The real red

Until I discovered Pudlo, I naively put my faith in American glossies and newsprint when it came time to eat in Paris. It just never occurred to me that those so-smooth and so-savvy New Yorkers dishing in between the ads might have cribbed from a guidebook published only in French. The shock came the summer afternoon I was killing time in FNAC, my consort’s methadone while deprived of B&H’s heroin, and came across this sleek and smart guidebook whose author sounded Polish and whose advice in between the ads sounded hipper than Michelin’s. My French is about as good as your Sanskrit, but the design made it pretty clear which restaurants were musts to experience (if not so clear which were musts to avoid). The best part was the first few pages of “award winners:” chef of the year, bistro of the year, patissier of the year, fromagere of the year. Where I had I seen those names before? Continue reading

Splendor in obscurity

Dona Tomas is not a restaurant name that rings many bells outside the San Francisco Bay Area. The owners, Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky, have never been on the cover of Food & Wine, or competed on “Iron Chef,” or even cooked at the James Beard House. Google them and mostly what you will find are references to their new cookbook, named after their first restaurant, in Oakland.

In a food culture that seems to worship celebrity above creativity, it says everything that their book is a knockout on every level, not least because a vicarious eater will get as much out of it as a dedicated cook can. Unlike the average perfunctory compilation of restaurant recipes, what the two partners have produced with a co-writer, another chef named Mike Wille, is one of the most appealing Mexican cookbooks ever published, and one of the best in any category all year. Continue reading

Gold nuggets

“Kitchen Essays”
Agnes Jekyll (Persephone Books)

Anyone who suspects most food writing is done by software these days will feel vindicated by this reprint of very pithy pieces from The Times of London, originally run off the presses in 1922. Agnes Jekyll, “an artist-housekeeper” who lived from 1860 to 1937, clearly had no access to FoodPerfect6, and the 35 short essays in this collection almost sing with originality.

My copy, a Christmas gift, has yellow Postits on every third page. A few flag recipes that sound either surprisingly contemporary, like polenta au gratin, or profoundly lyrical, like the sole a la Dorothea served with a “suspicion” of tomato sauce and “a certainty” of mushrooms.

But many more are marked just for Jekyll’s trenchant observations:

“Marriage feasts resemble the institution they celebrate, of which Montaigne observed that those within its confines want to get out, whilst those without endeavour to get in.”

“…Apples are proverbially so health-giving that no doctors can be expected to do anything but eat them themselves and discourage that practice in others….”

“God made the first Christmas, and man has ever since been busy spoiling it.”

This is one of the best reads outside Elizabeth David.

BK (as in Before Kingsolver)

“Coming Home to Eat”
Gary Paul Nabhan (W.W. Norton)

The idea of a “food diary” has lately been touted as the brightest innovation in literature since the illuminated text. But any reader looking for more meat than froth can find it in Gary Paul Nabhan’s deep, witty and very self-aware account of the year he devoted to food “grown, fished or gathered” within 200 miles of his Arizona kitchen.
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Truth and consequences

“Eating Crow”
Jay Rayner (Simon & Schuster)

If you think a high-profile restaurant critic should know how to cook, know how to eat, know how to articulate with some wit what makes a dish good and a restaurant worth trying, you’ll be sorry when you read “Eating Crow.” Nothing makes all those points more clearly than this sharply written, quite funny and immensely entertaining novel by a reviewer from the highest caste in the profession: British. And knowing such a character exists makes the absence here more obvious. Continue reading

Everything but the stomach staples

“Fat Land”
Greg Critser (Houghton Mifflin)

Until I read Greg Critser’s scarifying “Fat Land,” I thought I had pegged all the vices behind the Macy’s ballooning of America, from fast-food gluttony to TV-remote sloth. Who knew I was part of the problem, as one of those food writers in the Eighties and Nineties who caved to magazine editors who were caving to their fat-free advertisers?
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With bold mouse and keyboard

“The Pedant in the Kitchen”
Julian Barnes (Atlantic Books, London)

Anyone doubting that the Brits are different from you and me has only to flip open Julian Barnes’ foray into food, a collection of columns from the Guardian, the newspaper that has become the must-read for Americans stranded with an apparently enslaved press. Not only does the prolific novelist (and translator of “In the Land of Pain”) get away with words like prelapsarian and pertinacity, words editors here would dumb down for a Food Network audience. But he also has more ideas per chapter than any six Americans. Continue reading

Too bad the author is now a nutcase

“The Gallery of Regrettable Food”
James Lileks (Crown)

This book is so fabulously snarky it would be easy to write it off as a one-gag wonder: retro recipes can be pretty scary. Read deeper and you realize it actually has surprising insight buried among the gruesome photographs and over-the-top copy (“I don’t know what this is,” the caption with barbecued apples in foil reads, “but pour enough liquor in a frat boy and he’d try to have sex with it”).

Lileks collected promotional cookbooks from the Fifties and Sixties, culled the most staggeringly hideous examples of Jell-O salads and mystery meats and turned his sinister imagination loose. Along with the jokes about “burned wieners in a drunken scrum” and “the Swamp Thing’s brain,” he illuminates an era when only men were chefs, women were housewives and children were captives to creative cooking as dictated by manufacturers of major manufactured foods, Spry shortening and 7-Up chief among them.

“Regrettable Cuisine” is a rather tasty answer to all the pretentious food books emerging from academia lately, now that American cooking has become the deep scholars’ answer to Madonna. Reading it, you realize it’s okay to acknowledge: Sometimes a congealed salad is just a congealed salad.