Best Food Writing 2014. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $15.99.
Tales for Very Picky Eaters. By Josh Schneider. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $5.99.
Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #12: Escape to California. By Josh Greenhut. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $15.99.
Any self-proclaimed food elitist worth his or her salt – super-expensive sea salt only, please, and never mind that it is identical to generic salt from the (shudder) supermarket – will find Best Food Writing 2014 very tasty indeed. This is prose by foodies, for foodies, arranged in categories called “The Way We [that is, the cognoscenti] Eat Now,” “A Table for Everyone [who agonizes over having everything just so],” “Back to Basics [as those of us in the know define them for everyone else],” “Home Cooking [for people with plenty of time and money],” “Stocking the Pantry [also for people with plenty of time and money],” “Someone’s in the Kitchen [who has lots and lots and lots of time to be there],” “Personal [highfalutin] Tastes,” and “Extreme [and bizarre and overindulgent] Eating.” Well, the section titles do not really include the bracketed words, but those are implied not only in the book’s organization but also within virtually all of the 50 essays collected here and edited by Holly Hughes. This annual collection strikes out similar territory every year, with a very strong “urban intelligentsia” and coastal (rather than Middle American) orientation and an apparently total ignorance of the belief of some people that food is, you know, fuel for the body…and, like, costs money. “Five Things I Will Not Eat” by Barry Estabrook, for instance, is about the inherent evils of supermarket ground beef (“buy a whole cut like a chuck steak or sirloin and grind it yourself”), salad greens packed in plastic bags (“Buy whole heads or bunches and chop them yourself”), bluefin tuna (“International organizations that are charged with setting catch limits for bluefins regularly set quotas far above what their own scientists recommend”), out-of-season tomatoes (“the real problem with winter tomatoes is the abuses suffered by the farmworkers who harvest them”), and farmed salmon (“It’s far better to raise fish like tilapia that can be fed a vegetarian diet”). If these sound like your everyday concerns, then you are in the target audience for this book. You can read “Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System” by Kim O’Donnel (“home cooking…is a conscious decision to turn raw ingredients into a meal to nourish ourselves and the people we love”); “Bread and Women” by Adam Gopnik (“In order to supply the unique amount of care that children demand, we have to enter into a contract in amnesia where neither side is entirely honest about the costs”); “The 16.9 Carrot” by Dan Barber (“Back in the kitchen, Jack brought out his refractometer to test another batch of mokums”); “A Day on Long Island with Alex Lee” by Francis Lam (“Casual millionaires were taking their seats for the barbecue on the veranda”); and many more. The writing here is almost impossible to parody, since so much of it is self-parodistic to anyone except the writers themselves, who take what they are saying and thinking and eating and saying about eating and thinking about eating very, very, very seriously indeed. Depending on your viewpoint, there is almost no humor in Best Food Writing 2014 or there is almost nothing but humor in it. Food can be (and ideally should be) more than just nourishment all the time – and there is nothing wrong with making it a hobby or even an occasional indulgence. But in a nation with a growing obesity problem accompanied by huge issues involving improper or inadequate nourishment of a large percentage of the population, there is something a trifle unseemly about turning food into an obsession, then celebrating the fanaticism that goes with writing as self-indulgent and self-celebratory as is found here.
There is something refreshing about the humorous and matter-of-fact treatment of food in kids’ books as a contrast to the esoterica of Best Food Writing 2014. Want to have real fun with food? Try Tales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider, originally published in 2011 and now available in a very-low-priced paperback edition. The five stories here are about disgusting broccoli, smelly lasagna, repulsive milk, lumpy oatmeal and slimy eggs – those descriptions being the way James, the boy in the book, characterizes those particular foods. James’ father makes the foods and serves them, but James, being a very picky eater, prejudges all of them and turns them down. So his dad makes up outlandish stories about what will happen if James does not at least try the foods: instead of broccoli, James can have pre-chewed gum or a very sweaty sock; refusing the lasagna will put the basement troll who made it out of a job and force him to go back to his previous position with the rat circus; failing to drink milk – which builds strong bones – will result in James having bones too soft for kickball, baseball or scratching the dog; and so on. Each short tale ends with James reluctantly accepting the food he initially does not want – and discovering that it is not so bad after all. By the time of the final chapter, on eggs, James knows what his father is going to say, and he makes up extreme stories about what will happen if he does not try the eggs. But now his father simply says he thinks James might like the eggs if he tries them – so James does, and yes, he likes them after all. This (++++) book’s simple, to-the-point writing and highly amusing imaginary scenes make it a delectable morsel for parents whose children are, have been, used to be or have considered becoming very picky eaters themselves.
Food is not the main point of the Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures series, which is based on Jeff Brown’s character but not written by him. But Stanley’s name is, after all, Lambchop, so in a sense, Escape to California is a food story through and through. The plot is not primarily food-oriented, though: Stanley meets a wheelchair-bound girl named Lily who is determined to prove that someone in a wheelchair can do just about anything – including escaping from Alcatraz, the once-notorious prison on an island near San Francisco. Lily knows of Stanley’s prior worldwide adventures (even though readers picking up this book may not), pointing out that Stanley “found [his] way out of a pyramid in Egypt” and “trained with Oda Nobu in Japan and performed with the Flying Chinese Wonders in Beijing,” so he seems the ideal person to help arrange the escape stunt. Over a sumptuous meal of California-grown food – yes, food really does play a meaningful, if not central, role in this book – Stanley learns that the state grows “artichokes, arugula, asparagus, avocados, basil, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, edamame, eggplant, escarole,” and that is only letters A through E. Dessert is blackberries, blueberries and boysenberries with cream, and then the primary plot returns, with Lily explaining that she wants Stanley to be her kite in the escape plan. So the kids figure out how that would work, and practice, and eventually go through with Lily’s idea and, yes, show that Lily and her wheelchair can escape from Alcatraz. And then Stanley and his family have a crab dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, so food again is in the limelight, if only briefly. Escape to California is determinedly upbeat, but it is so improbable and overdone that the (+++) book will really be of interest only to families enamored of California or of the rather weak Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures sequence – in which it is a perfectly respectable but scarcely distinguished entry.
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