A Goose in Toulouse

by Mort Rosenblum

Published by Hyperion

285 pages, 2000

Serious Pig: An American in Search of His Roots

by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne

Published by North Point Press

512 pages, 2000

A Fork In the Road

by Anik See

Published by Macmillan

232 pages, 2000

 

 

 

Food As Literature

Reviewed by Adrian Marks

 

Food is adventure. It's travel without going anywhere: gather the exotic ingredients, then lift the fork.

Food is sensuous. Colors, textures and the possibility of watching your medium change character when heat or acidic liquids are applied.

Food is history. Think about the tamale. The pierogi. Crépes suzette. And the stories -- and potential stories -- required for all of the elements to come together in a way, for instance, that creates a créme brulée.

And if you take this particular list of ingredients -- adventure, history and a subject that is by its nature very sensuous -- you have the makings for fabulous literature, as the three books mentioned here will attest.

It is hardly news that the words food and French are inseparable. Back when heads were piling up in baskets in a Paris square, and revolution in France shook the world as nothing had before a pudgy, balding savant reminded citizens to keep their priorities straight. Great human events are fine, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observed, but let's not forget lunch.

So intones Mort Rosenblum in his very excellent A Goose in Toulouse, a book that is no part cookbook and yet almost entirely concerned with the preparation, the consumption and the philosophy of food.

Rosenblum's France is described to us in much the same manner that Frances Mayes describes her Italy: up close and personal and very much from the heart. A Goose in Toulouse is served to us almost in the form of short stories as, in 19 chapters, Rosenblum roams the country and shares his adventures. The preparation of a Sunday lunch in Saint-Restitut. A visit to the limestone caves at Roquefort where "milk turns to cheese." In Rodez, Rosenblum gives in to the temptation to "roll up to a McDrive window, say a few words into a speaker, hand over not many francs, and wheel away with a sandwich that, at the worst of it, would probably not give me ptomaine." The Bordeaux region, complete with salient history and a bird's-eye view, gets a whole chapter. Mushroom sherbet at Lake Annecy; the truffle fair at Aups; stag hunting near Villers-Cotteréts; eating Tex-Mex in Paris; not to mention that famous goose in Toulouse.

Rosenblum's book is a delight though, in many ways, not a surprise. He is the former editor-in-chief of the International Herald Tribune. Based in France, he is special correspondent for The Associated Press. The former war correspondent is the author of nine books including 1998's splendid Olives.

There is more cooking going on in A Fork In the Road: Tales of Food and Travel, but no less flavorsome adventures. A first book for television food researcher Anik See, A Fork In the Road is culinary adventure for -- and by -- Gen X. Traveling mostly by mountain bike, but sometimes on foot -- and mostly alone save her laptop -- See takes us to Mexico, Malaysia and Singapore, Patagonia, Thailand, Georgia, Turkey and Armenia, Indonesia, Northern Argentina, Iran and British Columbia, where she discovers that, "It is a strange thing to find that your home has become a surreal place."

Food is the thread that binds See's book together. Through food -- its exploration but, perhaps, most especially its sharing -- See discovers that food not only transcends language, it offers a language of its own.

A Fork In the Road is an uncommon book written by an uncommon writer and traveler. See not only observes, she immerses herself in the countries she visits, making friends of strangers and savoring the vistas as well as the flavors.

In Northern Argentina, she buys an empanada from a street vendor. See finds them delicious and returns to ask what's in them. With prompting, he tells her. But when she asks what spices, he says it's a secret that even his daughter who makes them won't tell him:

"Delicioso," he says, holding his empanada up and taking small bites. He closes his eyes as he chews. Eating an empanada is like taking a bite of the Argentine psyche: a little bitter, a little sweet, but meaty and substantial.

I ask him why he does not take a siesta.

"Estoy viejo. Mi vida es una siesta." He waves his hands around the empty square and asks me why he needs to take a siesta when he is surrounded by silence. We smile and eat our empanadas without saying another word.

See's book is full of stories like this, all over -- almost -- the world. Small, human moments conducted in many languages combined with the view from the bike. Each chapter is a country or region and is peppered with See's own photographs and concluded with a few recipes for food we've somehow sampled with her in the text.

In his foreword, noted chef James Barber compares See to "other masters of non-linear travel," Jonathan Raban and Paul Theroux. He might not be far off: except with food.

Despite its whimsical title, Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots, John Thorne's third book is a fairly serious and studious look at food in America. Now in paperback, the collection of essays -- recipes included -- are broken into three very broad parts: "Here" consists of foods most often associated with New England -- baked beans, crab rolls and chowder, chowder, chowder -- "There," is essays and recipes from the South ("In New Orleans, there is still here, still familiar -- but at the same time somehow, subversively different.) and "Everywhere."

If you don't have curiosity or interest in the history and minutiae of food, pass this one up. However, if you do, Serious Pig is a serious delight. For instance, the chapter that lends its name to the book, "Serious Pig," starts at a logical place:

In the beginning was the rack. Made of green wood and called a barbacóa, it was used by the Amerinds of the Caribbean to smoke-cook meat over an outdoor fire. This was a process that slightly dried the flesh, giving it a firmer texture, a rich and delicious taste .... The early colonists, however, once they mastered the barbacóa, soon realized that its most spectacularly successful application was to pig .... it made pork remarkable.

From there we get a fascinating dissertation on pigs and pork followed, again somewhat logically, by the history and finer points of barbecue. Similar treatment is given to cornbread, white bread, Italian-American, rice and beans, gumbo, chowder, the hamburger, chili... the list goes on and on. And on.

Both Thornes -- John and co-author Mark Lewis -- publish Simple Cooking, a bimonthly food newsletter. | November 2000

 

Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.