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A moveable feast of essays, memoirs, fiction -- all focused on food.
A moveable feast of essays, memoirs, fiction -- all focused on food.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 13, 2007

AMERICAN FOOD WRITING

An Anthology with Classic Recipes

Edited by Molly O'Neill

Library of America. 753 pp. $40

Food brings us together and sets us apart. When I was growing up, my mother refused to allow her children to order pizza. It was fine for Italians, who knew no better, but not for us: We ate pierogie. Only Mexicans, we were told, could stomach tacos. Asian dumplings, had any been available, would have been scorned as deeply foreign and, consequently, inedible. Yet all these ethnic staples are roughly the same in their basic ingredients: flour dough, butter, a bit of onion and seasoning, some meat or cheese.

Among its other virtues, American Food Writing-- a smorgasbord of essays, memoirs, scenes from fiction and even the occasional recipe -- traces our gradual progress toward a "kitchen without walls." It opens with accounts of Johnny cake, chowder and barbecue, traces the impact of apple pie, hot dogs and Toll House cookies, and ends with Cuban cooking, Indian takeout and sushi. Today's American cuisine, after all, has grown increasingly global and cosmopolitan. "Let's pick up something from that Thai place for dinner." "I'd rather have Ethiopian." If we are what we eat, we are finally becoming citizens of the world.

Molly O'Neill, a former food columnist for the New York Times, knows the pleasures of good writing as well as good eating. In her anthology are pages from such delicious prose stylists as M.F.K. Fisher (oysters), A.J. Liebling (French restaurants), H.L. Mencken (crab), Henry David Thoreau (watermelon), Calvin Trillin (barbecue), Laurie Colwin (kitchen disasters), John McPhee (oranges) and Guy Davenport (table manners). O'Neill prefaces all the selections with her own crisply written biographical and critical introductions. She's also admirably eclectic, featuring recipes from mystery writers Rex Stout and Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain), poems by Ogden Nash, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Gary Snyder, and parodies by S.J. Perelman and Russell Baker. (She does pass over the most breathtaking of all parodic recipes, Harry Mathews's "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double).") There's even the hilarious chapter from Owen Johnson's 1908 classic, The Prodigious Hickey, in which little Smeed tries to eat more than 32 pancakes to set a new school record, not to overlook Euell "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" Gibbons on how to cook a carp, and anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing on the strange items at a Zuni feast, including a sheep intestine "stuffed with its own half-digested contents."

Of course, O'Neill rightly includes the familiar names that look down at us from our pantry shelves: Fannie Farmer ("Eggs a la Goldenrod"), Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (almond cake), James Beard (beef stroganoff), Julia Child (coq au vin), Craig Claiborne (the notorious $4,000 dinner at Chez Denis), Marcella Hazan (risotto alla parmigiana), Richard Olney (rabbit terrines), Alice Waters (fresh produce) and Ruth Reichl (sushi). There are also essays on knives and cooking techniques, farmers' markets, waiters and even, at least by implication, the kitchen sink.

The one area that O'Neill seems to shortchange is East European and Slavic cooking, but perhaps I'm being unduly sensitive. She has plenty of pages about soul food and Southern victuals, lots about the glories of French cuisine, almost as much about the pleasures of Italian, Asian and Hispanic meals. Yet, aside from a passage about some dried mushrooms (in Willa Cather's My Antonia), where are the paeans to stuffed cabbage, kielbasa with fresh horseradish, potato pancakes, lekvar cookies, nut roll and pierogie? As every good Slovak and Russian knows, when God is hungry, this is the food he orders from room service.

Even though Americans now eat just about anything, they often wish they ate next to nothing. Aside from the rigorously athletic, nearly everyone feels fat (including the wretchedly anorexic). O'Neill duly includes articles by Ray Kroc on how McDonald's develops its special items, by Eric Schlosser on how our food is artificially flavored and by Daniel Pinkwater on the greasiest hamburger in all of Chicago. She then cleanses our palate with Wendell Berry's manifesto for more healthful eating:

"The consumer . . . must be kept from discovering that, in the food industry -- as in any other industry -- the overriding concerns are not quality and health but volume and price. For decades now the entire industrial food economy, from the large farms and feedlots to the chains of fast-food restaurants and supermarkets, has been obsessed with volume. It has relentlessly increased scale in order to increase volume in order (presumably) to reduce costs. But, as scale increases, diversity declines; as diversity declines, so does health; as health declines, the dependence on drugs and chemicals necessarily increases. As capital replaces labor, it does so by substituting machines, drugs, and chemicals for human workers and for the natural health and fertility of the soil. The food is produced by any means or any shortcuts that will increase profits. And the business of the cosmeticians of advertising is to persuade the consumer that food so produced is good, tasty, healthful, and a guarantee of marital fidelity and long life."

This now classic indictment still remains a cogent one. Yet is there anything more fundamentally American than the ruthless pursuit of profits, except, perhaps, the just and angry condemnation of that pursuit?

There are other "social" pieces in American Food Cooking. Anthony Bourdain recalls the Culinary Institute of America as a kind of Parris Island for future chefs. Betty Fussell describes competitive dinner parties among academics. Nora Ephron attacks "the food establishment." Perhaps the most striking essay in a book full of striking essays is Judith Moore's lyrical "Adultery," in which the author recalls the fabulous dishes she cooked up for her family because she was so deliriously, ecstatically happy in a secret love affair.

Good food and happiness -- this is why we dine with loved ones rather than simply swallow a pill packed with all our required nutrients. Back in the late 1930s, Joseph Mitchell visited a ramshackle terrapin farm near Savannah and was invited to lunch by his hosts. He sat down to diamondback terrapin stew on the back porch of an old dance pavilion:

"The meat came off the terrapins' tiny bones with a touch of the spoon, and it tasted like baby mushrooms. I had a second and a third helping. The day was clear and cool, and sitting there, drinking dry sherry and eating terrapin, I looked at the scarlet leaves on the sweet gums and swamp maples on the riverbank, and at the sandpipers running stiff-legged on the sand, and at the people sitting in the sun on the decks of the yachts anchored in the Skidaway, and I decided that I was about as happy as a human can be in the autumn of 1939. After the stew we had croquettes made of crabmeat and a salad of little Georgia shrimp. Then we had some Carolina whiting that had been pulled out of the Atlantic at the mouth of the Skidaway early that morning. With the sweet, tender whiting, we had butter beans and ears of late corn that were jerked off the stalk only a few minutes before they were dropped in the pot. We began eating at one o'clock; at four we had coffee."

I won't say there are pages better than this in American Food Writing, but there are plenty that come close. Yes, to write about food is to write about the pursuit of happiness. As H.L. Mencken observed: "He who improves the eating of a great people is quite as worthy of honor as he who improves their roads, their piety, their sex life or their safety. He does something that benefits every one, and the fruits of his benefaction live on long after he has passed from this life."

Which reminds me: It being Mother's Day, I'd better start thinking about something special for dinner. Now where is that can-opener? ยท

Michael Dirda can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com.

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