Thursday, March 05, 2009

Reading food

For some time now I have been reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and her family. "Some time" in this case means "some months." I generally read quickly, so my slowness is markable, and attributable to at least two factors. 1) There is rarely enough quiet in our home (and in my brain) to read. 2) I don't want this book to end too quickly. I'm trying to exercise a restraint in reading that is elusive in cookies -- a savoring of prose, image, and idea. The last (narrative prose) book I read that slowed me like this was Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

You might notice a pattern developing. Your skills in observation are admirable.

I have always liked food. I have often also depended upon it to assuage hungers it cannot approach. I am a passibly good cook, having been alone in the kitchen since I was 7 or 8: food that is generally edible, and, rarely, inspired. But it has been only, oh, the last 17 or 18 years that food has provided pure joy, sensual adventure, and soul satisfaction.

There had been portents before. I was an exchange student in Greece right after high school, and discovered the bitter herbal buttery unctuous savor of good olive oil. I learned sherry (cream and fino) when I was living in Amsterdam. But it was a full decade later that I began developing a palate and a terroir-ized imagination.

I remember the first tomatoes I really tasted (a green zebra, followed by a brandywine), and the woman who aroused the tasting. I remember realizing that bread needed salt -- not to rise or brown, but to have been worth the trouble. (At that time I was baking 5 loaves of bread a week for our intentional household of three, plus the man who lived in the park next door. Discovering salt delayed the meltdown of that living situation by a good month.) I remember cooking with my foodie poet lover my first multicourse, wine-paired dinner, and that for exes and chefs and one besotted wine merchant.

As much as I can enjoy food (including a glorious cheese plate taken when dining alone in Minneapolis), I have a secret crush on food writing. I devoured MFK Fisher, nibbled at Elizabeth David, blackened pizza with Jeffrey Steingarten, and hoarded Babette's Feast (a movie, but someone wrote it). I have lolled in typeset restaurants with John Birdsall, and just occasionally simmered in the fatback prose of John T. Edge. And if we're talking Food Network then we're talking Alton Brown's Feasting On series, more literary than televisual, hence naked, somewhat guilty, pleasure.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a food book, but, like Omnivore's Dilemma, it is more memoir and cautionary tale. A good writer helps you taste the soil and caress the rough hands that held the hoe or the cleaver. There are moments of sheer joy in the reading, satisfying to mind, heart, and soul. So it must go slowly. Thoughtfully. With relish.

Soon I'll take a break and go back to Marjorie Suchocki's new book Divinity and Diversity, which so far might be retitled "Process Theology for Dummies". This is certainly unfair and undeserved, yet next to descriptions of the first spring asparagus and the soil that produced it, how toothsome could it be?

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