Over at Guernica, Meara Sharma interviews food writers Jane Black and Brent Cunningham,”on reality television, school lunch reform, and building a food movement that transcends class lines”:
Guernica: I’m curious to hear what drew you to the subject of food and class, how you came to write about Huntington, West Virginia.
Brent Cunningham: Jane and I come from somewhat different class backgrounds. I grew up in West Virginia in the 1970s, and was raised by a single mom who was working class and didn’t finish college. We weren’t poor, though there were certainly times when things were tight. And we ate food that was both of that class and also of that time. That was the height, in some ways, of processed food—and that cut across class lines, because it was seen as modern. I remember eating the “Hungry Man” frozen dinners, and “Boil-in-a-Bag” whole meals that you would just dunk in a pot of boiling water.
My grandparents were from rural southern West Virginia, a coal-mining area, and even after they moved to the city they always had a huge garden which we ate from. I remember a sense of community growing up around food rituals, from helping my grandmother can tomatoes or make pickles to sitting around the table and picking meat off a turkey or chicken carcass after a meal, to use for something else. But none of this made a huge impression on me until I grew up and moved away, and essentially entered a different class, both monetarily and culturally. Part of the legacy of this life is that I learned to cook, and loved to. So I had this interest in food, as well as journalism, and I saw that they could come together. And I became fascinated by food and class, and particularly how that manifested in Appalachia.
Jane Black: I was at the Washington Post, covering food, and Brent was in New York, and we were engaged and trying to figure out how to be in the same place. One weekend I was in Brooklyn and telling Brent about how I had just written this story—like every other food journalist in the world—about Jamie Oliver’s reality TV show in Huntington. What I had written was basically “the revolution had been televised—now what?” And Brent said, “There’s more to that than a 1,200-word news feature.” And I said, “Yeah, but this is your thing.” And he said, “No, it’s your thing.” We went back and forth and then thought, hmm, maybe we should do this together. So we wrote a book proposal, turned it in the week before we got married, the day we got back from our honeymoon we had an offer, and we thought, okay, we’re moving to Huntington.
The idea was not really to write about Jamie Oliver. But we’d tell people where we were going and they’d say, “Oh, wasn’t that where that chef…” There was some recognition. And we were looking for a particular kind of place. A place that wouldn’t naturally be touched by the food frenzy that had taken over the coasts—the majority of the country—and to a certain extent a place that could stand in for all of those places. This is a book about West Virginia, about Appalachia, which has its own peculiar challenges, but it’s really about working-class America.