Two New Foodoirs: A Restaurant Critic’s Tales of the Trade and Writers On Their Comfort Foods

The Book of Eating, by Adam Platt
Eat Joy: Stories of Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writersedited by Natalie Eve Garrett

I don’t know what it is about this time of year, maybe just because it’s when we tend to spend more time at home cooking or ordering comfort-food takeout, but there are always so many good food-related books coming out around now.  And I’ve got two new — and very different — foodoirs to tell you about today.

First is longtime restaurant critic Adam Platt’s memoir, The Book of Eating, which looks back over his multifaceted, passionate career in food and journalism, leading up to his current roles, primarily reviewing for New York and Grub Street.

Platt’s love of dining out is lifelong, beginning with his childhood in China and Hong Kong while his father was a high-level diplomat (another family fun fact: his brother is actor Oliver Platt). In these loosely connected essays, he explores what it’s like to critique restaurants — the good, the bad, and the extra layer of difficulty for maintaining a healthy weight, among other less glitzy aspects.

Like cruise ship captains and candy-makers, restaurant critics are often being told they have the best job in the world, even if the darker side of the daily grind—the health issues, the struggles with finding a thousand different words for “delicious,” the Groundhog Day sense of creeping monotony as one familiar baked salmon entrée succeeds the next—makes many things about the job less glamorous than they seem.

It was interesting to see his transition from other journalistic endeavors to restaurant critiquing, and how he approached reviewing, as “part cultural essay, part personal diary, part service journalism, and part travel and cultural commentary… bits and pieces of all the various styles of writing I’d attempted or failed at over the years.” I do love a story of someone finding the perfect work for themselves.

He’s from an older media generation, and reflects on a stuffier bygone “golden era” of New York’s elite fine dining world. But just as interesting is his adaptation as the landscape of food journalism drastically changed, becoming more proletarian particularly thanks to Instagram, which he calls the “game-changing Godzilla of the restaurant landscape”.

Essays about his childhood abroad (he notes being more interested in visiting local bakeries and street food stalls than the cultural institutions his parents chose) and what he learned about food from his father are strongest, and give a proper foundation for understanding Platt’s background, sense of humor, and the family life that shaped him. This was helpful, since I wasn’t already familiar with his work.

My father was a firm believer in the diplomatic and cultural benefits of a fine meal—it was the easiest and most immediate way to connect with any strange new city or country… and also the easiest way to summon up a sense of well-being and calm when everything around you seemed to be trending in the opposite direction.

A drawback is that it’s not traditional memoir but structured through essays, and they can feel disjointed or somewhat repetitive. I loved his impressions most; he’s a master at capturing the essence of places and helping the reader feel, see, and especially taste them. As he puts it, becoming a restaurant critic “turned out to the perfect occupation for a writer with a sturdy constitution and a whole jumble of Proustian associations rattling around in his head.”

He got that right. From the “the dark, rustic earthiness” of pickled mushrooms “on the rolling steppes of Siberia” to “bottles of frosty San Miguel beer from the Philippines, which we drank in the noodle stalls when I traveled there from my high school in Tokyo to play in a local basketball tournament. [New York] always tasted to me like pastrami sandwiches from the real Lindy’s deli, on Broadway, or the rich, creamy texture of the oyster pan roast at the Oyster Bar under the sidewalks at Grand Central, and it smelled like the smoky, slightly stale roasted chestnuts sold by vendors, to this day, around Times Square in twirls of newspaper. When I think of Beijing… I think of platters of boiled dumplings from a venerable old dumpling house in Ritan Park not far from the Great Hall of the People; the sticks of sugared red crab apples called tanghulu, which we’d buy on the street as a snack in wintertime; and the taste of crunchy duck skin, and the smell of fresh scallions in your nose, that you get when you take the first bite of that great local delicacy, Peking duck.”

He also covers his experience judging on MasterChef, the simultaneous excitement and stresses of traveling for work (all-expenses-paid-trip but “how am I supposed to eat all that fucking pizza in three days”), meditations on dieting “as a restaurant critic and other ridiculous pipe dreams”, and how he developed a reviewing style. His tone, as might be inferred from the goofy cover, is a mix of tongue-in-cheek formality with the irreverently funny, and it worked well, if I did find some of his sentences a little complex.

It might be helped by having some familiarity with his work already, but I didn’t and still enjoyed it thoroughly. This might be the book that’s made me hungriest while reading it, primarily those rich scenes of childhood memories of eating in Asia (so many dumplings). published November 12, 2019 by Ecco. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. Amazon / Book Depository

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Natalie Eve Garrett writes in her introduction to this illustrated essay collection, “Looking back on some of the more challenging times in my life, I remember not only the emotions involved, but also the taste.” This is exactly what I find magical about foodoirs — the connection between food and significant life moments, or sometimes the ones we’d rather forget but which still shaped us. A similar interest led her to collect “intimate, in-depth essays with recipes celebrating the foods we eat to get through the dark times in our lives” from some of the foremost writers of the moment.

Reaching out to celebrated writers, I asked them to chronicle the hard times—immigration challenges, chronic illness, loss, heartbreak, and more—and the foods that help them make it through. I gathered…meditations on eating and friendship and finding comfort in eating alone; the secrets to favorite stress-relieving meals; nourishment in the face of addiction; unusual cravings; tales of troubled relationships with food; healing recipes.

I can’t think of a more meaningful topic for a foodoir, and the writers assembled deliver brilliantly. Melissa Febos, Colum McCann, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nick Flynn, Alexander Chee, Natalie Baszile, Porochista Khakpour and others write of painful moments that were eased and accompanied by certain foods in association with family, loved ones, or places, in sections divided into growing pains, loss, healing, and homecoming.

There are some tearjerkers, and you’ll especially feel your feelings when one of the experiences hits close to home, but it’s worth stressing that these are relentlessly hopeful. All of the hard times recounted have passed, and the authors offer hope and solace in what they’ve learned or survived, and these felt consistently reassuring and as comforting as the foods they’d found to soothe their way. I wouldn’t go so far as to call anything here joyful, but there was a lot of peace in it.

Diana Abu-Jaber, one of my favorite foodoir authors, writes in “Leaves” about her aunt in exile cooking dishes from her Palestinian village, and of cooking as “hejira—departure and return. If you never strike out or take chances, you may become imprisoned; if you run too far, you may get lost.”

At those times when I’ve struggled to hang on, to be safe, to control this job or that relationship, to buy or keep more than I needed, I’ve felt a heaviness that tells me I’ve gone down the wrong path. I prefer the solace of cooking, which can offer both freedom and comfort.

Laura van den Berg writes in the moving “Comfort with Eggs” about her complicated relationship to cooking connected to her eating disorder, and what it felt like after she’d recovered, including the realization that part of this illness lingers: “The ghost of the person who believed it was right and reasonable to starve herself to death will never fully leave me.” She eventually learns to cook and connects it to survival and providing care during difficult times, including caring for her mother after surgery. It’s a simple but richly layered story.

Claire Messud writes about her mother’s forced domesticity, making complicated meals from a wall of cookbooks while nursing repeatedly deferred law school dreams, and how she observed “mildly” at the end of her life in the throes of dementia: “There’s so much of life to get through, once you realize that your dreams won’t come true.”

Anthony Doerr writes about early experiences of homesickness with a brownie mix that soothed him a bit strangely on a camping trip, and the brownies he makes for his boys, even as he watches them grow up.

Carmen Maria Machado gets creative with Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and tomato soup, writing about a nostalgic dish she created that comforted her through living in a place that wasn’t right for her, among other things. It’s one of those stories of looking back on a bad place from somewhere calm and comfortable in the future, and she advises gently: “Think about your past self with compassion. She got you here, after all.”

Lev Grossman writes about the takeout General Tso’s tofu that he ate constantly during his divorce, and gives a recipe for a healthier at-home version. “Whoever you are, whatever you have or haven’t done, whatever your apartment looks like, you made this, and you deserve to enjoy it. Don’t despair. There are better times ahead.”

Edwidge Danticat shares a final simple meal with her father before he passes, and recalls what rice had meant to him: “Each time someone would visit from Haiti, my father would cook that same meal—his welcome repast, he called it—because he wanted his guests to taste what had buffered his transition to immigrant life… he hoped they would feel, as he did, that one could easily return home simply by lifting a fork to one’s lips.”

Bich Minh “Beth” Nguyen writes about variances in dishes and how they mimic life: “The sauce and the spaghetti never turn out exactly the same and I know that is how it should be. Each iteration is a bit of evolution. It is past, it is present, it is trying to look forward; it is the enduring necessity and pleasure of comfort.”

Some were stronger than others, and I have a feeling the ones that resonate most will do so when readers have lived similar experiences, but I found something to love in each one of these, kind of unusual for an essay collection. published October 29, 2019 by Black Balloon Amazon / Book Depository

 

13 thoughts on “Two New Foodoirs: A Restaurant Critic’s Tales of the Trade and Writers On Their Comfort Foods

Add yours

  1. I loved that quote of “the struggles with finding a thousand different words for “delicious,”. I could relate that to my own struggles to find alternative words when writing reviews. How many times can you use “gripping”, “compelling” etc

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Both these books sound amazing. Having just read a book about being an art critic, I think the Platt would be a great read and the comfort food and stories sounds very moving and also a good way to learn about different cultures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, the varied cultural aspects of Eat Joy were such a highlight. I loved it, it was so touching and although some of the experiences were tough, it did feel comforting overall. That reminder that we’re all going through this stuff.

      Platt’s book is great too, it was a really fun read. What’s the art critic book you read, was it any good? I haven’t read anything in that area, sounds intriguing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, Eat Joy sounds so good! I also find it unusual for there to be no duds in a multi-author essay collection; I’m glad to hear you enjoyed all of these. Every essay you described sounded like something I’d enjoy too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was so good! I hoped to just find even a few of them that I connected with and was surprised there was something significant I felt like I got from each one. And each author includes their recipe too, which was fun! I could see you really liking this one too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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