Best Food Writing 2008, ed. Holly Hughes

Molecular gastronomy? Check. Locavores? Check. Post-Katrina restaurant recovery? Cloned meat? Paeans to the wonders of pig? Check, check, check. Best Food Writing 2008 is a culinary time capsule — 48 morsels of food-focused prose hand-picked by Holly Hughes, who has edited this annual collection since its inception in 2000. Hughes, the author of Frommer’s 500 Places to Take the Kids Before They Grow Up, has diverse tastes and eye for quality. For Best, she’s chosen stellar works by writers that are familiar to any self-respecting foodie, such as Robb Walsh, Frank Bruni, Alice Waters, and David Leite, while spicing things up with the voices of bloggers and alternative weekly columnists who deserve a wider audience.

For instance, there’s Jason Sheehan, who writes for Denver’s alternative weekly, Westword. He captures the madcap playfulness of an afternoon of sensory-overload with molecular gastrome Ian Kleinman, which he spends freezing ingredients in liquid nitrogen and sampling the latest sous-vide concoctions. Hogwash blogger Jess Thompson also enters this Alice in Wonderland world, taking us step-by-step through a meal at Alinea in Chicago. She assigns cheeky names to each of the 15 courses, including such gems as “hot liquid tuna tater tot” for a panko-encrusted, deep-fried croquette of sour cream soup and “bacon in headgear” for a slice of smoked bacon intertwined with apple leather, drizzled with butterscotch, and “suspended from a wire as if on some sort of trapeze”.

While molecular gastronomy is re-inventing food as we know it, Best also captures the move towards meals made from ingredients that are both obvious and pronounceable. Heck, you might even know where they come from. Mark C. Anderson boils seawater to make salt and buys raw goat milk from a woman who lives in a yurt during his two-week experiment eating food produced within a 150-mile radius of his California home. And the book begins with an excerpt from Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food in which he counsels us to avoid eating anything our great-grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food and to “shake the hand that feeds you” — in other words, to get to know your local farmer, fisherman, and butcher.

Like Cornbread Nation 4, another excellent collection of food writing published this year, Best highlights the importance of New Orleans to the American food scene and the city’s efforts to rebuild. Three articles emerge from in and around the Big Easy — Thomas O. Ryder’s autobiographical tale of a Cajun boy’s culinary homecoming (complete with restaurant recommendations), Lolis Eric Ellie’s inspiring story of a restaurateur’s self-reliance and faith in the city’s future, and Sara Roahen’s heartfelt account of the cultural importance of red beans and rice both before and after Katrina.

Fascinating to read now, this book will also be interesting to pick up a year from now, or 10 years from now. What 2008 trends will have withered, which will have become entrenched, and which will have created a backlash? In “Fat’s What I’m Talking About”, Tim Carmen describes Michael Pollen’s advice to shun “foodlike substances” as “neo-Luddite”. Does Carmen portend a processed food renaissance, or is his defense of the pedestrian, unpretentious pleasure of a Taco Bell Burrito Supreme intimate the beginning of the end of our fast food culture?

And how will molecular gastronomy and its astronomical prices fair during a recession? Indeed, how will many restaurants survive at all? Best already contains one obituary of a neighborhood restaurant — “Starlu Goes Dark” by Andrea Weigl; will such a story be too common to attract attention in 2009? How will New Orleans’ rejuvenation be affected? Maybe Hughes is trying to tell us something by ending Best with Dorothy Allison’s tale of recreating a gravy recipe from her hard-knock childhood, an essay that also appears in Amanda Heller’s Eat, Memory. Maybe 2009 will be the year we all reflect on some age-old tricks for making that cube steak last a little longer. Speaking of meat, will the articles in “Meat of the Matter” — an entire section of Best — soon be seen as the last gasp of the evangelical carnivore as the effect of meat consumption on climate change becomes more and more clear?

Other articles are surely timeless, like Alice Waters’ lovingly-written instructions for making stew and Francis Lam’s quest for the perfect omelet. In fact, you might have a tough decision as to whether to place Best on the bookshelf or the kitchen counter. Its 11 recipes look delicious — particularly Scott Peacock’s hot, crusty buttermilk biscuits (the secret is homemade baking power) and John Thorne’s noodle dishes, inspired by a bout of flu.

“Best of” books can be bland and too neatly packaged, with a short shelf life and a destiny as a tossed-aside stocking stuffer. Best 2008 is different — lively, human, and even a bit rough around the edges, especially with the less-polished nature of the bloggers’ contributions. Hughes’ collection provides a telling commentary on the way we eat and think about food in 2008. But, is it a book you’ll pull off the shelf next year and the year after? Check.

RATING 8 / 10