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Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Food Issue

What a nice gift from the editors of the Book Review - a Food Issue! A sprinkling of memoirs, a biography, and books both thoughtful and thoughtless about how we humans have complicated a basic necessity. Throw in a cookbook roundup by Amanda Hesser and a bit of mischievous pastiche by Henry Alford,

Talking about the issue at breakfast with Kathleen, I remarked that food will never be as interesting and consuming to me as it seems to be to most of the people covered in the books at hand. I have absolutely no desire, for example, to work in a professional kitchen: it doesn't seem much different from being a pillaging pirate. And I'm not interested in novelty. I don't want my thoughts and my conversation to be upstaged by what I'm eating. Well, not very often. And what I love most about food is the memories that it can trigger.

Kathleen responded by saying that for me cooking was primarily a matter of control. That put me off at first but I soon saw that she was right. I had taught myself to cook because I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat made the way I wanted it to taste. In other words, I did not want to eat my mother's cooking. My mother did not belong in the kitchen. Given her narrow outlook, it went without saying that men did not belong in her kitchen. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I conceived the possibility that one might eat as well at home as one did at the country-club and grill-room restaurants that we went to every Sunday night. And that remains my culinary program. It's a terrible thing to say, but I cook primarily for myself. And I already know what I like.

The number of cookery books in my library, therefore, is set to decline. I don't peruse the Food Section of the Times anymore, and I find that I'm simply not reading Saveur or Cook's Illustrated. The new (and very much improved) Joy of Cooking, Julia Child's The Way to Cook and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and a very handy Dorling-Kindersley book by Mary Berry and Marlena Spieler, Classic Home Cooking - these books will probably remain mainstays for the rest of my cooking life. 

In any case, there is only one book this week that I may just buy. (And I quite as easily may not.) I can say that because I've already read My Life in France, Julia Child's posthumous memoir. Alan Riding's review completely fails to capture the key to Julia McWilliams Child's transformation, during her first years in France, into the French Chef: the discovery of something to take seriously. The complexity of French cooking and the diligence required to prepare it simply turned her on, and this is what she and her grandnephew Alex Prud'homme make clear on every page. Instead, Mr Riding writes a cheater. There's enough here to get anyone through a cocktail party discussion of the book - though not enough, I venture, for a dinner.

As everyone knows, there are great books that one ought to read even though one doesn't want to. Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany may not be a great book - it's far too soon to tell - but it seems to have a certain heft, and I don't want to read it. If it was the seriousness of French cuisine that entice Julia Child into the kitchen, then it is the paramilitary chaos and agony of a top-rated New York restaurant kitchen, with an Italian accent, that draws Mr Buford. Having edited Granta (gleefully consorting with skinheads during his English sojourn) and served as fiction editor at The New Yorker, Mr Buford appears to have suffered some sort of manliness crisis. He talked his way into Mario Batali's kitchen and then did the same with Mr Bitali's teachers in Italy. (Mario Batali, reviewer Julia Reed reminds us, hails from Seattle, not Siena.) At a certain point, he appears to have considering opening a Tuscan butchery shop in Manhattan; instead of which, he wrote his book. Mr Buford is an extremely literate, edgy writer, and it's possible that he'll prove capable to taking me into the heart of darkness that prompts so many men to seek out painful ordeals. He may just disgust me, as he did with an embarrassing piece about spying on his neighbors with binoculars. "The plot clips along, but I found myself reading slowly because there is so much information," writes Ms Reed invitingly.

Three other big culinary memoirs are also grouped toward the front pages of the Review. Jane and Michael Stern have written yet another book, Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food, and Nora Ephron gives it a rousing review.

I love Jane and Michael Stern. [There.] They write about ordinary food so simply and exuberantly that I couldn't help thinking as I read this latest book of theirs (their 31st), that they deserved a room of their own in the Smithsonian Institution, right next to Julia Child's Cambridge kitchen. The Stern's exhibit would consist primarily of an automobile...

That's beautifully observed, and also the clincher for me. Every now and then, I turn to Square Meals for a laugh. (Twelve-Can Casserole, anyone?) But there are times when the Sterns strike me as juvenile. Their innocent, somewhat prepubescent eagerness to consume ever more local lore along with their plates of vernacular food is unsettling, and it's painful to think of them home alone in Connecticut, in the beautiful but apparently childless house that their success has brought them to, for they really do belong on the road, a couple of joyriding kids.

Adam Platt gives a favorable review to A Life Uncorked, Hugh Johnson's memoir of a life spent relishing claret but, as Mr Platt points out, relishing claret in company, with plenty of friendly chit-chat. Mr Johnson is an old-school wine authority who refuses to reduce the complexities of great wines to digital scores. He writes for people who want to have the best possible time drinking wine, while Robert Parker provides "college examiner" scores for people who simply want to have the best wine in their cellars. Having inherited Mr Johnson's 1966 Wine, I can report that he writes engagingly; he admits in the new book that "A diligent dilettante is how I see myself, a dabbler who dabbles deep, but not so deep that the waters of his subject close over his head."

Gael Greene, longtime restaurant critic at New York Magazine, slept with Elvis in 1956. Reviewer Liesl Schillinger is smart enough to gives us exactly the right quote:

I think it was good. I don't remember the essential details. It was certainly good enough.

It would appear that Ms Greene has given her new memoir an equally apt title: Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess. Blending accounts of really great food with at accounts of  at least good-enough sex with the men who made it, Insatiable is a book full of tender gusto. Of Clint Eastwood (an extra-culinary conquest), she writes,

I remember the sweet smell of soap and the sun smells of his skin, the feel of his beard, how lean he was, how tall, the long muscles wrapping his bones.

If she has anything nasty to say about anyone she slept with, Ms Schillinger doesn't repeat it. The author has spent the past twenty years in a single relationship, founding Citymeals-on-Wheels along the way, but the moral of the story seems to be that youth was not wasted on this young person. I remember two of her New York reviews with vivid clarity. In one, she was shocked by the $50 prix-fixe dinner at The Palace; in the other, she wallowed in haute cuisine on the high seas in the days when the France was a semi-official gustatory ambassador to the world. But I always had the feeling that sharing a dinner with her would be hard work. I wondered what Pete Wells would have made of Insatiable. Mr Wells reviews Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball, by Molly O'Neill, and he writes,

This is not a book for aspiring M F K Fishers seeking tips on how to get ahead in publishing. Nor does O'Neill go in for the kind of blurring of sexual and gustatory appetites that has turned a few recent food memoirs into unsightly stripteases. [Ahem!]

It so happens that while Ms O'Neill was writing about food for the Times, her youngest brother Paul was a "frequently heroic" right fielder for the Yankees. Her book, warmly reviewed by Mr Wells, focuses on growing up in Columbus in a family that was playful about almost everything except sports.

Writing of The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usuable Trim, Scraps and Bones, by Anthony Bourdain, Bruce Handy identifies the missing ingredient in Mr Bourdain's writing.

The one subject on which he disappoints is actual eating. Visiting a restaurant in Singapore, he writes, "I was honored with a whole cooked turtle, then urged by the owner to try the gelatinous fat ('the best part - very good for you'), alligator soup, sea cucumber and a plate of fried scorpions cooked into shrimp toast. The scorpions sat proudly atop golden brown squares, fried into aggressive attack position, tails raised threateningly." Yum! So what did it all taste like? Chicken? Alas, we learn only that Bourdain "ate as much as I could," and that he later noticed a scorpion tale stuck between his teeth.

Mr Bourdain is one of several chefs today who are almost too famous to be stuck in kitchens, and Michael Ruhlman, who has helped to write at least two of their cookbooks, has now published The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen. John T Edge finds the book breathless and even a tad immodest, but concludes,

No matter his faults, Ruhlman serves his readers. The "cooking-struck, chef-adoring restaurant-crazy consumers" get a behind-the-curtain pass to what may prove to be American's theatrum mundi. And culinary professionals get a portrait of life on and off the line at a time when the "frontier for the modern Americxan chef was largely uncharted territory. And the chef was out of balance."

These reviews, on facing pages, clinched my feeling that Heat would be the book in this class to read.

Kathryn Harrison has taken time out from writing steamy novels to compose a biography of Isabella Beeton - sort of. Isabella Beeton died at twenty-eight (the usual suspect: puerperal fever; but how ironic that unsterile conditions should kill a household goddess), but she rose again as "Mrs Beeton," an institution that is still publishing books. "Mrs Beeton" is British for "The Joy of Cooking," or it would be if Mmes Becker had thought to cover the gamut of household management along with "rules" for rhubarb and radishes. Laura Shapiro largely evades her responsibilities as a reviewer and simply tells the Mrs Beeton story. Of Ms Harrison's book, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton she notes - neutrally or sarcastically? -

Lavish amounts of well-informed speculation, applied like plaster, hold together the bits she can actually document, but the result is a narrative that could have come straight from Trollope.  Vicars and curates, tradesman's families edging up the social ladder, tangled marriage plots - for lovers of Barsetshire, it's all here.

Maybe Ms Harrison hasn't taken time out from writing steamy novels. I recommend getting a copy of the facsimile of Beeton's Book of Household Management. It is quite suffocating.

No Food Issue would be complete without touching the Sublime and the Ridiculous. The sublime aspect of food, of course, concerns our queasiness about killing what we eat as well as our fear of eating things that are not pure. Dorothy Kalins reviews two new books that examine these questions, respectively, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, and What to Eat, by Marian Nestle. The Way We Eat seems to cover much of the territory documented by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma (reviewed here on 23 April), but raising questions about the industry of food production is important work. It is no surprise to me that current practices have their roots in the desire to feed as many people as well and as cheaply as possible (while still making a buck, of course). What I wonder about is how fast we'll adapt, as human beings, to the consequences of our new-found capacities for damaging the world that supports us. Ms Nestle's book seems to be a sensible introduction to the study of additives, an overview of the unnecessary evils of highly processed foods.

As for the ridiculous, there's Jay Jennings's review of Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, by Ryan Nerz, and Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, by Jason Fagone. Having provided a few disgusting examples of gluttonous competition, and noted that while Mr Fagone is a tub thumper while Mr Nerz is more of a poet, Mr Jennings writes,

Still, 600 pages on the topic didn't whet my appetite for more. Unlike the gurgitators, I found that reading all I could read about all I could eat was more than enough.

Amanda Hesser rounds up six new cookbooks.

Saucepans and the Single Girl, by Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry. "Rather than updating the book within the original [1965] text, Morgan and Perry have smartly added footnotes that sustain the flair of the original. Beneath a recipe for heating up canned wild rice, they write: "Someone should have held our heads underwater in a distant rice paddy when we even gave voice to this idea."

Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. "I've cooked countless recipes from this [1980] and other books by Heatter and - with the possible exception of an oddly mushy orange chocolate loaf cake - she's no slouch."

Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table, by Geoffrey Zakarian. "Zakarian explores his 65 favorite ingredients by making both "town" and "country" recipes with each. Grapefruit gratin with a grapefruit-ginger sorbet is a town recipe; grapefruit ambrosia is country."

Casa Moro, by Sam and Sam Clark. "There's nothing precise in the Clarks' cooking and certainly not in their recipes, which may send some readers into cardiac arrest." (But Ms Hesser likes the book and plans to mine it.)

Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison's Kitchen. "Madison's pragmatism lures you into the kitchen. Fluidly blending Asian and European ingredients, like soy sauce in a roasted vegetable broth, she has a knack for small but original ideas and a palate that hews to the classic."

A Passion for Ice Cream, by Emily Lucchetti. "Stick to the recipes and skip Lucchetti's headnotes, which can be painfully wistful and saccharine."

As is only reasonable in this era of culinary celebrity, the Review asked a number of foodies to name their favorite out-of-print books. Here's the list.

Mario Batali: Umbria in Bocca (anonymous) (c 1970-1980)
Anthony Bourdain: Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, by Howard Mitcham (1986)
Jason Epstein: All of Maida Heatter's dessert books; Michael Field's Cooking School; and Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point (1974)
Betty Fussell: Mrs Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery, by Mary Lasswell, illustrated by George Price (1946)
Jessica Harris: Ghana Nutrition and Cookery (anonymous) (1953)
Jim Harrison: A Taste of Memories from the Old 'Bush,' by Catherine Tripalin Murray (c. 1960)
Maya Kaimal: A Taste of India: Adventures in Indian Cooking Prepared for the American Kitchen, by Mary S Atwood (1969)
Thomas Keller: Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point
Nigella Lawson: Entertaining all'Italiana, by Anna Del Conte (1993)
Harold McGee: Madeleine Kamman's Savoie: The Land, People, and Food of the French Alps (1989)
Jonathan Miles: Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Herter (1960)
Chris Schlesinger: James Beard New Barbecue Cookbook (1953, 1958)
Liz Smith: Lee Bailey's Soup Meals: Main Event Soups in Year-Round Menus
Jane and Michael Stern: Treasury of Great American Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price (1965)
John Thorne: America Cooks, by Cora Rose (1940)
Nach Waxman: The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, by Roy Andries de Groot (1973).

Henry Alford's Essay, "Dinner My Way," gives the recipes for a dinner menu, every line of which is extracted from somebody's cookery book. The juxtapositions are often amusing, but the print is almost too fine for bothering.


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