Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Books about cooking, books about eating...but no books about cooking and eating books!

For some reason, I've been reading a lot of food writing lately. This isn't completely out of the blue, as back when we actually had cable, more often than not my TV would be tuned to the Food Network if it was on, and I've always loved cookbooks in themselves as reading material, along with our status as long-time subscribers to Cooking Light. I'm not a foodie, per se, but I do like to read about food.

Anyway, some time ago I checked out of the library a book by Anthony Bourdain called The Nasty Bits (previously mentioned here). Since then, I've followed up with two more Bourdain books: Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour.

Kitchen came first, and my understanding is that this is the book that really put Bourdain on the map. It's your basic "insider's dish on the behind-the-scenes" book, this one taking us behind the scenes of the upscale restaurant business. Here you get to meet the motley cast of characters behind that dish of pork tenderloin and foie gras you enjoy at the local four-star eatery (yeah, like I ever go to one of those!). The notion of each meal being handcrafted by some highly skilled artisan chef turns out to be complete fiction; more likely the chef who's name is on the awning is nowhere near the stoves (if he's even in the building), and the food is being produced by a cadre of cooks, some of whom are not in this country on entirely legal basis, some of whom are sleeping with others, some of whom are still high from their end-of-shift hit of their preferred drug from the night before, and so on. It's a fairly brutal book, but refreshingly blunt and honest.

After Bourdain hit it big (on the Food Network, apparently, well after we stopped getting cable), he went on a world-wide journey sampling local cuisines in many different cities and nations. A Cook's Tour relates these traveler's tales, as Bourdain goes in search of his "perfect meal". Naturally, as with any quest for the "perfect" anything, he never finds it, but the quest itself is at times hilarious, and at times harrowing (some of the places Bourdain goes in search of food are utterly terrifying). The thematic undercurrent of this book is Bourdain's frustration with the American approach to food, where cultural distinctions are to be downplayed in favor of constant consistency, so that if one desires one can drive from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific and literally eat nothing but identical food from identical purveyors. This book adds good travel writing to the allure of good food writing.

As for The Nasty Bits, this is a collection of essays Bourdain wrote over a number of years for various publications. It's been a few months since I read it, but some parts stand out in my memory. For instance, there's the essay in which he points out that "fast food" isn't necessarily a bad thing, for instance, but that in most cultures "fast food" involves street vendors cooking food to order from very fresh ingredients. There's another in which Bourdain takes an unnamed food writer to task for complaining that the Big Name Chef wasn't actually cooking at the restaurant named for the Big Name Chef on the night the food writer visited. What makes The Nasty Bits particularly good, apart from the essays themselves, is the section in the back of the book where Bourdain meditates in brief on the theme of each essay. In some cases he's not happy with what he's written before (such as a particularly confrontational essay about chef-turned-reality TV star Rocco DiSpirito), while in others he illuminates motivations for writing in the first place (the afore-mentioned piece about Big Name Chefs, which Bourdain indicates is his way of apologizing for years of bashing Emeril Lagasse). I'd recommend the book for just one essay alone -- the one in which Bourdain gleefully rants about Woody Harrelson in conjunction with the "raw food" craze -- but everything here is first rate.

(Bourdain's books are clearly aimed at an adult market, by the way. He swears a lot and writes a lot about sex and drugs.)

Not by Bourdain, but on a similar vein, is Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. Buford, a writer for The New Yorker, one day decides that he wants to see just how good his self-taught cooking skills are, so he becomes an unpaid kitchen aid in Mario Batali's restaurant. His adventures as a new kitchen employee are intertwined with a fascinating account of Batali's life. Batali comes off as a Falstaffian figure, eating and drinking his way through a life that seems charmed to excess; in the midst of this, Buford gives a groundling's-eye view of the life in a kitchen, where a short shift is twelve hours and where are short week is six days. Even I, having worked in the restaurant business before, was shocked at the amount of sweat and toil that goes into food at the high-end of the restaurant world. Certainly, the act of reading this book (and Kitchen Confidential as well) will forever cure one of any impulse of encouraging any person who can cook at home at all to open their own restaurant.

Last time I was in the library I saw a bunch of food books I'd like to read as well, along the same lines, but those will have to wait as I have other works I'm interested in as well. On a broader note, I'm finding that over the last couple of years, I'm valuing the first-person, personal narrative non-fiction reading experience more and more over the dryer, academic, "omniscient" style of writing. I love reading about history, but I'd much rather read about someone's journeys through a certain part of the world, with the history thrown in as they themselves came face to face with it, than read straightforward works of history. I've come to love testimonials in writing, and memoirs; I've become fascinated with the connection to someone's specific set of experiences. This year I hope to read a few books about World Wars One and Two, but I'd like to read personal narratives of the soldiers than comprehensive histories.

I'm coming to love reading as a personal act of communication across time and space. After all, that's really what reading is.


Anonymous said...

The internet has been a miracle worker for reading about food. I no longer buy cookbooks, you buy the book and then you find you dont like most of the things in it, now i prefer to find recipes that i like on the internet print it off and put it into one folder this is also cheaper than cookbooks. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I heart the Food Network, it is definitely my channel of choice. I'm picking up the Batali book for sure. Sounds like a great read!

Anonymous said...

M.F. K. Fisher. Still the best food writer ever.