Thursday, July 7, 2011

Food Literature: 101

When the idea for this essay first struck me I thought, “piece of cake!” My choices in reading have long favored history over fiction and my interest in food has been keen for many years. Consequently, I've read many wonderful books in the area of food history. So what could be easier than recounting here a half-dozen memorable, savory, delightful, and informative titles.
Hmm. Well, I soon discovered that these books I so fondly remembered I actually don't remember with much specific detail. It's more like a warm, fuzzy remembrance, which came into sharp fuzzy relief as I began my attempt to describe them. It isn't easy to pick up a well written, compelling book and read just a snatch here and there; what came before provides important context and what follows begs to be read.

So, in the interest of finishing this growing project, sooner rather than later, certain strategic short-cuts have become necessary. Rather than a review of each of these books, I've come up with a series of “blurbs.” Enough, I hope, to attract you to these worthy works of literature.

Let's start with The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff, preface by Lawrence Durell, which is the only work of fiction on the list. We are dinning on ortolans, woodcock, fois gras, and other dreams, provided for Dodin and guests by his unbelievably talented house-keeper and brilliant chef, Eugenie. We're in 19th century France. The men are the demanding and discerning gourmands, Eugenie the master chef. Then, disaster, she dies. There follow the trials of finding her replacement and a ridiculously delicious fantasy read.
From Durell's preface:

The Portentous, magistral figure of Dodin-Bouffant looms gravely over the Olympus of gastronomy like a sort of Zeus. He is the French Doctor Johnson of the table...
Hovering as the book does between gravity and mockery, it nevertheless hides under its smiling exterior a highly civilized philosophy of the French table and the French heart.”

Next on the list is a memoir. A. J. Leibling is a legendary writer, as his Between Meals demonstrates.

This is a man with a great appetite to whom no one with less girth can measure up, and he proceeds to devour all in sight during his student days in Paris. This is a vivid remembrance of the Paris table between the two World Wars. Food we recollect only faintly now, even though we weren't there.

The early writings of the incomparable M.F.K.Fisher are well know and Consider the Oyster is my favorite, which is understandable given my special fondness for oysters and the literature concerning them. I just counted and I have 21 volumes exclusively on this subject, including this book.
Float like a spat in her lucid, seductive prose and emerge fastened to a great work of literature. Quite the consummate beautiful writer.
The flavor of an oyster depends upon several things. First, if it is fresh and sweet and healthy it will taste good simply .. good, that is, if the taster like oysters.
Then, it will taste like a Chincoteague or a blue point or a mild oyster from the Louisiana bayous or perhaps a metallic tiny Olympia from the Western coast. Or it may have a clear harsh flavor, straight from a stall in a wintry French town, a stall piled herring-bone style with Portugaises and Garennes, green as death to the uninitiated and twice as toothsome. Or it may taste firm and yet fat, like the English oysters from around Plymouth.”

Josephe Wechberg wrote for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and other literary magazines from the 30s thru the 50s. Please read Blue Trout and Black Truffles. I am not misdirecting you. Absorbing yourself in this collection of essays will be time well spent. We find the author recounting the fine art of dining on boiled beef dinners in Vienna (a lost, perhaps never embraced fete here; tour San Francisco and please get back to me on the boiled beef dinners you experience). Then read of the miserable experience of army rations in the Czech army in the first World War; and, after the second War, eating at the establishment of Fernand Point's Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne, near Lyon, in the late 40s.
I would love to quote you a passage form Wechsberg's essay “The Formidable Monsieur Point,” but I can't pick where to start and certainly not where to break off with any economy of space. The whole read is a dream. Get the book.

Monsieur Point, it is now clear, was the father of mid-20th century French haute-cuisine. For reference you should consult The Great Chefs of France by Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe. This is a book that should by now appear very dated, published in 1978, but it most certainly does not. All the Michelin 3 star chefs described in this excellent history trained in the kitchen of M. Point: Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Michel Guerard, the Haeberlin brothers, Louis Outhier, Raymond Thuilier, the Troisgros brothers, and more. The names, stories and pictures of these greats and their legendary restaurants are all here.

Richard Adams Carey's The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire, is in part a book about the natural history of the sturgeon, but more so of the history of its roe and the money to be made from it and of the tragic predation of the species. This is a very well written account of caviar, its glory and demise, the role of the Russian economic collapse, crime and folly in the destruction of the fishery (most all Caspian caviar is poor now if edible at all due to poaching), and an account of what caviar is desirable now. On the occasion of a few meals at highly regarded restaurants I have been served a course embellished with a tiny decoration of “beluga” or “osetra” caviar. An equivalent amount of squishy mud would have done as well.
The best caviar now comes from the upper Sacramento Valley sturgeon farms, but it didn't show up overnight, so there is also an account of the California industry, the repeated bankruptcies of its history, and the supreme success of it current state. Its product is the very best caviar in the world at a very precious price, but that is me talking, not the book. Yet, it is a very, very good book.

Eel is delicious, to me. Although few of my readers would buy eel at their local fish market (if they have one and were it available there), but the past was very different and even now many Americans love unagi at their local sushi bar. That “eel” is for the most part farm raised and processed in China, and not as savory as it might be; but I get ahead of myself – way ahead. James Prosek's Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish is my favorite book of the last couple of years. This is most certainly a natural history of the eel, but it is so very much more. To date no scientist nor anyone else has observed eels breeding. The best we've done is to narrow down the area wherein they must breed. Salmon, famously, are anadromous: they live in the ocean but they spawn in fresh water rivers connected to the coasts. There are other fishes that behave in this manner. The eel, however, does the opposite: it is catadromous, breeds in the ocean but makes its way up our rivers to live its life in fresh waters for many years; and then to eventually make its way back to the ocean, very far into the ocean, to breed and die. It is difficult for me to convey the broad ranging magic of this book, but perhaps a quote will help. The author has pursued the eel to New Zealand where the giant long-fin eel lives and occupies a central position in the mythology of the Maori.
The old woman insisted it was time for her to feed them anyway, and soon returned from the house with a bit of steak. She tied the steak to a string and we watched her wade out into the shallow pool in her gumboots. As she waved the steak in the current, I saw a few large heads emerge from the watercress, seemingly from nowhere. Giving into a natural reflex, I took a step back.
Don't be afraid,” Beryl said, “they won't harm you. Unless you're holding the food – they might bite you by accident.”
As Beryl lifted the steak on the line out of the water, a huge eel, about as big around as the calf of her leg, lifted its head out, dancing to and fro to keep its body up, not unlike a cobra.
Oh my God!” I said aloud, my mouth agape.
When she lowered the meat into the water, five or six big eels, their heads five to eight inches across the back, vied for a piece. They grabbed on, making loud sucking sounds to try to get an advantage on the steak, and then they rolled their bodies to tear pieces off.”
This book is engaging. You can see something of source material for yourselves. Try and search “New Zealand eels feeding.”

I had included on my list the significant, informative and delightfully entertaining book on the history of American food by Laura Shapiro, Perfection Salad. I cannot, at this late date, do it any of the just accounting it is due. It is feminist history at its very best. A history of American food from its 19th century emigrant beginnings, Shapiro focuses on the social reformers who led the way to the institutionalization of good and sanitary nutritional practice in the schools. Who would have guessed the story of the birth of Home Ec would be so captivating. It is a complete gem of a book, and one that will greatly enlighten you on the subject of American food history. Give it a read and see for yourself.

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