Life on the Culinary Edge
An omnivore's world of food
When Jeffrey L. Steingarten switched careers in 1989, leaving the profession of law to join Vogue magazine as its resident food critic, he had at last found his true vocation. His new book, It Must've Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything, is the second published collection of his eclectic Vogue pieces, and like its predecessor provides a highly readable and entertaining account of the preoccupations of a man who eats for a living.
Like all good columnists, Steingarten has an unmistakable voice that expresses strong opinions and obsessive interests ranging from the scientific to the commonplaceand a ready wit he calls upon to shoot down the strong opinions and obsessions of others. Fond of chic and expensive salts harvested from exotic parts of the world, for example, he is dismayed by the charges of a scientist who claims there is no difference between designer salt and what you can buy at the supermarket. "Someone has thrown a stink bomb into our midst," Steingarten declaims, and goes on to challenge the spoiler by scouring the scientific literature, orchestrating rather lighthearted double-blind taste tests, and most of all by pressing us with his own particular biasesall his recognizable trademark techniques.
In many of his pieces, he exhibits just enough self-deprecation to be irresistibly charming and amusing. Upon being told by a physician friend to take some medicine on an empty stomach, he retorts, "Ha, ha. When was the last time either of us had an empty stomach?" Even more endearing is the fact that Steingarten is no food snob, but readily admits to a great fondness for treats like "fun-size" Milky Ways and Fritos. This is not to say that he overlooks the best the world has to offer, including such delicacies as French fruit tarts or Beluga caviar, but only to flaunt his impeccable credentials for writing about food: both a large and an inclusive appetite. He is the first to say that such qualities are mandatory requirements for his chosen field.
Some of Steingarten's passions seem at first to be simple, like his determination, chronicled in "As the Spit Turns," to establish once and for all the best way to roast a chicken. But when he claims to have roasted a thousand chickens since 1990, we find that we are in the midst of something larger, a serious compulsion that will open our eyes not only to the kinds and sizes of birds available"Amish, kosher, and supermarket birds, one pound, three pounds, or five pounds each"but also how to season and cook them, taking into account the vast range of appliances invented for this very purpose. Before his description of the experiment is over, we will have reflected with him on the various grills that exist worldwide before settling for practical reasons on a Weber kettle with a rotisserie attachmentthe one good use found for an appliance he otherwise dismisses. (His real first choice, he admits, was the chicken he ate a dozen years earlier that had been roasted over a large kitchen fireplace in a restaurant in a tiny Italian hill towna reminder that he gets around and has an impressive memory.)
Steingarten's persistent persona is that of a man who lives life on the culinary edge, engaging in cooking and eating tasks most of us would never dare or even dream of. Take his determination to cook the perfect Turduckena boned turkey stuffed with a boned duck, which in turn is stuffed with a boned chicken, with different savory stuffings layered between each bird before the whole package is rolled and tied. Steingarten points out that this Cajun dish is a cinch to slice and serve, unlike a standard roasted turkey, which requires some fancy carving. But he also makes clear that its creation is a four-day operation of shopping, boning, stuffing, rolling and sewing, and finally roasting for 13 and a half hours in a 190-degree oven. Refrigerating the raw Turducken overnight proved to be as big a challenge, as Steingarten had to force the ungainly package into his already crammed refrigerator, which he then managed to keep closed only by jamming a tilted chair loaded with books under the door handle. Like many of Steingarten's culinary stunts, this one may be more fun to read about than duplicate.
The same is true of his witnessing the slaughter and bleeding of a 400-pound pig, for him the mandatory first step in learning to recreate the perfect boudin noir, the blood sausage he once ate at a party just outside Paris. He becomes nauseated and dizzy at the sight of the struggling pig, held down by four strapping Frenchmen, and is especially horrified by the hoarse cries and grunts of the doomed animal. But he gets over it. He is there for the sausage, which he describes as "the finest I had ever tasted. It was so phenomenally good that I quickly added it to my list of the hundred greatest foods of the world, tearfully removing the Frozen Milky Way Bar from my pantheon."
Steingarten cannot tolerate bad nutritional advice, nor will he listen politely to people who talk about their food allergies or phobiasconditions he attributes mainly to joyless imaginations. His droll piece "Why Doesn't Everyone in China Have a Headache?" is an attempt to dismiss the common charge that monosodium glutamate causes the uncomfortable symptoms often referred to as Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome. He begins by quizzing six employees of the Shanghai hotel he happens to be staying in, gleefully noting that none gets a headache after eating. Then he moves on to science, citing various studies that lead him to conclude that the syndrome is most likely provoked by eating bad wonton soup on an empty stomach, a "gastronomic offense so unlikely in these sophisticated times that we can confidently announce that this scourge has been wiped off the face of the Earth."
Although he is often in search of extravagant experiences, Steingarten remains grounded by offering alert and funny observations on our everyday eating habits. In attempting to explain why coffee-lovers accumulate shelves of discarded coffee makers in their endless search for the perfect brew, he comes to the inspired conclusion that "coffeein the roaster or the grinder, in the can or in the bag, in the coffee maker or the cupnearly always smells better than it tastes." In a piece in which he looks at the social consequences of his love of candy, he complains that male candy eaters have been "ill-used, misunderstood, and denigrated, in films and on television, as weak, self-indulgent, soft, effeminate, undisciplined, and venal. Most of us have been driven underground. We eat our candy alone and on the sly." But he is vindicated when he locates a scientific study that contends that men who eat candy live longer than men who don't. And in a rare political allusion, he comments that "one of President Ronald Reagan's great achievements was putting a jar of jelly beans on his desk."
Writing about food, a vast subject full of contradictions and misinformation, is the perfect outlet for someone who so loves to pick a bone with "nutritional nincompoops" or track down elusive recipes that force him to fly to Paris. His success is a tribute not only to his skill as a writer but to his celebration of appetite, a human quality not always appreciated in our Puritan-based society. A.J. Liebling put it well when commenting on Proust's famous madeleine, a food Liebling himself considered of little real consequence: "In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite." No one will ever say that about Jeffrey Steingarten.
Barbara Haberwhose candy of choice is licorice, not Milky Wayshas just retired as curator of printed books at the Radcliffe Institute's Schlesinger Library, where she oversaw the acclaimed culinary collection. The author of From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, she plans to devote her time to writing, speaking, and traveling.