Best Food Writing 2008. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $15.95.
He Is…I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond. By David Wild. Da Capo. $25.
Defiantly for niche audiences, these books will please the senses of taste and hearing, respectively, for those of the right gustatory and auditory inclinations. Best Food Writing 2008, the ninth in an annual series that began in 2000, collects 48 essays from a wide variety of sources into eight categories: “Food Fights,” “Dining Around,” “The Restaurant Biz,” “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” “Technique,” “Stocking the Pantry,” “The Meat of the Matter,” and “Personal Tastes.” Some of the writing comes from places you would expect to be part of this sort of anthology: Food & Wine, The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, The New York Times, Gourmet, etc. But other essays are from less-expected places: Wired, Hogwash, Raleigh-Durham News & Observer. Whether these articles are the “best” of the year is, of course, arguable, but most are certainly entertaining. We have “The Art of the Biscuit” and “The Belly of the Beast”; “Butter: A Love Story” and “I Melt with You”; “Yes, Virginia, They Do Eat Guinea Pigs” and “Losing My Carnivirginity: The Diary of a Lapsed Vegetarian” and “Why Vegetarians Are Eating Meat.” There may not be something here for everyone, but there are plenty of somethings for plenty of people who enjoy both fine food and fine writing. The styles are in fact as variable as the topics. In “The Surprise Slice of My Cook’s Tour,” from The Washington Post, Jane Black writes about culinary tourists, “Even the simplest things must be off the beaten path: If it’s papa al pomodoro, the simple Tuscan bread and tomato soup, the (stale) bread had better be homemade, and, if possible, the soup should be cooked over a fire made by rubbing two sticks together.” In “Fat, Glorious Fat, Moves to the Center of the Plate,” from The New York Times, Frank Bruni writes that “bellies (most often pork, more recently lamb) are the counterculture’s LSD. Its Timothy Leary might well be David Chang, the chef at Momofuku, where steamed buns are filled with strips of pork belly. Or maybe it’s Zak Pelaccio, the chef at the tellingly named restaurant Fatty Crab. One of its best-selling dishes, called the fatty duck, takes strips of a bird not exactly known for its leanness, dusts them with cornstarch and deep-fries them.” Of course – and this is an inevitable flaw in Best Food Writing 2008 – the articles are tied to particular times and places. Restaurants change management, change menus, go out of business; book readers may find specific essays intriguing but have no way to follow up on them (the book contains only 11 recipes). And even a regional approach to a matter of national interest, such as heritage foods and “eating local,” may leave readers…err…hungering for more. Thus, “Lost Foods Reclaimed,” from The Philadelphia Inquirer, refers to Neshaminy Creek, Bridgetown Pike, Morrisville, the Wissahickon and Bucks County as if they are in readers’ back yards – which they are, for Philadelphians. Still, if these essays are not incontrovertibly the best of the year and not definitive in their subject areas for a broad audience, they are certainly creative and interesting in their own right, and their own write, as in Jason Sheehan’s “Mr. Wizard” from Denver’s alternative weekly, WestWord: “‘I’m one chemical away from making my own Twinkies,’ he added, as if this was a good thing, and then he convinced me that it was.”
The writing is less bright and the subject more limited in He Is..I Say, David Wild’s tribute to the often-maligned musicianship of Neil Diamond. Wild, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, is well aware that Diamond is considered far from hip by many fans and critics of rock music. But Wild remains a major admirer – to such an extent that He Is…I Say borders on hagiography. “I would argue that it was Diamond’s grown-up masculinity and transparent brooding intensity that would allow Barry and Greenwich’s sublimely constructed recordings to transform him into a real, iconic star.” “Neil Diamond proved once again that he would do whatever it took to continue to grow as an artist and get his share of control in art, in business, and in life.” “If Diamond had been struggling to truly move past his Bang recordings, he won that struggle with the heavenly help of Brother Love, which brought the world the most soul-satisfying sermon yet in the gospel according to Neil.” “As Diamond’s music grew more and more introspective and searching, his audience now seemed inclined to follow anywhere he would dare to take them.” And so on – and on and on. Calling Diamond “the Jewish Elvis,” Wild positively glows over nearly everything the singer has done, with the result that the book reads more like an extended fanzine than a critical (or reasonably objective) tracing of Diamond’s art and its place in rock history. Wild uses exclusive interviews and well-researched behind-the-scenes information to construct He Is…I Say, but the book so obviously starts from a position of near-worship, and so clearly remains there throughout, that it is difficult to read as biography, as analysis, or as anything more than an outpouring of adoration. For the vast majority of readers and music fans, He Is…I Say gets a (++) rating, because if you do not share Wild’s enthusiasm for Neil Diamond, you will find this book to be very tough going indeed.