Sunday, December 2, 2012
Retrospective Review: The Food Issue, September 5, 2005
To sharpen my taste buds for the feast that The New Yorker’s Food Issue is serving up next week, I revisited what is, for me, the greatest Food Issue of them all – the September 5, 2005 issue (with Wayne Thiebaud’s delectable, painterly “Food Bowls” on the cover), containing, among other succulent items, Judith Thurman’s “Night Kitchens,” John Seabrook’s “Renaissance Pears,” and Burkhard Bilger’s “The Egg Men.”
Thurman’s piece is about Japan’s artisanal-tofu masters. She says, “When a tofu master offers you a slice of bean curd he has just unmolded, he is inviting you to partake, insofar as a stranger can, of what it means to be Japanese.” “Night Kitchens” brims with superbly noticed details – “the accoutrements – even the sink – are handmade of cedar,” “the stove is a slab of lava,” “adobe walls of clay mixed with rice straw are sheathed in bamboo,” “the ceiling is tented in thatch,” “the floor is cobbled with sea stones,” “a ginkgo counter with ten seats,” “parchment walls decorated in drippy ink by an inebriated artist,” “pottery on which breakfast is served – rust-and-ash-colored vessels with a dark under-glaze and a primal beauty,” “an ivory-colored attar of bean curd that arrives on a turquoise plate, with a coral drop of sea-urchin (uni) purée.” My favorite sentence in the piece is the simple, sensuous, “The windows of the shed were open, and the sea breeze carried a scent of rain, wildflowers, and algae.” “Night Kitchens” is included in Thurman’s splendid Cleopatra’s Nose (2007).
Seabrook’s “Renaissance Pears” is about arboreal archeology – “the pursuit and recovery of old varieties of fruit”– as practiced by Umbrian agronomist, Isabella Dalla Ragione. Of its many pleasures – a trip to a Perugian mountain valley to visit an old pear tree (“Its black bark had deep crevices, and the trunk and lower branches were covered with scabrous white lichen”), a visit to a villa near Florence to view the fruit paintings of Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729), attendance at a fruit show staged by Dalla Ragione in an old palazzo (“The seeds rattled inside some of the apples, like natural castanets”) - the most piquant is Seabrook’s sketch of Dalla Ragione’s eighty-four-year-old father, Livio, the “genius loci” of the Dalla Ragione orchard (“Livio has a long white fringe of hair around his bald, speckled. Shakespearian dome, and he has the hopeful expression that very old men get in their eyes. He is gruff and blustery, and Isabella treats him as she does the fruit trees – tenderly but firm”). My favorite sentence in “Renaissance Pears” is a description of the flavor of one of Livio’s winter pears: “The taste was so clean – not buttery, which is the standard by which the commercial pear is bred – that it was almost metallic.” Seabrook is like the Medici still-life painters he mentions in his piece - a wonderfully precise, sensuous describer of fruit: see also his excellent "Crunch" in last year’s Food Issue, and his brilliant “The Fruit Detective” (in Flash of Genius, 2008).
Bilger’s “The Egg Men” is about Las Vegas short-order cooks. I’ve extolled its abundant pleasures before (see my post "Retrospective Review: Burkhard Bilger's 'The Egg Men,'" January 30, 2011). I think it’s destined to be a New Yorker classic, ranking with such masterpieces as John McPhee’s “Atchafalaya,” Kenneth Tynan’s “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale,” and Arthur Lubow’s “This Vodka Has Legs.” I’m pleased to see that Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker’s new Archive Editor, recently named it one of his favorites ("Staff Favorites From The Archive," “Double Take,” newyorker.com, November 26, 2012). Suffice it to say here, it’s one of my favorites, too.
All three of these pieces are gloriously subjective. Pursuit of the story is part of the narrative: “So at five o’clock one morning, I rolled off my futon in a lovely old ryokan, the Yoyokaku, near the beach in Karatsu, ready for research” (Thurman); “Earlier this summer, I accompanied Isabella on a trip to visit the old pear tree” (Seabrook); “On early mornings, well before the first rush, Gutstein would let me work at the over-easy station for an hour or two” (Bilger). It’s one of the ingredients I’ll be looking for when I’m devouring next week’s Food Issue. I can hardly wait to get started.