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Food for thought.

Byline: Jessica MacMurray Blaine For The Register-Guard

About a decade ago, shelf-stockers in bookstores had a problem. Where to put the gush of food books that weren't cookbooks?

These books offered no recipes - not a measurement to be found, not a direction, just delicious stories that followed our complicated relationship with food all over the world. From scandal-laden kitchen confidentiality, to one-mouth-around-the-world travelogue, to political polemics that ask us to look at the larger impacts of our lunch choices, our shelves are brimming.

Thankfully, bookstores these days, from the mall-centric megastores to the eclectic independents, often sport a "Food Literature" section. But shelf time is often fleeting, and it's easy to overlook the classics, the beautiful groundbreakers that got us to a world where Elizabeth Gilbert can eat, pray and love her way through the best-seller list and Oprah's book club, or Anthony Bourdain can ride a wave of book-Web-TV convergence without reservations.

Let us remember Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, John McPhee and James Beard, who have been thinking and writing about food for longer than there were bookshelf merchandisers.

For me, and for many, food writing goes back to M.F.K. Fisher. While scholars and philosophers had analyzed menus and cataloged royal feasts and peasant gruel for centuries, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was a new breed of food writer. Fisher began to write in the 1930s, inspired by living in Dijon, France, and then a chance encounter with an Elizabethan cookbook in a Northern California library. She started with essays, and eventually produced a body of work filled with good-humored, unpretentious insight.

In his introduction to The New Yorker magazine's compilation "Secret Ingredients," editor David Remnick writes, "M.F.K. Fisher is an exemplar of the mystical school, in which the secrets of life, of survival, of the nature of time and generational knowledge, are found in a clear-eyed concentration on the stuff of life, the things we eat."

I found her in college, and spent much of a spring break in a hammock on a Oaxacan beach, moved and laughing at a book that turned out to change my life completely. In "The Art of Eating," a compilation of five of her master works, Fisher crystallized both the curious minutiae of food history and larger themes with poetry, intellect and humor.

The first section, "Serve it Forth," offers a sweeping anecdotal view of food history, from the ancients to the 20th century. In the next section, she asks readers to "Consider the Oyster," and our obsessive-repulsive relationship with the slimy little mollusk and the pearls within, both figurative and literal. "How to Cook a Wolf" is an odd and wonderful piece about fighting wartime frugality in the kitchen. The simple metaphor - the pressures of wartime all encapsulated by the wolf at the door - elegantly expresses a national anxiety. Next is her autobiographical "The Gastronomical Me," followed by "An Alphabet for Gourmets," which takes readers from A for dining alone to Z for zakuski (another word for hors d'oeuvres).

But she wasn't alone. Like Fisher, Elizabeth David (slightly later) used her experiences in Europe during World War II to launch a career as a food writer, and Julia Child did much the same a few years after that, discovering a love for food in the markets and kitchens of France in the late 1940s. David and Child both contributed extraordinary work to the lexicon of cookbooks, but with an attention to meaning and depth that blurred the line between directive recipes and literature.

Next to this inimitable trifecta stands James Beard, heralded by many as the father of American gastronomy. A native Oregonian, Beard was an exuberant cook whose love for the pleasures of the table became a lifelong campaign during a time when economy, efficiency and hygiene in the kitchen were dominant values. David Kamp, author of "The United States of Arugula," wrote that Beard decided in 1940 that "his mission was to defend the pleasure of real cooking and fresh ingredients against the assault of the Jell-O-mold people and the domestic scientists."

Defend it, he did. Beard landed in New York in the 1930s, and began his career as an authority on food. He did television and wrote cookbooks, but also thoughtful narrative that surrounded each recipe and put food where it belongs: in a context that offers perspective on why we do what we do with food - from oysters and truffles to the simplest of American foodstuffs: the hamburger, the clambake.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are writers like John McPhee, who've spent more time at the keyboard than the cutting board, but use their skill at research and narrative to bring us stories that delve deeper than any cookbook could. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is known more for his eclectic literary journalism than for food-specific work. In his 1967 book "Oranges," McPhee took food writing out of the kitchen and into the web of complex economic, social and scientific systems that take readers from international trade to botany, all with engaging, vivid detail. McPhee wrote about oranges in the 1960s, farmer's markets in the 1970s and brought us "The Founding Fish," an investigation of American shad, in 2004.

David Remnick, once a student of McPhee's at Princeton, does us all a great service in "Secret Ingredients." He's run The New Yorker's archive of writing through a food-centric filter, and the result is a survey of this country's relationship with food. If anything, it shows us that there is room for humor next to polemic, intensive historical investigation next to fiction - all perfumed with the fragrance of dinner on the stove.

Beginning with John Mitchell's 1939 piece about New York's fabled "beefsteak clubs" and ending with fiction from the likes of Louise Erdrich, Don DeLillo and Julian Barnes, Remnick's writers cover a lot of ground. Nora Ephron meditates on a pastrami sandwich that she calls a "work of art" - but she's really writing about neighborhoods and loyalty. Peter Hessler takes us to China and introduces us to rat soup - all the while prodding us to think about food taboos.

I could go on and on ... Michael Pollan, Ruth Reichl, Jim Harrison, Mark Kurlansky, Calvin Trillin, Susan Orlean, Adam Gopnik, Jeffrey Steingarten, Alan Richman, Eric Schlosser, Bill Buford, Julie Powell ... and that's just scratching the surface of nonfiction.

Fiction offers us even more. Laura Esquivel and "Like Water for Chocolate," Ruth Ozeki with her incredible "My Year of Meats" and "All Over Creation," Joanne Harris' imaginative "Chocolat" ... it's no wonder that the bookstore designers had to begin a new shelf.

They've solved their problem, but created a new one for cook-hermit-bookworms like me: How, in a lifetime of reading and cooking, can I savor each one of these varied books?

As with food, the answer is simple: one bite at a time, with gratitude for those who came before me and appetite for each new flavor.

In the spirit of eschewing recipe-driven cookbooks - if only just for a moment - I offer some reading lists. These lists are by no means comprehensive, just some books I've read and loved. Hopefully, they offer some inspiration for you to find your own list of food books to devour. More and more food books come out every publishing season, so there's lots to explore.

The old (and venerable) guard

"The Art of Eating," M.F.K. Fisher

"South Wind Through the Kitchen," Elizabeth David

"My Life in France," Julia Child

"Oranges," John McPhee

"Beard on Food," James Beard

"The Physiology of Taste," Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin

New(ish) and noteworthy

"Salt," "The Big Oyster," Mark Kurlansky

"Feeding a Yen," Calvin Trillin

"The Botany of Desire," Michael Pollan

"The Apprentice," Jacques Pepin

"Tender at the Bone," "Comfort Me with Apples," "Garlic & Sapphires," Ruth Reichl

"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," Barbara Kingsolver

"Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine," Steve Rinella

"Cooking for Mr. Latte," Amanda Hesser

The politico's reading list

"Omnivores Dilemma," "In Defense of Food," Michael Pollan

"Coming Home to Eat," Gary Paul Nabhan

"Why Our Food Choices Matter," Peter Singer

"Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser

"Food Politics," Marion Nestle

"Organic, Inc.," Samuel Fromartz

Restaurant books

"Service Included," Phoebe Damrosch

"Heat," Bill Buford

"Kitchen Confidential," Anthony Bourdain

"Last Days of Haute Cuisine," Patric Kuh

"The Perfectionist," Rudolph Chelmensky

Food lit compilations

"Secret Ingredients, The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink," David Remnick, Ed.

"Don't Try This at Home, Culinary Catastrophes From the World's Greatest Chefs," Kimberly Witherspoon, Ed.

"Best Food Writing," various editors (yearly anthology)

"American Food Writing," Molly O'Neill, Ed.

"Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast," Francine Prose, Ed.

Food-centric fiction

"All Over Creation," "My Year of Meats," Ruth Ozeki

"The Debt to Pleasure," John Lanchester

"Like Water for Chocolate," Laura Esquivel

"Five Quarters of an Orange," "Chocolat," Joanne Harris

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Jessica MacMurray Blaine is a free-lance writer from Eugene.
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 26, 2008
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