- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007


Edited by Molly O’Neill

The Library of America, $40, 700 pages


T he title of “American Food Writing” comes without modifiers. Is this the best American food writing? Is it a historical collection of food pieces? Is it a literary collection? Or is it just a selection of personal favorites?

The answer is some of all of the above. Certainly, this book offers some very good pieces of food writing and they come from different periods of history. The earliest of them was written by Pehr Kalm, a Finnish botanist who visited America in the late 1740s and wrote a glowing account of the abundance he found here: Oysters and apple dumplings and pumpkin, which he ate mashed with milk. “What a delicious dish it became!” he wrote.

The latest selection in the book comes from Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and explores the hard-nosed marketing decisions that have brought us most, though not all, of the organic foods now available in supermarkets.

In the 700 or so pages between these two pieces there is a wide array of articles, extracts and even poems, many of them by literary figures including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, William Styron, Langston Hughes, Lillian Hellman and Maxine Kumin. There’s a recipe from a president — Thomas Jefferson’s instructions for making ice cream — and from an abolitionist — Lydia Maria Child’s exemplary explanation of how to make a fish chowder.

Not surprisingly, food writers and cookbook authors are well represented with recipes and extracts, from the work of Amelia Simmons, who in 1796 published America’s first cookbook, fittingly called “American Cookery,” to Sarah Tyson Rorer and Fannie Merritt Farmer in the 19th century, and on to 20th century stars such as M.F.K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas, James Beard, Julia Child, Anna Thomas, Paula Wolfert and Anthony Bourdain.

All this makes the collection a treasury of good things, many of them edible, because recipes are interspersed among the pieces of food writing. Since the book is arranged chronologically, these recipes form both a compendium of America’s favorite dishes and a brief history of changing tastes, or perhaps, changing eating opportunities. Certainly, the earliest recipes — Amelia Simmons’ Johny Cake, or Hoe Cake, and Lydia Maria Child’s chowder — make use of the basic ingredients available to American hands during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As time passed things got fancier. Marion Harland’s 1871 recipe for tomato catsup shows the housewife how to use tomatoes in a sauce whose name comes from Southeast Asia, while the names of Amy Fisher’s Chicken Croquettes of 1881 and Mary Lincoln’s Chicken Chartreuse of 1884 already reveal the fascination with French cooking that has always had such a powerful influence on Americans who want to show off their knowledge of food.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the title of Charles Ranhofer’s 1894 book “The Epicurean,” his description of how to serve a multicourse dinner and his recipe for Lobster a la Newburg, all of them rooted in the affluence of America’s gilded age.

Yet as ever, while some Americans devoted themselves to conspicuous consumption, others had other things in mind. While Mr. Ranhofer presided over Delmonico’s kitchen, Mrs. E.E. Kellogg published “Science in the Kitchen” in 1893, including a time-consuming (and scarcely appetizing) recipe for bran jelly. Her husband was equally concerned with healthy foods and hit the spot far more successfully with his invention of cornflakes.

In her 1896 classic “Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” Fannie Merritt Farmer offered another breakfast solution, Eggs a la Goldenrod: Hard-boiled eggs, the whites chopped into a white sauce and the yolks crumbled and sprinkled on top, the whole confection served on toast points. All this amounts to a lot of extra work to tart up the breakfast staples of eggs and toast.

In her book 1986 book “Perfection Salad,” Laura Shapiro showed that such 19th century recipes encouraged women to glorify the role of food provider and to elaborate their cooking in ever more ridiculous ways. Ms. Shapiro’s contribution to “American Food Writing” comes from her latest book, “Something from the Oven” (2004), in which she describes the reverse process: How 20th century food corporations used advertising to deter women from real cooking with all its time-consuming tasks, luring them instead into buying an ever wider array of processed food products. As she notes, frozen and packaged foods once seemed glamorous; now, as the extract from Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book “Fast Food Nation” makes clear, our addiction to processed fast foods is making many of us seriously ill.

These foods were ushered in by technological developments during and after World War II. Yet during this same time Julia Child was living in Paris and taking cooking lessons. By 1961 she had written “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and by 1962 she was on PBS demystifying haute cuisine by careful step-by-step instructions and commonsensical humor. She was by no means the only Francophile cook of her era: Already Craig Claiborne was food editor of The New York Times. But Child certainly encouraged American women to tackle the classics of French cuisine in their own kitchens.

We can see where this got us in Betty Fussell’s description of competitive hostessing among the cooking cognoscenti in “My Kitchen Wars” (1999). Describing how she and her friends singlehandedly put on dinner parties featuring multiple complex recipes, she says, “The trick was to be a lady in the dining room, yet an amateur pro in the kitchen… . to make cooking an art, or at the very least a craft like watercolor painting, embroidery … all those genteel accomplishments that distinguished ladies who chatted in the parlors of Jane Austen from their servants. A lady could become extremely accomplished at any of these arts, even in writing novels, as long as no one took her work seriously or paid her money for it, which was much the same thing. Our parties were baroquely elaborated gifts.”

Underlying Ms. Fussell’s clearsighted but painful description of the sheer hard work involved in this marathon of entertaining is the fact that many bright women who graduated from universities in the 1960s and married and had children soon thereafter had very few job opportunities — or perhaps, rather, very few acceptable child care options at a time when it was still believed that a father’s duty lay entirely in providing the family’s financial wherewithal. With time on their hands and dinner to get on the table, it is not surprising that such women took to Child and worked off some of their intellectual energies in making one piece de resistance after another.

But culinary athleticism can get old, or perhaps people just grow out it. Ms. Fussell’s description is powered by a kind of fury at the wasted effort of those days. We can see it too in “That Infernal Machine, the Pressure Cooker” in which Betty MacDonald writes of the farm wife’s orgies of canning so many fruits and vegetables that one year’s supply remains unopened while the next year’s jars are already being added to the shelves.

In capturing some of the downsides of cooking as well as its high moments, editor Molly O’Neill shows her breadth of culinary understanding and knowledge. Her selection is nothing if not catholic and informative. She has missed no obvious inclusion — though Jeffrey Steingarten has probably written better articles than “Primal Bread” and Gael Greene has definitely written more wittily and sensibly than in “Lessons in Humility and Chutzpah.”

However, such tiny disappointments are wonderfully outweighed by Ms. O’Neill’s inclusion and generous praise of Judith Moore’s “Adultery,” a fine piece of cliffhanger writing, and Nora Ephron’s “The Food Establishment: Life in the Land of the Rising Souffle (Or Is It the Rising Meringue?),” which lifts the lid on the rivalries in the world of high-stakes food writers. Ms. O’Neill has other wonderful pieces too. Indeed, anyone owning this large and fascinating book is likely to come back to it from time to time, finding new jewels to treasure, new favorites to recommend.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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