Best Food Writing 2011
edited by Holly Hughes
Da Capo Press, October 2011
Paperback: 305 pages
I gathered my people around it: read passages to my husband (“Cooking takes place in the garden. When that’s not complete, the gardening takes place in the kitchen”), gave my sister an idea for her dinner party dessert (Persimmon Bars with Lemon Glaze), emailed my friend a link to Yelp! for restaurant recommendations, and told my brother all about fried butter, which you can now purchase at almost any state fair.
The annual compilation, Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes, is in its twelfth year. This year’s edition dishes out a variety of flavors, including literary essays, journalistic exposé, blog posts, critical reviews, histories, memoirs, and magazine feature stories. The diversity includes an essay tracing the development of a recipe using a whole calf’s head (“Mock Turtle Soup”), to a portrait of an eccentric Texas State Fair concessionaire who started the fry-anything craze (“I Believe I Can Fry”), to a love note to handwritten recipes (“The Case for Handwriting”), to a piece, quite simply, on toast (“On Toast”).
Within the pieces, authors have sprinkled bits of food wisdom that I copied into my notebook for future reference. And when I finished, I had a list of well-over ten cookbooks that were icons of foodie authority. The Silver Palate Cookbook holds a prominent spot on my wish list, inspired by Ann Hood’s piece, “The Golden Silver Palate.”
I recommend starting with “How to Become an Intuitive Cook,” especially if you’re looking to become a natural chef, as I am, and note how Daniel Duane becomes “the guy whose every green vegetable turned out tasty, tender, and electrifyingly vivid in color.” Or if you’re looking for a bit of inspired French cuisine, try “The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,” where Gabrielle Hamilton writes:
This is the crepe. This is the cider. This is how we live and eat. This man with bits of straw stuck to his thick blue Breton sweater, leaning up against the bar for a ballon of vin rouge ordinaire with a splash of water in it at eight-thirty in the morning, is the farmer whose milk we have been drinking, whose leeks we have been braising. These are the knotty, wormy, quite small apples from which the cider is made.
Not all the pieces are as succulent—“We Shall Not be Moved” feels like a glorified chapter in a history of food textbook and “Reconsider the Oyster” is a bit disingenuous as it exposes the unsavory experiences the author has when eating raw oysters.
The charm returns in another favorite, “Fruits of Desire,” in which Mike Madison writes about seductive melons, their “buxom shapes, the sensuous surfaces, the alluring fragrance, the promise of sweetness,” and how his farmer’s market stand becomes the gathering place for Afghani people who learn that he grows the rare kharbouza melon from Afghanistan. In his piece, he tells us:
One evening at the market a young Afghani student comes to my stand, “I bought a kharbouza melon from you last week,” he says. “I took it home to Fremont for my grandfather. Every summer he gets together with a bunch of other old Afghani men and they recite the Koran, the whole thing. It takes three days. It was the third day, and they had just reached the very last words when I walked in and said, ‘Grandfather, I’ve brought you a kharbouza melon.’ All the old men jumped up and shouted, ‘It’s a miracle! God has heard us!’ And then they cut the melon and shared it among themselves, and they sat on the floor reminiscing about home.”
It is a miracle. Not only the God-sent kharbouza, but also the way this book becomes a dinner table in itself, a place to sit and savor the fresh flavors and voices that float like the steam from a pot on the stove in my kitchen, where I sit now, ready to get up and make my own sweet potato tart (“Purple Reign”) or Phanouropita Cake—a traditional Greek dessert made to the saint Phanaouros as an offering for needed revelation (“Saints, Cakes, and Redemption”). This book should be enjoyed slowly, like the ripe blackberries on its cover.December 20, 2011