A reader recently asked whose food-writing I enjoy. Truth is, after so many hours of scribbling food prose, I’m totally full — when I hit the pillow I want mainly mysteries — Andy Dalziel, Inspector Wexford Dave Robicheaux, or Stephanie Plum — not food porn. But the current crop of culinary books furnished some good reasons to read.
R.W. Apple Jr.: Far Flung and Well Fed, St. Martin’s Press, hardbound, 432 pp., $26.99.
After enjoying some of the late (2009) R.W. “Johnny” Apple’s essays over the years in the New York Times, I bought his final book of collected essays and realized that Far Flung will occupy a permanent position on my headboard, to retaste in bedtime bites before plunging into the dark side of prose. Apple’s is by far the best in this barrel of books. (This, and all but the Terra cookbook, are available on Amazon.com at a discount.)
If Anthony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour (his more recent book is reviewed below) took us dining around the globe with a macho egomaniac, Apple’s essays offer a series of peripatetic dinners with one of the most charming, entertaining raconteurs and awesomely knowledgeable eaters on the planet. I wanted his book to go on forever. (Doubtless, Mr. Apple did, too, but all men are mortal.) He is only a hair less adventurous an eater and traveler than Bourdain: he covered numerous wars for his newspaper, and war correspondents can’t be cowards.
He goes everywhere, eats nearly everything (and so, generally, does his delightful wife — so much for culinary machismo). No food snob, he delves deep into the catching and smoking of seafood, the making of fine cheeses and wines, the seasoning of Southern sausage patties, the growing of Italian vegetables, etc. I wish I’d had this book when I traveled in India: he found the best dosai in Kerala’s funky Ernakulam (which I didn’t, during the whole torpid week I spent there). There’s even a local angle, or angler: In a chapter on the bluefin tuna of Baja, our own professor Sam Popkin of UCSD makes an appearance.
You’ll learn what’s so great about Dover sole, what French three-star Michelin restaurants look like inside (ugly!), and why you can’t get the best French cheeses here. (Our government, which barely blinks at E. coli and salmonella from American agribusiness, won’t allow raw-milk cheeses into the U.S., despite Western Europe’s stronger, better-enforced food-safety laws.)
The book also includes a few intriguing recipes, including two from the legendary Maison Troisgros (lamb rack and salmon), both made with readily available ingredients and easy techniques. There are more exotic flavors (such as shrimp in coconut milk from Brazil’s Bahia) and some highly regional American dishes.
This is all about joyous learning from mentally eating with a convivial, erudite tablemate whose company and menu choices you’re sure to cherish.
Anthony Bourdain: Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Harper Collins, 304 pp., hardbound, $26.99.
Bourdain’s the one with the best-seller, of course. The book is essentially reality TV in print — brutal, boastful, macho. Bourdain, less substance-abusing than in his Kitchen Confidential days, has himself become a TV personality, which somehow, amazingly, seems to have swelled his ego! He loves dropping names of big-time chef buddies, but even more, dissing chefs outside his personal circle. (What could be more classically narcissistic than building up your ego by trashing somebody else’s? Although I admit to a scooch of envy-driven schadenfreude when he criticizes my old friend Alice Waters — a beautiful, upper-middle-class blonde — for her often-naïve idealism and born-to-the-manor privilege.)
This is a fast, fun, snarky read, but in the best chapters, Bourdain plunges into serious journalism. One chapter concentrates on David Chang, prickly Korean chef of the celebrated Momofuku. And then Bourdain discovers an unsung artisan in the fish-cutting room in the bowels of Le Bernardin (inarguably the best seafood restaurant in America). There, he spends a morning with its single fish-cutter, a native of the Dominican Republic named Justo Thomas. Between 6:00 a.m. and noon, Thomas dismembers and prepares 700 pounds of whole, untrimmed, ungutted fish, each species according to its nature, and mostly creating perfect, uniform fillets. There’s even a happy ending. Staffers aren’t allowed to eat at Le Bernardin, but Bourdain gets chef-owner Eric Ripert’s permission to treat Thomas to a full tasting dinner there. Dressed in his best suit, Justo finally gets to delight in the fruits of his labor, as cooked by an extraordinary chef. To a curious eater, this chapter justifies the price of the book: You look at restaurant fish with fresh eyes.
Melanie Rehak: Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., hardbound, $25.
Melanie Rehak’s Eating for Beginners is not, after all, a primer on developing your tastes for the finer things or the exotic things — that’s more Apple’s purview. The plot: A young bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) mom in a nice New York neighborhood with a picky-eater toddler worries about what to cook and where to buy it (e.g., local nonorganic versus nonlocavore organic? farmers’ market versus supermarket?). In the early chapters, I found myself annoyed by her serene sense of entitlement. Has the author once stepped into a bodega in Spanish Harlem or the South Bronx? Has she ever ventured into anything like our own misnamed farmers’ market in Barrio Logan (I call it the “used-vegetable market”) or smelled the “catch” at some of the little old-fish stores along its edge? Organic food in poorer neighborhoods? How about fresh food?
The “beginner” learning to eat is her rug rat, who rejects most foods. So (don’t ask me about the logic), Mom takes a kitchen job at a cozy nearby restaurant serving dishes made from local, sustainably grown ingredients. The vibes are kindly and nurturant (opposite of Bourdain’s old Les Halles) as the staff and owners gradually teach her the skills of all the cooking stations. From there, she expands her horizons by taking strenuous day jobs with the restaurant’s various suppliers — organic farms, cheesemakers, merciful meat-ranchers, sustainable-catch fishermen, et al. These chapters are pretty interesting (although Apple’s book covers some of the same ground with more sparkle and sophistication, minus the personal perspiration).