Choice Cuts; Mark Kurlansky; Best Food Writing 2002; Holly Hughes
Food writers cannot resist the analogy of the dining room to the boudoir. Mark Kurlansky, who put together Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing From Around the World and Throughout History, introduces his book by writing, ”Food, like sex, is a writer’s great opportunity.” Then there’s Holly Hughes, the editor of Best Food Writing 2002: ”When required, food writing becomes ‘food pornography.”’ At least Jeffrey Steingarten, the author of It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, has the decency to be simply suggestive: ”A girl I met at a party said, ‘I know you. You’re the man who writes about food for fun.’ I had forgotten there was any other way. That’s truly what this book is about.”
Steingarten, in his follow-up to the 1997 collection The Man Who Ate Everything, repeatedly shows off this talent for combining subtlety and punch. He employs the most elemental of storytelling strategies: The protagonist feels a craving (for knowledge or experience or tacos) and does what he must to satisfy it. Steingarten’s stories, which have appeared in Vogue, leap from gripping opening sentences — ”I went down to Chinatown looking for blood” — into drooling quests. Armed with a sense of adventure, a spymaster’s array of fancy gadgets, and a mind that finds it natural to introduce Boccaccio into a discussion of Parmesan cheese, he turns out little thrillers on the riddles of salt and the making of the perfect pizza, salutes to chocolate and goose. Steingarten asserts that eaters ask modern cooking to be ”stunning, original, precise, provocative, and very delicious,” and his best prose displays those very qualities.
The vast and impressive Choice Cuts could well be a detailed inventory of Steingarten’s brain. The compendium includes Cato offering ancient Romans a handy cure-all of ”the urine of anyone who habitually eats cabbage,” 15th-century tips on preparing a royal feast (for starters, you’ll need 100 oxen), and fragments from writers ranging from Chekhov to Balzac to the seminal American foodie M.F.K. Fisher. The E section of its index refers the reader to eels, eggs, and endive…and ”elephant cutlet,” ”eating pilgrims in salad,” and ”emotions to be avoided while eating.” Some readers will be revolted by the mention of ”edible spiders,” perhaps more yet by the idea of ”English pizza.”
Because there is so much in Choice Cuts, there is much to quibble with. Why include George Orwell’s thoughts on being hungry in Paris and not Ernest Hemingway’s? And Thoreau on watermelons proves to be exactly as mundane as the makers of Knox Sparkling Gelatine on Knox Sparkling Gelatine.
The standout pieces in Best Food Writing 2002 are stories for connoisseurs, celebrations of the specialized, the odd, or simply the excellent, such as John T. Edge’s piece on New Orleans oyster shuckers and Lisa Yockelson’s memoir of baking brownies. And do not skip Jim Leff’s lovely analysis of Joey Thai, an adjunct of a Manhattan branch of a fast-food joint: ”Rather than evoke American flavors from Thai ingredients and recipes, they improvise and jury-rig to wrench Thai flavors from…well, from the kitchen of a Blimpie, for crying out loud.”
The worst bits of Best are cream puffs of strained sentiment. What can it mean, for instance, that tarragon has ”an enigmatic quality”? Beyond being simply unenlightening, bad food writing brings to the forefront everything questionable about the whole genre (its innate decadence, its sometimes unsettling elitism). When, at the start of this country’s operations in Afghanistan, one writer experiments with a diet of MREs — the prepackaged meals served to troops — her quippery quickly edges into yuppie smugness: ”Meal 5, breakfast. Oh, groan…. I would kill for a latte.”
To cleanse the palate of such stuff, leaf back to the ultimate entry in Choice Cuts, in which Fisher replies to those who’ve accusingly asked why she writes about food, of all things: ”It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” The best food writers are chefs themselves, serving up tasty meals of fresh ideas. Something I Ate: A- Choice Cuts: A- Best Food Writing: B