America the Edible:
A Hungry History, from Sea to Dining Sea
by Adam Richman
Rodale Books, September 2011
Paperback, 288 pages
Review by Jason Bell
Despite its proximity to the Mississippi, St. Louis lacks a reliable supply of superb fish. We get enough bass to satisfy a horde of Huck Finns, but seafood is scarce. Midwesterners are suspicious of salt water. We prefer limpid rivers where catfish can grow fat, deep pools that hide sunken school buses and corrugated aluminum roofs, reservoirs, and the occasional, gentle waterfall. Drive southwest from St. Louis until you hit Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. Belly surf the gorges, raft along the Black River, and grill rainbow trout in tin foil for dinner: that’s about as good as it gets for a pescetarian around cattle country. Have to have sushi? Well, just don’t, unless you’re alright with Midwestern accouterments like mayo, cheese, a little more mayo, and barbecue sauce.
I grew up five minutes from I Love Mr. Sushi, a humble, unambitious, beautiful little good-luck-shop in a strip mall. Fortunately, Mr. Sushi steers clear of fusion goop; they put together a firecracker smart soft shell crab concoction. Edamame is a filling option, and you can’t go wrong with a California roll. For anyone with any fresh sushi experience, however—I’m talking to you, New Yorkers and Angelenos—the chu-toro, the sake, the kinmedai, the buri, etc., will never measure up. Whenever I catch someone complaining about St. Louis sushi, I give them directions to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, Crown Candy Kitchen, the Courtesy Diner, the Goody Goody Diner, or any other purveyor selling what St. Louis does well. St. Louis is not a sushi town.
Adam Richman, star of the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, has titled a chapter in his book America the Edible “Meet Me For Sushi In St. Louis: Can It Be Just Fair?” In his introduction, Richman claims that America the Edible is “accessible, nondogmatic, non-douchey” and a “culinary anthropology.” These might seem like incompatible intentions, and as you might expect from a chili-swilling, giant-burrito-chomping, five-malts-in-thirty-minutes-slurping TV personality, America the Edible quickly veers from its anthropological aspirations. America the Edible turns out to be equal parts biopic and travelogue, rom-com and Bildungsroman, focused on Richman and the rich dishes he shovels in at light speed. Beginning with Richman’s “Left-Coast Life, Part I,” America the Edible careens from L.A. to Hawaii, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Austin, San Francisco, Maine, and Georgia before returning to “Left-Coast Life, Part II.” In fact, America the Edible is only nominally about food. Gastronomy merely backgrounds Richman’s journey from struggling actor to megastar and his failed love affairs.
This tension between Richman’s egomania and his ostensible aims makes America the Edible a book you love-to-hate and hate-to-love. Richman is at turns misogynist, racist, beyond his academic pay grade, and creepy. He’s also immensely charismatic, eccentric, and fun to read about. We laugh with and at Richman. The text includes “did-you-know-ish” boxes (“Did you know that avocado comes from the Nabuatl—a language of the indigenous Nahua people of Mexico—word for testicle because of its shape?” No, I didn’t.), recipes (“Mom’s chicken soup,” “The 2nd Best Banana Pudding”), bizarre personal anecdotes (“Dear reader: This will be the one and only reference to Mom’s boobs”), high school history lessons (“In 1965, the US government lifted restrictions on immigration from Asia, resulting in an incredible influx of people, foods, spices, and culinary talents and traditions from Asia”) and travel tips (“. . .the real reason that I advocate Oahu as the island you must visit is the North Shore.”) In its mix of food and travel writing, personal essay, narrative nonfiction, and wildly inappropriate diary-ing, America the Edible is simultaneously entertaining and horrifying. Like a trashy sitcom that sporadically flashes into brilliance or a great slice of street pizza, America the Edible is good bad, which is the best kind of worst.
Reading travel writing about your hometown is always a miserable experience, at least to the extent that the travel writer never seems to get it right. Richman misses the best of St. Louis (some of which he actually covers on the Man v. Food episode about the city) in favor of Imo’s (a chain pizzeria), Fitz’s (a tourist trap), and a bizarre digression about sushi. Page upon page of talk talk talk about bad bad sushi. Luckily, Richman rehabilitates St. Louis with a trip to Whole Foods, where he finds fish equal to any on the coasts—some of the best tuna he has ever encountered. Frankly, it makes me question Richman’s authority as a travel writer and a “food expert.” Then again, Richman is an actor, and like Man v. Food, America the Edible is a performance. Best to sit back and enjoy the show.
May 29, 2012