Reviews

Questlove's 'Somethingtofoodabout' Is Immensely Satisfying

Questlove’s Somethingtofoodabout showcases how the performing arts necessitate a different kind of creativity.


Somethingtofoodabout

Publisher: Clarkson Potter
Length: 240 pages
Author: Questlove
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04
Amazon

Ours is a Late Show household, but we did watch Jimmy Fallon for the short window between Letterman and Colbert. The thing about Fallon’s show that never failed for me was the Roots; Fallon has an amazing, intelligent band. Questlove’s passion for food was sometimes allowed to shine through when there were food-related guests in middle or minor segments of the show, and I came to appreciate him not only as a bandleader, but as a student of popular culture at large.

You make the dish, it gets eaten, then what is there?
People who are gifted at one particular art often attempt to leap into another form and fail miserably there. Questlove seems capable of being successfully interested in more than one thing at a time, so my interest was piqued when I heard about Somethingtofoodabout.

At the same time, however, I was intensely concerned that he might not be up for doing a book that I found rigorous enough in its study of food. This goes back to my main grievance with Fallon; he’s just so nice. He tells every guest that their newest thing is super duper maximum great and mind-blowing. It’s the late night equivalent of a safe space; I prefer interviewing that achieves somewhat more critical distance.

Questlove sits through that kind of talk five nights a week, and as a giant celebrity himself, would surely garner a wealth of positive publicity over Somethingtofoodabout, whether the book genuinely deserved it of not. So let me assure readers of this review that I approached this book with a rather severe degree of skepticism in addition to the high bar that I always try to set for thinking and talking about food.

Despite these concerns, I have to admit to being mightily impressed with Questlove’s work here. I don’t know to what extent these interviews have been edited for content or for space, and of course the book is credited to Questlove “with Ben Greenman” just as Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove was. Still, it’s Questlove’s personality shining throughout each chapter and he successfully collaborates with his ten interviewees to produce a conversation that digs deeply into the nature of creative enterprise. Though he doesn't have an academic food vocabulary at his disposal, Questlove’s wealth of travel experience affords him a strong sense of the big picture for food trends and challenges. He challenges both himself and his interviewees to engage these larger threads with solid results.

Each chapter begins with one page of Questlove’s background information on the interviewees -- how he first encountered them, what their restaurants are like, what sort of ideas appear to be coming out of their kitchens. The interviews then each take up five or six pages in a two-column spread. The physical design of this book is wonderfully spacious in this regard. The text is a two-column spread on each page, with a third somewhat skinnier column at the margins. Into this third column, Questlove usually drops a footnote that takes up less than a third of the total column space, meaning readers have several square inches of white space per page into which they may drop their own annotations.

After each interview, there's a series of photographs that capture some aspect of the interview; they show the kitchens, or the machines, or beautifully plated food, sometimes scenes from the interviewee’s domestic life or Questlove animatedly eating witht his friends at the interviewee’s restaurant. There is a lot of white space for note-taking around these visuals, too. Kyoko Hamada’s photography is itself gorgeously stark, a modernist sensibility of cleanliness in the lines plus a vibrant field of colors reminiscent of her commercial work for Japanese clothier Uniqlo and Swiss furniture maker Vitra.

The interviews themselves appear to have been conducted in the order that they are published in the book, as Questlove is fond of referencing things said by previous interviewees and asking the next person in line to provide commentary on the original comment. This allows the concepts on Questlove’s mind to continually resurface for a reflection that shifts, builds, and deepens with each chapter.

There are a few topics consistently on his mind. The most obvious is a mapping of the creative process. There are repeated comparisons made between cookbooks and sheet music, and an inquiry into whether these are simply lifeless artifacts. Questlove is also invested in many different types of shortages, e.g., why food deserts exist in urban areas, why famines are still possible, whether some foods can ever be produced sustainably, how hunting impacts an animal population, why cheffing is dominated by white males.

He also asks more personal questions that speculate not on the future of food but instead portray something about its past. Each interviewee has a unique set of present tense concerns, but Questlove always ends up asking them to describe the first restaurant they ever went to when they were kids. The answers here are diverse, compelling, shot through with sense memory and some of the most telling portraits of these interviewees’ roots.

Most of the interviewees are good at talking about what they do. Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park in New York, continually proves himself articulate about his own work. Dave Beran, of Next in Chicago, stands out for his brutally clear evaluation of what makes a dish a success and what to do with success. Jesse Griffiths, of Dai Due in Austin, have a nuanced and persuasive understanding of how to be a progressive and a hunter at the same time. Donald Link, of Cochon in New Orleans, press for finer distinctions within tourists’ caricature of Cajun and Creole cuisines.

Then there’s Nathan Myhrvold, of Modernist Cuisine lab in Seattle. This is the first interview, and it admirably jumps right into the meat of many big ideas. Perhaps one of the best ideas this book puts forth is the challenge of all performing arts endeavors: you make the dish, it gets eaten, then what is there? Art forms that are experiences, whether a Roots concert or dinner at Trois Mec, really have only the sense memory of those points in time and the emotional residue those memories produce. Maybe there’s a concert DVD or a menu you can take home, but it’s not the same as living in and through the moment when the art is taking place and you are right there engaging with it. It’s not the same as a shelf full of classic books or a city full of cool architecture. The performing arts therefore necessitate a different manner of creativity, and Questlove doesn't shy away from either the joy or the terror of this fact.

Then end of the book circles back around to Myhrvold, who makes Questlove a 13-course lunch. It’s wise to include this last, so that readers can read the meal substantially more deeply based on the ideas they’ve picked up from the ten interviews. This meal is rendered first as photographs, and then Questlove’s first impressions of each dish followed by what Myhrvold says as he presents each dish. This section provides an immediate practice space and proving ground for readers to give their thoughts on food some fresh exercise. It's an invigorating last chapter, and Questlove includes a “song pairing” for each dish that reconnects readers to his primary art form and reminds readers of why they love Questlove in the first place.

I expected to dislike this book, but found myself unable to muster any substantive criticisms of it that would be enough to outweigh its usefulness. Some interviews are better than others, Anthony Bourdain phones in the introduction, and Questlove’s conclusion segment is a little cheesy because he's being forced to give closure on something that is, of course, unending. Still, all kinds of artists will find a lot of provocative concepts in Somethingtofoodabout.

The food discussion never veers into territory so elitist or so technical that an ordinary person who enjoys ordinary restaurants would miss the point. There's a lot of good music and visual art discussed here. There are important predictions for the future of farming and the food industry that do plenty of head-on tackling of key issues surrounding race, gender, poverty and the environment.

This book is meant to create conversation and thereby induce creativity. It succeeds on that level without dumbing anything down, so please don’t think I’m simply giving it the Fallon treatment when I say that Spmethingtofoodabout is a really good read.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.