Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Summer Reading: Jeffrey Steingarten

I'll admit it, I semi-regularly read Vogue magazine... to feel chic, to learn what's fashionable this year, to find out if I can ever acquire a veneer of classic style (not unless I marry someone really rich and/or aristocratic, it seems), to see gorgeous pictures like this one:

(Pretty! But I think the colors were even better on the printed page)

or, alternatively, to make fun of pictures like this one:

in which the two Masai warriors on the left are obviously pointing at the camera and talking about how stupid the whole thing is: "Wait. So we've lived on this savannah for thousands of years, and all they care about is this skinny white girl? Oh, and if we're talking fashion, our shawls beat her ridiculous skirt, any day."

But the section of Vogue from which I derive the most reliable pleasure is its food column, written by Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten is a serious, food-obsessed gourmand, and I find that more understandable and more accessible than being fashion-obsessed. Sometimes you get the impression that the fashion writers at Vogue scorn anyone who spends less than $500 on a handbag or $25 on a lipstick, but Steingarten is more democratic than that. He'll extol 3-star Parisian restaurants, but also great street food, roast chicken, even Milky Way bars!

Or, to put it simply: I feel more akin to someone who writes "Do you go through phases where you simply can't get pizza off your mind? I certainly do" than to someone who thinks I care about fashion advice from "Quinn Jackson, who's fifteen and loves [clothes by] Chloé" (actual quote from August's Vogue).

So when I discovered a collection of Steingarten's columns called It Must've Been Something I Ate on sale at Powell's, I snapped it up. It contains 38 Vogue pieces, mostly from 1997-2001.

Steingarten's typical shtick is to go on an elaborate quest for the "perfect" method of cooking a dish, or other culinary secrets. The first essay has him catching his own bluefin tuna for toro sushi. He also destroys his oven trying to get it hot enough for pizza crust; taste-tests 13 different salts and "maybe $4000 worth of caviar"; roasts dozens of chickens and geese and makes one Turducken; and hunts in the far corners of butcher shops for ingredients for pot au feu, coq au vin, and boudin noir. Then, he has the talent to write it all up in hilarious style, emphasizing the lengths to which he has gone for his culinary art. Another of his comedy methods is to apply gourmet judgment in a situation where it seems excessive, as in "The Man Who Cooked For His Dog" (asking renowned French chefs what to feed his golden retriever puppy) and "Wilderness Enow!" (debating what foods to bring on a backpacking trip). And "Taro Taro Taro" uses the time-honored comic device of pain and humiliation, as Steingarten and his wife nearly get poisoned by a leafy garnish.

If I was blurbing this book, I might just say "I laughed a lot, I learned a lot." As a newbie chef, I appreciate knowing why a certain cooking method works better than another--something Steingarten teaches me but cookbooks don't. And since I've always felt clueless at steakhouses, I loved the 24-page analysis of quality steak: cuts, marbling, aging methods, etc. I also liked the thorough dissections of salt, espresso, caviar, and Parmesan cheese. His essay on genuine Thai food was so enthusiastic, and everything sounded so savory, that I feel like I must find a non-Americanized Thai restaurant (good luck!). And I'm annoyed I didn't have this book six months ago, so I could try all his favorite Paris boulangeries.

Recipes are included with 1/3 or 1/2 of the essays. A lot of them are really complicated, asking for strange equipment (e.g. a baking stone) or endless cooking time and ingredients (the coq au vin recipe is nearly 6 pages long and requires about 4 days of planning and cooking). Perfection doesn't come easy! Still, I plan to make his Parisian hot chocolate and his "perfect" gratin dauphinois sometime. I am also tempted by the carne asada tacos and salsa (perhaps not the tortillas, though), some of the desserts, and his method for cooking steaks in a cast-iron skillet.

One of Steingarten's biggest pet peeves is people who claim to be allergic to ingredients that they don't like or are mistakenly paranoid about. In one chapter, he discovers that most people are not affected by MSG; he also reveals that lactose-intolerant people can eat cheese, and no one, least of all the FDA, should fear unpasteurized cheese. The day after I began It Must've Been Something I Ate, I had the chance to put this spirit into action. I was at a bed-and-breakfast and the innkeeper set a hearty slice of cantaloupe in front of me. I've never liked melons and didn't feel like starting now, so I politely told him "No, thank you."

"Oh, you're allergic?" he said. "You should have warned me!"

"No, I'm just not particularly fond of cantaloupe," I replied. In that moment, I felt like Jeffrey Steingarten would have been proud of me, if only he was there to share the meal (which, aside from the cantaloupe, was delicious).

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