Best Food Writing 2014
edited by Holly Hughes
Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2014
Review by Chloe Graffeo
Living in a stylish loft in Williamsburg robs you of three-fourths of your paycheck each month for rent. It is furnished with reclaimed vintage furniture, original hardwood floors and Claude Monet prints tacked to the walls. To celebrate the end of a workweek you invited over a few of your closest city friends. You scrolled through your favorite food blogs during the week instead of, well, working, and your menu is set. A gourmet cheese board with candied pecans, quince paste and honey. Roasted rosemary sweet potato frites with a pine nut mayonnaise and baked quinoa onion rings with horseradish dip to accompany the fennel-infused verjus cocktails.
These types of food choice can signal class, geographic location, artistic tendency, culture and whether or not a group is concerned with health, decadence, or both. And this year’s Best Food Writing 2014 is sliced into eight pieces that aim at directing your thoughts towards the meaning and content of the foods we choose to eat. Food, this collection reminds us, does much more than nourish our bodies.
To begin, let us just stop to think about what all this is about. All the hub-ub about food blogs and food critics and in general foodies all stems from one practice: cooking. We grow food and buy food and read food blogs so that we can then sauté and boil and broil and bake; so that we can concoct a scrumptious supper or a humble loaf of bread. Kim O’Donnel in her essay “Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System,” writes about mindful cooking. She grew up in the seventies with a mom who did what everyone else was doing at that time. “She opened cans, unsealed jars and unzipped seasoning envelopes.” It was not until she left home and lived in an apartment of her own that she taught herself to truly cook. Seventeen years and a culinary degree later she is in the kitchen introducing her mom to the magic of a salad spinner. O’Donnel writes about the importance of sharpening your knife every time you cook and comparison shopping for lentils in the bulk-food sections of grocery stores as if those seemingly arbitrary steps were crucial to cooking.
And you know what? I believe they are. I think you should always do something with intention and to the best of your ability otherwise what is the point? And once you have mastered the process yourself it’s your duty to pass the knowledge on. O’Donnel says, “ I still believe deep in my bones that cooking, which marries the practical with the magical, can be the greatest teacher of all, and that it’s never too late to learn.” The magic she speaks of comes from being faced with raw ingredients and knowing you have the capability to transform them into something that can be enjoyed, broken down and utilized by our bodies to keep us alive. Cooking for others is a love-language in itself for it shows the immense pleasure you take in nourishing their bodies and keeping them happily sustained. O’Donnel’s piece is a look at food and a call to action. Cooking takes a stand against the factory-farmed food-products you get from McDonalds and turns a three (or four or five) times a day ritual into one of purpose, intention, and affection.
After that realization overcame me, I needed a break, a snack break. A cup of Earl Gray and handful of salted cashews later, I returned to the book. I proceeded to read and encounter more of the food worlds, inner and outer, that these authors explore. “Meals from a Hunter” by Steve Hoffman is a memory of food and sport, “Forget The Clock, Remember Your Food” by Joe Yonan is a cheeky, no nonsense piece about food, judgment, practice and experience when cooking. Alas, J. Kenji López-Alt attacks food and science relentlessly, discovering how to create the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. (I will be testing his findings immediately and letting my chocolate-chip-cookie connoisseur of a mother taste the test.) I then got to “Bread And Women” by Adam Gopnik and my secret love for the mystery of bread making fermented and rose.
Gopnik writes about his newfound desire to bake bread and the help he seeks out in his bread-baking mother. It took me a while to get through this essay, only because his words kept leading me to daydream of a kitchen stacked with loaves of sourdough and pumpernickel. He describes his mother’s talent for filling her house with dark, crusty pain poilâne, croissants with meticulously folded in butter pats and bagels that poses both plasticity and firmness when your teeth make their mark. Gopnik’s doughy escapade to Ontario revealed more than just the forgiving nature of bread dough to its baker but the forgiveness it rendered in his life. It revealed a “retrospective jealousy” he found himself kneading when faced with the discovery of his wife’s tucked away bread recipe; a forgotten moment of a youthful courtship. His quest to learn the art of bread led him to wonderment for his wife and a part of her he somehow missed out on. He said, and I agree, that toast is “morning-bright, and clean of complications.” So maybe, just maybe that un-complicated slice of browned pain poilâne could be his savior. Thankfully for him, and all of us for that matter, “bread forgives us all.”
I recommend reading this book if you find yourself drifting into arbitrary thought about food multiple times a day or if you contemplate the best coconut, almond-cookie recipe in your head or repeatedly see that steaming bowl of curry you had two weeks ago. This book should be enjoyed by those who not only eat to live, but live to eat.