Peter Kaminsky’s latest isn’t a diet book, not in the traditional sense. There are no chapters called “Getting Started” or “Phase Two” or “Keeping It Off,” and the title isn’t anything as sexy-sounding as “Engine 2” or “Paleo” or “South Beach.”
Instead, with “Culinary Intelligence” Kaminsky has laid out a compelling logic for approaching food in what seems like an entirely new way, although it probably shouldn’t be new at all. Whether readers are cooking at home or foraging for sustenance at a neighborhood dive, through the aisles of a roadside convenience store or even at a restaurant of the highest ambition, Kaminsky argues against deprivation and in favor of pursuing something you don’t see written about in enough health-focused books: flavor.
Perhaps the problem is that too few of those other books have been written by people with backgrounds like Kaminsky’s. He’s neither nutritionist nor chef, but a food journalist with decades of experience in cooking, eating and writing. As with so many in his profession, the job hazards piled up, on the scale and around his midsection. He prophesied as much in his introductory “Underground Gourmet” column at New York magazine in 1994: “There is a thing I call Kaminsky’s Constant: namely if a man lives long enough, eats long enough, and drinks long enough, there comes a time, usually in his early forties, when his age, waistline, and IQ are the same number.” He was half-joking, but the point was taken.
Kaminsky’s slide was gradual, and he caught it before anything dramatic; no heart attacks, no near-death experiences. By the time he turned 50, he described himself as not “John Candy fat, maybe more like Seth Rogen pudgy.” But when his attempt to renew his life insurance was denied and doctors told him his weight made him an excellent candidate for diabetes, “I permanently disabled the snooze setting on my life’s alarm clock. . . . But how does a guy who loves food and wine — in fact, makes his living writing about them — gain control of what he puts in his body?”
He lays out the eventual answer in “Culinary Intelligence.” The title is his term for a principle that emphasizes what he calls Flavor Per Calorie. When he throws around the acronyms CI and FPC, Kaminsky runs the risk of sounding a little gimmicky, reminiscent of “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr and his 1990s “MiniMax” books (minimize health risks, maximize deliciousness). But this is no gimmick, as Kaminsky proves by avoiding the bog of nutritional analysis or comparisons and instead arguing something more powerful and easy to remember: that high-flavor foods can satisfy us more, so we can therefore eat less of them. While nutrition guru Marion Nestle summarizes her food advice as “1. Eat real food. 2. Move,” and sustainability advocate Michael Pollan boils his down to “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much,” Kaminsky (who mostly agrees with them both) has his own three-point distillation of the Culinary Intelligence mind-set:
“1. Don’t eat processed foods.
“2. Buy the best, most full-flavored ingredients you can afford.
“3. Make those ingredients even better by cooking.”
Getting there isn’t a no-brainer. The obstacles, he writes, include supermarkets and their bland, year-round produce and tasteless meat; fast-food outlets and industrial producers with their insidious concoctions emphasizing the addictive but ultimately unsatisfying combination of salt, sugar and fat; and restaurants high and low with their gigantic portions and upselling waiters. He has a strategy for them all, and more.
As someone who describes his relationship to food as “that of a sensualist, not a Trappist monk,” Kaminsky could be accused of preaching to the “foodoisie,” of which he is a member. His insistence on chefs as his favorite sources doesn’t help the case, either. But he is not afraid to skewer them here and there, sometimes by name and sometimes not, particularly when their cooking obscures rather than enhances ingredients.
He also prevents accusations of elitism by admitting his own weaknesses: a package of Sour Patch Kids candy at the movies, a return trip to the freezer to get another scoop of ice cream while watching TV, the delusion that because he was going to spend the morning hunting he could justify a breakfast of coffee, a Marlboro and a Snickers bar. He has learned a lot since those snacking-on-Doritos days, but the fact that he experienced them in the first place makes his advice that much easier to swallow.
While Kaminsky has written several cookbooks, he is careful to point out that “Culinary Intelligence” is no such thing. He includes recipes, but just 14, and they’re sequestered at the book’s end. Nonetheless, despite his reverence for chefs, perhaps the book’s most compelling argument is the one in favor of good old-fashioned home cooking — that is, obtaining high-quality ingredients, letting your imagination lead you toward what to combine them with and then preparing them with skill.
“You can read every diet book in the store,” he writes. “You can shop locally, seasonally, sustainably. You can count calories and avoid franchises. But only cooking leaves you fully in charge of what you eat and how it is prepared.” For him, cooking is a pleasure (“I don’t notice the passage of time when I cook”), and he argues that the only people for whom that isn’t the case “are those who don’t yet know how to cook.”
By the time any such non-cooks read those words, I’d be surprised if they weren’t motivated to look up the nearest cooking school and sign up for a class or two. “It is never too late to learn,” Kaminsky writes. “It’s in our nature.”
The Art of Eating Healthy
(and Really Well)
By Peter Kaminsky
Knopf. 258 pp. $24.95