REVIEW by Dan Packel
Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R. W. Apple, Jr.
by R. W. Apple, Jr.
St. Martin's Griffin, December 2010
Paperback 432 pp. ISBN: 978-0-312-65063-6
Globetrotters and gourmands prone to envy should avoid this extensive collection of articles by the late New York Times reporter R.W. Apple. Known to friends and colleagues as Johnny, Apple had the good fortune to eat his way around the U.S. and the globe on someone else’s dime.
Apple filed the dispatches collected in Far Flung and Well Fed over the seven years before his death in 2006, and they appear here as the vestiges of a prior era, when the economics of the media industry still allowed for generous expense accounts. He was a worthy beneficiary of this largess. A dogged reporter, Apple enlightens on such varied subjects as a renaissance in cheesemaking in northern California, the rudiments of whiskey production in Scotland, and the evolution of the black pepper trade in South India.
And there’s the time spent in restaurants—from street stalls to Michelin-starred gastronomic temples. For me, these recaps were most engaging when I could follow along. Apple establishes his credibility early in the collection with an eating tour of my hometown, Philadelphia. He orders his cheesesteaks from Pat’s and Geno’s the right way (with Cheez Whiz and grilled onions) and lands at the best place to get a soft pretzel. Over 300 pages later, I perk up when I discover that we’d both dined at the History, a delightful hotel restaurant in Kochi, in the Indian state of Kerala. I suspect that other readers will find it equally satisfying to play “Been there!” bingo alongside Apple’s itineraries.
These writings come across as antediluvian in another way. Apple came to eating in an era before sustainable and local became unavoidable buzzwords. In part, this is refreshing. Apple is content to follow his palate to freshness and authenticity, and often, like in the French village of St. Marcellin or the tomato plots outside of Naples, these virtues (presumably) overlap. It’s less so when Apple travels to Baja California in 2002 to cover an effort to farm bluefin tuna. There’s a brief mention that the species is under pressure, but no recognition that—as Paul Greengrass notes in 2010’s Four Fish—ranching operations like the one in question are probably more harmful than traditional fisheries.
The lack of continuity between entries, though no fault of Apple’s, occasionally frustrates. At one point, we learn that the market for Armagnac, the distilled grape liquor of southwestern France, is in turmoil; but soon, we read about the growing appeal of Grappa, another grape distillate, this one from northern Italy. My thirst for a comparison of their diverging fates is never sated.
These grievances can be muted by the proper strategy for consuming Apple’s many worthy bites. I’d suggest approaching this book not as a seven-course prix-fixe, to be tackled in rigid order from start to finish, but rather as a artfully-appointed buffet: a morsel here, a morsel there, repeat until full.April 1, 2011