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Old food books or new food books?


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Looking back over the books of M.F.K. Fisher, Waverley Root and John and Karen Hess, I realize that the reason I prefer the food writers of the past is not because they were inherently superior, but b

John, how nice to hear from you.   An additional reason I enjoy food books from the past is that the authors are frequently eating legendary dishes (or ingredients) which are now almost impossible t

I've been arguing for years that the masscultization of food has had a cheapening effect. So, yeah.

John, thanks so much for introducing a wonderful topic. It's great that you're full of piss and vinegar. I can honestly say I haven't been to London since we met at Jonathan Day's house. I hope we can meet again.

 

In the meantime, I can try to put some rudimentary perspective on the phenomenon. In the 1950s and 1960s when book publishing was a genteel profession, the editors-in-chief and other editors were bon vivants and great consumers of serious food and wine. For instance, Alfred Knopf had Angus Cameron, Robert Gottlieb, and Julia Child’s editor Judith Johnson; Random House, Jason Epstein; Holt Reinhart, Aaron Asher; Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Hiram Haydn, who was one of the founders of Atheneum; McGraw-Hill ,Frank Taylor.and so forth. Each of the major houses had their pet lunch restaurants, be it the Four Seasons, the Italian Pavillion, Romeo Salta, or if you were stuck, like I was for two years, at 42nd St. and 8th Ave.in the “Green Building”, also known as the McGraw-Hill Building, we would head to Giordano’s. In those days, new books often were expressions of editors’ interests as the editorial staff sat around a big table and tossed ideas back and forth with potential books that would fill the list quota. As each house had best-selling authors that would put most of the money in the bank, there would be room first novels, art books, flower and garden books, and food and wine books with small print runs As publishing-house mergers and going public put even more emphasis on profits, publishers began to institute something one could describe as the author-subsidized, quasi-vanity book. The result is that the valuable vetting and expertise that went into the publishing of the very best authors and cookbook writers of the 1950s and 1960s has been pretty much replaced by this current paradigm, as anyone can see in the cookbook sections of their nearest Barnes & Noble. Having been out of publishing for decades, I can’t tell you precisely which books are subsidized, although one can safely say that the books by current and former Conde-Nast are not.

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As Simone Signoret wrote, La Nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle était.

 

I'd be interested in hearing from Mr. Whiting who are some of the current-day writers he thinks do come close to the Fishers, the Davids, the Roots, et al.

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Suzanne, that's a large and mixed bag you've presented. One could easily question how they compare to each other. While we owe an enormous debt for what these people shared from their times in France, their accounts weren't without debate. I particularly have problems with Root and Liebling, both of whom I think are marvelous writers but neither IMHO was particularly discerning. They were gourmands, not connoisseurs; as long as a dish might be deemed correct and there was plenty of it, they were happy. I personally much prefer Root's and Liebling's war coverage to their writing about consuming obscene amounts at meals. Fisher and David were more demanding of their food and its explanation: how, where and when it was created.

 

In terms of modern writers, I find that my list is all female and mostly those women who write about creating rather than consuming food. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites are Anne Willan (for instance her writing about life in her chateau near Auxerre), Amanda Hess (who wrote of her time working for Willan and her relationship with the chateau garden <The Cook and the Gardener>, Georgeanne Brennan, a longtime columnist for the SF Chronicle who has bought a home in Provence, Dorie Greenspan who should need no introduction. And in our internet midst one of the brightest and most scrupulously researched writers, Sophie Brissaud, essayist and cookbook writer.

 

I don't think that the quality and integrity of French food writing has ever been higher, although that written in the golden age of the early tourists and correspondents has more romantic lure. .

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As a Liebling fan, I might as well say I agree. Third party reports confirm that Liebling's main business was often to have two or three lunches rather than a great one. But his ability to conjure the fading glories of a certain great dining city is unparalleled.

 

Root: have you read his restaurant reviews? They seem plausible enough. But yes, his gift was compiling a vast quantity of information about regional France and Italy.

 

Has anyone here looked at Curnonsky, whose record of French regional food was encyclopedic (but untranslated)?

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The single most influential food/wine writer for me personally was John Arlott, but that's based on a handful of old newspaper pieces. Thing is, I can recite them almost by heart--and the fact that I now doubt some of the judgments; well, it's too late to matter.

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Liebling... his ability to conjure the fading glories of a certain great dining city is unparalleled.

 

 

 

You've put your finger on it. Reading about times past is interesting and enlightening, but, like John, I don't have time to regret tables missed. I don't have a moment to lose, instead planning our next dish, meal, market, restaurant, table d'hote. I am lucky to have a husband who, to shut me up, just says, "Book it!" And I do.

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I guess I'm the opposite: I spend a lot of time reading old (and I mean old) restaurant guides and wondering what the food was really like.

 

I'm also interested in how people wrote about restaurants when reviewing was a genre in the process of being born. G. Selmer Fougner is an example (I should look up some of the others).

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