The Year in Reading Food 

Bittersweet on the page

Wednesday, Dec 17 2008

You know that scene in Annie Hall, when Diane Keaton tells Woody Allen, as the two are dividing their library after the breakup, that all the books on death and dying are his? When I look over at the nightstand, taking quick inventory of what I’ve been reading over the last few months, the pile is depressingly salted with books on the death and dying of the ocean, not just passages from the usual Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser, or Paul Roberts’ baleful The End of Food, but things like the fish-death travelogue Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe, the even more mournful The End of the Line by British journalist Charles Clover, and Mark Kurlansky’s The Last Fish Tale, a meditation on the slow decline of the fishing lifestyle in Gloucester, Massachusets. (His last one, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, was an improbably good history of New York City as seen through the prism of the shellfish in its harbor. Dying shellfish, it goes without saying.) In this company, Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic, Redmond O’Hanlon’s puke-by-puke, fish gut–scented account of a fishing voyage in the stormy North Sea, is almost uplifting, even if it does sound like the worst boat ride on Earth. Sasha Issenberg’s TheSushi Economy may be only slightly pessimistic but in some ways — bluefin tuna, a majestic animal that once ruled the Atlantic as the lion does the Serengeti, is nearing extinction because an airline executive needed something to fill the holds of electronics-carrying cargo jets flying empty back to Japan — it is even more depressing.

Throw into the mix Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall, about the collapse of the world’s honeybee population (although you wouldn’t know it from the hives that have established themselves in the walls of my sleeping porch) and Alice Feiring’s splendid The Battle for Wine and Love, which mourns the death of honestly made wine. Adam Gollner’s The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession isn’t really about the death of anything, but I find myself mournful at the lack of local opportunities to taste the Seychelles’ forbidden coco de mer, a giant nut shaped like the ass and loins of a beautiful woman. The flavor is “refreshing and sweet with earthy, spunky notes,” Gollner says. “It tastes like coconut flesh, only sexier.”

Extinction, of course, is not limited to creatures that swim. I have a small collection of Paris travel guides from the 1920s, and I am fond of constructing imaginary itineraries through nightclubs and restaurants that haven’t existed for generations. In another 90 years, readers may be poring over Alexander Lobrano’s great new guide, Hungry for Paris, as ravenous for Pierre Gagnaire’s experiments as I am for lièvre à la royale, picking through nostalgia for the vanishing traditions of the 1950s the way I wonder about 1920s wistfulness for the belle époque. Lately, I have been spending almost as much time with Pableaux Johnson’s Eating New Orleans, a loving, rather comprehensive restaurant guide that had the misfortune to be published just a few weeks before Katrina, a genome readout of the city’s gastronomic DNA, a map of a watery world. A huge percentage of the restaurants in the book have reconstituted themselves in one way or another, and Johnson probably has enough material to put together another edition by now, but there is something beautiful about the definitiveness of the current book, a particular culinary moment fixed with a pin.

click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN - In dogged pursuit of the perfect licorice infusion
  • Anne Fishbein
  • In dogged pursuit of the perfect licorice infusion

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Johnson’s standing Monday night red beans and rice dinners take a central place in Sara Roahen’s fine memoir Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, which is kind of about a young woman with few traditions settling into a place with many but also manages to be about Katrina, which is rarely mentioned but settles on the pages like dust, every “is” reading as “ought,” every Sazerac and pod of okra rendered salty and bittersweet.

Cookbooks can be bittersweet, too. I first ran into Martha Hall Foose when she was working at the La Brea Bakery in its earliest days, a young Southern woman for whom the word “lovely” was barely sufficient. Her Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, a childhood memoir of the Mississippi Delta disguised as a cookbook, pulls off the magic trick of being at the same time lovely and useful, a place to find graceful versions of things like fried chicken, red velvet cake and sweet tea pie but also a book that leaves you somewhat happier for having spent a few hours in its pages.

The trend in food and cookbooks this year, if there can be said to be a trend, veers from the Rabelaisian fixations of last year, where one out of every two books seemed to be about how to raise, disembowel and transform your own custom-bred Duroc into sausages and stuffed trotters, toward the kind of comprehensive megacompilations that the record industry happened upon years ago.

If you admire the cooking of Joël Robuchon – perhaps the greatest meal of my life was at his Jamin in Paris in 1990 – it is no longer necessary to tease out what bits of Simply French is his and what come from his collaborator Patricia Wells, or to hack out a translation of the potato recipes in the copy of Le Meilleur et le plus simple de la Pomme de terre you bought on your last visit to Paris. Instead, you can pound through the 800+ pages of The Complete Robuchon, gasp at the amount of butter he sticks into his mashed potatoes, and pick up a fairly solid command of French home cooking – it is much more a French Joy of Cooking than a book for the coffee table.

Ferran Adrià’s gorgeous, massive A Day at el Bulli, which may actually be the most book $50 can buy, barely pretends to be a cookbook at all – there are lots of recipes but it is essentially a photodocument of the restaurant. Still, as somebody who sent away for Adrià’s 250 euro first cookbook the week it came out, only to find that I could have waited a few months and gotten an English translation I could actually read, I love this thing, and while several lifetimes will pass before I feel the need to prepare a fresh-licorice-infusion jelly lasagne, it’s nice to know that I could. In a year when the most rapturously received cookbooks include Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, a guide to sous vide cooking, which became an instant bible to professional chefs but might as well be on subatomic physics for home chefs, and Grant Achatz’s emulsifier-intensive Alinea, A Day at el Bulli is almost accessible. This year’s hippest doorstop, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook from molecule-spinning British chef Heston Blumenthal, retails for $250, is printed with the care of an art book, and will live happily, unsullied and unsmeared, in its deluxe slipcase.

Which brings us, I guess, to Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise, the long-awaited sequel to her Cookwise, which may go on for pages about the chemistry of biscuits and pies but also tells you how to make good ones, tender and flaky if that’s your thing, so nimbly that you almost forget it’s science.

And if you are one of the rare people in California, who still believe in the institution of the dinner party, you could do worse than to pick up a copy of A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis, a guy who is head chef at Chez Panisse for the half of the year he’s not living in Paris, and whose delicious seasonal menus in this book — most but not all French, many of them designed to be prepared a day in advance — make a great dinner for 12 seem as easy as mac ’n’ cheese. If Richard Olney had been from 1970s California instead of 1930s Iowa, this is the cookbook he might have written.

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