REVIEW by Jason Bell
Best Food Writing 2009
Edited by Holly Hughes
Da Capo Lifelong Books, November 2009
Paperback 368 pp., ISBN: 9780738213699
Nothing is more right than a barbecued rib barbecued right.
Sitting cross-legged in the grass, I watched the Weber barbecue grill silently smoke. Before I left home for the first time, moving away from the Midwest and my family, I intended to engorge myself on a meal supposedly extinct in New York City: a slab of St. Louis style ribs. Rippling with sauce, gelatin, and sweet sweat, a barbecued rib, I believed, would beat any celebrity chef’s creation. And as I ripped my teeth right up next to the bone, I suddenly realized that this moment, this rib, this home, would reside only in my memory.
By its very nature, food exists in a transitory state, only appearing briefly on the plate before disappearing at the hands of some ravenous diner. Even those dishes that require time’s transforming power to reach perfection, like country cured ham or raw cheese, exist entirely on the conditional whims of time. At the end of a decade, Best Food Writing 2009 speaks with a melancholy sense of loss, one based in a movement away from a glorified past towards a more sad, more homogenized future. In this collection of essays, Holly Hughes has assembled an overall narrative that describes a beautiful era of innovation and tradition that, like my rib, seems increasingly demoted to mere memory.
Divided into seven sections, Best Food Writing 2009 reflects larger trends in the world of culinary journalism over the past year; more than ever, food writers appear fixated on examining the histories of particular ingredients, illustrated in sections such as “Stocking The Pantry” and “The Meat Of The Matter.” From Tamasin Day-Lewis’s essay “Summer’s End” to Jason Sheehan’s piece “The Last of the Great $10 Steaks,” these foodstuff-centric articles reject romantic hopefulness. Instead, Day-Lewis chooses to highlight a late summer harvest bounty, symbolic of dying local foodways and farms. Similarly, Sheehan waxes nostalgic for a more perfect past, describing how customers frequent the Columbine Steak House because they “remember when most restaurants were like this one, before everyone started putting wasabi or truffles or lemongrass in everything.” While slow food and sustainable agriculture make appearances, sentimentalism overshadows optimism.
This profound sense of memory extends to the multitude of articles considering regional food cultures. For example, Ruth Reichl writes in “The Last Time I Saw Paris” of “a sudden yearning for a longtime favorite” restaurant and her rediscovery of “the Paris [she] once knew.” Josh Ozersky describes how “it seemed to us then that Atlantic City could never change,” lamenting the “dozens of towering casinos and sleek restaurants” in his work “Eternal City.” Francis Lam revists “a place in [his] memory, a Hong Kong that was, for a boy from the New Jersey suburbs, a pinball machine of noises, colors, and flavors” in “Getting to Know Him.” Profoundly longing, wistful, but never schmaltzy, these essays memorialize and protect a dying gastronomic world.
Although Best Food Writing 2009 seems dangerously mired in recollection, the writing never devolves into outright negativity. The essays emphasize the emotional potency of food, reveling in those culinary treasures that stay hidden—and perhaps preserved—from the mainstream American gaze. As a result, the true importance of food and food writing appears evident: to capture transitory moments, like one last bite of barbecue, before they fade forever.