November 2002

A sweet, savory gastronomic trilogy

By Mark Kurlansky
By John Egerton
By Jeffrey Steingarten
Review by
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Celebrated American author M.F.K. Fisher once said that when she wrote about food and eating, she was really speaking to our hunger for love and warmth. We humans are hungry, each with different longings we assuage according to our varied cultural roots. Come to sustain us through the winter are three savory volumes of food writing from a cornucopia of authors, including Fisher, that illuminate man's culinary and agrarian traditions, creations, prejudices and cravings.

A memorable meal might offer superb dishes and exquisite vintages served in a delightful ambiance. Mark Kurlansky, author of The New York Times bestseller Cod, delivers just such a remarkable repast with his gastronomic anthology, Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History. Literary writings from an eclectic company of authors focus on man's knowledge and appreciation of food and drink through the ages. From Plato, Brillat-Savarin and Thoreau to Elizabeth David and Alice B. Toklas (who reveals the best way to clobber a carp), these "cuts" analyze culinary arts and exaggerations, degustation and man's enduring desire for crispy pommes frites.

Kurlansky's clear, well-researched introduction (a small history of food writing) and commentary enliven his selections, which are tucked into chapters on gluttony, food and sex, the primary food groups, culinary rants, food politics and the seductions of chocolate. Choice Cuts is an erudite treat containing practical instruction on preparing your Thanksgiving turkey, arcane lore on the aphrodisiacal properties of celery, and peculiar recipes, such as how to make your whole roasted cow look alive again. A book for culinary aficionados, Cuts casts a wide appeal as pure entertainment, especially when garnished with a comfortable armchair, favorite libation and a plate of chilled, crunchy celery at hand.

When French winemakers speak of terroir, they refer to a signature confluence of natural elements that distinguish one vineyard from another, helping to produce unique, legendary wines. This concept of distinction is no less evident when considering American Southern cuisine, which is bound intimately to its terrain and cultural diversity. The Southern way with food is feted in Corn Bread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing, edited by John Egerton. Cornbread draws an endearing culinary portrait of the South, long renowned for its anomalies of habit and culture.

These collected essays from contemporary writers such as Rick Bragg, Roy Blount Jr., James Villas and others, are a celebration of Southern food, cooks and culinary traditions many of which have fallen prey to progress. Funny, perceptive, and wise, often a touch odd, these evocative writings are a paean to the vanishing South. There are not many men left like 96-year old Coe Dupuis, a Cajun moonshiner, who contributing writer Craig Laban calls the "wizard of whiskey, a Stravinsky at the still." And it is hard to find a good batch of livermush, a fragrant mess o' beans and hocks, or ambrosial 'cue at just any corner cafŽ. These are special dishes of heredity, place and the sometimes strange finesse of Southern cooks.

Cornbread Nation, sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a Mississippi group dedicated to preserving Southern food culture, is not a definitive study of its subject, but provides a soulful, enlightening window on the terroir of Southern cuisine. With tributes to cooks Edna Lewis and Eugene Walter, debate on country- versus chicken-fried steak and a rhapsody to watermelon, even readers north of the Mason-Dixon Line will want to pull up a chair to the convivial Southern table.

Jeffrey Steingarten, indefatigable eater and food critic for Vogue, pulls no punches: He will go to the ends of the earth to debunk quackeries of taste and uphold gastronomic veracity. It Must've Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything, a compilation of his essays for Vogue, chronicles Steingarten's investigatory travels into the truth about how, why and what we humans eat.

Steingarten's introduction, "The Way We Eat Now," asserts that misguided attitudes toward food are at the root of global angst. He believes that bringing an open mind to the table can foster personal, and ultimately global, goodwill. The author's culinary quest is often perilous: He takes a turbulent trip on a tuna boat in search of the elusive bluefin, endures a claustrophobic brain scan to prove that gourmandise is not caused by insidious brain lesions and suffers an overstuffed stomach searching out the last honest Parisian baguette.

These essays, a delight for discerning eaters, are lavished with Steingarten's self-deprecating wit, obsessive doggedness and his devotion to "the elemental, primordial glee we feel every time we are called to dinner." He preaches a simple gospel: Eat happily, be happy!

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