Food for Thought
By Meredith Phillips
JUNE 15, 1998: In our culture, food isn't just for feeding. In addition to firing up metabolisms, it also spawns entire industries, many of which use the subject of food to fuel fantasies of domesticity and comfort, or sparks dreams of far-flung adventures and travel. I know, because I happen to spend an inordinate amount of time browsing through expensive kitchen supply stores, imagining what mornings in a big sunny kitchen with a $300 toaster would be like, believing I could reach self-realization through the art of tart-making if I could only invest the time and the money for a professional-grade pan. For food fantasies, looking at the world through a set of rose-colored highball glasses is good, but reading is a cheaper, more soul-soothing way to feel sated. Americans read their cookbooks more than they actually cook from them, and food-obsessed folks are publishing more books than ever before. Read on to explore some well-done fodder for food-related reading, perhaps lighter than a seasoned reader is used to, but perfect for summer fare.
"I had once hoped that, should I ever be so foolhardy as to write a book of autobiographical nature, I would first have had the good sense to live the life of a pirate, or a bon vivant, which would have allowed me to reflect shamelessly upon a career of grand debauchery or world-class caddishness, so that any account of my exploits would perforce bear a brash and manly title," writes Bob Shacochis, winner of the National Book Award and hilarious gastronome, whose autobiographical effort is, to his great disappointment, appropriately titled Domesticity.
The collection of essays that originally appeared in his GQ column "Dining In" chronicles the experience of a house-husband/writer figure whose main concern is to keep "Miss F," his common-law wife, happy and well fed. Shacochis, a novelist at heart, struck a deal with GQ that he would write about whatever he wanted as long as he tacked a recipe onto the end, and his formula seems to work.
Though the columns always manage to swing back around to the topic of food and most end with at least one recipe (ranging from Keshi Yena to Key Lime Pie), they are mostly meanderings into the personal corners of a happy life, one full of good food, much travel, loyal dogs, and true love.
Shacochis, who has lived everywhere and knows a good deal about cooking for a woman, manages to put an entertaining spin on everything. In one essay, he pontificates for pages on the history of breakfasts: "The ancient peoples of the Mediterranean would snatch a handful of olives and flatbread on their way out the door in the morning, or stop in at the local gruel shop for a quick mug of watery barley...."
Originally published in 1994, Domesticity is not a new book and may not be readily available. However, it's the type of book a food/book lover will read again and again, and it's worth going out of your way to track down a copy.
Under the Tuscan Sun
Under the Tuscan Sun blossomed from a journal Frances Mayes kept about her summers at Bramasole, an Italian estate in the city of Cortona, Italy. Mayes, a poet, professor, and food and travel writer, and San Franciscan for nine months of the year, filled a diary with musings and memories of an extraordinary summer house she and her partner Ed bought to renovate, a house on a vineyard and olive farm that had not been occupied for 30 years. She weaved her memories into a book which is more poetic prose than a story but a terrific vehicle for "armchair travel" nonetheless: "A woman of about 60 with her daughter and the teenage granddaughter pass by us, strolling, their arms linked, sun on their vibrant faces," Mayes writes. "The three women look peaceful, proud, impressively pleased. There should be a gold coin with their faces on it."
While the book's descriptions of wildflowers, the habits of olives, Tuscan sunlight, and the Roman Road running through the Bramasole property is certainly lyrical enough to hold a reader's interest, the food portion of this book is not to be overlooked. Although they are embedded deeply within the text, Mayes includes two sections of recipes, Winter Kitchen Notes and Summer Kitchen Notes. Not normally a fan of fennel, I gave the Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin With Fennel a try, and it yielded perhaps the most delicious pork on record. On the basis of that dish, I may next be inspired to venture into the confusing world of quail and juniper berries.
Mayes' lust for living is evident in her prose, and Under the Tuscan Sun is definitely a vehicle for living, at least vicariously, and an inspiration to living in the moment.
The Man Who Ate Everything
Although I've never seen him, it's easy to predict that Jeffrey Steingarten is a fat, happy guy who'd be a blast to hang out with. It should be said, though, that Steingarten, the food columnist for Vogue, did lose some points when I saw he listed blue food and clams, two of my favorite things, as categories of food he would not deign to eat.
These differences aside, he has done us a great service by dedicating his life to developing his own opinions, at the expense of his waistline, and sharing them with the public. Thanks to him, we members of the general public don't have to throw our own ketchup festivals in which we compare 33 brands, only to discover that Heinz is truly the best. But we do get to read about it; in The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of essays most of which were formerly published in Vogue, Steingarten has orchestrated this and many other experiments for us, and files reports complete with details of his scientific methods.
In regard to the ketchup festival, he writes, "The choice of a tasting medium would be absolutely critical. I worried that eating 33 hamburgers in a row would be impractical, as was, I would soon discover, cutting a single hamburger into 33 equal wedges. I set out to design a miniature hamburger the diameter of a quarter (four millimeters thick)..."
We also don't have to become vegans to get a good perspective on that, or try Le Regime Montignac (a popular French diet) for a month, because he's done it for us. Steingarten reports his findings in a laugh-out-loud way that makes you feel good about indulging and bad about being a vegetarian. He also proves that salad is a dangerous thing, predicting that some future Surgeon General will be motivated to put warning labels on raw vegetables.
In short, Jeffrey Steingarten is an advocate for being fat and happy and for not taking yourself too seriously. People like that are too hard to come by ó I would guess especially on the staff of Vogue.
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