Literary Tapas: A Chef’s Selection

When I started writing about food I immediately started reading what other people wrote about food – primarily as a way to learn how to write about food myself. One of the first books I picked up was Best Food Writing 2001 and I was amazed at how many different ways there are to write about food, how many different ways there are to think about food, and how food can be such an easily conveyed metaphor for thinking about the rest of our lives. I’ve been studying the masters ever since.

At the moment I’m half-way through Best Food-Writing 2008 edited by Holly Hughes and with the lazy days of summer on the way, it seems to me that now is as good a time as any to contemplate those who contemplate food, cooking and everything else that goes on in a proper kitchen.

I’ve long been a fan of John Thorne, author of Serious Pig, Pot on the Fire, and Simple Cooking. This is great food writing with much the same sensibility as the best food blogs – focused on food and cooking and yet much more than that. He writes with marvelous evocativeness and a certain dourness – for this Southerner, anyway – that’s reflective of his New England heritage. Best of all, I’ve learned a great deal about my cooking style and attitudes from reading about his and his focus on simplicity. A perfect clam chowder is about less rather than more.

I’ve been meaning to read America’s first great food writer, M.F.K. Fisher for years. Last winter I finally began. Since January I’ve read The Gastronomical Me and How to Cook a Wolf. She really does deserve her reputation. In How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s book on cooking – and living – well with very little, she writes: “There are many ways to love a vegetable. The most sensible way is to love it well-treated. Then you can eat it with the comfortable knowledge that you will be a better man for it, in your spirit and in your body too, and will ever have to worry about your own love being a vegetable”.

You read Fisher, not so much for recipes, as for philosophies. You read a chapter, or a page, or a sentence, and then put the book down to ponder a moment. Sometimes to ponder what she wrote, and other times to ponder what might be fun or interesting or surprising to do with that last bit of hard salami in the refrigerator.

But when my head became too full of darkly ambitious thoughts about food and cooking, I turned to Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer for Vogue.

Why a magazine like Vogue needs a food writer, and how it ended up choosing a lawyer to do the writing baffles me. But Steingarten is tremendous fun to read. He combines passion for food and cooking with what I can only describe as a lawyerly sense of humor. His rants about things like food allergies and raves about things like blood sausage leave your jaws aching with a grin. The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate are a perfect antidote to Fisher’s more serious reflections.

Along the way I’ve read Jaques Pepin’s The Apprentice. A genuine likeability shines through this famous chef’s autobiography and leaves you very much wanting to have a meal and a glass of wine with him. And currently I’m reading Calvin Trillin’s Feeding a Yen with The Tummy Trilogy yet to go. I’ve long been a fan of Trillin’s wry and often acerbic political wit, but somehow I had never read his food musings which are more self-deprecating than passionate, mostly when it comes to his own tastes: “One morning, late in the week, I held out until almost eleven before I bought my first helping of macaroni pie, and found myself boasting to Alice about my willpower.”

I first turned to these books to learn how the writing should be done. But since then I’ve grown to love the collections of essays. They stimulate far more than your appetite, although many of them do that as well, and they’re perfect for reading in short bursts – say, at the beach.