My Summer Reading List: The Man Who Ate Everything
Originally posted on September 3, 2009.
The unifying theme of the books on my reading list has been the narrative – my life in food. Ruth Reichl’s journey from awkward youth to renowned food critic (Tender at the Bone), Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical “adventures in the culinary underbelly” (Kitchen Confidential) and the article that turned into a career change and then a best selling book (Heat) for former New Yorker editor Bill Buford. This cannot be said of Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything.
In 1989, Steingarten was just your run-of-the-mill Harvard power-lawyer working for an average, everyday Manhattan mega firm when he was offered the position of food critic for Vogue magazine. I knew this from watching Iron Chef: America, where he is the curmudgeonly judge with an opinion about everything. I also knew that The Man Who Ate Everything was both a James Beard Book Award Finalist and a Julia Child Book Award Winner. But before he could assume his new post, he had to agree to eat everything. No small task for a self-proclaimed finicky eater.
The Man Who Ate Everything, unlike the other books on my list, is a collection of essays about food. Some are related to one another and even in chronological order; most are neither. When reading, one is left with two impressions about Steingarten’s skill as a essayist: he is a brilliant investigative writer and he is damned funny. He takes little information at face value, preferring to research all information on any given subject. He was one of the first to observe the contradiction between the French fat-laden diet and France’s astonishingly low occurrence of heart disease, now known as the French Paradox.
Steingarten does not hesitate to punch holes in long accepted beliefs on diet and nutrition, after all he does far more research than many of the so-called experts. Often he takes the USDA to task for their lack of knowledge on health issues. More importantly, he underscores that though they have not done their homework, they still issue doctrine about what homo sapiens should and should not consume.
Among the myths he debunks are the unfounded beliefs that salt, alcohol or cholesterol cause heart disease. For instance: The French Paradox cannot be dismissed. It should have been noticed decades ago. And its contribution is to encourage researchers to discover the many other common causes of heart disease besides the saturated fat in our diets. The French Paradox is an embarrassment only to those nutritionists and physicians who had refused to recognize the obvious. We have known for some time that half of all heart attacks occur in people with average or low cholesterol, and that half of all people with high cholesterol never have heart attacks.
In addition to providing much fact-based insight, the author also does a wonderful job of painting pictures with words. His journeys to Italy, France, Asia and Tunisia leap off the page with metered narrative, but he is also very proficient (as Iron Chef: America fans can attest) at dry wit and one liners:
Miguel de Cervantes once wrote, “La major salsa del mundo es la hambre,” the best sauce in the world is the hunger. Cervantes had obviously never tasted ketchup.
I have little doubt that I will read this book again and again as it is packed with knowledge and wisdom. I am grateful that Steingarten traded jurisprudence for food writing. The world is lousy with lawyers and has precious few gastronomic writers.
Next I will conclude my summer reading list with Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef.