Monday, July 10, 2006

Food lit

I've been consuming Cheesecake Factory portions of contemporary first-person food lit in my spare time (Reichl, Pépin, Ruhlman) and hope to post something of more substance and insight after I have a few more of them in my pocket. For the time being here are some notes on the form. If you want to write one of these dine-and-dish books, post this over your desk.

-Europe is the source of authenticity; Culture comes from over there. You can't skip it if you're going to make food your living. Ideally the writer gains familiarity both with the provincial pleasures of local meats and cheeses and with the fancy metropolitan restaurant world.

-When the food memoirist drinks, watch out. Wine is taken in litres and barrels and no one bothers with cocktails or beer (cognac is ok though, presumably b/c it's the fruit of the vine). Ideally, the memoirist commits every grape and vintage to memory but one does sometimes sense that these details are fudged à la "I Remember It Well." Anyhow, wine talk to me sounds like the space flight jargon on Battlestar Galactica. I accept that other people find it meaningful but I listen only for the most important information.

-A professional kitchen is run by men and to succeed you earn their respect. Exception: Chez Panisse, which is lovely and feminine and welcoming like a home. (I'm eyeing Jeremiah Tower's book to see how this characterization holds up.)

-When the author describes someone for a paragraph before giving his name, you had better be impressed by the big reveal, especially if it turns out to be someone with his own entry in the encyclopedia (Pépin meets Jean Genet, Reichl Orson Welles). You expect to meet Craig Claiborne and Marion Cunningham (the cookbook author, not Richie and Joanie's mom) in these pages, but when Joe Torre and Bob Costas turn up for dinner at a restaurant in Cleveland (Ruhlman), it's like, OMG!

-Everyone in America would still be eating Jell-O mold salads and TV dinners if it weren't for James Beard and Julia Child. (Actually, millions of people in America still are eating these things, but that's beside the point.)

-A "revelation" is always just around the corner, usually unexpectedly (calf's brains are a revelation for Ruhlman). Surprise is a key ingredient in the food memoir recipe.

-Fois gras is to food lit as "baby" is to rock n roll songs. Too much is not enough.

-When you're young you might not have much money but if you're lucky you'll meet some rich friends and they'll take care of you in high style. How to Cook a Wolf notwithstanding, food lit loves the luxe.

-Nouvelle cuisine cannot be described. You had to be there. (This isn't to say that writers never attempt to describe it.)

-The story isn't really about food, it's about something else--enlightenment, understanding, finding yourself, learning how to live, connecting with the people you love, that kind of thing. This always comes across to me as an alibi for writing about a supposedly frivolous topic, or for devoting one's life to a supposedly frivolous pursuit. I want to say, I don't give a shit about your self-discovery--I'm here for the food. Pépin is least guilty of this, and his is the book I like best of the ones I have read so far. And of all of them, only Pepin's contains a recipe I have tried, his mother's egg dish les oeufs Jeanette, which are basically garlicky deviled eggs, browned in a pan, and smothered in a sauce made of the leftover egg stuffing and olive oil. Great homey food.


Blogger zoe p. said...

funny funny, mzn.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading Buford's Heat now having finished Reichl's latest in paperback. Spot on... though you forgot the part about displaying contempt for diners and understanding of the misunderstood latin line cook.

Heat reads like Tony Bourdain without the Fuck. Amusing but without revelation. It's peppered with profile pieces on Batali that read like a New Yorker profile smattered throughout (suprise, surprise) which might be interesting if I gave a fuck about Mario Batali.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Mrs. M. said...

Yeah, that's why I don't read a lot of food lit. Mostly, it's the love of luxe that gets me. Why should I care about some overfed New York editor's "revelation" in some overpriced place in Italy that I'll never get to visit?

I guess I'm just envious. Oddly, this doesn't stop me from reading high-end fashion glossies. I can always buy a cheap knock-off at H&M. But there's no subsititute for carrying home a grass-fed, organic, etc. pig on your Vespa.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I enjoy Reichl's and Ruhlman's books the most.

I really enjoyed Garlic and Sapphires, especially when she had the revelation that she had become a food snob, which was really her concern from the get go.

I thought Heat was ok but nothing too spectacular. He made it seem as if working in a professional kitchen was the hardest thing in the world, which brings me to Bourdain. Bourdain is an enjoyable read, but I really get sick of this whole painting cooks as these super tough macho guys who think that they are the most important people on the face of the earth. Wow you stand in a hot kitchen and cook food all night. Why don't you try being a firefighter or an emergency room doctor then tell me how tough and stressful your job is.

4:34 PM  

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