The fine art of eating yields immortal literature You don't have to cook - or ever want to - to be nourished by the greatest writing on food.

Books: Instant Culture

June 21, 1998|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the sun

People have been writing about food for nearly as long as they've been eating it, and most great authors have had something memorable to say about it at one time or another. But the number of books devoted to what Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called "the art of eating" has ballooned since World War II, so much so that one wonders why chain bookstores don't have a special section called "Arty Books About Food."

The category favored by my neighborhood bookshop is "cooking essays," which is as good a way as any to suggest how such

volumes differ from the conventional cookbook. Even the ones that include recipes (and most do) are less about how-to-do-it than why-we-do-it - or, just as often, how-we-did-it. The cookbook as memoir is fast becoming one of the most popular branches of contemporary literature, as well as one of the most evocative.

Why this sudden surge of interest? Surely it is directly related to the increasingly hectic pace of American life, and the simultaneous decline of the traditional family. Though most of us can still remember a time when dinner was served at a regular hour to a constant cast of characters, the baby boomers are cooking less often for fewer people, and spending less time dawdling over the meals they do cook.

It's an uncivilized way to eat - and we know it. Hence the appeal of books that remind us of the infinite value of unhurried meals eaten in the company of friends and loved ones: if we can't dine the way we used to, at least we can read about it.

No matter how poorly or infrequently you cook, there is much pleasure to be gotten from the best of the many books about the art of eating that are currently in print. Some are witty and elegant, some homely and poignant, but all serve to remind the harried reader that man does not live by Big Macs alone. Here are eight volumes - most of them readily available in paperback - that, taken together, will provide the hungry reader with food for thought:

* A smorgasbord to start. Brigid Allen's "Food: An Oxford Anthology" (Oxford, $12.95 paper) contains well-chosen excerpts from the works of a wonderfully diverse assortment of noted authors, among them Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson ("Sir, we could not have had a better dinner, had there been a Synod of Cooks"), James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is the source of an indelible vignette describing a prison-camp meal: "What had he eaten for eight, no, more than eight years? Next to nothing. But how much work had he done? Ah!"

* The one and only. Originally published in 1825, Brillat-Savarin's "The Physiology of Taste" (translated by Anne Drayton; Penguin, $13.95, paper), remains the locus classicus of books about food. Even the table of contents is irresistible: "Mighty Appetites," "Financial Influence of the Turkey," "The Erotic Properties of Truffles," "Sensual Predestination," "Inevitable Longevity of Gourmands." Used-book hounds should make a point of searching out M.F.K. Fisher's annotated translation, in which the foremost food writer of the 20th century (about whom more later) reflects on and responds to the insights of her immortal predecessor.

* The cookbook as literature. More than a few cookbooks are so well-written that they can be read for pleasure by the lowliest amateur of the kitchen. The genre has lately served as the inspiration for a wicked parody, John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure" (Owl, $10, paper), a Nabokovian mystery novel masquerading as a highbrow cookbook by a self-obsessed artist manque: "In my black room, dressed in black velvet, black silk cravat - no need to change the inherent color of the single orchid in my buttonhole - I would arrange for meals consisting entirely of black food: truffles grated over squid-ink pasta, followed by boudin noir on a bed of fried black radicchio. For dessert, I wanted to emphasize the essential artificiality of the event, the fact that it was a celebration of art, whim, caprice, set over against the brutal facts of nature and death, so I served creme brulee, dyed black."

I can't prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the real-life model for the murderous musings of Tarquin Winot, Lanchester's killer chef, was Richard Olney's "Simple French Food" (Collier, $14, paper). Don't ask me if Olney's recipes are any good - I can't boil water - but I find his ornate prose as tasty as a Brass Elephant entree: "He who blindly opens a cookbook and follows to the letter a series of minutely described steps with no comprehension of their raisons d'etre - of why, if at all, each was necessary - may or may not produce a masterpiece, but he is likely to heave a sigh of relief at being released from that precarious teeter-totter - nor once executed, will any of the steps - motifs in an unperceived pattern - be remembered."

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