Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Man Who Ate Everything

It's part autobiographical, part travel log, part recipe vault for the forgotten and the soon-to-be obsolete, and part FDA bureaucrat-dietitian's worst nightmare. And it's all snark. That wry, condescending-because-you-deserve-it humor that many of us have seen on the Food Network when author Jeffrey Steingarten is a judge on Iron Chef: America.

Ranging from a frantic search for true truffle cuisine in Italy to a scouring of New York grocers shelves for a mad spree of cooking those classic back-of-the-box recipes, Steingarten's essays (collected here from about 1986-1996), take you through the mind of a frumpy New Yorker fortunate enough to have landed a gig as the food critic at Vogue. Just so you have the benefit of some of the info in his bio-graph at the front of the book, he was also a writer for the Harvard Lampoon.

There are a few odd moments in the book. A chapter on pheromones and lordosis (you look it up, and have a good time with that), for example, is a sidetrack that while interesting and entertaining, really only made me wonder when the next pork chop of the cosmos would find its way to becoming the pork chop in my belly.

Retaliatory snark aside, Steingarten writes a book about food that people who pretend to enjoy food probably ought to read. The streets of Memphis, New York, Venice, Paris, and Tokyo; the country paths of Morocco, Alsace, and the Piedmont? All there. Microwaving fish, creating the perfect sourdough starter, how to make a pie crust that will be the envy of the gods? That too.

I wonder if he went back to the Pacific northwest since writing "Ingredients in Search of a Cuisine" about the bounty of the catch, and the nascence of the regional 'cuisine?'

I will likely try his recipe for the perfect choucroute, and I'm tempted by a pie filled with sour cherries or wild blueberries. The blueberries would be hand picked by this guy and driven back home, or maybe to the farm this summer?

Steingarten takes the FDA to task about salt and fat, wonders why no one in a position of gastronomical power has really bothered to tell people about the difference between good fats and bad fats, HDL and LDL, and why partial-hydrogenation may kill you faster than Paula Dean ever could.

I have to confess that I read this book over a period of a couple years. A vignette here, a chapter there. One sitting got me through several of the fad diet and nutrition tales with a strong desire to eat hot buttered bacon with salted pork dumplings on the side. It really is a powerful tome.

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