Four Best Books About Food

You do not have to be a foodie to admire the sheer exuberance and delight chef Jeremiah Tower brings to writing his own extraordinary life. Yes, it does help to know who James Beard is and it also helps to know that the epicenter of the American Culinary Revolution was a small restaurant in Berkeley California called Chez Panisse.

California Dish

California Dish (Free Press hc 320 pp $39.50) will tell you all this and a great deal more about wonderful food and extraordinary wine; but its real story is about a man who fell in love with food as a child and somehow made a life which let him deeply indulge his childish passion. Tower is a man who can write about the famous expert on French food, Richard Olney, “After we got the sex part of our affair out of the way, we got down to business. The long winter nights were filled with single-malt whiskey, old French music-hall records, and talks about food.”

This is a book of menus and people and the very freshest ingredients, lightly cooked and served in original ways. “The squab’s breast meat was served in its juices, the leg and thigh meat chopped into a puree with sage leaves and served on grilled garlic toasts.” Grills, salsas, the re-invention of the pizza: Tower was in on all of it.

Tower grew up a largely neglected child of a rich, sometimes abusive American father and an artistic, alcoholic beauty who lived in Jean Patou suits and grubby gardening clothes. Tower’s childhood consisted of eating his way through some of the best restaurants in the world and being kicked out of school. His parents stayed in grand hotels and room service became Tower’s hobby. In his early teens he often took over the kitchen from his over martinied mother and finished dinners for dozens of guests. At Harvard he and a friend had six course dinner parties finishing with 1884 Maderia and fresh off the plant marijuana.

Tower’s break as a chef came in the early years at Chez Panisse where he ran the kitchen for which, as he points out, Alice Waters, took the credit. But he left Panisse and rebuilt the Sante Fe Bar and Grill for investors before opening his own Stars in San Francisco. And then on to Hong Kong and Singapore.

What sets California Dish miles above most chef’s memoirs is Tower’s tremendously humane and beautifully educated sense of style, taste and simplicity. He can embrace Eastern cooking styles, high French cuisine and the very best America can offer. His writing is elegant and perfectly evocative of the tastes and places which have formed his palette and his life.

Slow Food, The Case for Taste

Where Tower mixes fresh ingredients, rare wines, the discovery of America as a culinary region and celebrity dining, Carlo Petrini celebrates the pleasures of the kitchen table and the little café. Slow Food, The Case for Taste, (Columbia University Press, hc 155 pp $__.__)is as much a polemic as a discussion of food.

With its snail logo, Slow Food is as much a social movement as a particular cuisine. It began in 1986 when Petrini, aghast at McDonald’s plans to build near the Spanish Steps in Rome, armed himself and some friends with bowls of penne and protested the bland, the quick and the homogenous.

In a world driven by price and standardization, fast food – the lump of meat on a bun with tasteless lettuce, a squirt of special sauce served in a styrofoam box – quickly becomes the default cuisine. A cuisine which drives local producers, market gardeners, cheese makers and the little “ma and pa” restaurants out of business. Taste is overwhelmed.

Slow Food begins with the idea that taste matters: tiny tastes, specific tastes and tastes of the territory. For example, Slow Food wanted people to know and appreciate that while there are 1,300,000 rounds of Asiago cheese produced in Italy annually, there is an “especially good kind that is produced in small quantities: Asiago Stravecchio.” There are only 10,000 or so rounds of this long aged cheese made a year; but Slow Food’s logic is that if people know about the cheese they will buy it, which will create demand and ensure more is produced.

Slow Food bogs down in more organizational detail than is really needed to drive home its simple message: by paying a little more for food which actually tastes good we are ensuring tasty food will continue to be produced. Slow Food, the book and the movement, are a weird marriage of ecology, aging socialists, gastronomy and pleasure invented to counter the flattening of flavour and the eclipse of enjoyment created by purely commercial cuisine.

Mr. Chilehead

Mr. Chilehead (ECW Press, sc, 222pp, $19.95) is one demented puppy operating on the fringes of gastronomic Hell. There is nothing tiny about his tastes. Alter ego to writer James D. Campbell, Mr. C takes his pleasure in the sweet pain of really hot chillies, sauces and dishes. He goes to Mardi Gras and Sante Fe in search of the burn. Mr. C wants the sting, the heat, the third degree burns inflicted by the hot sauces of what he calls Painland.

Like most forms of masochism, eating scorching hot condiments has evolved its own strange rituals, fetish items and language. Mr. C explores them all and, along the way, provides a comprehensive guide to the painfully hot for the novice. There are a lot of novices. In 1992 salsa replaced ketchup as America’s number one condiment.

Salsa, even killer hot salsa, is really for wussies. Mr. C explains that hot sauce fetishists have their own scale for ranking heat: Scoville units. Those jalapenos on your nachos, 4500 Scovilles, Tabasco sauce 30-50,000 units; but for real pain you start at habanero chile at 350 – 500,000 units. Sort of like eating pepper spray (made from the sissy cayenne weighing in at a mere 40,000 Scovilles.)

Mr. Chilehead is well written in places but there is a distinct tang of filler. 20 pages of “You know you’re a chilehead if….” are 19 too many for anyone who isn’t. Many of the chapters work as magazine pieces but the book as a whole is a text for the converted.

A Slice of Life

A Slice of Life (The Overlook Press, hc, 400 pp, $40.00) is just what its subtitle says it is: Contemporary Writers on Food. From Umberto Eco’s reflections on the sheer physical impossibility of eating on airplanes to historian Rachel Laudan pouring cold water on “Slow Food” and the rest of the Culinary Luddites who long for a past which never was, A Slice of Life is a glorious sampler of food writing broadly imagined.

Its editor, Bonnie Marranca, wants to capture glimpses of what she calls “geographies of taste”. Readers have the appetizing choice of reading M. F. K. Fisher writing about a wanton woman’s menu or Isabel Allende’s perfectly discursive contemplation of a naked chef, “There are few virtues a man can possess more erotic than culinary skill.”

While a few of the pieces are over egged with sentimental memories of mother’s chipped blue bowl, most are crisply written reminders of taste and place. Russell Baker leavens the loaf with a perfect pastiche of pretentious food writing while describing his cuisine du depression.

I am not sure what Jeremiah Tower would make of Russell Baker’s “beans in bacon grease”. I am sure that anyone who loves food will enjoy grazing in the company of writers who can put that love into work.

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