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The man who ate everything

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Book: The man who ate everything. By Jeffrey Steingarten (1997) – A short review

Jeffrey Steingarten is a food columnist for Vogue magazine. The Man Who Ate Everything was his first book of essays about food.

In my universe there are two kinds of writers: good writers and bad writers. All good writers are obviously different from one another, while the bad writers are usually just incapable of producing even one digestible sentence. But even among the bad writers are those who are just plain awful and those who actually have something to say but don’t know how to do it properly (I like to call these the better bad writers).

Jeffrey Steingarten is the best bad writer I have read so far. Why bad? First, he pretends to know everything. Second, he is falsly humble. In short: his persona fills every page; which is unforgivable, unless the reader is superficial or dimwitted. Then, he is constantly eating. And he loves numbers. The narrator of these essays is the pale kid in the front row at school we have learned to hate and fear. If you do not know what I am talking about, you probably occupied a seat in the front row at school. Fair enough, the man knows everything anyone needs to know about food-consumption, -preparation, -processing and -paranoia. Steingarten is always armed with the latest results from hundreds of scientific articles and library books.

Steingarten reveals some ugly truths and misconceptions about nutrition asl well, and I am grateful he does. He calls strict low-fat-diets “dangerous nonsense” and advises us to eat salt and tend to moderate alcohol intake. Great. But how does he get away with the obvious flaws in his style mentioned above?

Sometimes he doesn’t. In part one,”Nothing but the truth” (it’s always nice to have truth on one’s side) Steingarten starts off with a report on making sourdough bread in his home in New York City. He lets us know that gluten is composed of two proteins, called gliadin and glutenin. He even uses the correct French term “chef” for the first sourdough stage of his Pain de campagne. When his grape starter slowly explodes and makes a mess on the gas stove, he bravely discards it and makes a new one (a better strategy, of course, would have been to take a small amount of the fermented soup from the gas stove and feed it with water and flour). Steingarten wonders if there is an alien invasion on a molecular level happening whenever we make a new “chef”. As an ambitious home baker I don’t mind reading this, but is everything that happens to Jeffrey Steingarten important enough to be found in a book that costs 10 Euros?

I find most of Jeffrey Steingarten’s travel reports dull and uninspired. He has eyes for food only. Yet he seems to be unwilling to describe flavors and textures. His favorite adjective for good flavor is “incomparable”. Flavors can be fresh, musty, sour, sweet, earthy, fragrant, etc. pp, but they are never “incomparable”. His prose may be aimed at making food science accessible by letting the reader be a part of a culinary adventure, but that is a walk on the tight rope: A slip and we are in the void of boredom. Nevertheless, many essays establish a pleasant parlando. The best, I think, is about the Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest.

And my favorite paragraph in the book expresses exactly how I feel about bread:

“[…] Bad bread wrecks my outlook on life. The pathetic loaves at Seattle’s proudest French restaurant immediately made me paranoid about everything on the menu, everybody who had recommended the place in print or in person, and all the other customers. […]”

That is food-writing at its finest.

As for the value of the book, this mix of chatter, science and clutter, this diary and travel guide would still survive a few sittings with a good editor and then this book would be enjoyable. Vigorous writing is concise. Right?

3 out of 5 low-fat brownies

Written by theinversecook

21 July 2007 at 00:12

Posted in books, people

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