Tasty advice and commentary from famous food critics

  • Posted: Monday, December 17, 2012 9:18 a.m.

What do food critics do between meals? How can one plan a life around tasting food, good and bad? Would you want to know a food critic as a friend? Would they be obnoxious, controlling tablemates? For the following writers, food criticism is the art of living.

M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher was a writer for whom food was the thread of memories: Love of food and a passion for cooking bring together descriptions of friends and meals, social commentary on food preparation and consumption, and advice on how to develop a taste for living. Life is best lived when attention is paid to small details and to relationships — an intermingling of food, love and security.

The young M.F.K. Fisher found life good when eating hoarded chocolate bars at school. When aging and ailing, she recommended the practice of spare but appreciative eating. The last essay in “An Alphabet for Gourmets” collected in “The Art of Eating,” describes the “Perfect Dinner.”

Fisher was a great correspondent. As with cooking, she started early. Letters to friends and family have been collected in “M.F.K. Fisher, a Life in Letters: Correspondence, 1929-1991.” Here again is the thread of interest in developing a discerning taste or mind, whether applied to food or to the complexities of public and home life. Most of her letters begin with a thanks of appreciation for a note received. The importance of other people and the warmth of her interest in them shine forth in Fisher’s letters. In a last letter to good friend and neighbor Lawrence Clark Powell, Fisher speaks of aging and coping and why: “It’s a question of dignity. I don’t know the answer, but it adds enough spice to the dish to make it edible, whether or not I want to eat it. The only answer for that is to say ‘bon appetit’ to myself and to you too. Love, ...”

Jeffrey Steingarten is a food critic with a sense of humor. He has collected some of his more outrageous Vogue magazine essays in “The Man Who Ate Everything: and Other Gastronomic Feats, Disputes, and Pleasurable Pursuits.” He is a frequent critic of our obsession with health. “Salad the Silent Killer” pokes fun at our attempts to categorize food as good or bad: even the “good” guys (raw vegetables) contain chemicals which make the vegetable indigestible, or nutritionally useless, unless cooked. In “Primal Bread,” on the other hand, here is a person who flatly says the world is divided into two camps, those who can live happily on bread alone and those who need vegetables, meats, etc. Steingarten belongs to the first category, and will always use its bread in judging a restaurant.

Ruth Reichl, in a Los Angeles Times Book Review, wrote of M.F.K. Fisher’s genius in insisting on the importance of life’s small moments. Reichl must be a likable person. We also have her funny, perceptive, touching book, “Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.” In her apprenticeship, Reichl is guided by the discovery at an early age that “food could be a way of making sense of the world … if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.”

Food could also be dangerous. Her manic-depressive mother sometimes served strange food, crafted from food bargains. On one occasion, 26 people ended up in the hospital. Reichl’s stints along the way as a waitress in a failing restaurant, an impoverished social worker on New York’s Lower East Side, and staff member in a collectively owned restaurant in Berkeley, helped prepare her for her job as food critic for “The New York Times.” The book is the story of how a person finds what they’re born to do.

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