Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Hungry Dog's Reading List

Something I enjoy in addition to cooking food, eating food, and writing about food is reading about food. In a way, food writers have the job I really want: they get to try something someone else poured their heart and soul into, then coolly pass judgment. Seems like a good set-up for lazy, judgmental people like me.

I don't particularly love restaurant reviews. They often come off as kind of snobby, and I don't think a critic has the authentic restaurant experience a regular person has. When you go out to a restaurant, of course you notice the food and the service and the atmosphere, but much of your experience might be colored by what day of the week it is (a Friday night dinner will always be more fun than a Monday night one), who you're with, how dull or interesting you find the conversation, how hard it was to find parking, if that was your first choice restaurant or if you're already disappointed by settling for second or third on your list, and any other number or variables. So when a reviewer gets to go back to the restaurant multiple times and order whatever they want while someone else foots the bill, and remove all of these other elements from the experience, it's hard for me to take it very seriously.

It's also tough for me to read a negative review and not feel loyal to the restaurant, even if I haven't been there. I guess my nature is to root for the underdog, and there is a clear imbalance of power between the reviewer and the restaurant.

Mostly I like reading food writers who just write about their cooking experiences. There's no shortage of bloggers out there, but my favorites for the last few years have been writers for the Times. I very much like Mark Bittman (although I wouldn't say I always love his recipes) and I am extremely fond of Melissa Clark. She's a good writer and her approach to food seems intelligent and sensible. And for many years I followed Amanda Hesser, though now I find her column in the Times magazine too gimmicky.

I also like to read food memoirs. Right now I'm reading Wrestling With Gravy by Jonathan Reynolds, longtime writer for The New York Times Magazine. It's more about his life than food, although he does pull the entire book together with recipes that signify key events in his life. Reynolds is very funny and comes off like a slightly less insane, slightly more affluent David Sedaris; reading about his childhood made me picture Sedaris cooped up in J.D. Salinger's New York apartment.

One thing I've noticed before with these kinds of books but am noticing particularly with this one is while I'm enjoying the chapters quite a bit, I am only skimming the recipes. Some of them are interesting, but only in regard to the narrative, not really for actual cooking. For example, he includes recipes for things like "Pheasant Under Glass" and "The Boston Ritz-Carlton's Creamed Finnan Haddie." Interesting in relation to the story, but not to be replicated in my little San Francisco flat.

Anyway, haven't yet finished the book but so far so good. It's likely to join some of my other current favorite food books, which include The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin, Heat by Bill Buford, and of course Julia Child's My Life in France.


  1. I will read the Jacques Pepin book. I very much like him. Bittman is my recipe go to guy. I love his cookbook - the big yellow one. I rarely follow his recipes to the letter, but I feel comfortable playing around because they give you a lot of wiggle room.

  2. bourdain? he's kind of a hunter thompson wannabe but his book was pretty funny.