Reviewed by Linda Kulman
Sunday, November 18, 2007
THE TENTH MUSE My Life in Food
By Judith Jones | Knopf. 290 pp. $24.95
NO RESERVATIONS Around the World On an Empty Stomach
By Anthony Bourdain | Bloomsbury. 288 pp. $34.95
MOUTH WIDE OPEN A Cook and His Appetite
By John Thorne With Matt Lewis Thorne | North Point. 410 pp. $26
Years ago, when my friend Henry still lived in Manhattan, he announced that he was "done eating around." What he meant was that even though hundreds of restaurants beckoned, he had decided on culinary monogamy -- forgoing novelty to lavish attention on what he already knew he liked.
Such is not the case for Judith Jones, John Thorne or Anthony Bourdain, whose careers have been defined by the democratic pleasure they take in food.
Judith Jones was born with a sophisticated palate but grew up in a household where garlic was banned. Her culinary awakening, which she recounts in The Tenth Muse, occurred in postwar Paris, where she moved after college. When she returned to this country in the early 1950s with her husband, she writes, they were "eager to maintain the French way of life." But finding ingredients -- or even an omelet pan -- proved more difficult than the couple anticipated. American cookbooks were equally uninspiring. "The prevailing message was that the poor little woman didn't have time to cook, and, moreover, it was beneath her dignity," Jones writes.
By 1959, Jones, who was working as an editor at Knopf and polishing writing by the likes of John Hersey and Elizabeth Bowen, was on a quest for an authentic and definitive French cookbook when Julia Child's manuscript landed on her desk. "I hoped we'd had our fill of quick-and-easy, and there was an appetite for the real thing," Jones explains. "I felt the time was right." It was. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was born, and American kitchens were revolutionized.
Jones doesn't use her memoir to dish (and is equally circumspect about her own life), but she does offer up a few insights about the grand dame of cooking: Julia Child "did not suffer fools gladly. She chided me when I suggested that home cooks might object to the number of bowls and pots and pans she called for. . . . 'You'll never be a good cook if you worry about that,' she admonished."
Child was not Jones's only find. The list of her discoveries reads like a map of culinary landmarks, including Claudia Roden (Middle Eastern cooking), Joan Nathan (Jewish food) and Edna Lewis (Virginia country cuisine). Though one of America's original foodies, Jones is hardly a snob. Once presented with the gift of a beaver, she unhesitatingly headed for the stove, later pronouncing the paddle tail delicious.
Anthony Bourdain is hardly that polite. In No Reservations, he pronounces the Namibian warthog -- fur, sand, full intestines and all -- "the number-one worst thing" he's put in his mouth. This latest endeavor from the author of Kitchen Confidential is a companion piece to his Travel Channel television series of the same name, a country-by-country scrapbook of exploits that conjures up not just the sights Bourdain took in but the aromas and ambient noise as well. The commentary exhibits his usual slash-and-burn approach, and the book's overall vibe is macho -- bathroom humor (and photos) included.
If No Reservations takes readers around the world, John Thorne's Mouth Wide Open is a journey around his own kitchen. His exhaustive essays, most of which were previously published in his food letter, "Simple Cooking," tackle all manner of dishes, including some, like fried eggs, that might seem beneath consideration. Thorne deconstructs each recipe until he understands not just how it evolved but what each ingredient contributes. In an era marked by celebrity chefs and mundane microwavable meals, the amiable author takes pleasure in "the laying of hands on real food," a process he makes approachable to others through both his commentary and recipes. "Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding," he writes. Thorne succeeds masterfully. *
Linda Kulman, a freelance writer in Washington, is the editor of NPR.org's "Book Tour."