All You Can Eat

By Lise Funderburg

November 17, 2002

IT MUST’VE BEEN SOMETHING I ATE: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten. Knopf, 513 pp., $27.50.

To enjoy any book, you need good light and a comfortable chair. But collections of food writing add a third accessory to the list — reading them would be best undertaken with a full refrigerator and/or pantry nearby.

Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue magazine’s food columnist, whets appetites with 40 adventurous, provocative and often rollicking essays in “It Must Have Been Something I Ate.” A lawyer-turned-food writer (praised by The James Beard Association and the government of France, among others), Steingarten reveals in his writing as much about himself as he does the top swimming speeds of the bluefin tuna (57 mph) and the best bistros in Paris (which serve traditional and definitely not nouvelle cuisine).

Fortunately, the man who ate everything (as Steingarten’s first book was self-referentially titled) would make for a great dinner party seatmate – unless, that is, you unwittingly set him off. One way to do so would be to shove aside the curls of Parmesan shaved onto your salad and claim lactose intolerance. Americans are too quick to malign, he believes, whether it’s dairy or MSG or animal fat.

Once ignited, Steingarten rants, and in “Fear of Formaggio,” he blames food paranoia for “nearly destroy[ing] both the genial dinner party and the warm family meal, and, with them, our sense of festivity and exchange, of community and sacrament.” The “downgrading of American meat,” the writer gasps, “is a major scandal, a venal conspiracy first to deprive every American of her right to dine on a profoundly savory, plump and juicy steak, and then to deny her the knowledge that something far superior ever existed.”

Lest such fervency undermine his positions, Steingarten uses the investigative and scholarly skills he picked up as a student at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He combs the medical journals and studies, calls regularly upon the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture and seems unafraid to put the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on redial.

To debunk another writer’s claim that the craze for varietal salts (for which Steingarten partly takes credit) is hooey, he sets up tasting experiments in credible research labs. His passion, contagious from the start, becomes all the more endearing in light of the test results, which don’t exactly support his hypothesis.

Steingarten has made his life’s mission to wake up and wonder, and most often he seems to wonder about what to eat. This, combined with genetic inheritance, has made him susceptible to weight gain, and in “Addicted to Losing,” he chronicles his unrepentant quest for black market Fen-phen, the diet drug linked (unfairly, he argues) to heart abnormalities. Though he fails to find a “rational” pharmacist in Mexico who’ll sell him the drug, he does discover delicious wood-grilled beef tacos along the way.

CHOICE CUTS: A Savory Selection of Food Writing From Around the World and Throughout History. Edited by Mark Kurlansky. Ballantine, 473 pp., $26.95.

It’s a good thing Jeffrey Steingarten has his own book, since he’s not among the scores of writers anthologized in “Choice Cuts.”

Edited by Mark Kurlansky (“Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” and “Salt: A World History”), the exhaustive “Choice Cuts” literally spans the centuries, calling upon everyone from Plato to Proust, with a heavy dose of M.F.K. Fisher and A.J. Liebling in between.

Truffles get their own chapter, as do bugs, chocolate, politics and the French. Kurlansky hosts the reader’s journey through the book, providing context where needed. He explains, for example, the significance of Fannie Farmer’s recipes, which introduced scientific precision to recipes. Farmer, Kurlansky observes, set a precedent that now enslaves many a cook. As a counterpoint, he includes earlier approaches, including a 15th century Neapolitan recipe (no measurements included) for how to make a cooked cow look alive. “First kill the cow or calf normally,” the recipe begins.

If “Choice Cuts” defines “food writing” too loosely – the misleadingly titled “Louis Prima on the Pizzeria” gives the lyrics of a song Prima sang but did not write – it redeems itself a thousand times over in its embrace of passages that show food’s symbiotic relationship to music, culture, politics, geography and life. Appropriately, Kurlansky ends with a quote from Fisher’s book “The Gastronomical Me,” in which she defends her approach to food writing. “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.”