The past as prescription

The world needs another food dirge like it needs more genetically modified soybeans. Anyone halfway sentient knows the situation is dire and getting grimmer as the mad cows and microwave pizzas and breakfast Whoppers keep coming. But Gina Mallet’s first book is nothing like its ominous title. More memoir than sermon, less a wake than a celebration, it’s a rich and evocative ode to a wondrous food supply that once was and could be again. If the last two-thirds of “Last Chance to Eat” follows the hectoring road too often taken, it is still a transporting read. In an increasingly young and shallow business, I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to read someone who can describe with wit and wisdom how good eggs and cheese were until Kroc and Kraft et al got their manipulative hands on the food chain.

Mallet, who lives in Toronto and has had an acrostic career (Time staffer, dance critic, food writer), matter-of-factly recounts a childhood straight out of a screenplay: glamorous parents, country house in England before WWII, an apartment over Harrod’s. She has such an easy way with language that she can gallop from chicken guano to Escoffier to grilled horse without breaking a sweat, always enticing and never repelling. (Actually, I take that back — a quote on Nile perch from a nephew who worked in Zambia, where the fish come from, is chilling: “They got fat on eating bodies from genocide in Central Africa.”) Her observations are generally pithy and smart: “The English garden to dream, the French to eat.” “Beef needed to be mortified to develop taste.” Takeout is becoming “industrial ethnic,” as in sushi, lasagne, curry. “Now that fish are considered health food, the favored preparation is plain; grilled fish follows grilled fish in depressing procession.” She debunks some myths, most articulately the one about the egg and cholesterol. She tosses out surprising insights: “Synthesized gelatin had superseded isinglass, which the cook used to have to extract personally from fish intestines.” And when she hits on all cylinders, you can appreciate her restraint in not turning the whole book into yet another screed: “Industrial fast food is never disappointing; it is reassuringly the same. It is the food of the pessimist. Nothing can improve it. But then, nothing can make it worse.”

I haven’t tried any of Mallet’s myriad retro/revival recipes, from sole veronique to salmon quenelles, although I have Postemed most of them with high hopes (cream? butter? I’m there). But I give her big points for writing them with just as much flair as her prose, in the great tradition of Elizabeth David.