Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 11 September 2016
Food writing 2: Articles I liked from Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky
Writing about food some fine writers and articles
In Food writing 1, I analysed Mark Kurlansky’s anthology Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History, 2002. The book contains 234 articles, which covers the range of food writing from 500 BC to roughly the last thirty years. I said that I thought Kurlansky had done a good job of covering the breadth and depth of food writing. I then looked at the range of writers involved and gave a brief description of those who had four articles or more in the book.
My only qualms with Kurlansky’s range had to do with my wish to be entertained and informed through good writing. On these subjective criteria I chose 32 articles that I admired and another 40 I found of interest.
It is my task in this and the next article to give some descriptions and at least acknowledge articles in the book that I feel worthy of following up on. A somewhat daunting task I now realise.
The initial list
At the end of Food Writing 1, I listed the authors of 2 or more works that I really liked. The first two were Waverley Root (3) and MFK Fisher (4), but included Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (2), A J Liebling (2), George Orwell (2) and Angelo Pellegrini (2). I selected all of Waverley Root’s articles in Choice Cuts and half of MFK Fisher’s so we’ll begin with them.
Waverley Root (3)
Waverley Root (1903 – 1982) an American journalist and writer gave up news for food writing at the end of his life, contributing a regular column to the International Herald Tribune.
Root authored six books including the classic The Food of France (1958), The Food of Italy (1971) and Food (1980) of which the first and last concern us here.
The three articles I liked are very different.
1 Cassoulet (1.5 pp) from The Food of France (1958)
Root begins: The outstanding dish of Languedoc is Cassoulet, white beans cooked in a pot with various types of meat. And, ends the article: There is a tradition that the crust should be broken and stirred into the whole steaming mass again seven times during cooking.
Cassoulet is a favourite dish of mine so I’m biased, but in between the beginning and end is a description that is tight and succinct, but also charming. Yet, it is a straight article allowing no flourishes in the space. I checked my Larousse Gastronomique to compare. As expected the Larousse article was longer and more detailed, with similar information, but it was not charming (which the Larousse can be on occasion).
2 Guinea fowl (3.5 pp) from Food (1980)
Kurlansky calls Food Waverley Root’s encyclopedia: It is completely arbitrary and whimsical, full of the writer’s own personal prejudices, which is exactly the way good food writing should be.
This article typifies Kurlansky’s statement. It is arbitrary, whimsical and charming. Root begins with raising Guinea fowl and the fact of their wildness, and amusing or annoying habits, which makes them hard to catch when you want to kill them. Guinea fowl are thus difficult as a commercial proposition and not for the mass market. I remember that Guinea fowl were very popular in the 1970s in restaurants, but less so today. Root goes on with a detailed species description and their history in cooking from Roman times.
He ends: Despite its vulture like head, it has always struck me as a notably decorative bird. Some of its varieties are so handsomely patterned that I can imagine their having been designed by Van Gogh.
3 Truffles (10.5 pp) from Food (1980)
Root has all the time in the world to meander and be charming and to examine the mystery of truffles themselves. He covers the history of truffles and the varieties of truffles used in the ancient world. He catches up to more recent times and those that are best and more renowned — the Périgord black truffle (though there are other types) is reputed as the best and the white truffle of northern Italy the next best. He is informative, gives scientific names for the varieties and knows much about what others have written. He says that attempts to grow truffles go back 175 years, but with very limited success. Nowadays, post Root, however, we grow truffles seeded on tree roots in Australia and sell them to France, but how good they are I do not know. Root provides a delightful and informative essay.
However, where Root excels is in his honesty about his personal experience with truffles. He admits in The Food of France that he did not go overboard about the truffle and merely said on rare occasions when truffles are served relatively alone: their own taste can be detected as a rather faint licorice flavour. He had not ever tasted a really first-class truffle. Few have!
Perhaps the situation is similar to Kobe beef (which I have tasted) in Kyoto, Japan in a cooking class (with certificates to prove the provenance of the meat). Some restaurants in Japan serve steak as Kobe beef, which isn’t, and our cooking teacher said to his knowledge in 2013 no Kobe beef had yet been exported to the USA, whereas there were restaurants in America that served it.
Root himself talks about fraud because of the money involved and the crime of truffle nabbing. I do know that truffle oil is completely artificial.
Root’s own revelation on truffles came by accident. He explains a long incident of being invited to the opening of a new restaurant in Paris, with Périgord connections, where the chef steeled himself to give a large tangerine-sized truffle to an Admiral whose wife as well as being a Lautrec was gastronomic royalty. The Admiral refused and Root became the accidental recipient: I bit full into it and my mouth was flooded with probably the most delicious taste I have ever encountered in my life, simultaneously rich, subtle and indescribable. I ate it all, while the other guests regarded me with loathing.
I find it quite impossible to pass on any idea of its taste. If I say it was as sturdy as meat, I will start you off on a completely wrong track as to its savor. If I say it was as unctuous and as aromatic as chocolate. I will do the same. Truffles taste like truffles.
My own experience of truffles is of ‘the faint licorice flavour’ school. I’ve had them a few times. My big chance came when I was taken to a ‘hat’ restaurant in Périgord a long time ago. It was disappointing, any truffle flavour buried by the meat casserole. I’ve had them in small quantities elsewhere and had no real definable flavour. I can’t say I’ve eaten truffles and few have.
Root ends his essay with: The worst gastronomic use ever made of truffles was probably committed by Delmonico’s, the famous New York restaurant…[which] created ice cream (flavor unspecified) with truffles — “strange to say, very good,” said Ward McAllister, who was strange too.
(I googled Ward McAllister he was rich and a self-appointed arbiter of New York Society. The truffle ice cream incident was in 1867, well before Root’s time.)
These three articles have left me wanting more. I’ll be looking for The Food of France (1958), The Food of Italy (1971) and Food (1980) and hoping to read them sometime. Any comments from anyone who has read these books would be welcome.
MFK Fisher (4)
MFK Fisher is a different kettle of fish. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908 – 1992) was a preeminent American food writer and author of 27 books, too many perhaps.
The four articles I liked are:
1 Bachelor Cooking (3.5 pp) from An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949)
This is an amusing article about men and cooking food for seduction. A thing I have indulged in occasionally in my twenties and early thirties, less so later.
Fisher ends with an anecdote of being the recipient of her most successful potential bachelor dinner, spoiled by the weather and her pregnancy.
Of course the main mistake was in his trying to entertain a woman in that condition as if she were still seduceable and/or he still a bachelor: we had already been married for several months.
2 Monsieur Paul’s Restaurant Paris (5pp) from The Gastronomical Me (1943)
An amusing description of a restaurant and a gushing waitress.
3 Tripe (6 pp) from With Bold Knife and Fork (1968)
An erudite and witty article on tripe, with one recipe, and a description of how things used to be, as tripe nowadays is pre-cleaned. Fisher understands that most people reject tripe at an early age. I have tried several times and can’t come at it. She in an unlikely fashion learned to eat tripe at her grandmother’s and enjoyed it.
4 Leaving France (1 p.) from Sea Change (1932)
A description of Bouillabaise, and nearly not getting it, at a restaurant in Marseille on the point of embarkation.
MFK’s writing is interesting enough and I should try to read some more. I’m just a little daunted as to where to start.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (2)
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896 – 1953) moved to Cross Creek, Florida and began writing about rural life.
1 Hot biscuits and Dutch Oven Rolls (2 pp) from Cross Creek (1942)
Hot biscuits run a poor second to cornbread but are of a higher social caste. The hot rolls are prepared in a cast iron dutch oven on a camp fire. In Australia such caste iron dutch ovens are a feature of outback cooking and damper bread is made in them.
2 Hush Puppies (1 p.) from Cross Creek Cookery (1942)
These are concomitant of the hunt or the fishing trip and are a type of cornmeal and onion biscuit treasured from the deep South. Interesting.
Rawlings also wrote an article on Okra in Choice Cuts. A versatile vegetable, I like.
George Orwell (2)
George Orwell — Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950) — is universally known, but his autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is perhaps less so.
The two excerpts from this book: Paris Cooks and Waiters (2 pp) and English Food (0.5 pp) give some flavour of the book, but my memories are of better excerpts. Although Kurlansky classes the first under rants, whereas I’d say his insight into the difference between cooks and waiters in France has more of a deep psychological insight.
I must confess that I have written previously about false memories on The Mill on the Floss. However, my memories of better excerpts are so delightful that I don’t want to spoil them by checking. George Orwell and his Russian friend moved out of being plongeurs in hotels and began as waiters in a new French Restaurant. The proprietor was a rogue and cheap, but he bought very good and sharp cutlery so that the knives cut through the chicken like butter regardless of its quality. The Russian when he didn’t like a patron would spit into the soup, before going through the swing door and cry: another blow to the bourgeoisie.
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is a wonderful book. The first part in Paris is inspiring, the second a grim but fascinating record of poverty.
AJ Liebling (2)
Abbott Joseph, A J Liebling (1904 – 1963) was an American journalist who was closely associated with The New Yorker from 1935 until his death.
1 Restaurant Maillabuau in Paris (4 pp) from Between Meals (1959)
A lovely personal story. As a poor student the restaurant though not fancy in decore was in the luxury bracket out of his price range. However, when his family came to visit he plotted to take them there and as the only speaker of French, he could intermediate and manipulate both his family and the avaricious proprietor into serving his wishes. On the first night he had to accede to plain food, but on the second he got what he wanted. When he went back at the beginning of the war the restaurant had disappeared.
The story justifies Kurlansky’s comment that Liebling was a food scrounger (in a nice way).
2 Rosé wine (1.5 pp) from Between Meals (1959)
This is a diatribe against Rosé wine in France in the late 1930s, which he calls a semi-aborted red wine. He mentions at the end that rosé is meant to go with everything, but says if a wine isn’t good it doesn’t “go” with anything. He only approves of one rosé Tavel, which is good and old and original, and available in the 1920s.
Between Meals (1959) is another book I’ll be looking for.
Angelo Pellegrini (2)
Angelo Pellegrini (1904 – 1991) wrote 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.
His first book The Unprejudiced Palate (1948) is an important work in the history of food literature and remains in print. Both articles come from this.
1 Chicken Intestine Omelette (1 p.)
I’m not sure I’d eat this and in Australia it is quite hard to get chicken guts nowadays, but it is a wonderful description of immigrant life. His American friends when they caught him in the act of cleaning chicken intestines were at first incredulous and then mildly shocked.
Another enlightening description of how the Italians use polenta both in high cooking and as the peasant food of his childhood, which he hated because it was a consequence of poverty. Even worse was polenta combined with the befouled Mediterranean pilchard. Childhood memories are always strong.
Another book in the growing pile of must get around to reading. I hope you’ve found these descriptions interesting.
I have only covered the multiple article authors and about half, not to mention the 40 others of interest. In the next article I’ll have to pick and choose but I’ll at least list them all.
Posted in Madrid, Spain
Key words: Food writing, Mark Kurlansksy, Choice Cuts, Waverley Root, MFK Fisher, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, George Orwell, A J Liebling, Angelo Pellegrini
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings