What do Julia Child, Ruth Reichl, Robert Farrar Capon and MFK Fisher have in common? The obvious answer is that they wrote about food but it is much more than that. They wrote exquisitely about food. A talent, a gift even, that I envy. When I write I try to get the grammar right and avoid cliches (not always successfully) but I feel inarticulate when I attempt to describe the nuances and pleasure that food gives me

Cookbooks and recipes have fascinated me since my teens but it was Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 that made me think of how food was described. In a recipe for roast chicken she wrote, “a juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird…does entail [such] a greed for perfection that one is under compulsion to hover over the bird, listen to it, above all see that it is continually basted…” I immediately wanted to produce such a masterpiece.

A few years later I read Robert Farrar Capon’s 1969 cookbook, The Supper of the Lamb. It is a cookbook but also a treatise on life. The book disappeared long ago but I’ve never forgotten his description of peeling an onion layer by layer and observing the shimmering, opalescent, glossy surface. In fact, I’ve just found that it has been reprinted and I’m going order it just to read that chapter again.

MFK Fisher wrote several autobiographical books, not exactly about food but what she had eaten and drunk is on every page. In The Gastronomical Me in 1943 she wrote of an apple tart that she ate in France, “Papazi produced his weekly triumph of a tart as big as a cartwheel, with all the apple slices lying back to belly to back in whorls and swoops…” In another place she writes about a pudding she made as a child. She thought it looked too plain so she decorated it with blackberries, “Its cool perfection leaped into sudden prettiness, like Miss America when the winning ribbon is hung across her high-breasted symmetry”.

Ruth Reichl, once the New York Times food critic’s book Garlic and Sapphires is filled with descriptions that make words like delicious and yummy trite and dull. About one restaurant she says,
“Each meal is a roller coaster of sensations.” Whether she’s describing a terrible meal, “the lobster was a scrawny thing, and it had been a long time since he had walked around a refrigerator or anything else.” or the memory of preferring the bones from the steaks her father pan seared “I’d bring the bone up to my face until the aroma—animal and mineral, dirt and rock—was flooding my senses…the meat closest to the bone was smooth as satin, and sweet. It tasted like nothing else on earth…”
She uses lovely metaphors, about a soup she had been served she wrote, “He dipped a ladle into a tureen and spilled the contents into the bowl, releasing a torrent of garlic that cascaded, a waterfall of scent, just beneath my nose.” Beautiful!

Now that I’ve looked back at these books, I must read them again, and a number of others that writing this have made me remember.