and the number of places publishing good things with good rates is vanishingly small.


TANK Was there a heyday for good food writing?

JN I don’t want to be declinist, but even 15 years ago, if you wanted to write about restaurants, there were so many more things going on in alternative media. The major outlets where it was possible to publish interesting things on food were Time Out and the Evening Standard. Time Out was particularly formative in the way that I started to write about restaurants. It was the first time I’d seen something in print that had people from different cultures and with specific areas of expertise reviewing restaurants. It’s really important to have that thriving alternative media scene because newspaper opportunities are so limited – there are only seven national restaurant critics in the UK, so if you’re not one of those seven you’re fucked. The reason American restaurant writing is ahead of ours is because so many critics got to cut their teeth at places like the Village Voice and LA Weekly, and there just isn’t the same chance to do that now.


TANK This selection takes us a lot further back.

JN You could argue that Georgics is one of the oldest pieces of food writing. It is essentially a farmer’s manual in the style of a mock epic, and one of my dream commissions is to get Werner Herzog to write about it. I remember hearing him talk about how he reads it before he makes a film. There is a passage on how to recognise madness in farm animals, and Herzog does his own translation of a passage about watching a horse suddenly go insane, and how he’s seen that kind of madness on film sets. There’s also a trippy chapter about bees and how society should operate more like a hive. People always get set the Aeneid if they’re studying Latin, but for me Georgics is the more humane and modern book.


Virgil, Georgics, translated by Peter Fallon and with an introduction by Elaine Fantham (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)

TANK  Tell us about Rebecca May Johnson’s more recent book, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen (2022). What genre would you say it is?

JN  It’s closer to autotheory than anything else. I don’t read much theory, but you could classify it alongside Roland Barthes’ writing on food or Audre Lorde. Before she was a food writer, Rebecca was a fashion writer and an academic whose dissertation was on Barbara Köhler, a German poet and translator of The Odyssey. Every good food writer I know did something else and came to the field by mistake, and it’s that other thing that makes their writing interesting – you see that throughout Small Fires. Rebecca is a friend and fellow editor of Vittles, and one of the reasons I love working with her is that while we’re very aligned on certain things, our writing sensibilities are very different. When I read Small Fires, it felt like reading something completely new, intellectual but very playful too. My favourite chapter is about the Marcella Hazan tomato sauce, which Rebecca keeps recreating like a kind of performance. I read it at a time when I was very jaded with my own food writing and restaurant criticism in general, in which we have to pretend we’re objective, and that we don’t have bodies. I liked that there was none of that in Small Fires.


Rebecca May Johnson, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen (Pushkin Press, 2022)

TANK Tell us about Journal du Thé.

JN This was founded in 2018 and was edited by Johanna Tagada Hoffbeck, who was a customer at Postcard Teas, where I used to work. She said she was putting together a tea magazine, and approached me to write something. It was the first time I’d been published. It’s just a small piece on how to make a green tea called gyokuro. I’m often really critical of anything that I write as soon as I’ve written it, but I’m fond of this one. A few months later, I was asked by Eater if I wanted to write about restaurants, and then I started writing regularly.


TANK Was that a lateral move from writing about tea?

JN It’s only now that I realise how much work in tea prepared me for everything I do. I was constantly thinking about taste and quality and how those two things interact with culture and agriculture. When you write about tea, how it tastes isn’t necessarily what’s interesting to read about, but rather the conditions under which the tea was made. What was the tea maker’s idea of how they wanted the tea to be? What’s their idea of quality? It’s exactly the same with restaurants. In fact, I ended up working at Postcard Teas because I was a lurker on a restaurant forum called Chowhound. One day, I read a post there about the shop, so I went 15 minutes before closing time and asked to try the same tea that this guy had written about. The owner Tim refused to make it for me because he told me that I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy the multiple infusions that the tea is capable of, so he made me something else and gave me the tea to take home for free. I was struck by both his generosity but also his respect for the tea. I was a customer there for a few years and then I transitioned into working there. It taught me a huge amount about the subjectivities and cultural specific ways of how quality is assessed. That’s the topic of this book, Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (2020), by Sarah Besky. There’s an interesting thread in there about why Chinese tea declined in the UK and why tea from India became seen as superior. The British managed to market Indian tea as being “British Empire” tea, made with British know-how and modern equipment. Tannins in black tea were traditionally seen as a marker of lower quality, but tannin-rich tea was suddenly perceived as being healthier. It was such a successful reversal of what people understood about tea – even now, we think of good quality tea as being strong and black. During the time I worked at Postcard Teas I had to unlearn everything I knew to learn the cultural specifics of how quality is assessed, and then finally unlearn it again when I had the confidence to trust my own taste.


Sarah Besky, Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (University of California Press, 2020)

TANK Was that the beginning of a politics of food for you?

JN I guess so, as I was constantly, if unconsciously, thinking about monoculture, organics and the use of pesticides. The biggest argument against using pesticides is not about what you’re putting in your body, but what the farmworkers are putting in their bodies, as they’re taking the brunt of it, not you. It taught me about who we listen to and who we don’t. There are so many elements of tea culture that completely upend Western concepts of the importance of taste. There’s a style of tea called pu’er where, if you were assessing the reasons why people drink it, taste is quite low down on the list. Flavour and aroma become subordinate to the more holistic qualities of how the tea feels as it’s going down your throat, how comfortable your mind and body feel afterwards, the energy of the tea as it moves around your body. We have a strong bias towards the tongue and nose when it comes to assessing these things in the West. Understanding culturally specific ways of assessing taste is very important to restaurant writing too. Jonathan Gold understood this. He wrote reviews of non-mainstream restaurants from the late 1980s onwards for publications like the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. He once wrote about going to a regional Chinese restaurant a dozen times and disliking every meal, but he did that because he recognised that everyone else in the restaurant understood something important about the food that he wasn’t getting as an American. I think that’s such an interesting way of going about a review, to recognise the significance of something beyond a personal metric of like and dislike. I love that Gold could write about anything. While he was at Gourmet, he went to the UK and did a review of the hyped restaurants at the time, places like Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine and Marco Pierre White’s restaurants, and he wrote a fun, quite catty piece about how London has been chalked up as this exciting, muscular food city when its chefs are just cooking effete French cuisine. When he went back to the Los Angeles Times, his output became more of a mixture of high-end and low-end than it had been before, but I also think that is the right way to review. There’s a type of restaurant associated with Gold that’s similar to what has become associated with me. I’ve covered those kinds of restaurants for five years because I felt that there needed to be a counterbalance to the dominant trends in restaurant writing. Now that I’ve done that, I feel I can write about these restaurants in conversation with more expensive or more central restaurants. It sometimes does a disservice to the restaurants I wrote about to not have them in that conversation.


chicken + bread, issue 3: Joy, 2024


Journal du Thé, issue 1, 2018

TANK Could you explain what this diagram is?


Nicholas Saunders, Alternative London (self-published, 1977)

JN This is from Nicholas Saunders’s 1972 book Alternative London, and it’s an illustration of different herbs and their medicinal uses. Alternative London was a guidebook to London made for the counterculture, or just for any Londoner who wanted to get around the system in some way. A lot of the content in there is quite practical – how to do your plumbing, or how to get a mortgage – but there’s also advice on how to start a squat or how much a gram of cocaine costs. It doesn’t feel like the information here has been adequately replaced by the internet, or at least the internet as it exists now in its monopolised form, and there’s still a lot of stuff in there which it would be useful now for people to know. There’s also a proto-Alternative London called Project Free London which was secretly written by one of Saunders’ friends, Nicholas Albery, which describes a lot of stuff that you could do in London to eat for free or to make money. Some of the ideas are completely unworkable: catch a pigeon and sell it to a restaurant, or get a hotel porter’s jacket and walk into Claridges to get free sandwiches. Alternative England and Wales, which Saunders wrote shortly after, in 1975, is the more ambitious and fuller book. I think the shift in location mirrored the drift       of counterculture from the urban centres to rural areas, as people became more interested in going back to the earth. Saunders was a connector of people: he made connections between the things that were going on within London with the people who wanted to participate in them, or the communes in the countryside and the people who wanted to live that way. I feel that similarly it’s my job as a restaurant writer to identify where something interesting is going on and connect that with the people who would love it but don’t yet know it exists.


TANK What is Saunders’ implication in the broader London food world?

JN He founded a whole foods warehouse in Neal’s Yard that was mainly catered towards people who were living in communes. You could drive into London and load up on foods like nuts, muesli, honey and peanut butter for much cheaper than if you went to the supermarket. It was so successful that he kept adding different businesses. He wasn’t really interested in food other than as a problem to be solved – he started a dairy company just because he had Greek yoghurt on holiday and couldn’t find it anywhere in in London. He started a coffee company because he noticed that the commodity price of coffee had dropped to a low value, so he bought loads of coffee and roasted it himself. Those two businesses became Neal’s Yard Dairy and Monmouth Coffee.


Caroline Knowles, Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London (Penguin, 2022)

TANKThis book looks like it describes a version of London with different financial opportunities.

JN This is Serious Money (2022) by Caroline Knowles, which I’m reading currently, and is a book about plutocratic London that takes the form of a walk from east to west London because, as Knowles writes, “In London, money rises in the East, and then it goes West.” It is made in the City and gets spent in the clubs and hotels of Mayfair, or invested in art, and then resides in the houses of Chelsea and Notting Hill. Walking is a way of understanding how money flows through the city, and how food traces that flow. My writing practice is based on walking, because if you’re not walking, you miss everything interesting about where you are. You can’t put the restaurant in the context of the area, of the community, and you can’t see the patterns of the city. Knowles is writing about a London that I’m suspicious of but which certainly exists, and there’s a spate of books like this which deal with London’s position as a financial centre and a city where money can be hidden. Serious Money is about a version of London that affects everything that Londoners do, and is a reason why London is becoming a harder city to live in. London Feeds Itself is in some sense a reaction to that. Where are other Londons? How can we write about London with love, as well as with caution about what London is becoming? ◉