The best food books of 2020 that aren’t cookbooks
These books also quarrel with each other at times, which only adds to the pleasure of flipping from one volume to another. Dominique Crenn, the three Michelin-starred chef behind Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, was briefed in part on the pages of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste,” the oft-cited treatise on the joys of the table. In her treatise “Rebel Chef”, Crenn calls the book a “brilliant philosophy of gastronomy from the time of the Enlightenment”.
The author Bill Buford, who hung out with soccer hooligans and Mario Batali, sees Brillat-Savarin’s work more yellowish and journalistic.
The book “is pretty tough,” writes Buford in “Dirt”. “Every time I tried to read it, I gave up. (Why doesn’t anyone else say that? In the two hundred year history of this book, I’m really the only one who takes it as a slog?)”
There is no right or wrong answer to The Physiology of Taste’s merits. It is clear that Crenn, a native of France with a deep devotion to the soil, feels some connection with the thoughts of a 19th-century French whose prose is full of the same noble legacy that later spread to her generations affected. On the other hand, Buford, a great American word architect, reacts in a decidedly contemporary way when confronted with Brillat-Savarin’s more graceful aphorisms, such as “a dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with just one eye. “Buford casts shadows.
Both perspectives provide a window into the writer’s psyche, if not into their soul. I am not necessarily suggesting that you read all six of these books at the same time, or even one at a time. I mean, you literally can’t. One is only available as an audio book. But I think it’s valuable to notice how the stories overlap: Michael Pollan argues that coffee turned human civilization into “caffeine”. Historian Marcia Chatelain, meanwhile, argues similarly about fast food chains: They have changed countless lives in America’s most vulnerable communities.
“Caffeine” by Michael Pollan (audible, 2 hours 2 minutes, $ 8.95)
The first book I ever read by Pollan was “The Botany of Desire” with the brazen promise to look at the world from the perspective of plants. Sometimes I flip through the book again to find passages like, “Cut an apple at the equator and you will find five small chambers arranged in a perfectly symmetrical starburst – a pentagram.” You don’t have the advantage of using sentences Lingering on “Caffeine,” Pollan’s short audio-only work on the world’s most popular stimulant. You are caught in the rhythm of Pollan’s voice. I’ve heard it three times now.
Pollan makes a convincing argument that coffee, once introduced into Western society, “frees people from the natural rhythms of the body and the sun, and thus enables completely new types of work and probably new types of thoughts”. But caffeine had side effects. To experience the intense withdrawal symptoms of coffee and see what life was like without the stimulant, Pollan went cold in his daily habit. It’s worth reading “caffeine” just for these stories.
“Dirt” by Bill Buford (button, 432 pages, USD 28.95)
The author of “Heat” and “Among the Thugs” turns his New York life upside down and moves his family to Lyon, France to learn all about French food, culture and language. It sounds like the ideal subject for a long time. Form, first-person narration – in the 1970s. When it comes to contemporary food trends, French cuisine is not as high as it was when the late Henry Haller held the post of head chef in the White House for five administrations.
But that’s why trends mean nothing in the hands of a master storyteller: Buford makes sure you care about the sheer power of his observation and writing skills. There are so many moments to choose from, but let me share a little one. It is Buford’s description of soft-shelled crabs that “arrived in a box, alive, with eyes, lined up in rows on a bed of straw, each no bigger than a child’s fist, ocean-damp, slightly stirred and smelling of barnacles, and anchors. “
No book moved me more than these memoirs by cook and writer Phyllis Grant. Written in a form that is not prose or poetry, but an amalgam in which Grant’s observations are both elliptical and elusive, the treatise suggests things so big that words alone are not enough. Grant unfolds her story in an epigrammatic way, moving gracefully through time and drawing parallels between several generations. She writes about her fiddly attempts at a dance career, her success as a cook, her love life and her harrowing attacks of postpartum depression, which are delivered in prose that spares no one, especially the author: “Pictures pulsate in my head, violent flashes what I do bash their brains with a flashlight or throw their fragile bodies against the wall. I watch them die a thousand times. “The pictures pass.
“Everything is under control” contains recipes at the end. But it’s not a cookbook. It’s a brilliant testimonial of taking the next step even when your body and brain don’t want to, even when everything around you feels like it’s going to collapse.
“Franchise” by Marcia Chatelain (Liveright, 336 pages, $ 28.95)
Chatelain provides an invaluable public service with “Franchise”. She explains in irrefutable detail the many factors that have created an ecosystem in which America’s poorest communities have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but many opportunities to visit the Golden Arches. It’s a complicated story that includes institutional racism, the US highway system, the 1968 riots, market-driven solutions, and blockbuster civil rights laws that have been poorly enforced. The black leaders took matters into their own hands and encouraged entrepreneurship to remove the many barriers to opportunity. McDonald’s executives quickly saw the wisdom of handing their troubled urban businesses over to black owners.
“McDonald’s was popular because it was cheap and was one of the few black-district options gutted after civil uprisings,” writes Chatelain. The relationship between American businesses and black communities has never been the same, and the damage they have done has been detailed in countless statistics like this one: 75 percent of African American adults are obese or overweight. Chatelain’s book ultimately warns against relying on the private market to correct society’s injustices.
James Beard could not have been an easy subject for a biographer. The Dean of American Cooking had a dual existence, public and private, and he took precautions to ensure that it continued. He was a gay man who moved through a largely homophobic society, largely keeping his sexuality to himself and at the same time creating a culinary identity that is second to none. Beard could be expansive and generous and funny. He could also be cruel and petty and abusive.
Birdsall doesn’t miss anything in this definitive bio. Equally important, however, is that the author never lose compassion for the subject, no matter how terrible Beard is. For me, this is one reason why The Man Who Ate Too Much is such a masterful work: Birdsall always sees the humanity in Beard, and he dares his readers to understand how heavy a repressive culture is on their shoulders can be a prominent man.
“Rebel Chef” by Dominique Crenn and Emma Brockes. (Penguin Press, 256 pages, $ 28)
The details of your life are of course important, but how you observe and process them often means more. Crenn’s memoirs are full of poignant / astute observations, including her striking pictures of what it is like to be an adopted child with no knowledge of your birth family: “To be adopted is to have a shadowy life,” she writes, “to live alongside the outline of What could have been. “
Crenn would learn to embrace the shadow and see it as a blank slate, not darkness. After graduating with a degree in economics, Crenn left France, a country she felt was too rigid and repressive to reshape her life in California. With her high-wire distillation of French and international cuisine, she became not only a cook, but also one of the most famous in the world. On the way she also discovered truths about herself. She discovered this deep longing for the kind of freedom she saw in the people of San Francisco and years before on the streets of England where a group of children invited Crenn to join their soccer game and thought of that “flat chest”. Girl was a boy.
“For a moment,” writes Crenn, “I hesitated, wondering if I should point out her mistake. Then I took off my shirt, ran out into the street and ran football in the sun for an hour, as free as anything in the world, as free as the boys. “
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