I adore good food writing. Alan Richman is a good food writer. This book is a compilation of his essays, which have appeared over the years primarily in GQ, but also in other foodie magazines like Food + Wine.
I literally devoured this book, reading it as often as I could steal a moment, and it is wonderfully readable and at times very funny.
Still, I find fault, and in this I am a bit too like Alan Richman. Alan Richman is very fussy, and more critical than any critic has a right to be.
In an essay on Naples, he writes at length about what he expects to find there, pizzas of wonderful crispness with perfect toppings, unimaginable to Americans. Yet no such pizza exists in Naples. In Naples, the abundance of fresh ingredients results in a wet pizza. Pizza everywhere, but all wet. When he confronts some native Neapolitan on this apparent deliquency, they reply, yes, the pizza is wet. They like to take the crust and dip it in the puddle of wetness. Alan Richman is outraged. And so he is not criticizing the pizza as it is, but as compared to his totally made up expectations.
It is no problem to want to eat an imagined pizza - this is what home cooking and experimenting are for. It is a problem, to my way of thinking, to punish a food because it is not what you have made it out to be in your imaginings, especially if you have not actually ever tasted this miraculous example of what pizza could be. Accept the pizza for what it is and go from there - there are better and worse examples, but the prototype is wet.
And on and on like this. Alan Richman is afraid of Korean food, despises tofu, hates veganism, etc. He self-proclaims his close-mindedness, although this is the trait I despise most in food critics.
Still, I like the book. What Richman does best is write about Jewish culture as food. Richman is Jewish himself, with typical Jewish parents and all that that entails. He writes warmly, enthusiastically, and with gusto when he speaks of the smoked meats of Montreal Jews and older Jewish waiters, and with the detail that is missing from most of his essays. When he follows his mother around in Florida, on a mission to sample the best of the early-bird specials and decipher the phenomena of eating dinner at 4pm for retired Jews, he is brilliant. In other essays, he shows contempt or a minimum of acceptability for the majority of what passes over his tongue. In his essays on his mother's cooking, he exhibits the joy de vivre we want to see in one who eats, and eats well, for a living.
I understand that my standards are lower than Alan Richman's, I am certainly more easily pleased and don't portend to be a food critic so am not in the position of having to be often staunchly negative about over-fancified foods. In that, I feel I am lucky. Still, it rests a tad uneasy with me that he is so often so miserable. But he himself might make reference to his heritage and the long-suffering Jews.
All in all, a brilliant, quick read, especially for those interested in absorbing a few bits and pieces of Jewish food culture. Not especially worth owning on a long-term basis, so borrowing from the library or buying a copy and then passing it off as a gift are both options.