- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO EAT THAT?: REFLECTIONS OF A CULINARY THRILL SEEKER

By Robb Walsh Counterpoint,

$25, 268 pages

REVIEWED BY BART MCDOWELL

This book is pornography for the pancreas. A hungry reader should not peruse this mouth-watering book on an empty stomach, lest he drown.

Robb Walsh, twice winner of the James Beard Award, is a food critic in Texas, and his taste is as wide as the world he has wandered. He remains curious, funny, enthusiastic, and still unpoisoned. Like a wayward child, he plays with his food and shares the fun.

This book is a collection of his brisk essays, and some 20 recipes, wheedled out of chefs from great restaurants of the world as well as from barbecue pits and even a Texas prison.

Mr. Walsh began cooking at age 16. He was the eldest of six sons, so that when his parents went away for a weekend, he fed his siblings. Since his father was a deer hunter, the family freezer was often filled with venison. Mr. Walsh experimented gamely, of course with venison mincemeat and other things, and was soon a full-fledged foodie.

After finishing his studies at the University of Texas, he became a food critic for newspapers and magazines. He traveled the globe “in search of food thrills,” as he puts it. National Public Radio has called him the Indiana Jones of food writers. He has eaten Oaxacan grasshoppers and enjoyed ant-egg soup, but “experience has finally taught me that the simplest foods trigger the most profound experiences.” And thus his interest “slowly morphed into the study of how cultures express themselves through food.” Good for him. Good for us.

Not only a writer, Mr. Walsh is also an authority with hands-on kitchen technique. For example, he has served as the head judge of the Austin Hot Sauce Contest. Over the years, he had seen Mexican salsas overtaken by sauces from the Caribbean, so he went to the source for a firsthand look.

On the steep slopes of Trinidad, he encounters seven women sitting around a kitchen table, cleaning herbs and laughing. These are members of the Paramin Women’s Group, makers of handcrafts for some 26 years and now the producers of a winning pepper sauce. Mr. Walsh can’t identify the scent (“the aroma is a pungent slap in the face”) and learns that the taste comes from something called shadow benny, or culantro, a distant cousin of cilantro. He looks over the ladies’ inventory and realizes that “one order from a supermarket would wipe out the world’s entire supply of Genuine Paramin Pepper Sauce.”

Mr. Walsh’s hot-sauce safari takes him to the “eccentric island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” where he notes a bumper sticker on a beachside jeep: “We’re all here because we aren’t all there.” Nearby, he samples a salsa made from the fruit of the night-blooming cereus. In Guadeloupe he encounters French-style pepper salsa made with shallots and parsley; in Jamaica ginger is the great ingredient. He warms to his subject with home-sized recipes for papaya pepper sauce, mango salsa, and Sauce Piment de Guadeloupe.

In Chile, the author samples some of the seafood that has made that country famous among epicures. He quotes a complete poem by Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda in praise of eel chowder, and he shares Mr. Neruda’s enthusiasm for this “taste of heaven.” But not for sea urchin, which “tastes like iodine sherbet.” Nor does he enjoy the early morning sight of formally dressed people eating fish chowder with raw shellfish and beer. A local breakfast? No, it’s a hangover cure.

The author is advised that “to truly experience Chilean seafood, you must eat it while it is still dripping with saltwater.” So he heads south to the island of Chiloe, and accompanies some fishermen diving for shellfish aboard a simple fishing boat. Mr. Walsh writes, “Cruising along the calm sea … I feel the ancient culture powering this simple daily ritual as surely as the diesel engine below my feet … How fitting that my ‘taste of heaven’ should turn out to be a profound appreciation of somebody else’s everyday lunch.”

The author’s interest, however, is more protean than proletarian. One chapter is titled “The Best Restaurant on Earth.” It deals with Restaurant Girardet in the Swiss village of Crissier, so designated in 1986 by the magazine Cuisine and Wines of France. An international jury made the selection Julia Child being one of the jurors from the United States. The reputation, and the chef, continue to endure in the same village where his father founded the enterprise.

On the day of the author’s visit, M. Alfred Girardet observes that “There are eighteen chefs in my kitchen, and today we will prepare forty lunches.” With formal modesty he brushes aside the title: “There is no such thing as the best restaurant in the world. Each culture must have its own taste.”

And its own price. The cheapest lunch on the menu costs $135 without wine. And M. Girardet does the ordering for the guest. “They come here to enjoy MY cooking,” he declaims. The chef also decrees what wine should accompany the order. Here “the French passion for food and the Swiss passion for precision have come together in a bizarre sort of way.”

While he watches and waits, Mr. Walsh is given an amuse bouche, a “mouth amusement,” a baby scallop on an onion puree. The reader shares an empathetic meal, and is rewarded with M. Girardet’s recipe for monkfish stew with saffron complete with instructions for presentation.

Throughout this book, Mr. Walsh garnishes the prose with local color. Near East Galveston Bay, he writes, “I am utterly charmed by the funky grace of it all. Verdant vacant lots sprinkled artfully with rusted autos and propane tanks … a restaurant, a liquor store, a bar, some whitewashed cottages, a couple of mobile homes, and a bait camp … the last redoubt of that rare bird, Gulf Coast innocence.” And, of course, he finds here exceptional blue crabs.

In the Bresse countryside of France, we meet the king of chickens, poulet de Bresse, which sells for many times the price of ordinary poultry. The range-roving birds are omnivores who grow to nearly five-pound size. It was a favorite of the gastronome Brillat-Savarin, who said, “Poultry is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.”

Mr. Walsh is best at tracking down the emotional realities of foods. Rose petal and carrot slaw leads to a disquisition on aphrodisiacs and pesticides. He wades into a food fight between the Swiss and French on the origin of Gruyere cheese. With some audacity, he takes a food writer from Vogue “the ultimate in tough customers” to a barbecue dive for “a hot and greasy falling-apart mess o’ meat, East Texas style.” (The New Yorker pigs out.) Finally, with honest sentiment, Mr. Walsh explores the East European foods his Ruthenian grandmother used to cook.

As a cook, I am limited; my taste exceeds my talent. I’ll not attempt any of Mr. Walsh’s recipes myself. But this is a book I’m going to reread and give to several hospitable friends.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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