Friday, October 31, 2014

A Fork in the Road, edited by James Oseland

A Fork in the Road is a collection of essays by chefs, food writers, and novelists reflecting on moments of "transformation through food." Like most collections, the book contains some essays that moved me and some that left me cold. The strongest essays are those in which the author is writing about more than food--about family, culture, finding oneself. One of my favorite's was Josh Ozersky's "A Melancholic's Guide to Eating in Paris," in which he describes his trip to the French capital with his deeply depressed father, with whom he "spoke the secret language of food as a proxy for everything else." The role of food in defining family is also the subject of "The Importance of Chicken Livers," by Beth Kracklauer, which begins with a wonderful sentence: "We all enter our families in the middle of the action, and each of us is left to piee together our own story-in-progress as best we can." Perhaps family is my preferred theme, as I also loved "A Wedding Feast," in which Tom Carson explores gender, culture, and family as he describes the wedding of Indian in-laws. David Kamp lovingly descritbes "Stolen Apples, Yankee Pot Roast, and a Cabin by the Lake." Other pieces were similarly compelling.

Less successful, for me, were essays that focused too narrowly on the food--a barbeque travelogue of Georgia,  a description of restaurant-hopping in Paris, or even details of the food served along the Amazon. A few essays delved into the world of disgusting foods in a way that disgusted but also fascinated--"They Eat Maggots, Don't They?" and "Fish Heads" to name two.

The collection is uneven but worth dipping into.

Favorite passages:
In that humble stew, beyond the pleasures of taste, there was so much else to savour. Its essence held so many of the things it takes to make a good life--resourcefulness, pride and care, a connectedness to nature, and the pleasures of a meal shared togeher around the table--most of the means to transform a life of raw poverty and grinding hardship. Anna Langbein in "The Right Side of the Fall Line"

. . . when something is made with care, you appreciate it with equal care; how food can be a way for people who aren't otherwise especially demonstrative to express themselves.  Beth Kracklauer in "The Importance of Chicken Livers"

Not least because it was far from her only skill, Maggie made a life bereft of cooking's pleasures seem forlorn. Even more than the outcomes, I was smitten by how she went about it: the alternating rhythms of patience and dispatch, the trick bag of adaptable techniques, the logistics of a complicated mise en place. I'd just never understood how simply, nihilism-defyingly happy you could make other people by cooking well.  Tom Carson in "A Wedding Feast"

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