Sunday, January 19, 2014

Food, No Bill

The Food Trap

I've been reading a lot of food nonfiction lately. I suppose it has to do with a whirlwind romance with the competitive cooking reality show, Top Chef, which was introduced by The Boyfriend to me a few months ago. He wanted to catch up on Top Chef: Masters, which was on its fifth season, and so we spent a couple of weekends scarfing down breakfast and marathoning the show. It was then that I was introduced to weird and odd terms and ingredients - one of the contestants had an affinity with yuzu and dashi and ponzu sauce, Japanese items that I'd never heard before. (It was later on that I realized that I'd had ponzu with sashimi more than once.) The food looked fantastic, but it was the way that the chefs described the way they were cooking - braising, boiling, frying, crisping - verbs that rolled off your tongue like the sweetest thing, that had gotten me hooked. The challenges were crazy: jumping off a plane and skydiving to your cooking location, the epicness of Restaurant Wars, the panic-inducing Quickfires.

After Masters, we watched Top Chef: All Stars, and even though I was meeting Dale Talde and Richard Blais and Carla Hall and Antonia Lofaso and all the other colorful characters that made up the season for the first time, I was immersed. I consumed the entire season in two days, and now I wanted more. I sped through Season 4, jumped to Season 9, then 10, then 5. Now we're following the latest season in New Orleans. And in between these shows, I found that I needed to know more about how the terms were used - brunoise, chinois, mise-en-place, chiffonade - and how they were used. So of course, I wanted to read about them.

I picked up Kitchen Confidential first. After all, I'd seen Anthony Bourdain host a million and one food shows at this point - No Reservations was a particular favorite of mine, as well as The Layover. But it was only when I read Kitchen Confidential that I realized that he was also a remarkable wordsmith as well. And when I picked up A Cook's Tour that I realized that words had the power to make me smell and savor the food that he was eating, to slink through narrow side-streets and follow rough-and-tumble characters in the search for the perfect meal. I was hooked. I wanted to read more.  

So far I've gone through Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires, both of which I sank into, like a pile of downy comforters, and never wanted to leave. She wrote with warmth and verve, describing both her food and her memories with in such detail and with such good humor and humanity. While Bourdain was all razor-sharp serrated edges, biting the hands that fed him - or that he cooked for - Reichl's books were balanced between memory and experience. She never moved away from the food she was reviewing, and she never moved away from herself.

I've also just finished Marco Pierre White's The Devil in the Kitchen and Gail Simmons' Talking With My Mouth Full, which is about as different as two food memoirs can be. MPW's book sometimes shies away from its confrontational tone, making it seem as though he was always just at the right place, at the right time. His movement from an upstart in the kitchen to a three-Michelin-star chef seemed almost too neat, too easy. Even the dramatic bits - the ones where Bourdain might have used the time to buff the exposition, make the dialogue sparkle - were told in workman's words. There were a lot of underhanded apologies made, though he made it clear from the outset that he didn't want to apologize. The man burned a lot of bridges. He might not be a personable character - whether of the rough-and-tumble or the refined variety - but man, I wish I was able to taste his food.

On the other side of the divide, Simmons' book is a pretty clear narrative about the other side of the food industry - the business and marketing side. It's a lightweight among the heavy hitters that I've been reading so far. Though now I have a better understanding of Gail Simmons' presence on Top Chef - she's done work at Le Cirque and Daniel Boulud, after all - her writing is very casual and conversational and it's clear that she doesn't want to ruffle any feathers with her writing. I think I appreciated the Food & Wine as well as the Top Chef chapters most, simply because I was curious about the editorial process behind epicurean magazines, and the show was, well, the show.

Still on my pile of books to read are the Jeffrey Steingarten books (The Man Who Ate Everything, It Must've Been Something I Ate), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Botany of Desire), Nigel Slater (Ripe, Tender), Bill Buford (Heat), and Gabrielle Hamilton (Blood, Bones, and Butter). It's an exciting new discovery, and a welcome respite from all the other work-related stuff I've been reading.

Trending on Twitter (and Facebook)

If you're looking for bite-sized lit stuff to read, come on down and follow us at Shorthand, the English department's Tumblr, where we're trying to show the world the stuff we like (comics! movies! TV! books!) as well as establishing an online presence for the department.

Mental Floss also does a feature on one of my favorite authors, John Green in The Green Movement, and talks about the Vlogbrothers' advocacy in finding a space for teenagers online in creative and participating in positive activities as well as having fun. It's one of the more insightful articles I've read about the whole Nerdfighter community, and the online video / collaborative projects that have been going on in YouTube.

I've also discovered The Dark Magazine, an online publication focusing on the macabre and the frightening. Their stories are both luminescent and chilling, and they're certainly exploring the boundaries of the genre. I've especially enjoyed "By My Voice I Shall Be Known" by Angela Slatten, which is about a mute seamstress who uses her nightmares to wreck havoc and revenge upon her ex-fiance and his new wife; "The Nameless Saint" by Willow Fagan, which shows what happens when one's miseries are bottled up, with destructive results; and "Wrought Out From Within Upon the Flesh" by E. Catherine Tobler, which is a disturbing and sensual lamia-like story that transforms skin into bark and vice versa. The magazine is also accepting new stories for their slush pile, so if that's something you're interested in, give it a shot.

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