From Too Many Chefs -

September 28, 2005
Four Books to Whet the Appetite

If there's anything I like as much as cooking, it's reading good books. Here are four I read recently that you might find interesting.

Physiology of Taste Hunger:An Unnatural History The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen Secret Life of Lobsters

Physiology of Taste by Jean Athelme Brillat-Savarin; translation by Anne Drayton

One of the greatest works on gastronomy was written in 1825 not by a chef or a professional critic, but by a provincial French magistrate whose chief qualification was his experience at the table as a diner. Most people these days know the name Brillat-Savarin from the quote of his that appears at the beginning of either of the Iron Chef series. "You tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are." There is much more than that in "The Physiology of Taste".

Physology of Taste is a work that attempts to answer the question "What is a gourmand?" At the time, "gourmand" and "glutton" were synonymous. Brillat-Savarin refutes that equation emphatically, though he does include some stories, such as the man who ate 36 oysters and was still hungry for more, that might make you wonder.

Much of the science in Brillat-Savarin's book is dated, as you would expect it to be, but the cooking and entertaining advice, general wisdom, and humor are timeless. Brillat-Savarin is the quintessential pre-Sartre bon vivant Frenchman. For example, he defines the SIX senses as the five we think of today, plus a sixth which he says is the attraction between the sexes. All the sense are involved in being a gourmand and in the proper appreciation of a good meal. How French can you get?

If you have an interest in food and don't mind a few sexist (but very French) comments, this is a must-read. I laughed out loud a few times, which is uncommon for me with nineteenth century material.

There is another editon of this book that was translated by noted food writer MFK Fisher, but I found Anne Drayton's translation lively and very readable and recommend it over the Fisher edition.

Hunger: An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell

Before you can eat, you must have an appetite. Sharman Apt Russell attempts to survey hunger in all its forms in this new work. Russell is best when she discusses the physical process of hunger. Hormones and physical structure regulate not only hunger but satiety.

She hangs much of the middle of the book on a study done with conscientious objector volunteers in Minnesota during World War II. The subjects were starved and their physical status and behavior monitored. The subjects were then used to test the best methods to physically rehabilitate people who had been subjected to malnutrition, a subject very relevant to the rehabilitation of the liberated peoples from the warzones.

It's only at the end that I felt Russell's book fell down. The anorexia chapter felt rushed, and she examines the work of anti-hunger groups in places like Somalia and Ethiopia in a too cursory manner for my taste. It would have been better to have more first-hand accounts of modern hunger relief efforts from around the globe. I also felt her prescriptions for relief of global hunger were too idealistic and naive to really work.

I'm sure Hunger suffered in my mind from being read after Brillat-Savarin's work. Russell is a good writer, but not of that caliber. That's nothing to be ashamed of as Brillat-Savarin wrote a classic. I mildly recommend Hunger for the reader interested in the larger issues of food in society.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin

Is there any chef better respected than Jacques Pepin? Jacques Pepin is familiar to most PBS viewers in their 30's and 40's as that French chef who tussled with Julia Child. (When you can get a Frenchman to tut-tut at you for using too much butter, you know you're doing something right.) Others know him as the man who wrote "La Technique", the definitive guide to classic cooking technique from knife skills to egg poaching.

Pepin is a man who's worked in every place you can imagine in the food industry. This autobiography takes you from his early days in the kitchen of his family's restaurants in Bourg-en-Bresse to Paris, where, as was the custom of the day, he learned all the stations in some of the best restaurants in the city. In Paris, Pepin ends up in the army and after a series of fortunate events, becomes the chef for the new head of the French government Charles de Gaulle.

You can tell from the way he writes that Pepin clearly loves his life. He tells the story of moving to America, opening his own restaurant, and turning down a chance to cook for the Kennedy White House in favor of working for Howard Johnson's. The narraive reaches through La Technique and his relationships with James Beard and Julia Child to his relationship with the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Interspersed with the stories are recipes from each stage of his life. Both the recipes and the stories are quite tasty. This is a fine autobiography that reads easily and gives you a good sense of Pepin's self-image and of how the boy became the man became the famous chef. The Pepin in this book is someone I'd be glad to meet. Highly recommended.

The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson

If you can eat them, you probably love lobster. Have you ever thought about how they're caught and whether there is any chance they might someday not be around to grace your dinner table? There are a lot of scientists and fishermen who have worked to ensure they will be.

This book is subtitled "How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean", but could have been subtitled "Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Lobster Sex and Then Some".

Trevor Corson weaves the startlingly strange and beautiful lifecycle of American lobsters near the Maine coast with the lives of the men and women who trap them. Mating rituals for both the lobsters and lobstermen are examined, though thankfully only the lobsters' sex lives are examined in explicit detail.

The heart of the book follows the work of Bob Steneck, a marine bologist and geologist who finds himself suprisingly allied with Maine lobstermen against government scientists. Other scientists work with and against Steneck, but only those who work with the lobstermen gain a real understanding of the creatures.

I'm not an expert, and it is possible that the book is too credulous of Steneck's work. He seems sometimes too clever and the government scientists too stereotypically intransigent to be wholly accurate. I certainly learned a lot about lobsters' reproductive and social behavior which is both entirely alien and completely comprehensible.

The scientists and lobstermen portrayed in the book come across as very sympathetic real people who you'll enjoy reading about. One scientist even chooses lobsters to study so that he can enjoy eating them after his research is completed. Now that's practical!

And frankly, who knew lobsters could be so interesting? There are some experiments the scientists do on the lobsters that may be a little disturbing to a more sensitive or Vegan reader, but even if you don't enjoy eating the creatures, you should enjoy this book.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at September 28, 2005 12:46 AM | TrackBack

Interesting that you enjoyed the Drayton translation better than Fisher - she's a good writer.

By the way, regarding the word gourmand, in French it still does have the connotation of glutton. If you say about a little boy "Qu'est-ce qu'il est gourmand!" the implication is "what a little pig he is!"

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 28, 2005 at 2:33 AM

I looked over a few pages of the MFK Fisher translation, and i have to say I thought it was less "fun" than the Drayton. Others may disagree.

Posted by barrett on September 28, 2005 at 9:13 AM

I have told my cooking and non cooking friends that the Jacques Pepin book is a must-read. Very enjoyable. I agree!

Posted by Lu on October 1, 2005 at 5:00 PM