People have been writing about food for nearly as long as they've been eating it, and most great authors have had something memorable to say about it at one time or another. But the number of books devoted to what Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called "the art of eating" has ballooned since World War II, so much so that one wonders why chain bookstores don't have a special section called "Arty Books About Food."
The category favored by my neighborhood bookshop is "cooking essays," which is as good a way as any to suggest how such
volumes differ from the conventional cookbook. Even the ones that include recipes (and most do) are less about how-to-do-it than why-we-do-it - or, just as often, how-we-did-it. The cookbook as memoir is fast becoming one of the most popular branches of contemporary literature, as well as one of the most evocative.
Why this sudden surge of interest? Surely it is directly related to the increasingly hectic pace of American life, and the simultaneous decline of the traditional family. Though most of us can still remember a time when dinner was served at a regular hour to a constant cast of characters, the baby boomers are cooking less often for fewer people, and spending less time dawdling over the meals they do cook.
It's an uncivilized way to eat - and we know it. Hence the appeal of books that remind us of the infinite value of unhurried meals eaten in the company of friends and loved ones: if we can't dine the way we used to, at least we can read about it.
No matter how poorly or infrequently you cook, there is much pleasure to be gotten from the best of the many books about the art of eating that are currently in print. Some are witty and elegant, some homely and poignant, but all serve to remind the harried reader that man does not live by Big Macs alone. Here are eight volumes - most of them readily available in paperback - that, taken together, will provide the hungry reader with food for thought:
* A smorgasbord to start. Brigid Allen's "Food: An Oxford Anthology" (Oxford, $12.95 paper) contains well-chosen excerpts from the works of a wonderfully diverse assortment of noted authors, among them Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson ("Sir, we could not have had a better dinner, had there been a Synod of Cooks"), James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is the source of an indelible vignette describing a prison-camp meal: "What had he eaten for eight, no, more than eight years? Next to nothing. But how much work had he done? Ah!"
* The one and only. Originally published in 1825, Brillat-Savarin's "The Physiology of Taste" (translated by Anne Drayton; Penguin, $13.95, paper), remains the locus classicus of books about food. Even the table of contents is irresistible: "Mighty Appetites," "Financial Influence of the Turkey," "The Erotic Properties of Truffles," "Sensual Predestination," "Inevitable Longevity of Gourmands." Used-book hounds should make a point of searching out M.F.K. Fisher's annotated translation, in which the foremost food writer of the 20th century (about whom more later) reflects on and responds to the insights of her immortal predecessor.
* The cookbook as literature. More than a few cookbooks are so well-written that they can be read for pleasure by the lowliest amateur of the kitchen. The genre has lately served as the inspiration for a wicked parody, John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure" (Owl, $10, paper), a Nabokovian mystery novel masquerading as a highbrow cookbook by a self-obsessed artist manque: "In my black room, dressed in black velvet, black silk cravat - no need to change the inherent color of the single orchid in my buttonhole - I would arrange for meals consisting entirely of black food: truffles grated over squid-ink pasta, followed by boudin noir on a bed of fried black radicchio. For dessert, I wanted to emphasize the essential artificiality of the event, the fact that it was a celebration of art, whim, caprice, set over against the brutal facts of nature and death, so I served creme brulee, dyed black."
I can't prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the real-life model for the murderous musings of Tarquin Winot, Lanchester's killer chef, was Richard Olney's "Simple French Food" (Collier, $14, paper). Don't ask me if Olney's recipes are any good - I can't boil water - but I find his ornate prose as tasty as a Brass Elephant entree: "He who blindly opens a cookbook and follows to the letter a series of minutely described steps with no comprehension of their raisons d'etre - of why, if at all, each was necessary - may or may not produce a masterpiece, but he is likely to heave a sigh of relief at being released from that precarious teeter-totter - nor once executed, will any of the steps - motifs in an unperceived pattern - be remembered."
* Remembrance of meals past. A.J. Liebling's "Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris" (Modern Library, $13.50), in which the New Yorker's most celebrated essayist recalls with glowing enthusiasm the great meals of his youth, belongs on any shelf of books about food and its consumers, no matter how short.
Among many other good things, it may well be the funniest book ever written about haute cuisine: "Mens sana in corpore sano is a contradiction in terms, the fantasy of a Mr. Have-your-cake-and-eat-it. No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted."
Scarcely less amusing is Calvin Trillin's "The Tummy Trilogy" (Noonday, $13, paper), an omnibus volume containing "American Fried," "Alice, Let's Eat" and "Third Helpings."
This is the book that introduced the fast food of Kansas City to astonished world, and as a former resident, I can assure you that when Trillin sings the praises of Winstead's Drive-In, he knows whereof he speaks.
* The joy of cooking. Of the many cookbooks-as-memoirs to appear in recent years, the one I like best is Teresa Lust's newly published "Pass the Polenta and Other Writings from the Kitchen" (Steerforth, $24 ), a beautifully written, deeply affecting collection of essays by a one-time professional chef who cooks not for money but love: "My mentors are ordinary folk, all of them, going about their daily business of baking bread and pouring hearty wine. ...Yet as they stand over the stove, they manage to do so very much more than just prepare a meal. They taught me that cooking is an expression of art and of love, of family and self, of the soil and the seasons. I lift my glass to them all."
* The philosopher as chef. Regular readers of this space have already made the acquaintance of M.F.K. Fisher, whose quietly poetic writing is admired throughout the English-speaking world. Suffice it to say, then, that five of her most beloved books - "Serve It Forth," "How to Cook a Wolf," "Consider the Oyster," "The Gastronomical Me" and "An Alphabet for Gourmets" - have been collected in an indispensable omnibus volume called "The Art of Eating" (Macmillan, $19.95, paper). No one has made the case for civilized eating more eloquently: "We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we'll be no less full of human dignity. There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?"
Terry Teachout, author of The Sun's "Instant Culture" series, is the music critic of Commentary and a contributing writer for Time magazine. He also writes about the arts for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review and other publications. The editor of "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" (Knopf), he is currently at work on "H. L. Mencken: A Life," to be published next year by Simon & Schuster.
Pub Date: 6/21/98