Best Food Writing of 2014

By Holly Hughes, editor

De Capo | 2014 | 373 pages

Reviewed by Jane Smiley

Around nine a.m. every morning, I decide what I will cook for dinner. This puts me immediately in a good mood, even if what I choose, as I did yesterday, is a rib-eye steak salt-seared in an iron pan with onion rings and spinach salad (the steak looked fatty when I bought it, but by the time it was on the table, the fat had sizzled down to perfect salty brown bits).

This afternoon, I will be extruding some homemade pasta and serving it with a tonno sauce. I can’t wait. After dinner, I will make some peppermint ice cream and stir Christmassy chocolate peppermint chunks into it.

My mother would have been floored that I turned out like this. When I was a child, I would eat four things--a plain hamburger from Steak-n-Shake, chicken rice soup, Wonder Bread peanut butter sandwiches (ONLY strawberry jam), and popcorn.

But picky eaters learn to cook, and then they learn to eat, and then they read The Best Food Writing of 2014 and wonder if a cockroach might be worth trying.

I sometimes marvel at the variety and expansiveness of today’s literary world--even as new forms are being explored, plenty of old dead writers are being unearthed, retranslated, reprinted--there is more literature to enjoy than maybe at any time in human history, and don’t let the spoilsports spoil your sport--much of it is terrific and fascinating, and evidently this is true in the world of food, too. De gustibus non est disputandum--why bother? Just enjoy.

Let me get the important stuff out of the way: every eater of good conscience should read Eli Saslow’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Waiting For the 8th,” a part of his year-long Washington Post series about living on food stamps. Raphael Richmond has six children and $246 dollars per month with which to feed them, cut by Congress (a body that knows the meaning of pork) from $290.

Frozen beef patties and boxes of mac and cheese only go so far. Food pantries run out of everything but sweet potatoes, bread, and onions.

On the 2nd, there is almost nothing in the house, and relatives are kicked out to fend for themselves; tempers are short. The 8th arrives, the pantry is stocked, and Raphael realizes that she and Congress are in a tug of war--if they continue to cut her SNAP payments, she will retaliate by sending her eligible children to get their own benefits, thereby upping the family total.

Jobs? There are none (but we know that). Balancing Saslow’s piece is Dan Barber’s “The 16.9 Carrot,” not really about eating (although the 16.9 part is a Brix measure of the carrot’s flavor--most carrots get a score in the single digits), but about soil--how what we eat is a living thing that is borne of that other living thing that is the soil.

“To bypass,” he writes, “the network of living things is to deprive the plant’s roots of the full periodic table of the elements the soil provides. But it also deprives the soil elements of their food source...‘The idea that we could ever substitute a few soluble elements for a whole living system is like thinking an intravenous needle could administer a delicious meal.’”

Exactly this substitution is the subject of a third important essay in Best Food Writing of 2014 from Wired, Ben Paynter’s “Monsanto is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie,” which opens with three Monsanto executives in St. Louis tasting a caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, lettuce, plus mozzarella). No introduction of alien DNA, only crossbreeding, but plenty of DNA mapping in order to understand precisely where sweetness or durability is located on the genome. Nor, apparently, are any of the scientists paying attention to the composition of the soil, which is located in on an experimental farm in Woodland, California, eleven miles north of Davis.

Paynter is suspicious of Monsanto’s business plan, which, as far as industrialized crops are concerned, has leaned heavily on making farmers entirely dependent on Monsanto inputs and aggressively deflecting any consumer choice when it comes to GMO crops. With those profits, it has acquired a greenhouse in Guatemala, a greenhouse seed company, and a weather data company focused on climate change. Together, these three informative essays invite us to not only fear, but also contemplate and maybe plan where our food world might be headed.

But Best Food Writing 2014, is so various that the reader ends up deciding that in fact there are no bests. Gusti abound, and all of them are interesting. Where would I like to go? To the woods of South Carolina, to spy on a group of men who are making sugar cane juice over an open fire in a kettle that is five feet in diameter.

Jack Hitt, the author of “”The Forgotten Harvest,” makes me feel an affinity with this traditional amber syrup, and not only because his very first line paraphrases the first line of Pride and Prejudice, one of the best first lines ever.

I love sweets and jokes--the men tease each other and make fun of themselves, while Hitt cogently explains the history of this lost art, related to sugar making and maple syrup, but still a food tradition all its own.

Or I will go to a Connecticut beach, where Bun Lai, a New Haven chef, is gathering provisions for his restaurant that specializes in “invasivore” cuisine--Rowen Jacobsen, in “The Invasivore’s Dilemma” is straightforward: “Worrying about the impact that climate change may have on a region’s ecology while ignoring the work of invasive species is kind of like fretting over next year’s crops while Vikings torch the harbor.”

Afterward, I will follow Chef Lai to his restaurant and try the Trash Fish Dinner and the Asian carp cakes, breaded and deep-fried (cakes are best because, according to Lai, the fish is so boney that it is like “a hairbrush smeared with peanut butter.”  

I am not an adventurous eater, so if I go to Copenhagen, I will be happy to watch customers at Noma eat “fried reindeer moss, hay ash, twigs, ants, and seaweed,” but it would take a lot of encouragement to get me to try the bee-larva granola or the grasshopper garum.

Even so, Daniella Martin, the author of “Learning How to Taste” almost convinces me, not just to accept that insects are the haute cuisine of the future, but that the tarantula I saw crossing the road here in California last spring has something to offer in addition to dread.

And as for Bangkok, where the street food is some of the best in the world, according to Matt Goulding’s “The Lions of Bangkok Street Food,” where’s my ticket? I much prefer street food to fancy restaurants (my own favorite item of 2013 was the Burger Theory burger I had in Adelaide, Australia--blue cheese, caramelized onions...excuse me, I need to take a break).

Goulding relates his final meal: hurrying from stand to stand, buying and eating mini-crepes “as thin and crunchy as a candy shell,” followed by chicken meatballs on bamboo skewers with chili sauce, followed by a “salad of green papaya, chilis, and dried shellfish, pestle pounded into an electric mix of spice and sweet and ocean umami.”

He then grabs some crispy hot fried chicken and, which burns his fingers but is delicious. And he still has half his allotted funds, 150 baht, about $5, left.

Best Food Writing of 2014 includes a few recipes in addition to the essay (quite funny) by Irvin Lin, “How to Boil Water.” I will not be trying “The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie,” but I appreciate the care and precision with which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt pursued his researches.

I like my own chicken cutlets, which I cook very much as Albert Burneko does, and I agree that they do give you “A Reason to Keep Living.”

As for Laurie Colwin’s Tomato Pie (eloquently beloved by Ann Hood), I think I would rather reread one of her terrific novels--maybe Happy All The Time followed by A Big Storm Knocked It Over. I will be trying Molly Watson’s turkey recipe (“How to Cook A Turkey”), while appreciating her amusing, no-nonsense attitude. At the end of this review, I will get back to you about how it worked out.

Every one of the fifty pieces included in Best Food Writing of 2014 is worth reading. Every one is thoughtful and idiosyncratic and full of information. Editor Holly Hughes has great range and great taste--both literary and culinary. You can sample it as a buffet or you can sit down to a fifty-course meal. You’ll be glad you did.

Post-Christmas turkey addendum: Molly Watson is opinionated about her turkey roasting ("How to Cook A Turkey") and she is not going to put up with your desire for a little precision.

How big is your turkey? Up to you. How long should you cook it? Play it by ear, or leg--just keep wiggling that leg until it is so loose it nearly falls off the turkey.

How do you coordinate this with the mashed potatoes and the dressing? Molly isn't saying. The main points are that the turkey should be dry dry dry and well-salted, that you should smear it with butter or, preferably, bacon (my choice), and that you should let it sit for at least a half an hour after you take it out of the oven. Here is my judgment: 1. The dark meat was very tender and delicious, maybe the best ever. 2. The breast meat was a little dry (the spatchcocked turkey out of Saveur, November 2014, was preferred in our household for this reason). 3. Letting it sit for a long time worked very well. 4. The gravy was extremely salty, so no salt in the mashed potatoes. 5. Not knowing how long to plan the cooking time drove me bananas. 6. The bacon was wonderful, just as she says it will be.

In 2008, Jane Smiley was a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in food writing. She also writes novels. Her latest best seller is Some Luck: A Novel

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