Review: Best Food Writing 2013

Best Food Writing 2013 edited by Holly Hughes


While only a few months separate my readings of Best Food Writing 2011 and Best Food Writing 2013, they’re worlds away from each other when it comes to my cooking and my own relationship with food. Providing for myself is quite a different experience from living with my parents or living at school. (There are no endless bowls of apples, for one.) On the one hand, there are some things that I love that I won’t be buying anytime soon, like smoked salmon. On the other hand, I’ve had to get more creative, resulting in baguettes stuffed with veggie puree and almond milk-based curry. (I’m lactose intolerant, so that’s always on hand.) Food is becoming something I have more and more control over, simply because I have to cook constantly. It is no longer a fun hobby I indulged in for friends’ birthdays and the holidays, but something I do everyday.

Which is exactly what Tracie McMillan says in “Cooking Isn’t Fun.” “When the stories we tell about cooking say that it is only ever fun and rewarding—instead of copping to the fact that it can also be annoying, time consuming, and risky—we alienate the people who don’t have the luxury of choice, and we unwittingly reinforce the impression that cooking is a specialty hobby instead of a basic life skill,” she declares. McMillan’s essay is one of the shortest pieces collected in this year’s edition of Best Food Writing, but it had a disproportionate impact on me. I hope to find her The American Way of Eating, currently sitting on my nightstand, just as minutely cutting and insightful.

Of course, my relationship with food has evolved, not changed completely. I’m still far more interested in the stories behind people, food, and any combination therein than restaurants. (Except when people are food. I am the worst kind of carnivore, but not a cannibal.) Rowan Jacobsen’s “Forgotten Fruits,” a profile of apple historian John Bunker wasn’t the first such piece in the collection, but the first to make me gasp out loud at the very idea of a man single-handedly trying to revive the many varieties of apples that once populated North America. When Bunker directly appealed to the concept at the heart of historical cooking—the appeal of eating something that someone, many years ago, also enjoyed—I practically swooned. There are more somber stories collected, like Steven Rinella contemplating eating venison heart as a special, soul-affecting dish, and more hysterical stories, like Tim Carman suddenly realizing that the famous family gingerbread cookie recipe doesn’t have any ginger in it, but there’s something so simple and heartfelt about Bunker’s efforts that it came out on top for me. Well, I also adore apples the way I adore meat, so that probably biased me towards it.

My disinterest in restaurants and restauranteurs lifted briefly to accommodate “His Saving Grace,” Kevin Pang’s portrait of chef Curtis Duffy. It’s not a sentimental appraisal—Pang keeps himself well out of the way, an approach I usually don’t care for—but an honest one, tracing Duffy’s desire to become a chef through the murder-suicide of his parents and his own steps towards fatherhood. The food element, while fascinating, is almost secondary, as Pang focuses on Duffy as an individual coming to terms with his past through an occupation that borders on obsession. Duffy’s devotion to cooking can both hurt—as it clearly ruined his marriage—but also, quite astonishingly, heal.

The spiritual edge implied in this piece is expanded upon in “Variations on Grace,” Paul Graham’s meditation on being a locavore (although he states that the term is a bit too hip and trendy to get at the more constant spiritual concept he means). While my parents did say grace, more or less, throughout my childhood, my lack of a religious upbringing meant that I didn’t understand why we said it. Graham focuses on the link between his community and his food; not being able to buy fruit out of season puts him more in touch with the rhythms of his own environment, for instance. When Graham says grace over a meal, he is acutely aware of all the work that went into it. Grace, then, is a ritual of gratitude, meant to sharpen your appreciation for the food in front of you. I have accordingly decided to start to compile poems to say over meals.

Overall, it, like its predecessors, is a fine, broad collection, perfect for anyone who enjoys food. I was fascinated by the inclusion of a Serious Eats article in the book. Most of the pieces collected either come from traditional media or come from websites that mimic traditional media while taking advantage of broader technology. Serious Eats, however, has a large photographic element to all of its pieces—some of my favorite articles from the website are simply slideshows. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “How to Make Real New England Clam Chowder” is included here, but seems the poorer for missing its photographic elements. It also seems odd in print, given its web-friendly formatting and intense focus on breaking down a dish into elements. I’m delighted that Serious Eats is getting the attention it dearly deserves, but this is an another example to think about as I stew over the adaptation of web to print.

Bottom line: Best Food Writing 2013, like its predecessors, is a fine, broad collection for foodies. Of particular note are Paul Graham’s “Variations on Grace” and Kevin Pang’s “His Saving Grace.”

I was given this book for publicity purposes.

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