Books

12.19.13

This Book Will Change the Way You Eat

One ingredient at a time, Edward Behr will change the way you eat for the better, but you have to be willing to sit up, take notes, and take your food seriously. Are you ready?

It is a fact that America is in the midst of a rather serious foodie movement. To visit your local farmers market (which you’ve been doing for years, obviously), overhear 20-somethings at the new Korean-Mexican restaurant or amaro bar, look at the trailer for the new documentary Foodies, read the latest breathless trend piece on, say, kids taking cooking classes, or spend more than a minute on websites like Eater or Grub Street or Serious Eats, and you see that food has arrived as our great topic. But just what kind of food we’re talking about when we talk about food isn’t yet clear. Sure, Americans are more aware of what they are eating—more vegetables, more organic, less industrial production (the rebirth of the Twinkie notwithstanding)—but it’s not clear that we’re really eating more intelligently. We still seem driven by hype, by illusory health scares and benefits, by pomp, by the new and trendy, than by taste. Edward Behr’s 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste should help change that.

Julia Child got us into the kitchen. Alice Waters got us to meet our farmer. David Chang convinced us to go gonzo behind the stove. Now Edward Behr wants us to think about what we eat, how we eat it, and, most importantly, what we taste. Except that you’ve probably never heard of him. Why? Because he publishes and edits an elegant, deliciously readable quarterly magazine on food called The Art of Eating that prides itself on elegant, precise 10,000 word features on the baguette, or a 5,000 word piece on Andouillette—that French odiferous ode to the stomach—or similar disquisitions on Maryland’s fish pepper sauce or to cook the perfect lobster. In short, The Art of Eating takes food seriously, as something to be dissected, learned, and discussed.

This is a far cry from the quick hit blog culture that drives most culinary criticism and writing today. Week after week we are shaken to learn that French bistro—No, Mongolian—No, Genever gin—No, soba—is THE food trend of the moment. It’s all rather exhausting.

Behr is after something more fundamental and elusive. He is after good taste. He is after questions that have animated humans since we could eat—why things taste good; what tastes best together; why we eat certain things at certain times, and so on. He wants us to know why chicken, morels, and cream with vin jaune is one of the most perfect combinations known to our tastebuds.

That is why, unlike the dozen or so brilliant, useful, and enticing cookbooks published this year (see Heston Blumenthal, Fergus Henderson, Alice Waters, Le Pigeon, etc.), Behr’s book deserves your attention. In elegant, clear, and enthusiastic prose, he’s gives us the building blocks to think about food, to move beyond the recipes and understand why things taste good. You will find no real recipes in his book, no helpful hits about how to slam together dinner in under 20 minutes, and no tortured molecular tables that leave you wondering if you’re producing Frankenstein or lunch.  Instead, you’ll find a delicious survey from oysters to honey to chicken to goat cheese, that captures each ingredient in 3-4 page master classes in their history (the taste profile of different apple varieties), how to buy them (freshest chickens smell of clean air), complements (chestnuts go with leeks and celery), wine pairings (think Chablis not Muscadet with your oysters)—not to mention the ultimate guide to cooking perfect green beans.

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50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste By Edward Behr 432 pages. The Penguin Press. $35. ()

His mission, and it’s a delicious one, is to imbue us all with a greater awareness of our food—its history, its complements, its antipathies. It’s an elitist mission, but one that has its roots very much in the practical and geographic and calendrical—as he points out, pizza was Southern Italian peasant food designed to cook all the ingredients at the same time to minimize the use of precious fuel. Take that, Roberta’s.

At the end of Behr’s gustatory tour of what he considers the 50 essential foods—oysters, olive oil, duck, goat cheese, and so on—you’ll return to your cookbooks with renewed vigor, with a sense of what goes into the recipes and onto your plate. He will give you food cooked with thought and a sense of tradition, and you’ll discover, as I did, just why it tastes better. Full stop. Most food grown by a real farmer who knows his crops and the seasons just tastes better. Full stop. Food that you can eat day after day is real food, unlike the molecular hijinks to be found all around the world. And so I went to talk to him about food and our foodie moment.

Just as summer was tipping into fall, I went up to Vermont to meet with Behr and eat. I should note here, in case you haven’t gathered already, that I’m a total partisan for his approach to eating and have been a reader of AoE since I was a boy. Take that as your stomach may.

‘The idea that something is really a matter of personal taste is ridiculous. Yes, there’s personal taste, but you can immediately move beyond that.’

Behr, slim and precise, lives in rural Vermont with his wife, stepsons, and his mother in a charming Victorian house in the sort of town where people still say hello to each other. We spent an afternoon visiting the cavernous, almost ghoulish barn where famed theatrical protestors Bread and Puppet keep their totems, and tasting our way through a year’s worth of cheese at Jasper Hill Farm, the first place in America to try European-style aging on a large scale (seek out their Landaff, Weybridge, and Grafton aged cheddar at most Whole Foods).

After breakfast the next day, we started at the beginning. Why did he start The Art of Eating? Behr wanted to go out and meet the people who made the food. He left the kitchen and set out to figure out what others were up to. His first foray was an “8-page issue, 15,000 words on Provencal goat cheeses with no recipes, no subheads, no breaks, you begin here and you keep going.” It made demands on readers, especially for something they couldn’t even find outside of Provence. But since that forbidding start, he says, he’s “tried to evolve,” all the while maintaining a “fanatical level of information.” And he has succeeded: no other publication offers the depth, seriousness, research, and impeccable writing on food found in every issue of The Art of Eating. Or, as Behr puts it, “No else is as commercially unrealistic as us.”

With his new book, he’s aiming for a wide audience but not a mass one. “When I wrote it,” he says, “I was thinking mass market, but if you really want to be mass market then you don’t want to ask too much of the reader. It’s been such an aim of mine to find that balance. The information isn’t compromised.” Which is true. 50 Foods is accessible, brisk, and highly readable—so much so that you’ll find yourself taking bits before sleep, if only to sweeten your dreams—but it’s also a book that still asks something of you: to take what you put in your stomach as seriously as you take most other things in your life.

What does he make of the foodie movement today?

“Where do we go from here? Where do we go from here in terms of modern food and what makes sense?” he asks. “The food in Paris today is very good now but not particularly French … That applies elsewhere. Same thing is happening in Asian food and everywhere.”

“But then it’s not very interesting to write about. How do you write an interesting review? And when you describe that kind of modern food you have a dish that works and a dish that doesn’t work. When you read a description of one and the other, unless they’re a value judgments like delicious, you can’t tell which dish succeeds and which dish/recipe fails because they sound equally chaotic and crazy it’s all about taste. And then it those dishes hardly ever without exception don’t tend to last because it was in the execution, in the quality of the ingredients, the chef responding to them, this careful preparation, and his understanding of his concept. And it doesn't translate into a timeless recipe that’s going to appear in cookbooks one hundred years from now.”

As opposed to a dish based on certain principles? “There are complementary flavors, textures, things that all make sense because they’re seasonal. There’s some economy of means, of labor, of use of oven, economy period. Take pizza—and we spend too much time on pizza these days. The logic of pizza is that everything that goes on it cooks in the oven. The fuel came down from the mountains of Campagna, and it was oak and it was expensive, so you have to have a really efficient oven shape—the physics of the oven—and things have to cook really quickly. You can’t afford to have a stove where you’re precooking the sauce that goes on the pizza. Everything that goes on it is raw, and it is cooked in the oven. Now we don’t have that economic imperative that allows us to give dishes that kind of identity. And of course at the high end that kind of economy was never a concern.”

Not that he’s opposed to experimentation and invention—he just wants to keep it terrestrial. “What can be interesting is when you mix cultures, when you bring in new ingredients, so you have combinations that weren’t possible before because cultures didn’t meet and because you weren’t flying things around in airplanes, or because you are now growing things. So you’re having juxtapositions that weren’t possible before, and in theory interesting things can happen and are happening, but it’s not clear what will be lasting. In principle there should be interesting and lasting possibilities out there.”

You could be anywhere eating much of international cuisine today? “That’s the problem. And global warming isn’t helping either because that’s changing the fundamental climate of a place—but climate is the number one driving thing. And when cultures begin to mix, climate is really the only thing left, and it’s not always as powerful a force as it might be. It’s gotten to the point where like in the temperate climate the chef is doing this dish, but you can just shuffle the place name, shuffle the chef’s name, and end up with the same dish halfway around the world so it really has no cultural context. All honor to the writer who can write about that kind of food well, and it does happen but it’s really rare.” Without culture, Behr says there’s not really a story to tell. Instead it’s just a list of dishes and exclamation points. “And strange ingredients and high tech cooking techniques, which are really not that interesting, because no one really wants to read about degrees Celsius.” 

Why did he write his book? “I think that there’s no book like 50 Foods. It’s fresh and unique.” In all this talk about food in America, we often lost our sense of taste and deliciousness. “People don’t talk about these qualities now.”

Behr recently attended a meeting of New England diary farmers who were discussing better ways to sell their product. The answer, Behr thinks, is simple: “Their greatest tool is deliciousness. It’s how Slow Food works, it’s giving people a good time and separating them from their money to support good farming and culture artifacts, but it’s all about deliciousness. And how people don’t seem to understand how powerful taste can be. McDonalds understands it; Coca-Cola understands it. They really understand deliciousness. It’s funny that someone like the New England diary council doesn’t understand that’s where the money is. One of the reasons milk sales are flat, I’m sure, is because 1 percent milk really isn’t very tasty. In the past there was more attention to taste and they abandoned that. Then the supermarkets were stocking their own shelves and milk sales didn’t go anywhere. So they turned to marketing. You’re not really selling the taste of milk anymore. You’re selling [the idea that] milk is important. And people don’t think that so much anymore.” Here again, the key thing for Behr is that “milk can be really delicious.” Mind you, he’s talking about milk straight from the cow. “Pasteurized milk is really not that delicious if you know the taste of raw milk,” he says. “It’s a caramel flavor, a cooked taste. And raw milk is a completely other taste.”

Have we lost our sense of taste? Behr says that most cheese that you buy is just really boring—forgot the politics of how the cows are raised. It just tastes banal. It’s tasteless. “There’s a relationship between taste and nutrition, because things that taste better tend to be more nutritious. Ripe fruits have more vitamins than unripe fruits. And then heirloom varieties tend to be more nutritious—and delicious—than modern, overbred varieties. But actually there’s a huge leap if you go back to wild stuff. Wild stuff is really more nutritious. But that doesn’t make me want to go back and eat all wild food. There’s a reason people selected stuff up to the point where industrial agriculture took over.”

What is an heirloom? It goes back to marketing. We use all these words such as organic, natural, artisanal—“a word that quickly lost all meaning.” Even Cosi claims those words for their products.

“Trying to get people to think more about where their food comes from, what should the flavors be, what should it be complemented by, what should be cooked and drunk with. That’s the kind of thinking largely absent from modern food cooking and writing. My agent [Andrew Wylie] suggested calling the book “The Instant Connoisseur.” The notion is that although you can’t really know anything without tasting and experience, you can get a good semblance of knowledge just by turning to the alphabetical entry.”

Is this the kind of knowledge that most educated, upper class French person would have intuitively? “We looking at France might imagine [they all know]. You meet some little baker making amazing bread who hasn’t been anywhere. The food he knows is what his mother makes, the food of the area.”

“When I first started writing about food I was thinking of what I thought a sophisticated American would want to know. What any civilized person would want to know, that’s what I was writing about.” Call it “50 foods for the civilized person,” if you like.

How do you sell people on taste? Isn’t it all just a matter of taste?

“People tend to dismiss things as ‘a matter of a taste,’ or ‘it’s a personal taste.’ But actually there’s a huge consensus over time on certain things—obviously wines, and there’s financial data to go with this—and caviar and other things. There’s actually a clear consensus on a lot of tastes. The idea that something is really a matter of personal taste is ridiculous. Yes, there’s personal taste, but you can immediately move beyond that. If everything is a matter of taste, then why would there be thousands of cookbooks every year? It’s because there’s a consensus of what tastes good.”

What do you make of the natural wine hoopla? “Big fan of natural wines. But it’s not that they should be a category. When I started to drink wine I assumed that all wines were natural, but now you almost wonder what defines a wine, because you can take it apart and put it back together again. So for me what’s interesting about natural wines or wine period is the link to nature. You can create anything, add flavorings—you can concoct things. Add artificial things. Why not add pear-flavored drops to a wine in the vat. Or raspberry. Or essence of small red fruits. But what’s interesting is that natural wine hasn’t been concocted. To love natural wine is an intellectual or emotional position without necessarily being a position to what absolutely should be, because once you lose that connection to nature—where anything goes—you lose a structure that enables you to understand what good is.  More natural things tend to be in balance, so you tend to arrive where you want to go with less effort if you stick to nature. That is certainly true with wine. It’s more complicated because people respond to certain precise alcohol sweet spots, but I tend to arrive at those spots more easily by nature rather than taking things apart and doing lots of tastings of wines and then reassembling the whole vat.

“What’s interesting about natural wines is literally the tie to nature. Apart from in California, perhaps, the great wines of the world tend to be natural wines. The ones that command the high prices tend to be less manipulated—Domaine Romanée-Conti—the unaffordable—is a natural wine.  Some of the Californians I don’t know—some of them sound scary when you hear what they’ve done.”

“I like to think that natural stuff does absolutely taste better. But of course no one has studied it.”

Our conversation had almost drawn to a close when UPS delivered a ham holder, i.e., a wooden base with a metal prong on which you impale your ham or prosciutto for easy slicing. Just the kind of thing you would imagine Behr having delivered on a Friday morning. And so we were off again, discussing cutting style, Christmas dinner, and boned versus unboned hams. In the world of Edward Behr, food is a never-ending conversation.