For many people, spring is a time of renewal. For me, autumn fits that description. Maybe that’s because I spent so much of my life in academic settings—first as an undergraduate student, then in grad school and finally as a university instructor. I always look forward to the fall as a time for new beginnings. In college, I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to crack open the semester’s new textbooks. Each autumn meant a clean slate and the promise of fresh paths and original ideas to explore.
Although I abandoned the world of academia long ago, I still look forward to the season when leaves turn brown, mornings start out chilly and a new stack of books awaits my attention. I hope that pleasurable back-to-school feeling never leaves me. Recently, in the throes of such nostalgia, I dove into a book that I’d been meaning to tackle for quite a while. The book is called Choice Cuts, and it’s the single best collection of food writing I’ve ever read. It may not be brand new—it was published in 2002—but it was new to me, and it’s well worth seeking out.
The full title of Mark Kurlansky’s brilliantly researched and edited compendium is Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History. It’s a brainy buffet of food writing, containing some 200 essays from a cast of culinary experts like M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Waverly Root and James Beard. There are also contributions from historical figures not especially known for their food commentary: Plato, Anton Chekhov, Pliny the Elder and Virginia Woolf, to name just a few. The collection contains so much depth and breadth that its downfall is that it might just turn you off to contemporary food writing altogether.
I, for one, didn’t realize until I read Choice Cuts that culinary commentary was so ancient and widespread. Sure, we foodies all know about the 19th-century French kitchen philosopher and chef Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. And those of us in the biz can quote chapter and verse of food and cooking wisdom from folks like Claude Levi-Strauss, M.F.K. Fisher and Alexandre Dumas. But who knew that Galen wrote about pastry in On the Powers of Food in A.D. 180? Or that, in the first century, Pliny the Elder cautioned his public about bees and honey, alerting them to the harmful effects of “poisonous honey” and understanding the importance of ecosystemic relationships saying, “The food that the bees eat is of such great importance that even their honey may become poisonous.” Plutarch, following Pythagoras, lays a historical foundation for vegetarianism, wondering about the first man who ever ate meat: “How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench?”
There’s fascinating drinking advice in Choice Cuts as well. For example, the admonition from the Babylonian Talmud (A.D. 500) concerning the right amount of wine: “There are eight things that taken in large quantities are bad but in small quantities are helpful: Travel, sex, wealth, work, wine, sleep, hot baths and bloodletting.” Personally, I prefer the 12th-century advice of Maimonides who, in writing on the benefits of wine, says, “The older a man is, the more beneficial the wine is for him. Old people need it most.”
But as much as I enjoyed reading ancient thought on culinary matters, my favorite bits in Choice Cuts are essays in which food writers do what they do best: Write with passion about their edible likes and dislikes. For example, here’s Henry David Thoreau in praise of watermelons: “I have no respect for those who cannot raise melons or who avoid them as unwholesome.” When it comes to the topic of edible bugs, Peter Lund Simmonds (1859) is against, while Vincent M. Holt (1885) is all for it, mounting a hard-to-dispute argument that suggests the churchyard beetle really isn’t any more disgusting at a dinner table than eating live oysters, snails, lobsters or crabs. On the subject of English food, E.M. Forster is no fan, writing “Porridge fills the Englishman up, prunes clear him out. But their spirit is the same: They eschew pleasure and consider delicacy immoral.” George Orwell disagrees, noting upon his return from Paris, “There are many things in England that make you glad to get home; bathrooms, armchairs, mint sauce, new potatoes properly cooked, brown bread, marmalade, beer made with veritable hops—they are all splendid.”
Along with the serious and the heartfelt in Kurlansky’s book there’s also the light-hearted, flippant and just plain silly (not always intentional, by the way.) Grimod de la ReyniÃ¨re, arguing why blondes go better with food than brunettes, suggests that, “A blonde seems humbly to beseech your heart, while a brunette tends to ravish it.”
But as someone who confesses to have taken up cooking in order to impress dates, I can’t argue with M.F.K. Fisher when she writes about bachelors, “Their approach to gastronomy is basically sexual, since few of them under 79 will bother to produce a good meal unless it is for a pretty woman.” At the risk of looking too closely into the mirror, it’s this kind of cleverness and creativity that’s all too often missing in contemporary food writing, particularly the typically artless restaurant review. That’s what makes even the ancient entries in Kurlansky’s brilliant book seem so fresh; Choice Cuts takes the reader to places and to topics that modern-day food writers just don’t seem to bother with anymore. They seem vibrant and new—just like the first fall day back at school.
CHOICE CUTS: A SAVORY SELECTION OF FOOD WRITING FROM AROUND THE WORLD AND THROUGHOUT HISTORY Edited and introduced by Mark Kurlansky Ballantine Books $26.95