Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 September 2016
Food Writing 1: Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky, a look at food writing across history
Writing about food an introductory excursion
I am a fan of Mark Kurlansky’s writing. I loved Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, 1997 and The Basque History of the World (1999). Although I found Salt: A World History, a bit hard going 2002. Those of you who have been following my What is History? series will not be surprised about my liking for Cod.
Without going deeper into Kurlansky’s biography two things emerge from his first two books above, particularly the second, which is his passion for and love of food.
I picked up Choice Cuts secondhand from Canty’s bookstore. It was one of those books that one feels one has to read. Although I admit it languished on my bookshelves for two years before I began to read it. I found it fascinating but rather hard going too. I suspect many people buy Choice Cuts and only dip into it casually. It is quite tome-like at 473 pages and easy to consider as a reference book, but unlike Larousse Gastronomique, which is a reference book, though a wonderful one, it is possible to read Choice Cuts the whole way through.
I have only approached food righting in a casual and superficial way over the years. I like AA Gill, the English food writer and critic, because he is amusing and quite controversial in his writings. I also enjoy some celebrity chefs on TV especially Heston Blumenthal, the late Keith Floyd (BBC from 1984), Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. I am currently also enamoured of Chefs Table the documentary series by Netflix and I’m casually doing some research on Great Chefs of The World on Pinterest.
My food section has languished slightly in comparison with other areas of my blog. Except for my extensive and practical articles on food in Chiang Mai (with a few still to come), I have only written about British food and Indian Mangoes to date.
It should be apparent that my interest in food is more as an eater and appreciator of food than as a cook. And, I suspect that Kurlansky’s interests are similar. Although I do cook and I suspect he does as well, my cooking is relatively basic rather than inspired. I am not being modest here. I can cook across a range of cuisines, but I know and have known really good cooks and one or two talented ones, and I don’t fit into that category.
I hate to think it, but I am probably of the style of food aficionado in the ilk of ignorant art critics of the I don’t know much about art but I know what I like school. Hopefully, I’m more objective and intelligent than that, but I am an amateur. I don’t have an amazing food or wine palate. Although, I do have an excellent sense of food smell for better or worse.
My experience is that I like eating. I have travelled extensively over a number of years and experienced various cuisines, some of which were not well-known at the time. My experience at the top end is limited, but I do have a wide experience of ethnic foods, and a number of friends who are foodies and cooks. I am also hopefully objective and open-minded about food, and I will try to be informative and entertaining.
Mark Kurlansky Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History, 2002
I have read a number of reviews of Choice Cuts because I didn’t want to put my views forward in isolation. The best range of reviews I’ve found in Goodreads. The goodreads reviews fall into two camps or what I’d call a bimodal curve. Choice Cuts gets a rating of 3.65 (Cod 3.93, Basque HW 3.82). Most foodies and food lovers like Choice Cuts on principle and give it a score of 4 or 5 but do not provide much useful information.
Those who didn’t like the book as much mostly gave it 2 or 3. They also had more to say. A couple thought that the articles contained in Choice Cuts were a spin-off of Kurlansky’s research for other books, a vanity project and not well-selected, that is uninspired, supporting material rather than specially chosen. I’m not sure that this is fair based on the discussion below. One of the reviewers commented that there weren’t many articles after 1980 and attributed it to royalty payments, but I also think this is unfair.
Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings about Choice Cuts along similar lines. Some of the selections and some of the thirty categories of sub-headings were a trifle odd or contrived. I also found the Introduction rather jarring at first and it didn’t seem to prepare one well-enough for the content contained. However, the Introduction did contain useful information on the writers and the history of food writing, and I especially liked Kurlansky’s introductory notes to some articles and brief comments on each new writer.
In all I think that this is a well-selected compendium of food writing from the Ancient Greeks through to the twentieth century. I think that Kurlansky was careful in his selections and that because he covers a large period of written history, the articles represent some of the best food writing throughout history. Also I think Kurlansky went to some length to make the selection representative of food writing rather than focusing on the writing being entertaining, which is perhaps one cause of some criticisms.
An analysis of Choice Cuts
Despite my minor qualms and quibbles, I think Choice Cuts is a great starting point for looking at and analysing food writing as a genre up to say the last thirty years. I’m sure there are better articles that have been overlooked by Kurlansky, but I am also sure that there are vastly more worse ones. I don’t think that Kurlansky was aiming at the average.
Similarly later on in the discussion I am going to filter Kurlansky’s choices by listing those articles that I really enjoyed because they were novel (to me), knowledgeable and entertaining.
In Choice Cuts Mark Kurlansky provides 234 articles (mostly short) divided into 30 category headings, some straightforward and some strange. The articles as shown in Table 1 cover food writing from five centuries BC to the year 2000. The first 1000 years (550 BC to 500 AD) contain 28 or 12% of the articles. The 6th to the 16th centuries 26 or 11.1%. The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries 8, 11, 55 or 3.4%, 4.7% and 26.1%, respectively. And, the 2oth century 100 or 42.7% of the articles. This is quite an amazing spread and I think Mark Kurlansky has done an excellent job of selection. Two thirds of the articles come from the 19th and 20th centuries, which if you think about it is about right.
Table 1 Articles by Period of Writing
|Period||No. Articles||No. Authors||% Articles||% Authors|
|BC (500 years)||7||6||3.0||4.7|
|1st C AD||15||5||6.4||3.9|
The authors in Choice Cuts number 128 in total and their percentage in each period is given in the far right column. I’ll list those that Kurlansky uses for 4 articles or more to give a flavour of the spread of them (the no. of articles is given in brackets).
The main writers sourced
Marcus Valerius Martialis (commonly known as Martial (40– 104 AD), born and died in Spain but spent 23 years in Rome. A poet best known for his 12 books of Epigrams from which Kurlansky obtains his articles.
Wrote the oldest cookbook that we still have (Apicius may have lived in the 1st century AD. Possibly Marcus Gabius Apicius. But the copies we have date from the 4th or 5th century AD according to Wikipedia.
Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus (129 – ~200 AD), anglicised as Galen, was better known as Galen of Pergamon. He was a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher who analysed food and diet for its health benefits.
Anthimus (Greek 511– 534 ? AD) was a Byzantine physician at the court of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great. He was the author of On the Observance of Foods.
Kurlansky says of Platina that he was born of a poor family near Cremona in 1421. He served as a soldier of fortune. In his thirties he moved to Florence and wrote at the height of the Renaissance. He wrote On Right Pleasure and Good Health in about 1465.
Giacomo Castelvetro was an Italian political refugee in England. He felt that the English ate too much meat and sweets and not enough fruits and vegetables. In 1614 he wrote a treatise on Italian fruits and vegetables to encourage the English to adopt them (Kurlansky).
Hannah Glasse (1708 – 1770) was an English cookery writer of the 18th century. She is remembered mainly for her bestselling cookbook, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747. The book was reprinted within its first year of publication, appeared in 20 editions in the 18th century, and continued to be published until 1843 (Wikipedia).
Grimod de La Reynière (5)
Alexandre-(Balthazard)-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière (1758 – 1837), trained as a lawyer, acquired fame during the reign of Napoleon, for his sensual and public gastronomic lifestyle (Wikipedia). According to Kurlansky, witty, quick and unabashedly opinionated Grimod de La Reynière is the forefather of the modern food writer.
von Rumohr (6)
Karl Friederich von Rumohr (1785 – 1843) was a German art historian, writer, draughtsman and painter, agricultural historian, connoisseur of and writer about the culinary arts, art collector and patron of artists (Wikipedia). In 1822 he published The Essence of Cookery as a treatise on German food to encourage German housewives to maintain their traditions. In 1803 his Almanach des Gourmands introduced a new kind of book packed with cooking information, food history and more than a generous sprinkling of opinion.
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826) was aFrench lawyer and politician, and gained fame as an epicure and gastronome: Grimod and Brillat-Savarin. Between them, two writers effectively founded the whole genre of the gastronomic essay (Wikipedia). His famous book The Physiology of Taste was published in 1825 two months before his death.
Alexandre Dumas (1802 – 1870), also known as Alexandre Dumas, père, was a French writer. His works have been translated into nearly 100 languages, and he is one of the most widely read French authors (Wikipedia). 19th century novels are particularly rich in food description. Dumas always considered himself as a food commentator. His 304th volume was his posthumously published food dictionary (Kurlansky).
Pelegrino Artusi (4)
Pellegrino Artusi (1820 – 1911) was an Italian businessman and writer, best known as the author of the cookbook The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining (Wikipedia). Kurlansky says he was an affluent silk merchant from Florence who collected recipes and thoughts about food from a lifetime of entertaining, but no one would publish it. He published himself in 1891 and the book has since had 111 printings.
MFK or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908 – 1992) was a preeminent American food writer. She was also a founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library. She wrote some 27 books, including a translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin. Two volumes of her journals and correspondence came out shortly before her death in 1992. Her first book, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937. Her books are an amalgam of food literature, travel and memoir. Fisher believed that eating well was just one of the “arts of life” and explored this in her writing. W. H. Auden once remarked, I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose. (Wikipedia)
High praise from Auden who was a meticulous poet and his close friend Christopher Isherwood was a technician of good writing. Kurlansky also appears impressed and excited by Fisher’s writing
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896 – 1953) was born in Washington DC. At the age of 32 she moved to Cross Creek, Florida and began writing about rural life there. Her best known novel is The Yearling. Cross Creek an autobiographical account is rich in food law and revealed the already established novelist to be one of the great American food writers. (Kurlansky)
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898 – 1962) was an Austria-Hungary-born American writer and illustrator of children’s books and an internationally known gourmet (Wikipedia).
Abbott Joseph, A J Liebling (1904 – 1963) was an American journalist who was closely associated with The New Yorker from 1935 until his death. Kurlansky says Liebling was by nature a scrounger. Exploring the back streets, he ate and ate and became enormous. He was a close friend of Waverley Root a fellow food journalist and according to Kurlansky got a great deal of his food facts from Root, where Root got his information has remained a mystery.
James Andrew Beard (1903 – 1985) was an American cookbook author, teacher, syndicated columnist and television personality. Beard was a champion of American cuisine who taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts (Wikipedia). James Beard was born in Portland Oregon … An enormous man, his dream was to be an opera singer. His long career in food was marked by his love of an audience. but also by an unpretentious gift for words. No one ever explained a dish better. (Kurlansky)
Jane Grigson (née McIntire, 13 March 1928 – 12 March 1990) was an English cookery writer. She was a long-time food columnist with The Observer, and won awards for her cookery books including Vegetable Book (1978) and Fruit Book (1982). She was made Cookery Writer of the Year in 1977 for her book English Food. (Wikipedia)
These authors sound more interesting than I thought they were in Choice Cuts but the list has stimulated me to pursue perhaps some of these writers elsewhere. I give more information and access to their material in Further Information below.
I actually read all the 234 articles and highlighted those that I found informative and entertaining. As noted above I think that Mark Kurlansky has done a superlative job in selecting such a wide range of food articles across history. I think he was carefully selective and has painted a canvas in broad brush strokes of good food writing across the ages. My purpose is more superficial and selective. I want to tell you which articles I found interesting for me on the two criteria of entertaining and informative. These are subjective choices but so are Mark Kurlansky’s. I hope my list in the table below may stimulate you to read some of them.
Table 2 Articles I Liked
|Categories||No. Articles |
|No. Articles in |
|% Articles |
|Plus other articles |
of some note
I found 32 of the 234 articles or 13.7% fitted my criteria, but so you don’t think that I am completely churlish I also found 40 other articles also of interest or 17.1% giving a total of 30.8%. These figures I think vindicate Kurlansky whose purpose was different. Finding that I thought almost a third were worthy is probably high for any anthology on any subject.
I won’t go through all Kurlansky’s 30 categories or chapter headings. (If you are interested you can go to Amazon, hover on the cover to get Look Inside book and view them immediately.) From the table Chapters 4 and 5: Favorite Restaurants and Markets contained the highest percentage of articles I favoured, not surprisingly. Also Chapters 1, 2, 3, 8, 11, 15 and 28 rate a mention. These are: Gourmets & Gourmands, Food & Sex, Memorable Meals, a Hill of Beans, Easy on the Starch and The French, respectively.
My favoured authors differ only slightly from Kurlansky. I also found MFK Fisher (4), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (2) and A J Liebling (2) entertaining, as well as three authors of three articles in Kurlansky’s anthology Waverley Root (3), George Orwell (2) and Angelo Pellegrini (2). As I selected all of Waverley Root’s articles, I suspect he may be my favourite food author in this list but MFK Fisher comes a close second and I really liked all 32 articles.
Waverley Root (3)
Waverley Lewis Root (1903 – 1982) was an American journalist and writer. Root authored the classic The Food of Italy on Italy and its regional cuisines (Wikipedia). At the end of his life Root gave up news for food writing, contributing a regular column to the International Herald Tribune (Kurlansky).
George Orwell (2)
Everyone knows of George Orwell. Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950), who used the pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.
Two of my favourites are the lesser known Burmese Days 1934 and Down and Out in Paris and London 1933. Kurlansky’s three Orwell articles are all excerpts from the latter. As well as the food writing from Paris, the last half of Down and Out and The Road to Wigan Pier document the appalling conditions of the homeless and the working classes (including inadequate food) in Britain in the 1930s.
Angelo Pellegrini (2)
Angelo Pellegrini (1904 – 1991) was an author of books about the pleasures of growing and making your own food and wine, and about the Italian immigrant experience. He was also a professor of English Literature at the University of Washington. Pellegrini’s family immigrated from Tuscany to McCleary, Washington in 1913 where his father worked for the railroad. His first book, The Unprejudiced Palate (1948) is an important work in the history of food literature and remains in print (Wikipedia).
I’m sure you are wanting to know more, but for a description of my favourite articles from Choice Cuts (32) and a few comments on the others worthy of mention (40) you’ll have to wait for the next instalment in Food Writing 2.
The information above has been a very roundabout way, but I hope entertaining and informative, to reaching a small conclusion. Kurlansky has covered the range of food writing over the last two thousand years up to the second millennium, in a book of nearly 500 pages containing 234 examples of food writing.
By food writing I mean writing about food and eating, not recipes. Of those 234 examples, I found only 32 to be both entertaining, informative and really well-written. My small conclusion is that despite a massive increase in food writing since the 1970s, good food writing is relatively rare. Food writing that stands out as both entertaining, informative and relatively generic is difficult. By relatively generic, I mean that it stands on its own. If, for example, you are particularly interested in Sicily and Sicilian food, then you will tend to seek out such writing and be far less critical than someone who has no interest in Sicilian food, but finds a particular essay on Sicilian food delightful because it transcends the genre.
I’ll talk about what I liked next article and hopefully this will be the start of an ongoing series on food writing.
Key Words: Food writing, Mark Kurlansksy, Choice Cuts, Martial, Apicius, Galen, Anthimus, Platina, Giacomo Castelvetro, Hannah Glasse, Grimod de La Reynière, Karl Friederich von Rumohr, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Alexandre Dumas, Pellegrino Artusi, A J Liebling, MFK Kennedy Fisher, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ludwig Bemelmans, James Beard, Jane Grigson, Waverley Root, George Orwell, Angelo Pellegrini, AA Gill, Larousse Gastronomique, Heston Blumenthal, Keith Floyd, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay
Goodreads Reviews of Choice Cuts
Chefs Table the documentary series by Netflix
Great Chefs of The World on Pinterest
Chefs on TV
the late Keith Floyd
Wikipedia on Marcus Gavius Apicius
Gutenberg copy of Apicius book
Wikipedia on Giacomo Castelvetro
Grimod de La Reynière
Wikipedia on Grimod de La Reynière
Carl Friedrich von Rumohr
Wikipedia on Carl Friedrich von Rumohr
Wikipedia on Pellegrino Artusi
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Wikipedia on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Wikipedia on Angelo Pellegrini
MFK Fisher and Waverley Root are among my favourites. Also partial to Jane Grigson and Laurie Colwin, who isn’t mentioned here.
Don’t know Laurie Colwin wasn’t in Choice Cuts. Will remedy!
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