March 2000


By Richard Sterling
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Sampling a tasty collection Drinking for me means only wine. . . . I believe in wine as I believe in Nature. I cherish its sacramental and legendary meanings, not to mention its power to intoxicate, and just as Nature can be both kind and hostile, so I believe that if bad wine is bad for you, good wine in moderation does nothing but good. This passage, from a short essay called When I Became a Gastronome by journalist Jan Morris, looks back to the meal during which the subtle and intricate force of flavors suddenly broke over her, like an inaugural bottle itself. The meal itself was, as she recalls, nothing elaborate fresh rolls, patŽ of some sort, cheese, I think, apples and a bottle of local white wine. And yet for the first time, Morris, who had always been so sensitive to the undercurrents of cities and cultures and morŽs, was gripped by the voluptuousness of patŽ, the assertive confidence of bread, and the concentrated abundance of wine.

Morris’s piece is one of more than 50 pieces, many published for the first time, in a collection called The Adventure of Food: True Stories of Eating Everything. Collected by Richard Sterling, they include memoirs, magazine articles, semi-fictional musings, and even a few nutritional polemics, most of which take place in foreign countries and which are frequently as intriguing for what they say about Americans abroad as about the foods themselves.

Foods, and drinks, are explored a bit squeamishly by Mary Roach in The Instructress, a rueful recollection of facing down rodent knees and a pre-chewed, fermented manioc brew called chicha prepared by her Amazonian hosts. Or romantically, as in Taras Grescoe’s pursuit of absinthe, the hallucinatory and potentially fatal Green Fairy linked to Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde. (That Grescoe slanders Edgar Allan Poe is the piece’s one failing.) Or nostalgically, like Marguerite Thoburn Watkins’s recollection of drinking old-fashioned North Indian Chai in an Unglazed Cup, a eulogy that must have been written prior to the commercialization of chai by American coffee society. Or seductively, as in artist-author Heather Corinna’s prose-poem fantasy, Eat Drink Man Woman ( We describe so very little of what we feast upon when we merely call it food ).

In fact, reading this collection, one is reminded that poetry is in the eye of the consumer. Jonathan Raban discovered this while sailing down the Mississippi River for the book Old Glory. ÔPeople eat squirrels around here?’ I asked.

ÔEat squirrels?’ the old man shouted, banging his stick up and down on the bar floor. ÔWe do not eat squirrels, sir. We may regale ourselves upon them. We might be described, on occasion, as consuming them. We do our humble best to honor the noble squirrel. We make, at the very least, a repast of him.’ One incredibly rich entry (or entree) is the recreation by Michael Paterniti of the illicit last banquet prepared for the terminally ill former French President Francois Mitterrand, the highlight of which was ortolan, a tiny songbird whose consumption had already been outlawed. The entire piece, which originally ran in Esquire, is almost overripe with culinary description, including a fine bit on foie gras; but the description of ortolan, which Paterniti persuades a chef to prepare for him and his girlfriend, is spectacular. The bird is surprisingly soft, gives completely, and then explodes with juices liver, kidneys, lungs. Chestnuts, corn, salt all this in an extraordinary current, the same warm, comforting flood as finely evolved consommŽ. . . . I put inside myself the last flowered bit of air and Armagnac in its lungs, the body of rainwater and berries. In there, too, is the ocean and Africa and the dip and plunge in a high wind. And the heart that bursts between my teeth. This is truly a seductive collection, one that can be grazed in, consumed in large chunks, or nibbled at a course at a time. It could easily be enjoyed with an escalating series of wines, from the aperitif to the sauterne; but in honor of Jan Morris’s epiphany, we recommend Penfolds’s brilliant Koonunga Hill SŽmillon-Chardonnay blends wry, lithe wines with a courteous but not modest balance of acidity and aromatics.

Opening formally with green-apple crispness and a hint of apricot, it gradually softens into a graceful and yet tightly fermented spin of pistachio, balsawood, and secret peach and ends with a low sweep of praline. And although vintages vary slightly, the quality is always dependable and, year after year, the prices a blessed $8 or so give even more meaning to the word sacramental. In fact, I apply it ritually.

Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.

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