- - Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Back in 1936, Irma S. Rombauer published the mother of all modern American cookbooks. She called it “The Joy of Cooking.” Eighty-four years later, veteran New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt has produced an appetizing, informed and magnificently entertaining memoir that could justifiably call itself “The Joy of Eating.”

Like all zestful eaters, Mr. Platt is more gourmand than gourmet, cheerfully labelling himself a “professional glutton.” Quite a few of his pages describe crash — or crashed — diets, digestive triumphs and tragedies, and various other challenges a truly dedicated eater must face in the endless pursuit of culinary perfection. Fortunately for his readers, Mr. Platt’s descriptions of the hunt are every bit as enjoyable as his accounts of the all-too-elusive quarry.

In one of many pleasant little the digressions in “The Book of Eating,” the author recalls how “the bartender at a beautiful little castle hotel on the west coast of Ireland” explained how the staff could “spot the Michelin ‘inspectors’ who regularly came through their little dining room because they tended to be middle-aged men who ordered many more desserts than most gentlemen of their age, drank at least a bottle of wine with their dinner, and almost always dined alone.”

At the other end of the spectrum, we are told of the “young gentleman from Paris” who joined Mr. Platt in a visit to a briefly fashionable French restaurant in Manhattan specializing in Gascon cuisine, imbibing “a glass of sweet Alsatian wine to go with his foie gras … and then an expensive red, possibly a bottle of Bordeaux” to go with the cassoulet … followed by a cheese course, a spoonful of dessert or two, and then, despite my stern looks and quiet pleadings, an after-dinner Sauterne followed by a snifter or two of Gascony’s favorite post-meal digestive, Armagnac. ‘Thank you so much for the lovely dinner,’ the young Frenchman said, a little woozily, after I’d paid the substantial bill and we’d staggered together out onto the sidewalk.”

Then, “with the dignity that comes only with experience and practice, [he] threw up in the gutter just an inch or two away from my shiny new restaurant critic shoes.”

The eldest son of an old-school diplomatic couple, Mr. Platt had an early introduction to exotic foreign cooking during a childhood largely spent abroad. He was particularly fortunate to have lived in Taiwan at a time when Mainland China under Mao had suppressed many traces of China’s magnificent, millennia-old culinary heritage. Taiwan, where the remnants of the pre-Marxist Nationalist government took refuge, was a place where you could still encounter classic Chinese delicacies at their best, a far cry from most of the provincial stuff, mainly mediocre Cantonese, being served in Chinese restaurants in the States at the time.

This reviewer still fondly recalls a marathon banquet enjoyed in Taipei more than 30 years ago. My host was a distinguished old Kuomintang government minister, and the conversation was every bit as far-ranging and cultivated as the meal. Classic Chinese cuisine has since staged a comeback on the Mainland, part of the prosperous, sometimes ostentatious lifestyle of a more sophisticated governing elite, senior technocrats and a burgeoning entrepreneurial class. Subsequent family postings in Hongkong and Japan gave Mr. Platt an early introduction to other Asian dishes that remain among his favorites.

Not that he is blind to the follies and fads that, having long since overtaken the American and European dining, have now overrun parts of Asia. Witness his description of a recent meal served up to him by a Scandinavian guest “celebrity chef” at the Tokyo iteration of the Mandarin Oriental hotel:

“The first dish of my meal … was a bowl of slightly bitter strawberries, followed by a stunned, still-wriggling (and curiously waxy-tasting) Hokkaido shrimp dotted with ants, which one of the cooks happily told me were foraged ‘by this cool ant dude in Nagano.’ The ants were supposed to give the dish a little acidity, but they didn’t taste like anything at all. They were followed by a decorative creation that looked like loops of orange ribbon candy but turned out to be thin bands of shaved monkfish liver … .” I could go on — and Mr. Platt does — but I think you get the idea.   

“The Book of Eating” is a joy to read because its author has led a thoroughly enjoyable life and has the gift of sharing his enjoyment of people, places and meals with his readers.

May he lose as much weight as necessary — but not an ounce more — to live, laugh and eat for many another day.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Adam Platt

Ecco, $27.99, 258 pages

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