(by Jeffrey Steingarten, 2003)
Vogue magazine food writer Steingarten picks up where The Man Who Ate Everything left off, offering foodies a mouthwatering collection of nearly 40 obsessive essays. “Sometimes, I feel like a giant bluefin, my powerful musculature propelling me around the world in search of food,” he explains in an essay about toro, the tender tuna belly used in Japanese cuisine. Equal parts travelogue and investigative reporting, Steingarten’s writing is funny, fast-paced and clever. Whether re-creating a perfect plate of coq au vin using rooster procured from a live poultry market, braising ribs for his dog or taste-testing espresso in his Manhattan loft cum laboratory (“Right now there are 14 brand new, state-of-the-art, home espresso makers in my house….”), Steingarten proves himself a true gastronome. Of course, his interest in food goes beyond haute cuisine-freeze-dried foods, hot dog buns, even his beloved Milky Way bars do not escape scrutiny. A few essays aren’t even about food. One follows the author’s south-of-the-border search for phen-fen; another contemplates New York City’s “reservation rat race.” Recipes—and only Steingarten could add humor to the form—appear throughout. Devoted readers will savor this collection (many of the essays have won awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals); those unfamiliar with the author will be clamoring for more.
(by Michael S. Sanders, 2002)
With his wife and young daughter, Sanders spent a year in southwestern France, in the village of Les Arques, tracing the rhythm of rural life and the restaurant at the town’s heart. As in his first book, The Yard: Building a Destroyer at the Bath Iron Works (which followed the construction of the USS Donald Cook at a shipyard struggling against modernization), Sanders explores a threatened way of life: before 1988 (the year citizens founded the Zadkine Museum), Les Arques struggled to barely survive. Inspired by Ossip Zadkine, the Russian sculptor who summered in the town until his death in 1967, the museum attracts resident students and tourists year-round. Now, the local restaurant, La Recreation, not only feeds the locals, it draws an international clientele. Chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noelle, established what is locally called La Recre (French for “recess”) in the town’s abandoned schoolhouse in 1993 and this is Les Arques’ sole business. Sanders affectionately observes the restaurant in action, from morning prep to full swing service. As he contemplates a bid for star status in the Michelin guide, Mr. Ratier personifies Les Arques’ struggle to stay in the game. Sanders also investigates French country ways, devoting entire chapters to foie gras and truffles and explaining the history of a region where every house has a name and children grow up on four-course school lunches. He unveils a culture wholly at odds with fast-food America. The book’s back matter offers advice for travelers, but Sanders’s account is so lovely, and Les Arques so sensuous and ripe with magic, to visit seems vaguely sacrilegious.
(by Edwidge Danticat, 2002)
Twenty years after emigrating to America, Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory) returns to her native Haiti and the coastal village of Jacmel to take part in her first Carnival. But she’s not without reservations. As a child she was forbidden to partake in the festivities by her uncle, a Baptist minister with whom she lived before joining her parents in New York at age 12. “People always hurt themselves during carnival, he said, and it was their fault, for gyrating with so much abandon that they would dislocate their hips and shoulders and lose their voices while singing too loudly.” Organized in sections that parallel Danticat’s perambulations in the week leading up to the event, the author illuminates the political, economic and cultural history of the island nation, introducing Columbus, French colonists and Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the dictator of Danticat’s youth. Throughout, readers meet local artists, farmers and activists who call Jacmel home, including Ovid, a farmer whom Danticat meets having lost her way in an abandoned sugar plantation. Madame Ovid, his wife, crafts paper cones to hold the grilled corn flour she will sell during carnival. It’s said that the act of writing leads to a deeper understanding of one’s subject, and oneself. As the work reveals in its final pages, for no one is this more true than Danticat, who offers an enlightening look at the country and Carnival through the eyes of one of its finest writers.