Speaking Volumes: Sense and Sensuality

(This column was carried in the Business Standard on June 13, 2006)

Just a decade ago, food memoirs and histories were as exotic as the cheeses and chocolates kind friends would bring back from “phoren”. Now that even Manchegos, Reblochons and a growing selection of gourmet chocolates are available if you know where to look, the food book section’s beginning to catch up.

Shopping for good food writing is still an exercise in frustration. Mainstream culinary writers such as Claudia Roden, Escoffier, Julia Child, Elizabeth David and Delia Smith are easily available, but MFK Fisher is impossible to source. The second volume of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, Comfort Me With Apples , has been around for a while now, but the first, Tender at the Bone , has to be specially ordered, and so does the third instalment, the recently published Garlic and Sapphires . Madhur Jaffrey’s Climbing the Mango Trees is in stores, and Chitrita Banerji’s food memoirs have just been reissued, but Sudha Koul’s Tiger Ladies is hard to find.

Despite these obstacles, it’s possible to spend an entire week, as I did, immersed in the amateur foodie’s version of satisfying armchair travel. For company, I had Julie Powell, Gael Greene, Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and just to balance the gluttony, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer.

Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia is an act of homage to the legendary Julia Child (note: Julia Child’s My Life in France wasn’t available in India at the time of writing this column–it’s in now, so go get your copy.) Julie Powell was depressed at being a secretary instead of an actress; her apartment in Queens was a dump, and as thirty approached, she was approaching breakdown levels. So she decided to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking in a year: as the subtitle says, “365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen”. She blogged the results–often hilarious, often touching—and discovered that this was much more than a crazy experiment. “I thought I was using the Book to learn to cook French food, but really I was learning to sniff out the secret doors of possibility.” Julia Child may not have been amused, but Julie and Julia is a quirky coming-to-adulthood story, and is probably one of the most enjoyable fan letters ever.

As restaurant critics, Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl are probably among the most powerful in the business, even though their personal styles are starkly different. Garlic and Sapphires chronicles Reichl’s “adventures in deception”: as the New York Times restaurant critic, she was one of the most famous faces in America. But her belief that the only honest review is an anonymous one drove her to adopt several disguises. She reviewed Le Cirque as “Molly Hollis”, retired schoolteacher from Birmingham, contrasting the treatment that Ruth Reichl received in her own person with the dismissive approach the staff used with “Molly”.

Reichl is fascinated by the politics of what people eat. In America, she told Salon: “If you’re a poor person you’re pretty much relegated to overprocessed junk, factory animals and pesticide-laden vegetables.” Greene is much more a diva of sensuality, whose chronicle of appetites culinary and sexual in Insatiable leave little space for remorse over the “meat is murder” argument, especially if the meat in question is foie gras. Insatiable is classic food porn–Greene sandwiches reminiscences of meals at Tour d’Argent and Le Bernardin between accounts of her flings with Elvis, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, star chefs and a young, demanding male porn star.

It’s instructive to read Anthony Bourdain’s Nasty Bits , a collection of short pieces and his impressive rants about “vegetarian Nazis”, alongside Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Ethics of What we Eat . Bourdain’s determination to taste everything that could possibly be put on a plate makes him the implacable enemy of high-minded vegetarians. He also captures the irritation the ordinary diner feels, caught between the need to eat ethically and annoyance at lectures from vegan puritans.

It takes Peter Singer, the guru of the animal liberation movement, to offer a more balanced view. In The Ethics of What We Eat , Singer looks at the cost—moral, political and social—of what’s on our plate, and comes up with suggestions that might surprise meat warriors like Bourdain. Singer’s approach is similar to Michael Pollan—they both make their arguments by examining a few different kinds of meals and eating styles, from fast food to vegan to the omnivore in between. After the feasts presented by Bourdain, Reichl and company, it is up to Pollan and Singer to suggest that ethics will become just as important a part of our food choices as taste. Like palate-cleansing sorbets between courses, nothing goes better with sumptuous, sensual celebrations of eating than these two cerebral, thoughtprovoking books.





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