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Check It Out

Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, August 8, 2005

All In Good Taste: Food Writers Tempt Literary Palates

There is a small, fortunate group of authors who are paid to travel, to dine sumptuously, and to drink well—food writers. Easy to overlook, tucked in among the recipe collections and sumptuous photo albums on the library shelves, their books are worth ferreting out. Browse the cookbook section if you have time, but the quickest way to find them is to ask your librarian. Reading them, you can travel abroad without leaving your chair, experience fabulous meals without gaining an ounce, and be entertained with tales of kitchen and dining room. Don't miss out on the stars—Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires (2005), Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential(2000)—but don't overlook these well-kept secrets either.

Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World by Gina Mallet (W.W. Norton, 2004).

The shortages of World War II notwithstanding, the author has fond memories of the tastes of her childhood. Living first on a farm in the English countryside, later in a London apartment above Harrod's and its famous Food Court, Mallet was raised on fresh ingredients like tomatoes warm from the garden, fresh cream from the morning's milking, pork from the backyard pig. She recalls these and others as she takes a look at five popular foods and what's become of them. Proper soufflés are on the brink of extinction, rare beef is suspect, and vine-ripened tomatoes hard to find, thanks to a combination of regulations, health warnings, and economics. Part witty memoir, part serious science, this is a look at the way food used to be (including 20 oldtime favorite recipes) and what it's become.

On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town by Susan Herrman Loomis (Broadway Books, 2001).

Arriving in Paris with a student loan, and a big suitcase, aspiring food writer Susan Loomis began a long love affair with France and French cooking. A year-long apprenticeship in a cooking school was the starting point of a journey that eventually led to picturesque Louviers, a medieval town in Normandy. Loomis and her husband rescued a dilapidated convent there, next door to a 700-year-old church. As he repaired and renovated and she wrote and cooked, they worked at becoming part of the small-town French culture—a tricky process, but ultimately accomplished. Counterpoint to the story is the food. The descriptions of artisanal cheeses, freshly-picked fruit, beautifully-cut meat, and other offerings from the countryside are accompanied by recipes. You may not need the directions for Roasted Leg of Wild Boar, but what about Rustic Apricot Sorbet? Warning: don't read this book if you're feeling dissatisfied with your life. Loomis will make you green with envy.

Are You Really Going to Eat That? Confessions of a Culinary Thrill Seeker by Robb Walsh (Counterpoint, 2003).

Once described as "the Indiana Jones of food writers," Walsh has eaten toasted grasshoppers, salt-cured caterpillars, and ant egg soup, but keep reading; he says they weren't that interesting. This is a compilation of previously-published essays on dishes, ingredients, restaurants, and cooks, occasionally accompanied by recipes the author has encountered. Some are informative and fascinating. "The Ultimate Cup of Coffee," for example, is a tiny primer on the Jamaican coffee trade that reveals why, at least for now, the very best coffee beans can't be offered for sale. Others are entertaining; in "Chicken-Fried Honor," Walsh sings the praises of the chicken-fried steak while engaging in a war of words with a fellow food writer. (The man had the audacity to say that there was no such thing as a good CFS.) Many are mouth-watering. "Third Ward Fried" generated a powerful craving for friend chicken. The very best pieces are character sketches. "Dinner at Darlington: The Dying Art of Black Southern Cooking" profiles Benny Wade Clewis, an inmate in a Texas penitentiary who's been cooking in the Texas prison system for forty years.

If you love to cook, or eat, or travel, or any combination of these, there are plenty of food writers out there. Give them a try.

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.