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Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History Paperback – October 26, 2004
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"Food is about agriculture, about ecology, about man's relationship with nature ... about nation-building, cultural struggles, friends and enemies ... and at times, even about sex." Thus Mark Kurlansky, author of the award-winning Cod and Salt, introduces Choice Cuts, his anthology of food writing throughout history. Kurlansky has cast his net very wide and presents a legion of food writers on every possible culinary subject.
The usual suspects are here, sometimes in triplicate: Brilliat Savarin on gourmets, female food-love, and how to gain weight; M.F.K. Fisher on bachelor cooking, the dislike of cabbage, and dinner at France's famed Monsieur Paul's in the 1940s; Elizabeth David on the folly of the garlic press, the glories of toast, and English pizza. But Kurlansky's trail starts much earlier with Plato on cooking (food as a branch of medicine, a notion shared by many modern advertisers), Heroditus on Egyptian dining, and, resoundingly, Mencius, a student of Confucius who, in the third century B.C., implored Chinese leaders to observe saner food and environmental policies.
There is a great deal to digest here, but readers can take small bites at their leisure. Enjoyed in this way, the book provides an endlessly fascinating glimpse of humankind's second--or is it the first?--greatest pleasure. --Arthur Boehm --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
James Beard Award-winning author Kurlansky (Cod; Salt), brings together a banquet of historical and modern writings on food. Divided into such chapters as "Memorable Meals" and "Eating Your Vegetables," the book covers the range of writings from food notables to general authors and historians. All the masters are covered, including the father of American food writing, James Beard, with his comments on radishes and hot chocolate; the doyenne of the British post-war kitchen, Elizabeth David, with her rail against the garlic press; as well as M.F.K. Fisher and her witty observations on "bachelor cooking." Kurlansky nicely balances specialist knowledge with just plain love of food, such as Hemingway's descriptive "Fish in the Seine," George Orwell's evocative "Paris Cooks and Waiters," and A.J. Liebling's writing on boxing and food, excerpted from Between Meals. Kurlansky does take readers out of the 20th century and back in history to the Roman Empire, with such writers as Pliny the Elder (writing about bees and honey), Plutarch and the witty poet Martial of Epigrams fame. Folded in between are such food masters as Escoffier, Brillat-Savin, Hannah Glass and Taillevent. Insightful comments and explanations by Kurlansky precede each piece; the resulting volume provides a wide range of tastes certain to tempt any literary palate.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Mark Kurlansky, Editor
This book, a collection of writing about food, drags somewhat from the burden of including too much arcane material, for example Pliny the Elder's note on onions from the first century. Elsewhere, another chapter devotes too many words to the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand, which is perhaps not as critical to the reader as to the editor.
There are some excellent pieces in this book however. Among the best are the articles by M. F. K. Fisher, who was a food writer, but felt that food, security, and love are entwined. She also wrote very well. Her story about a last meal at a favorite restaurant before leaving France in 1932 is warm and witty. Fisher almost did not get the last meal because a waiter failed to recognize her and her husband. He spotted her precious accordion she was carrying on to the ship, assumed that they were street musicians, and showed them the door. In another article, Fisher writes about bachelors' cooking, "few of them under seventy-nine will bother to produce a good meal unless it is for a pretty woman."
Another fine piece by Jeremy Wechsberg about a restaurant in Vienna before the war, where the boiled beef specialties required a customer to have a thorough knowledge of the anatomy of a steer, is one of my favorites. The restaurant kept herds of cattle, fed with molasses and sugar beet mash to supply its pampered customers. The story, written in 1948, reflects a past lifestyle to which few of us could relate. It was said that Austrian poets lavished rhymed praise upon the delicacies they consumed at "Meissl & Schadn".
The George Orwell article about cooks and waiters in Paris is the writer at his best. The waiters made more than the cooks, and the waiters had the mentality of snobs. A shorter piece about English food is equally good. In it, Orwell offers, "England is a very good country when you are not poor." I also admired John Steinbeck's article about hunger in California during the depression. Steinbeck wrote that, when children starved, the coroners wrote "malnutrition" on the death certificate because is sounded better "when a thin child is dead in a tent".
This book offers a number of satisfying entrees, even for those whose main interests are other than food. However, one has to get through too many bland side dishes between them.
When an essay works, it's a great sampler for the author's work -- which may not be a "foodie" writer. You'd expect to find Lucullus, but not Herodotus (Kurlansky includes a page from The Persian Wars, fifth century BC, with Herodotus' comments on Egyptian dining). I've read _of_ AJ Liebling more than I've read him, but I loved the four pages reproduced here about dining with his parents at Restaurant Maillabuau in Paris, followed immediately by MFK Fisher on Monsieur Paul's.
The book has thirty chapters which group the material by topic: ethnicity, such as The Americans, or food items, such as the Mystery of Eggs. A section on seasoning includes Pliny the Elder on Thyme, the Talmud on Garlic, Platina on Basil and Saffron, Karl Friedrich von Rumohr on Sorrel, and The Aobo Tu on Salt Making.
On the positive side, each of the essays is very short. Most are 2-3 pages, and few are more than 5, making them suitable to enjoy in the john (and I do mean that in a nice way). That's also a negative, however, because by the time you've gotten into an essay (or poem or song lyrics -- Kurlansky mixes 'em up), and figured out whether this one is meant to be funny, or sensual, or instructive, or whatever... it's over. When something doesn't work for me -- and it could be a matter of mood -- I find that I flip forward until I find another essay that attracts. Perhaps that's a strength, too, because there's always something to get my interest. But mostly I'm aware of how much of the book I'm skipping.
The uneven nature of the collection makes it hard for me to recommend this book without reservation. I like it; I don't love it.