Thursday, January 5, 2012

Food Porn


It seems like everywhere I turn lately I'm confronted with the typical New Years Resolution diet stories like how to lose weight fast, or the "water diet" or some such nonsense. I've gone the other way. I've been reading food books for fun.

Christmas Eve I was listening to The Splendid Table on NPR. Edward Behr, the editor of The Art of Eating magazine was telling the story of how his magazine began 25 years ago, its contents and how they write about food. I was spellbound. I never knew food writing could be so sumptuous.


I am not a good eater, and you'd never want to invite me home for dinner. While I can hold up my end of the conversation, the list of things that never cross my lips is far longer than those that do. But I am resolved to try, a least a little bit, to expand my dining repertoire this year.

I figured there were two ways of doing that. I could hold my nose, fork in hand and pretend that I enjoy vegetables, or I could learn to want to savor veggies by following the examples of those that had gone before me and lived to write about what a wonderful experience they had. I chose the later, beginning with several back issues of The Art of Eating. I'm learning.


For Christmas I purchased a copy of New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First, Family, France and the Meaning of Food.



I usually enjoy Adam's writing, although I found this book a slog.

I did take away 3 points that all good cooks know intuitively, but I had to learn the hard way. First, the rule of triple action in cooking: take something to eat, do something to it, do something else to it, and don't do anything else after that.

2. Let your oven be either very hot or very cold. None of that 325/350F (160-175C) stuff.

Finally taste is a fiction, shaped by time. We make up our tastes and it is the making-it-up that makes it matter. That gave me hope.

The best part of Gopnik's book I found to be the many references he cited. Foremost was The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin, published posthumously and anonymously in 1825 by the heirs of a French nobleman renowned for his erudition on matters cullinary, and translated into English by MFK Fisher in 1949.


Brillat-Savarin is probably best known to Iron Chef watchers. His maxim "tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are" opens the show. I found a heavily marked up, underlined and dog earned copy on Alibris last week and am happier for it, it may be unwittingly, the funniest book I have ever read.

Any book which begins "What woman wants, God Wants" demands that the reader pay attention. His message is "that the pleasures of the table are for every man, of every land, and no matter what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest."

For over 400 pages there are 30 Meditations on all things Gastronomic from simple definitions of the senses to control of obesity and everything in between. It's a guide to enjoying yourself at the table. Over the past 200 years some phrases have changed meaning, and some medical advice is plainly wrong, yet the work holds up very well, proving his point that good living is an act of intelligence.

Forget the food component, if you are interested in culture, history, sociology, this is a must read. Foodies too should not give this a miss. It's the best couple of bucks you'll spend this year.


The sole area where Mrs. T and I often disagree is what constitutes food. I believe that if it is going into your mouth it had better taste good, if not what's the point? My bride on the other hand is a trier of the first order, willing to substitute taste for health. In 15 years we have made little headway convincing the other.

Mrs. T reads cookbooks like some women read romance novels. She has been working out a new cookbook on us since Christmas, 1000 Diabetes Receipes by Jackie Mills. While there is not a diabetic in the house, this book is currently replacing any number of low fat/no fat cookbooks usually found on our kitchen counters or night stand.

I generally find low fat cookbooks off putting. Substituting taste for wax is not the way to a man's heart. This book though I like, a lot. While the nutrition info of all the dishes is included I find it isn't necessary. The food tastes like food. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Desserts. All things you'd enjoy eating, using identifiable ingredients. I sense a bit of headway. Highly recommended.

Toad

17 comments:

Amy said...

A thousand thanks for the Jackie Mills recommendation. I do have a diabetic in the house; my husband has been a successful patient for the last 42 years and I'm always looking for the intersection of sensible choices and really good food.

Agreed wholly with embracing food rather than the latest water or cabbage diet nonsense!

preppyplayer said...

I now consider you a literary foodie, although your post title had me convinced you may have become something else!
(Rhymes with Herbert)
Your blog will be getting a lot of hits today. I know this because due to a past post title, ( design porn) I had some VERY interesting visitors LOL

Shelley said...

Great post, Toad! I've added the Physiology of Taste to my Amazon wishlist. I agree that some low/no fat foods aren't as nice, eg cheese. I stick with the full fat version and eat it only occasionally. Bill has it often but he's required to buy the stuff with onions in it, which is no temptation for me. Other things, like skimmed milk, are an acquired taste and I prefer now. To each his own.

If you want to read a great cookbook, try any of Elizabeth David's. As you read, try to imagine you live in ration-weary Britain. Her food writing is very sumptuous, sexy even. (She also had an interesting life.)

davidsl said...

I have a copy of The Physiology of Taste and I dip into it regularly. I love pretty much everything MFK Fisher wrote and her work provides the back bone for my thinking and writing about food and wine. I really enjoy all of your writing and lurk here daily.

Toad said...

Amy if you take a look at the Mills book let me know what you think. I've found the dishes pretty good.

Patty don't be so dismissive of Herbert. I still have a street cred to maintain, ya know.

Shelley, Elizabeth David is on her way

Davidsl thank you. I'm glad you are here

Gail, in northern California said...

Oh, Toad...you had me rolling with "Substituting taste for wax is not the way to a man's heart."

Re: food porn...did you read the latest installment from Maxminimus? A photo of fries you would not believe. Criminy. And he works in the health industry. I swear the man has an angel on his shoulder.

Anonymous said...

You ... a picky eater??

ms. mindless said...

I've got a great cookbook that I snagged from my grandmother. It was published in the 60s and it is titled "Low Fat Cookery". It is filled with useless advice about cutting out fatty drinks like milk and egg nog to lose weight and recommends substituting low fat options like soda and alcohol.

I collect cookbooks of all kinds and this one is currently my favorite!

Toad said...

yes me a picky eater. My list of no's is legion.

MS M. I'd love any cookbook that recommends gin over milk

Anonymous said...

I covet the sweater you're wearing here, Sir. You look fabulous, whatever you're not eating [and I would love to know a few key items on your culinary "list of no's"], keep it up.

-Flo

Toad said...

The sweater is a cotton Land's End Canvas shawl collar. I wear it a lot in winter.

I'll start with the easy ones on my don't eat list: NO CHEESE,no way, ever. I order pizza without cheese, in spite of the crazy looks it gets.

No sauces!!! includes gravies and hollandaise, and most salad dressings.

I married into a family of lemon and limers. Only in gin for me please.

the list goes on

Anonymous said...

"the list goes on"

We'll wait. Proceed as you like.

I too loathe gravy, sauce, and cheese on pizza, as well as canned soup in a bowl, or as part of a recipe. Fried anything, will not eat. Noodles, hot or cold, no thank you. No flavored ice cream except vanilla, but not "french vanilla" and do not top my vanilla ice cream with sauce or objects.

Going to check out that sweater now, thanks for the info!

-Flo

Toad said...

Have you ever read Calvin Trillin's Tummy Trilogy? He writes about his friend Fats Goldburg, the man with the Naugahyde palate. He may have been referring to me.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me for coming back again, but this is too good to keep to myself.

I think your sweater is a summer offering only but, during my search, I found the world's first [and only] 8-modifier, no-noun garment description:

http://www.landsend.com/pp/RusticCottonWoolCableShawlCardigan~229129_-1.html?bcc=y&action=order_more&sku_0=::KCO&CM_MERCH=IDX_Men-_-Sweaters-_-Cardigans&origin=index

And I love the sweater too, nice little sale price. I love wearing men's clothes, think I'll get one for my husband too.

Naugahyde palate? That don't make no sense, I find your palate to be quite refined, more like lambskin.

-Flo

LPC said...

Boo to low-fat, booyah to high flavor. You know, if you want some good recipes, let me know. I've been cooking for over 30 years, and what I know how to make is generally a) good b) healthy.

Patsy said...

I would never have pegged you as a picky eater!

There are (sadly) only 2 things I won't eat: black licorice and jello.

Toad said...

Patsy that is because black licorice and jello are yucky