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Bookshelf: Best Food Writing 2007

In Bookshelf on August 31, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Eating in the United States can become, to borrow from Michael Pollan, the real “omnivore’s dilemma.” If you have the money and the inclination, you can eat-or consciously choose to NOT eat-just about any food product on Earth. Concerned about the impact of pesticides on agriculture and human beings? Organic, beyond organic and biodynamic choices abound in every major metropolitan area. Environmental impact and lack of flavor have you down on produce from another hemisphere? Your friendly local farmer is readily available every weekend at the farmer’s market. Worried that the beef on your table had a miserable existence in a feed lot somewhere? You can have buy and name your own calf, wait as he grazes a private pasture for 18 months and then have his deliciously clean rib eyes Fed-Exed to your door. The problem is, the more you care about exactly what is in your food-whether for reasons of health, social justice or plain epicurean snobbery-the more those worlds begin to collide.

            A running theme of Holly Hughes’ latest edition of Best Food Writing is an exploration of the growing complexity of food choices– and what happens when eaters take themselves too seriously. And as anyone who has read even one review in the New York Times or even the cover of Saveur can attest, folks in the food world can sometimes take themselves really, really seriously. The book’s nine sections range from “global” food issues like the organic movement and eating local, to personal memoirs on spaghetti sauce and turkeys.

            Several of the strongest pieces in the collection focus on revealing a single, sometimes unknown, aspect of the culinary world. Todd Kliman’s essay “Raw Tuna” puzzles over the stratospheric rise of this particular fish in American restaurant cuisine and describes the dizzying matrix of the seven grades of tuna quality and their corresponding price points. Kliman acknowledges that he didn’t even know that the two highest grades even existed, or that less than five restaurants in this country serve them. However, instead of leaving the reader with the impression that they have been eating-and paying lots of hard-earned money for-inferior fish, Kliman pulls back from the world of precious tuna and encourages the reader to not take the ruby colored flesh quite so seriously. Enjoy your wahoo and escolar instead, it may be the smartest pick on the menu.

            John Grossmann’s article “Spoon Fed,” leads readers into another hidden portal, the tasting practices of chefs in great kitchens. By following Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory Mcphail  through his tastings for an entire day, Grossmann brings an often romanticized restaurant vignette-the chef dipping his silver spoon into a steaming plate of sauce and declaring the dish perfect-squarely down to Earth. After tracking and counting all 169  of Chef Mcphail’s tastings on a particular day, Grossman had a nutritionist analyze the data and report on exactly what the Chef put into his mouth every day. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the total fat and calorie count for readers, but I will tell you that Chef Mcphail makes NFL linebackers look like they pick at salads all day. The beauty of the article is that the Chef doesn’t take the stubborn line of so many supposed “foodies:” bah, that is the price you pay for good food, who cares about heart disease and obesity? Instead, he now runs four miles three times a week and has delegated some of his line tastings to sous-chefs. Grossmann reports that the tastes at the Commander’s Palace are still superlative, and the Chef is twenty pounds lighter.

            Collectively, the pieces in Hughes’ compendium achieve a modern approach to loving food. On the one hand, many of the authors encourage you to go ahead and indulge in the more privileged strata of cuisine: intense kitchens where saucier are literally dying to make things delicious, pad thai made with fresh Maine lobsters and  biodynamic strawberries picked by Marin County couples. And then, in the next moment, others seem to shrug their shoulders and say “Nothing wrong with a great carne asada taco from the truck down the street.”

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  1. I’m thrilled to be mentioned in the above description of Best Food Writing 2007, but I hope a revised mention my spell my last name correctly.

  2. Sure thing John, thanks for your vigilance.

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