Book Review: “Choice Cuts” by Mark Kurlansky

by Jan

Choice CutsThis book is like antipasti. You can pick at pieces, and if Greek writers or German philosophers are not to your taste, you don’t have to ready them anymore. You can simply try the next platter and see if that’s to your taste. And you can snack, rather than wolf the lot down all at once.

But this is not a recipe book or a gourmet guide; it’s more an anthology of historical excerpts written mostly by European writers and philosophers. There is not much written by Asian, African or African-American writers which one would expect in the current environment. A book like this is yet to be compiled.

The subjects written about are not meant to be appetizing or mouth-watering; they range from Proust swooning over madeleines, to unpalatable dishes such as an omelette made out of chicken intestines, Icelandic soup “like scented hair oil”, fish of which “the tougher kind tastes like toe-nails.”    Also, Elizabeth David upsetting herself over garlic presses.

David’s writing is more relevant to the current period. She wrote in the post-war period when she travelled around the Mediterranean countries, and her writing is still relevant today. She introduced olive oil to British cuisine, taking it from the bathroom cupboard to the kitchen cupboard, where it has stayed.

Other writers in the post-war period include MFK Fisher, Jane Grigson, George Orwell, James Beard, and Mark Kurlansky, the editor.  In the introduction, Better than Sex, he says that Grimod de la Reynière was witty and opinionated, and was considered the forefather of most of today’s food writers. Another writer, Liebling who wrote for The New Yorker, maintained that “a true gourmet had a middling income: poverty bars too many experiences and an unlimited budget does not develop curiosity or discrimination.” Liebling wrote “This is not because millionaires are stupid but because they are not impelled to experiment.” A gourmet, in his opinion, needed to be a little deprived which would lead to the curiosity to experiment.

An interesting query is why people read and write about food. I think it’s because they love eating. MFK Fisher thinks it’s also about security, love, hunger, and the feeling of warmth and richness when hunger is satisfied.

Nowadays, Kurlansky would probably include articles on: social media, the cult of celebrity chefs, food shows on TV, spices, different cuisines and the people who cook them.