Book Reviews

In the spring as the garden comes up--I can see the new spinach poking its head out of the ground as I look out the window now, my mind turns to cooking, and if one adds, as the books I am about to tell you about do, a certain eccentricity to the mix, I am captivated. Odd people and good eating make fine companions, and the authors of both of these books offer both in plentiful supply. The commonality between them is food-- the surprises it can hold and the joy of eating. Despite these similarities however two more different authors could not be found--though both are staunch individualists, dedicated cooks, and by fits and turns drop dead funny. In addition, both share a quality which I find almost impossible to resist--curiosity--willing to go anywhere, and try anything for the sheer joy of the experience.

First up we have The Man Who Ate Anything by Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten is the food columnist for Vogue Magazine and his book is a collection of his columns which allow us to follow him on his food quests--from locating the best ketchup (the man went out and bought every bottle of ketchup he could lay his hands on) to the history of cooking times (in the 1200s a recipe advised a reader to cook her chicken in the time it took to walk 5-7 leagues--that is, 15 to 20 miles) to his tussle to make the perfect coconut cake which involves---well let us just say it was very complex, involving multiple hysterical tussles on the phone and with cookbooks. Interlaced throughout are some very interesting recipes. Remember Ritz cracker mock apple pie? I don't. But I tried it using the recipe supplied by Steinbarten in his chapter on back of the box recipes--and by gosh, the darn thing DOES taste like apple pie. I am now a firm believer in miracles. Then there is Thompson's turkey--a recipe which covers a full seven pages and has to be read to be believed. This one I have not yet had the fortitude to tackle, but one day I will, for who can resist a recipe that calls for coating a bird with several layers of gunk, emerges from the oven with what looks like a deadly black coating of soot which when cracked reportedly contains heaven on a fork. True it takes hours of preparation--but one of these holiday years, curiosity being one of my strongest characteristics, I may just tackle it and say the heck with the rest of the trimmings.

Steingarten has recently published a new collection of columns entitled: It Must Have Been Something I Ate: The Return Of The Man Who Ate Everything. I am barely, but barely, containing myself from buying this one in hardback, having a strict rule to wait for paperback publication. I may well not be able to resist though, so thorough was my enjoyment of his first book---for Mr Steingarten is not only a curious eccentric after my heart--but good company of the very best sort, and someone I would love to have appear on my front doorstep, assorted crazy ideas in hand along with the will to try them, after which we would settle down forevermore for talk--and laughter, of just about everything under the sun.

An excellent companion to the Steingarten books is A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain. Here we have, if you will excuse the pun, a totally different kettle of fish. Bourdain is best known for his previous book Kitchen Confidential; Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. As skilled, if not more so, a writer as Steingarten, Bourdain is the culinary version of Hunter Thompson who fears nothing in his relentless quest to explore food and the world by turns. In this, his latest book, he sets out in pursuit of the perfect meal, and travels the world on an odyssey of world cuisine which is by turns mouth watering, stomach churning, and hilariously funny. Want to know what it feels/tastes like to down a still beating cobra heart? Or eat a native fruit of Cambodia called durian which smells so foul that after riding with one in the car for ten minutes the author felt he had no choice but to eat the darn thing before he passed out from the sheer putrescence of the smell. Ah! One of life's great surprises awaited him--for durian in the mouth proved quite a different experience from durian assaulting the nose. The author was immediately transported to new and exiting territory and his ruminations on how it could possibly be used in a commercial restaurant setting is hilarious, for as he says, despite its amazing taste, it would "have to be treated like fissionable material, (kept) segregated in some specially constructed sub cellar locker" to avoid emptying out whole city blocks from the smell.

The book is full of these odd, funny and, to be honest disturbing at times, details, and if you are as awash in curiosity as I am about the world, have a stout stomach for descriptions that transport one far beyond western shrink wrapped food, this is a book that you will enjoy. The search for the perfect meal, as Boudain admits, is a futile one. But taken to the extremes that the author did, it is also a fascinating, funny and, at times, horrifying one, for food on the hoof en route to the fire is not at times a pretty picture. I am not sure I would try the Cobra heart, though I imagine I would regret not doing so to my dying day, but I sure would like to try the Durian, and then there is the Haggis, and the Gerbils (actually I have had those while traveling in Bolivia--they taste a bit like--what else? chicken, and are not half bad.) There is birds nest soup in, fugu fish--and, of course, a meal costing in the hundreds of dollars in Napa Valley California--all of it related in a style of infectious joy--and occasional profanity that seems just right for a man given to grasping life with both open hands and mind.

If we are what we read, as Mark Crispin Miller suggested in the New York Times in 1988, and in addition, as new nutrition theories seems to suggest, what we eat, what better food for the body and soul could we have than these two books? Especially in the spring, with new spinach poking its head above ground.

Carolyn Piper