April 19, 2009
By Chris Tan
Food for thought about food - are the latest books of culinary essays truly nutritious in any sense? We review some of them.
MOUTH WIDE OPEN
By John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne
Point Press/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya
A wonderful salmagundi of keen observation, sure opinion, insatiable curiosity and nakedly enthusiastic - but never vulgar - greed. John Thorne, thought by many to be the food writer's food writer, is also somewhat of an anomaly among such.
He prefers his own kitchen and armchair to exotic locations. He avoids excessive obsessing over ingredients or chefs. He shuns the low road of obnoxious opining and the ivory tower of scholarly minutiae. He loves to read, loves to cook, loves to eat but is candid about his own biases. This collection of his essays shines with extremely well articulated stories, worded in high-definition prose.
Among many other subjects, Thorne trawls for satay recipes from old Indonesian cookbooks, ruminates at length about peppery tripe stews, sheds angst about the embarrassing nature of the American condensed-soup casserole genre and calls out famous foodies for lazy work. He is startlingly omnivorous, sometimes curmudgeonly and always entertaining.
This book is more about the aesthetic and attitude of simple cooking than about recipes per se, though it is well larded with the latter. I tried out Thorne's formula for 'maximum marmalade' - more fruit, more juice, less sugar and water - with a bag of limes, and was blessed with a bracingly bittersweet, highly aromatic conserve, gorgeous on toast. Required reading for anyone learning to think incisively about their relationship with food and especially for anyone suffering from indigestion from too many pompous chefs' memoirs.
MUSINGS OF A CHINESE GOURMET
By F.T. Cheng
2008/Paperback/146 pages/Earnshaw Books/$37.45/Books Kinokuniya
First published in 1954 and now back in print, this collection of opinions by a former Chinese ambassador to Britain and self-styled gourmet offers us moderns a glimpse of elite mores of another era. Cheng never lets you forget that he is a man of class and distinction, sprinkling the text with French phrases, Latin phrases ('mutatis mutandis' is a favourite), quotes from sages Eastern and Western and grammar of Proustian complexity.
Cheng's treatment of a topic is often as circular as his locutions. Within a few pages, he writes about shark's fin, bird's nest, fish lip, turtle skirt and abalone, without once mentioning that they belong to the group of ingredients prized above all for their textures.
The advice about ingredients and sporadic recipes are heavily Canto-centric, with a nod to Cheng's country of retirement, the United States - directions for stewing bear's paw is followed several pages later by a formula for 'No 8', which is really chop suey, but this is a special recipe.
Reading this is rather like being cornered by a kind but fussy elderly uncle and being regaled with information that, though fascinating, you never really asked for, cannot escape from and do not really know how to file away. But I am being uncharitable. Once you get used to his verbiage, there is plenty to enjoy, from Chinese drinking games and droll comments about food and politics, to a lucid analysis of successful dining as the artful convergence of heaven (the opportunity) and earth (the location) plus people (the guests).
COOKING: THE QUINTESSENTIAL ART
By Herve This and Pierre Gagnaire, translated by M.B. DeBevoise
2008/Hardback/355 pages/University of California Press/$47.51/Books Kinokuniya
F.T. Cheng would have loved this book, which will either grab you hard by your frontal lobes or make you retire to your boudoir with a headache. Each chapter begins with a conversation between fictional foodies that lays out ideas about art, philosophy and food. Plutarch, Schrodinger, Plato, Einstein and even Steven Jay Gould, all get name-dropped, along with a hundred others.
Gagnaire concludes each chapter by pondering how these ideas may play out practically on the plate and suggesting exercises for readers to try. Woven into all this like a chive through an omelette is a quasi-Da Vinci- Code plotline about a stolen book and a mysterious gastro- gnostic association.
First, the bad. Gagnaire's pronouncements try patience more often than they spark imagination. Take for example: 'Reconciling irreconciliables requires a lot of thought and hard work. To get the hang of it, begin by trying to combine carp and rabbit, and then move on to the two ingredients you most dislike.'
Elsewhere, he details a 'simple' recipe that requires chervil puree, parsley extract, an egg cooked at precisely 66 deg C, passionfruit, butter-sauteed romaine and unspecified application of cream, milk, nutmeg and salt. Another exercise begins: 'Take a small aquarium pump and connect the outlet tube to an improvised nose mask'.
The conversations, thankfully, reward a careful reader's investment and stamina. They examine issues such as the difference between craft and art, artifice and transformation versus showcasing natural flavours, the place of emotion and spirit in cuisine. Beyond the whimsy of the format, these are serious notions that cooks of all stripes wrestle with every day, consciously or not.