REVIEW by Jason Bell
Best Food Writing 2010
Edited by Holly Hughes
Da Capo Lifelong Books, October 2010
Paperback: 368 pages, ISBN: 978-0738213811
Reading an anthology is like visiting a buffet—the kind with surimi sushi, fried chicken, chow mein, and more desserts than a self-respecting Midwesterner could possibly finish. A few dishes draw the eye, but the temptation is strong to devour more in a single sitting than stomach-capacity allows. Best Food Writing 2010 attempts to distill an ever-expanding body of literature—spanning newspapers, magazines, blogs, and Internet forums—into a manageable meal. With such schizophrenic variety on the table, however, it’s hard to put your fork down.
In her introduction, Holly Hughes writes that “food writing has moved out of its ‘ghetto’” and that “provocative food journalism has never been more widely read.” This anthology captures a particular moment in America’s food history: an instant when the sheer volume and diversity of information about food has eclipsed the individual’s capacity to sample it first hand. The best essays in Best Food Writing 2010 preserve America’s endangered foods for vicarious enjoyment.
Take Todd Kliman’s essay “The Perfect Chef,” an epic for an elusive master of strip mall Chinese cuisine. Chasing his favorite Chinese chef from Fairfax to Knoxville, Kliman tries to relive grilled fish with cold rice gluten and scallion bubble pancake. Yet, the connection Kliman builds with Chef Peter Chang transcends the past and infects the present. Kliman follows him to Charlottesville “because his food was a part of my life. His tastes had become my tastes.” It is not enough for Kilman merely to remember; he needs this food to live.
You might also sample Jeff Koehler’s “Sardines!” As Koehler grows up, the pilchard transforms from canned delicacy to a dish plucked “from a hot grill, fingers blackened and greasy, surrounded by a growing pile of sucked-clean spines.” Or try “Rather Special and Strangely Popular: A Milk Toast Exemplary” as John Thorne recreates “Elspeth’s Milk Toast” and its many 19th century variants: “we each have to find our own way to milk toast, and so no two recipes for it will ever be exactly the same.” The past enters the present and alters our tastes. I’d end with Roy Ahn’s “Home Run: My Journey Back to Korean.” Instead of traveling backwards, Ahn actually moves forward, relearning Korean cooking so he can teach it to his son. Memory and history become powerful when animated in the present.
At the hazy edge of my own memory, I recall making gallons of strawberry jam. My family had been strawberry picking and, faced with too much fruit and too little pie crust, we pulled out the mason jars. As fall gave way to winter, we spread that jam on toast and spooned it over Breyers vanilla ice cream. Preserves are meant for eating, not storage in archives. Best Food Writing 2010 lets us devour the writing of a moment on some future winter’s day.June 29, 2011