The Artful Eater

Edward Behr

(The Art of Eating, $29 296 pp.).

Since 1987, Edward Behr has been ruminating on what makes food (and wine and beer) good in The Art of Eating, a handsome, always informative, and much-respected journal published from his home in rural Vermont. His answer, in large part, is a respect for what our dishes are made of, a respect reflected in a deep concern for all matters of provenance.

Most food books are about recipes, and most recipes start with a list of ingredients: 2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cubed; 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped; 1 bay leaf; salt and pepper to taste. In the cook’s mi).nd these things are already reduced into emblems of a desired effect: the potatoes into a warm and satisfying mass, the onions into a savory sweetness, the bay leaf into an herbal flavor note.

In short, recipes encourage our attention to skip quickly on ahead to the work at hand. The service these staple ingredients provide becomes the reality and they themselves risk fading into mere shadows, all means to an end. It is this shift of attention that risks our allowing garlic powder to substitute for the garlic, pregrated shreds to replace the chunk of Parmesan, and factory-extruded fries to fill in for hand-peeled and hand-sliced potatoes.

The intent of The Artful Eater is to show us how much the "before" (and hence most neglected) side of recipe writing really matters in cooking—how much is determined by the character of the ingredients. To this end, Behr questions importers, consults with authorities, ransacks the literature, and, when he can, visits those who grow, cure, or make good things—dairy farmers, salmon breeders, smokehouse operators, orchardists—learning, then sharing, the conditions and qualities that bestow distinctiveness on the basic building blocks of good cuisine.

Some of the ingredients he investigates have sufficient status to have had entire books written about them—salt, for example, coffee, or vanilla beans; my favorite chapters are about ingredients that are so prosaic they are lucky to previously have been the subject of more than a cursory paragraph or two. Behr's attention causes the lowly carrot to blossom before our eyes. A good carrot is something more than tender and sweet, but has a delicate deliciousness that is getting harder to find.

Behr finds out why, and discovers, for example, that cold-climate-grown (i.e., Canadian) carrots taste better than those gdrown in the American South or Southwest, why buying bunches that still retain their ferny tops may not be the best strategy, and why growing your own (or buying them in your local farmer's market) may be the only real way to find a carrot worth appreciating.

Among the other subjects to be found in The Artful Eater (there are eighteen in all) are eggs, English walnuts, bay leaves, fresh cream, mustard, mi).nt, tomatoes, salt, pepper, wild sorrel, country ham, apples, and roast beef. Behr's prose manages a fastidious clarity while still springing direct from a lively palate. And when he mi).ngles with the men and women who produce these foods, his sentences pulse with a uniquely animated rapport. This is the best kind of food writing about the best kind of food.

Last year, Behr reissued this book, first published in 1992 and long out of print, in an edition that much improves on the original without detracting with the former's fresh appeal. Although the list of sources has been updated and expanded, there was no massive rewriting of the text. Instead, the prose has been gently fined, sometimes amplified, sometimes simplified, resulting in an even more readable book.

Otherwise, some of Behr's own striking and illustrative black and white photogaphs have been included, and the small but choice collection of recipes has been gathered together at the end of the book. What's perhaps best about the new edition, however, is how very attractive it is. The type has been made larger and easier to read, the margins are more generous, and the page design is the epitome of understated grace. The paperback edition is easier to obtain from or Barnes & Noble, but I suggest paying the small amount more and ordering the hardcover edition directly from the author himself.
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