Anne-Marie Slaughter. - Comfort Me with Apples - Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly - The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley
I am a vicarious eater, often preferring a description of a meal to eating it. I hoard the Wednesday food section of the New York Times, savoring it as my late-night reading, finishing always with the restaurant review.
If reading restaurant reviews is vicarious eating, then reading about writing restaurant reviews can only be vicarious living--living life as a foodie. Comfort Me with Apples (Random House, $13.95, 320 pp.) is the memoir of foodie Ruth Reichl, former restaurant reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and now editor of Gourmet magazine. Reichl's long love affair with food is anything but intimidating. She started cooking in self-defense, to avoid being poisoned by her mother. (That story is told in Tender at the Bone, to which Comfort Me with Apples is the sequel.) Decades later, her first restaurant review for the New York Times was "Two Views of Le Cirque," recounting two vastly different experiences at this haughty preserve of French cuisine, one as a nobody and one as a somebody. The most memorable detail is the replacement of her strawberries with much bigger ones midway through dessert when the waiter realized who she was.
Similarly, Comfort Me with Apples opens with her first encounter with the noted food critic Colman Andrews, whom she impresses by being bold enough to turn up her nose at any caviar other than "triple-zero beluga," at black rather than white truffles, and at pasteurized milk cheeses. Reichl is making it up as she goes along, but it works. Over the next few years she learns to play the food game, but also remembers never to take it too seriously. Like her mentor, Alice Waters, who transformed American cooking and eating at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, Reichl's best meals are the simplest ones, bringing strong true flavors to the fore. Her recipes, scattered throughout, can actually be cooked.
Comfort Me with Apples is more than a recital of meals eaten and recipes followed, however. It is a memoir, and a moving one. Reichl recounts a failed marriage, and more wrenchingly, a failed adoption. The title is drawn from the Song of Solomon--a paean to life at its most intense. And indeed, at the close of the book, when Reichl describes a trip with a group of famous American chefs commissioned to cook a collective meal in Barcelona, she tells a story of how the tastes and textures of different foods--roasted almonds, briny eels in hot oil, blood oranges--can reawaken even senses numbed by grief. Rediscovering her appetite for food, she is able to recover her appetite for love, even with its shadow of loss.
At the other end of the spectrum, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Ecco, $14, 320 pp.) is vicarious living as a man. Anthony Bourdain takes us inside the swaggering, foul-mouthed, macho world of New York chefs. His initial desire to be a chef had far less to do with making good food than being "the big guy with the knife." When this book came out, most reviewers noted the inside tips for New York eaters--never order fish on a Monday, never order seafood anything at brunch, and never touch hollandaise sauce--a "veritable petri dish of biohazards." But this book too is far more than an expose. It is a memoir, a funny one, of a spoiled rich kid who learns to eat and then to work, hard.
Along the way, Bourdain provides cameos of the staff at his New York restaurant Les Halles--Jaime the sous-chef, Carlos the grill man (with a pierced eyebrow and a "body by Michelangelo"), Janine the pastry chef (a woman!), Mohammed the runner. These immigrant professionals are working to lift themselves, and often their families back home, into the middle class. Bourdain brings them and their counterparts across New York City brilliantly alive.
Reading about food and travel is vicarious vacationing--perhaps the best vicarious living of all. Spend a year in a farmhouse in a valley between Tuscany and Umbria, with farmwife Silvana Cerotti as cook and English food writer Elizabeth Romer as guide. The book is The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley (North Point, $13, 182 pp.). First published in 1984, it details the year Romer spent living with the Cerottis, following the rhythms of Italian farm life and the meals particular to each month and each season--meals made the same way for centuries, with ingredients grown in the fields or gathered in the woods. The year runs from January, the month of slaughtering pigs, curing prosciutti, making a variety of salame and salcicce (cold cuts and sausages) to hang from the attic rafters; through April and the blessing of the eggs at Easter, before making veal with sage, garlic, olive oil, and white wine for the Easter lunch; through fresh melons with prosciutto and fresh-baked bread as a farmhouse breakfast for the harvesters in July; through foraging for wild mushrooms in the pinewoods in September; to preparation of special Christmas tortellini in December, made in honor of the shape of Venus' navel.
The Tuscan Year has little in common with the "spend a year restoring an Italian farmhouse and then write about it" genre--it is a loving, respectful, and serious exploration of Italian country life. Romer includes wonderful recipes gleaned from talking with and watching Silvana cook.
Summer, as all food magazines and newspaper food sections remind us, is a time of local pleasures and simple tastes--lobster, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, blueberries, peaches, and watermelon. Why not also indulge the pleasure of reading about fancier meals and faraway places? Living well may be the best revenge, but living (and eating) vicariously is just as much fun--and much easier on the figure.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and president of the American Society of International Law