[2 August 2007]
In spite of my hearty enjoyment of all things edible, I have never been a big fan of food writing. For one thing, it’s hard not to regard it as a bit of a booby prize, the equivalent of reading about sex instead of having it. For another, restaurant reviews, the most common type of writing about food, often assume the reverential, even ecstatic, tone normally associated with mystical experience and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Perhaps that’s because until relatively recently, these reviews generally covered lavish restaurants serving a variety of expensive delicacies, somehow managing to ignore the excellent food found at restaurants without, say, valet parking. I often found myself stifling the impulse to shout “It’s just food, for God’s sake!” while flinging a restaurant review across the dining room. You see, I don’t really want to know how lush the truffle oil was. I don’t care about the precise texture of the squab or the delicate flavor of the lavender mousse. I just want to eat dinner.
But Molly O’Neill’s American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes may convert me. From the first sentence of the introduction, O’Neill’s warm, unpretentious prose makes it clear that her vision of American culinary habits is expansive, not exclusive. Rather than simply sticking to established food writers like Craig Claiborne, M.F.K. Fisher, and Ruth Reichl, she includes selections from a variety of literary figures, from Gertrude Stein’s punctuationally-challenged description of American meals to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for black cake. Lesser-known figures are also represented: a former slave shares her recipe for chicken croquettes, a retired Confederate colonel waxes lyrical about the philosophy of frying, a journalist describes the traditional New England clambake. Although there are essays on high-end culinary adventures, most notably Craig Claiborne’s description of his $4,000 dinner in Paris, the book is dominated by descriptions of more ordinary foodstuffs.
Any food lover will tell you, as she reaches for the next egg roll / bagel / dumpling / empanada, that to learn about a culture, one can do no better than to pull up a chair and pick up a fork. The sheer range of selections in American Food Writing shows the numerous ways in which food has helped America to create and understand itself. Some of these—fried chicken, apple pie, cheeseburgers—are obvious choices. Others, including such lesser-known foodstuffs as tortillas made with mesquite flour, highlight ways of cooking and eating that have long since become extinct. But as a whole, the pieces do not convey the self-congratulation that might be expected of a book attempting to define a national cuisine. In fact, some selections, such as Eric Schlosser’s expose of the artificial flavorings industry, call habitual American ways of eating, especially contemporary ones, into question.
Like any good cook, O’Neill isn’t afraid to mix unfamiliar ingredients. Recipes for dishes ranging from cornbread to bran jelly, including Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for ice cream, are interspersed with the book’s more descriptive and celebratory pieces. There are poems from such diverse writers as Gary Snyder and Ogden Nash, as well as letters by Walt Whitman, among others. O’Neill even includes a piece by David Sedaris mocking pretentious menus, called “Today’s Special,” which should be read by anyone who has ever tried, and failed, to determine why her just-delivered entrée looks like an attempt to assemble an architectural model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa using only zucchini and halibut.
Perhaps the most difficult task facing the editor of an anthology is that of introducing each selection to readers. O’Neill accomplishes this task in brief overviews that precede each selection. These headnotes are unfailingly informative without ever becoming pedantic. At the same time, they are conversational, almost gossipy, the kind of inside information you might trade with a friend over a drink. When introducing Jeffrey Steingarten’s “Primal Bread,” for instance, O’Neill notes that Steingarten “is the only man I’ve met who almost turned down tickets to a Madonna concert because it might upset his natural sourdough starter.” Of course, given O’Neill’s many years writing about food—she was the food columnist for the New York Times for 10 years before moving to PBS to host the series “Great Food”—one would expect her to know those in the know.
The shortcoming of American Food Writing is the same shortcoming that all anthologies face. No matter how inclusive they attempt to be, there will always be someone, or several someones, left out. Although O’Neill includes pieces by the former restaurant critics Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl, there is nothing by Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic for the LA Weekly who changed restaurant reviewing by concentrating on local eateries in various ethnic enclaves—and who recently won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for food writing. It would also have been nice to see more attention to the ways in which various ethnic cuisines have been reinvented in America: the brief entry on chop suey is the only one to address this point. I found myself wishing for a discussion of our tendency to define national cuisines by the food of only a few regions, as is often the case with what we call Mexican and Indian food. After all, in a nation of immigrants, food cannot help but raise the question of what is lost, as well as gained, in the process of assimilation. Moreover, while Chinese food is well represented in the anthology, one could come away from it thinking that there were no Thai, Korean, or Vietnamese restaurants in the entire United States. In another puzzling omission, there are no references to Greek or Mediterranean food, with the sole exception of Paula Wolfert’s recipe for Chicken Tagine with Chickpeas.
But such objections are, ultimately, quibbles. Like all other publications by the Library of America, this book is extremely thorough and well-researched. Unlike all of their other publications, this one would be equally at home on the bookshelves of historians, anthropologists, and chefs. The most important audience, though, is the one to which the book strives to do justice—the many anonymous home cooks whose mistakes and experiments created the rich gumbo of American cuisine.