Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

***

Dining Out

I think it says a lot that in a collection of New Yorker food writing spanning the 30s to the 00s that four of the seven pieces in the “Dining Out” section are at least tangentially about French cooking. (I think three out of those four were written prior to the 70s, so perhaps this is more a function of the fact that French cooking was, until relatively recently, rather exclusively synonymous with fine cuisine, but still.) I don’t have an overwhelming interest in reading about French cooking, though, so I’ll probably skip over a fair amount of these.

I also find Anthony Bourdain to be far too proud of himself for saying things that he believes to be bold and shocking, as he does in the first line of his irritatingly titled “Don’t Read Before Eating This,” essay: “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay.” Skipping that on principal.

Eating In

Nor Censure Nor Disdain by M.F.K. Fisher (1968)

A short meditation on the American casserole, and habits surrounding leftovers in the U.S. in the 60s. It’s a fun concept, and decently written, but veers a little off course and loses focus toward the end.

Good Cooking by Calvin Tompkins (1947)

A wonderful long-form essay about Julia Child, still written in her heyday, but well after she had become a household name with the publication of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking cook books, and her TV show, The French Chef. The piece details the development and publication process of her cookbooks (they took over ten years to co-author and the first draft had to be entirely scrapped), the almost guerilla fashion in which her show was initially produced, and her life and incredibly close relationship with her husband Paul.

Julia and Paul Child would have been fascinating people even if she hadn’t become the Grand Dame of French cooking in America–they met as employees of the Office of Strategic Services in Ceylon, worked together throughout WWII, and were married shortly after. They lived in Paris, in Marseille, in Norway (she learned some Norwegian, actually); they didn’t have children; Julia was 10 years younger than Paul; and they did pretty much everything together, as far as I can tell. Following Paul’s retirement, he was also incredibly supportive in bolstering Julia’s career.

Anyway, I already thought Julia Child was fascinating–this only increased my interest. Great piece.

(After having read more of the collection, I think it also worth commenting that it’s impossible overestimate the resonance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking–I think that cookbook (and Julia Child/her TV show) are referenced in at least half, if not more, of the pieces throughout the book.)

The Reporter’s Kitchen by Jane Kramer (2002)

One of my favorite pieces in the collection by far. Kramer writes a reflection about how cooking has aided her in her writing as a professional journalist throughout her lifetime. Her meditations on the act of cooking as a simultaneous tactile and mental process and her reflections on her life experiences are equally wonderful–she’s lead an amazing life and, in its course, has eaten and learned to cook some amazing food. There are the ‘dream cookies’ that she made while working on a story of inter-village bridal feuds in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The pasta and chocolate sundaes she ate at an awkward dinner at Ed Koch’s home while he was mayor of New York City. The “fish grilled by a group of young Portuguese commandos in the early summer of 1974–I covering their revolution; they were taking a break from it–over a campfire on a deserted Cabo de Sao Vicente beach.” The “small Thanksgiving turkey, two Christmas rib roasts, and an Easter lamb,” that she made one April while struggling with a piece on an Afghan refugee. “Good cooking,” she says, “is much easier to master than good writing.”

Fishing and Foraging

A Mess of Clams by Joseph Mitchell (1939)

I’ve enjoyed Joseph Mitchell’s writing from Up in the Old Hotel, and I also appreciated his straightforward, unobtrusive, and rich descriptiveness in this essay. Mitchell travels out to Long Island (with a handwritten “note of introduction,” which I loved) to join one Captain Clock on his “buy-boat,” the Jennie Tucker, from which the Captain buys the day’s shellfish from local boatmen each day. The essay has a great narrative flow, and Mitchell’s ear for dialog is spot-on.

A Forager by John McPhee (1968)

I was recommended this book because of this essay, so it was the first I read in the collection. A good 40 pages, it follows the author and Euell Theophilus Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus and forager extraordinaire, on a planned foraging trip downriver in Pennsylvania in the late fall/early winter. The piece is wonderful–in part an essay about foraged food, but mostly a nuanced profile of a fascinating man who has lived a fascinating life all over the US (Hawaii, New Mexico, LA, Pennsylvania), foraging for both pleasure and survival.

The Fruit Detective by John Seabrook (2002)

Another great portrait of an eccentric food specialist (David Karp) and the US fruit market in general. Karp, once a wealthy and brilliant young man, succumbed to drug addiction in the 80s and 90s, and recovered, in large part, due to his new-found fascination with fruit, which, Seabrook speculates, has become something of a substitute for the heroin of Karp’s younger years. He describes Karp peeling a cherimoya: “The focus he brought to the task, the specialized equipment he used, and the obvious tactile pleasure he took in the procedure, combined with the prospect of an imminent mind-blowing experience, were all powerfully reminiscent of the David Karp of twenty years ago.”

Gone Fishing by Mark Singer (2005)

I just seem to like these profiles–this another good example, a portrait of David Pasternack, the chef at Esca, an upscale, Italian-style fish restaurant in Manhattan. Although Pasternack spends full days, five or six days a week, in his kitchen, he lives in Long island and does much of the fishing for the restaurant himself.

On the Bay by Bill Buford (2006)

Another profile, this of Mike Osinki, a former businessman turned oyster man in Greenport, Long Island. This is an interesting piece, both for the profile itself and also for the details about how oysters are farmed and distributed to local restaurants. It’s a good piece, but I didn’t like the writing of this one as much, though, in part because Buford is personally a big presence in the story and I wasn’t really that interested in him. He’s a bit verbose, a bit faux metaphysical, and kind of irritating in each respect: “…I found myself marveling at the speed with which a creature can be transported from ocean to stomach, dispatched from the dark and deep to–well, the dark and deep,” or “But I was left wondering: Is an oyster a primordial meal?” Blah, blah.

Local Delicacies

The Homesick Restaurant by Susan Orlean (1996)

I have a journalist friend who idolizes Orlean, but I’ve never read any of her work (Orlean’s), so I was particularly interested in this one. It’s a rambling essay about the Centro Vasco restaurant in Miami, a Basque-style restaurant which has become a gathering place for Cuban expats in the city, and is an almost exact replica of the owner’s first restaurant (also the Centro Vasco) in Havana, Cuba. Orlean travels to Cuba to see the original restaurant in the middle of the essay, which adds an interesting layer. I like her writing style a great deal, but as a whole, the piece felt a little ‘without’ to me. There’s a lot of back story, a lot of resonant implications about expatriat life and nostalgia and memory, but I’m not sure the overall effect is as strong as it should be.

The Magic Bagel by Calvin Trillin (2000)

A sweet, personal piece about Trillin’s mostly-but-maybe-not-totally farcical attempt to track down the baker of his California-based daughter’s favorite, but now unavailable, pumpernickel bagels in an effort to convince her to move back to New York. I’m very glad that Trillin has other pieces in the collection–he’s great fun to read.

Raw Faith by Burkhard Bilger (2002)

This piece, about Mother Noella Marcellino (the “cheese nun”) and the raw milk cheese she makes at her abbey in Connecticut, was probably inspired by the concurrent culinary dramas surrounding the relatively safety of cheese that has not been pasteurized for 60 days or more. The raw milk question is interesting in its way–and Bilger has a lot of science seamlessly folded in about cultures and bacteria etc–but I was more interested in Mother Noella, who not only spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship studying “the ecology of French cheese caves” but is also obtaining a Ph.D. microbiology. Also, her fellow nuns are also a fascinating group of people as well (several are obtaining Ph.Ds in sciences in order to further their cheese/agricultural research). As Bilger describes:

The abbey is a medieval place with a modern soul. The nuns are worldly and educated. (A number hold advanced degrees; one is a former movie star who gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss.) Yet their living areas are walled off from outsiders, and they sustain themselves on what they can grow and make on their 360-acre farm. Seven Latin services punctuate the day, and in between the nuns work as beekeepers, cowherds, and blacksmiths; they make their own pottery, grow and blend their own herbal teas, raise their own hogs, and sell some of their products in a gift shop.

Night Kitchens by Judith Thurman (2005)

A poetic essay on Thurman’s trip to Japan, where she met with several master tofu-makers who each undertake painstaking, time-consuming, heritage processes to make their own unique kinds of tofu. “When a tofu master offers you a slice of bean curd he has just unmolded, he is inviting you to partake, insofar as a stranger can, of what it means to be Japanese.”

It’s certainly an interesting topic, but for whatever reason, this one didn’t really do it for me.

The Pour

Dry Martini by Roger Angell (2002)

A nice, short history of the martini and its cultural cache throughout the years.

The Red and the White by Calvin Trillin (2002)

I didn’t like this as much as his bagel piece, but it’s still rather fun. Trillin tries to suss out whether a notorious study–in which people with a knowledge of wine were asked to identify whether a wine they drank out of black glasses was red or white, and routinely failed at this task–was actually conducted at UC Davis. (It probably didn’t, or at least, not exactly.) He then replicates the test himself.

The Russian God by Victor Erofeyev (2002)

Another well done cultural history–this time of vodka, and its place in the Russian imagination (and history). Erofeyev waxes a little too poetic on occasion, but overall, very good.

Tastes Funny

Two Menus by Steve Martin (2000)

A menu from a fictional restaurant in Paducah, Kansas (King’s Ransom); a menu from a fictional restaurant in Beverly Hills, California (Synergy). Martin’s not one for subtle jokes, but a few of the entries were pretty funny.

The Zagat History of My Last relationship by Noah Baumbach (2002)

A funny idea and format that wasn’t executed as well as it could be.

Small Plates

Bock by William Shawn (1934)

A good topic for a short-form piece–the annual release of German bock beer, and some fun origin anecdotes–but not enough orienting details. It starts, “Shortly now, pictures of goats will be hung up in drinking places and bock beer will make its traditional spring appearance for the first time in fourteen years.” (This was written in 1934, it bears noting.) I’m not sure what city this takes place in (I suppose we can assume New York), or more of the background. It’s only a two page piece, so maybe there wasn’t space, but a little more context would have been useful, I think.

Slave by Alex Prud’Homme (1989)

A satisfying short profile of Albert Yeganeh, the real-life “Soup Nazi” (as he was dubbed in his fictional representation on Seinfeld). Good snippet:

“My regular customers don’t say anything. They are very intelligent and well educated. they know I’m just trying to move the line. The New York cop is very smart–he sees everything but says nothing. But the young girl who wants to stop and tell you how nice you look and hold everything up–yah!” He made a guillotining motion with his hand.

Under the Hood by Mark Singer (1989)

Singer takes a drive uptown with Chris Maynard, one of the authors of Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine. It’s appropriately quirky, but doesn’t really deal with Maynard’s engine-cooking much. He puts a foil package of veal scaloppine on the engine of his 1988 Ford Taurus at the beginning of the piece, but then it becomes more about their jaunt to Tony’s, “an Italian-owned place that serves Jewish food as well as Italian to a mainly Irish clientele” and home of the corned beef doughnut. Still fun–and there are engine-cooking anecdotes sprinkled throughout–but the piece has a little less focus than maybe it should.

Protein Source by Mark Singer (1992)

If the setting of the piece were different, Singer and his fellow guests (all characters) might be the central point of interest of this piece–there’s a lot of journalists/The Media versus pest control agencies dialog that is weird for its level of venom. (Like, who would have thought that an exterminator from Queens would, as a pest control professional, have cause for such negative feelings against the press: “We do our best to treat them [the press] as nontarget organisms. As exterminators, we tend to target only four-legged, six-legged, and, on occasion, eight-legged organisms. We don’t normally go after two-legged creatures, although, if you were really interested, I could set you up with someone.”

However, since this piece takes place at the New York Entomological Society hundredth anniversary dinner, at which all of the dishes are insects–“cricket-and-vegetable tempura, mealworm balls in zesty tomato sauce, roasted Australian kurrajong grubs…”–the interpersonal dynamic is a bit distracting. But maybe that’s for the best–I am not culinarily enlightened enough to be able to read about people eating a fancy bug dinner without feeling a little green. Especially when the piece ends with the guests selecting two-inch Thai Water Bugs (a cockroach by any other name…) from a buffet table.

A Sandwich by Nora Ephron (2002)

Basically, a pitch for the pastrami sandwich at Langer’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles. The sandwich sounds very tasty, the piece itself was just okay.

Sea Urchin by Chang-Rae Lee (2002)

A memoir-style short essay about a trip that Lee took to Seoul in 1980 when he was fifteen. I remember reading this one for some reason–I was going through a phase with Lee’s novels and essays for awhile, so maybe that’s why–and I definitely enjoyed it the second time, although probably not as much as the first. The ending is a bit too heavy-handed with the emotional resonance.

As the French Do by Janet Malcolm (2002)

Another one with a quirky premise that kind of comes out of nowhere. Malcolm opens with a quote out of the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (from the recipe for ‘Hearts of Artichokes a la Isman Bavaldy’) an opaque, strangely written instruction about holding an asparagus spear upright as you build a “wall of sauce” around it that is supposed to hold it up. I’m not sure what the impetus for writing about her experiment with this strange recipe was, although there is a nice section about Malcolm’s first experience cooking from the book–seven years before the publication of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she reminds us–when Malcolm was “stunned by suave deliciousness of what [she] had produced.” (Coq a vin, or Cock in Wine.) She then reprints both the original Toklas recipe and her own “sort of hovering Jewish mother’s version.”

It’s a bit muddled as an essay, but still interesting, which maybe I’m starting to realize is a New Yorker thing? Esoteric, kind of random, personality-heavy narrative essays?

Blocking and Chowing by Ben McGrath (2002)

I really liked this piece–it’s just the right subject matter for the length (2 pages) and it conveys the main subject’s (Randy Thomas, offensive lineman for the New York Jets) personality and voice well in the context of the larger milieu (the free, all-you-can-eat cafeteria at the Jets annual training camp). the funniest part is certainly where the players discuss several of their favorite restaurants. “Major’s Steak House, on Long Island, is one favorite, and East-West, an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, is another; Thomas ran afoul of the management in East-West two years ago when he put away sixteen lobster tails. (“I’ve fucked up some buffets, man,” Thomas says.)”

When Edibles Attack by Rebecca Mead (2003)

Another fancy dinner profile piece–this one at the Food Allergy Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 2003. It does a good job of presenting the milieu early on: “The guests…were drawn from that class of New York society which includes Fortune 500 CEOs and senior partners at corporate law firms and exclusive interior decorators: the fortunate few who are largely sheltered from many of life’s afflictions. But food allergies…can strike even the most pampered New Yorkers, and, more significantly, the children of the most pampered New Yorkers, for whom a rogue peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in the lunchroom can present a deadly threat.” However, it’s just not that interesting a subject (to me) somehow, and the dinner they congratulate themselves on (“cit[ing] ‘the right to have a fine culinary experience without fear'”) doesn’t really sound that great.

Killing Dinner by Gabrielle Hamilton (2004)

A well-written and evocative, if visceral, memoir-style piece about Hamilton’s first experience killing a chicken. (I’m not sure who Hamilton is–I really wish there was an author appendix in this collection–but she apparently is now very well-versed in the process of slaughtering and butchering livestock.) “There are two things you should never do with your father: learn how to drive, and learn how to kill a chicken.”

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