Monday, May 22, 2006

Reading. Steingarten. (how it all began).

I remember clearly the first article I ever read by Jeffrey Steingarten. It was in Vogue magazine, which I thought was a strange place for a man to be writing about food. There was something unusual about a guy writing about food in a magazine filled with impossibly perfect images of women who didn't appear to eat anything at all. I continued to read Vogue month after month, following his outrageous explorations of food (the search for the perfect bread or croissant, at the height of the Atkins-craze, fishing for toro, making his own Turkducken, a coq-au-vin which takes three days to complete, lobster rolls), each article accompanied by a ruthlessly spare, elegantly minimalist still-life by Irving Penn involving whatever the theme of that article was. Coral shards of lobster shells, luminous smears of caviar, perfectly ripe, voluptuous fruit, a handful of dried beans scattered carelessly, artistically across the blank whiteness of the background.

The first article I read (it has been nearly a decade now) recounted the story of how, while on a flight to (or maybe it was from) Tokyo, Mr. Steingarten and his wife were assaulted by a taro leaf. That is, they unwittingly consumed bits of the toxic leaf that had been used as a garnish in their pseudo-Black Forest ham appetizer. I believe a sharp, tingling, burning sensation is involved. It was hilarious. I had to read more. I began to buy Vogue every month, less for its extravagant fashions (which I could not afford), more for Steingarten's sharply witty commentary on food and his never-ending obsessions and culinary quests. I had been reading cookbooks and food magazines for years, with certain writers I looked forward to in each month's Gourmet. This was something entirely different. Steingarten was funny. But behind the humor and rapier-wit was this incredible, overwhelming passion for food, an obsession even. If I could only live the way he did, care as deeply about food as he does.

It was with great pleasure that I discovered the first of Steingarten's books, The Man Who Ate Everything, when I was in college. I read it huddled in my dorm room over bowls of instant noodles and frozen pizzas. I cannot find my copy; it is buried somewhere in the avalanche of books that covers every surface of my room. It contains articles from Vogue during the late 80's and early 90's. And it is only a taste. When It Must've Been Something I Ate was published a few years ago, I practically exploded with joy. Steingarten gets to the heart of why food matters to him, why it should matter to us all, why we should care about the pleasures of taste. And he does it in a way that is so funny and smart that you cannot help but understand why you should care.

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