Edited by Holly Hughes
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Contributors include: Elissa Altman, Dan Barber, Monica Bhide, Sara Bir, John Birdsall, Jane Black, Frank Bruni, Albert Burneko, Tom Carson, Brent Cunningham, John T. Edge, Barry Estabrook, Amy Gentry, Adam Gopnik, Matt Goulding, John Gravois, Alex Halberstadt, Sarah Henry, Jack Hitt, Steve Hoffman, Ann Hood, Silas House, Rowan Jacobsen, John Kessler, Kate Krader, Francis Lam, David Leite, Irvin Lin, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Daniella Martin, Dave Mondy, Erin Byers Murray, Rick Nichols, Kim O’Donnel, Josh Ozersky, Kevin Pang, Ben Paynter, Michael Procopio, Jay Rayner, Besha Rodell, Anna Roth, Adam Sachs, Eli Saslow, David Sax, Oliver Strand, Laura Taxel, JT Torres, Molly Watson, Joe Yonan, Eagranie Yuh
Sugar. Vanilla. Chocolate. Sure, we all know they taste good. But what was even more important last winter was how good they smelled.
It was one of the hospice volunteers’ main duties: To bake a nonstop supply of chocolate chip cookies—not only for the patients, but also for the heart-sore family and friends at their bedsides. So what if the volunteers were scooping premade industrial batter out of plastic tubs bought in bulk from Costco? These weren’t artisanal chocolate chip cookies, not gourmet confections, and they didn’t need to be. They were literally “to die for” (a term I’ll never again use lightly).
After weeks in the Lysol-bedpan aroma of hospitals and nursing homes, that sugar-vanilla scent helped make the hospice a haven of peace for my nieces, my sister, and me. No more beeping machines and intercoms, no more rattling carts, no more nutritionists and physical therapists trying to strong-arm my brother into “getting better.” The freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies were the final touch, the stroke of genius that made it all feel homey and natural and honest.
Granted, it wasn’t just the cookies that made us (okay, mostly me) pack on a collective 15 pounds that month. We couldn’t even walk outdoors, not with snow banked up to the windowsills by a relentless series of blizzards, so in those agonizing weeks of waiting, hoping, denying, the necessity of eating provided our only escape. We desperately snatched opportunities to run out into the snow for take-out food—first dashing to the hospital’s sad fast-food court, later grabbing pallid heat-and-eats from a Stop & Shop near the nursing home. At last, it seemed like we’d hit a gustatory jackpot when we discovered near the hospice a Whole Foods, a Panera café, AND a Bertucci’s. (Whoo-hoo!) What relief it was when one of the sons-in-law burst back indoors, cheeks red from the cold, loaded down with plastic bags of dinner. We craved the caloric buzz of starches and fats—until we craved salads even more. (With chocolate-chip cookies for dessert, of course.) Comfort food, indeed.
The weekday afternoon shifts were mine. I sat at my brother’s bedside as he dozed, working my way through stacks of magazines and books, looking for this year’s Best Food Writing contenders. My brother was always a loyal BFW fan, buying multiple copies as presents for everyone he knew, and often slipping into bookstores (yes, brick and mortar bookstores—remember those?) to make sure they kept the book in stock. Now, drifting in and out of consciousness—pain meds wearing off, not yet ready for the next dose—he would ask what I was reading, hoping to distract himself from the pain.
Maybe it was those circumstances that gave me less patience than ever for fluffy food writing or glossy promotional hype—though admittedly, in the 15 years I’ve been editing this collection, I’ve never much liked the slick stuff, always focusing rather on more thoughtful, meaty pieces. But this year it particularly struck me how much food writing has matured lately, giving me a wealth of incisive, witty, in-depth, and provocative material to sift through.
How pleased I was to discover clear-eyed writers who define This Year in Food without succumbing to fads and buzz. Our opening section, “The Way We Eat Now,” is full of balanced views on 2014’s food trends, from $4 toast (John Gravois’s “A Toast Story,” page 11) to hot-’n’-spicy everything (Kate Krader, “Are Big Flavors Destroying America’s Palate?,” page 7) to bacon-mania (David Sax, “Baconomics 101,” page 26). At the other end, we close with writers covering food phenomena so out-there, they may never even turn into trends: a chef trying to put invasive species on the menu (Rowan Jacobsen, page 306), an underground of insect-eating gourmets (Daniella Martin, page 317), or a foraging chef’s mind-blowing inventiveness (Amy Gentry, page 326). Lest we get too caught up in the latest fashions, other writers put our gourmet preoccupations into historical context—Jay Rayner’s memory of his first American foods (page 2), Tom Carson’s memory of tuna fish sandwiches (page 277), Ann Hood’s ode to Laurie Colwin’s tomato pie recipe (page 296).
I also hit a mother lode of wonderful pieces questioning the equal rights of America’s food conversation—a topic that felt especially important to me, sharing my brother’s concern for social justice (as a Methodist minister, that was always a given for him). These meditations on culinary minorities come together in a new section titled A Table for Everyone (starts on page 41). It must also have been my non-foodie brother’s joy in honest real food (at least until chemo killed his appetite) that gave me special appreciation for the writers featured in another new section, Back to Basics—a hunter simply cooking his day’s kill (Steve Hoffman, page 93), a coffee obsessive’s epiphany on how little new-fangled gear matters (Oliver Strand, page 97), or an anti-gourmet foray into Asian street food (Matt Goulding, page 112).
Being with my brother—a consummate people person—helped remind me that it always comes back to people stories. Of course those have played a prominent part in Best Food Writing ever since the first edition in 2000, especially with the chef profiles that populate the section Someone’s in the Kitchen (starts on page 219). A far cry from celebrity-chef puff pieces, these are snapshots of restaurant cooks from all over the country, at all stages of their careers, from Alex Halberstadt’s portrait of the hip King of Cronuts™ (page 220) to John Kessler’s bittersweet portrait of a young chef facing mortality (page 252) to Dave Mondy’s look at an artisanal pizzamaker taking a step he never thought he’d take (page 264). And as the locavore movement has expanded the food stage, more artisans, farmers and suppliers are given their rightful place alongside chefs as essential players. In this year’s Stocking the Pantry section (starts on page 179), you’ll find a gallery of colorful individuals who make the ingredients we cook with. On top of that, I found a bumper crop of writers bringing their family stories into their cooking (Elissa Altman, page 80; Adam Sachs, page 124; Erin Byers Murray, page 128; Adam Gopnik, page 138; Sarah Bir, page 172; Josh Ozersky, page 292).
More than anything else, in those hospital-haunted days we needed to laugh. I’ve always tried to include a healthy dose of humor in each year’s Best Food Writing, and this year is no exception. There’s Irvin Lin’s tongue-in-cheek “How to Boil Water” (page 108), Molly Watson’s exasperated “How to Cook a Turkey” (page 119) or Albert Burneko’s ranting “How to Cook Chicken Cutlets” (page 166)—a trio of how-tos that are anything but Betty Crockeresque. Humor keeps us all honest, as Michael Procopio (“The Cheese Toast Incident,” page 281) and David Leite (“Because I Can,” page 286) prove yet again.
As I read bits of these stories out loud to distract my brother, I think we both knew he’d never see this year’s edition. In fact, he died in March, his suffering finally over. But as I went on reading throughout the spring, I kept judging everything with him in mind. He was my Ideal Reader in many ways—not a fussy cook or a food snob, but fascinated by the interplay between the way we eat and our personal relationships, our sense of self, and even our role as stewards of this planet.
And somehow, that perspective felt just right to me. For at its best, isn’t food writing just another lens through which to view the human condition? In a season of grief and eventual acceptance, pondering about food—and pondering it deeply—offered its own path of healing and comfort.
And if there’s a chocolate-chip cookie (or two or three) involved, even better.
The Way We Eat Now
AGE OF INNOCENCE
By Jay Rayner
British dining critic (The Observer) and BBC food personality (MasterChefs, Kitchen Cabinet) Jay Rayner is known for his demanding palate. But he wasn’t always that way. In this essay, he wistfully longs for the days when a Big Mac or Chicago pizza tasted blissful to him—and wonders if modern foodies are really better off.
Growing up in a northwest London Jewish family, I was haunted by a thought: that if my great-grandfather, Josef Burochowiz, had just been blessed with a little more stamina and had stayed on the boat a few days longer, I wouldn’t have grown up in northwest London at all but instead in New York. I would have happily been one of those American Jews, living in the land of pastrami and bagels, where the buildings were taller, the skies bigger, and everybody was from somewhere else. I liked my foreignness but wanted everyone else to be foreign too. Then, one Saturday lunchtime in 1977, a little bit of America came to me.
My mother, a well-known health columnist, had been invited to a Saturday event at the American embassy. I have no idea why; it was just the sort of thing that happened to her. All I do recall was that it was odd because Saturday mornings were when my parents did the family food shop, so what were we to eat for lunch?
And yet, for the American embassy, Mom would make an exception. Lunchtime came and she was back and carrying with her a shallow cardboard box containing a couple dozen soft, round packages wrapped in thin, glossy, greaseproof paper, endowed with the mammarian curve of golden M’s. She had brought us hamburgers. A lot of them.
With hindsight, this could be viewed as a blatant act of cultural imperialism. The first branch of McDonald’s had opened in Wool-wich, southeast London, in 1974, though it had yet to impact me. I hadn’t been there. Now here was the US Embassy—the US government itself, on UK soil—handing out McDonald’s hamburgers to a woman who, as a high-profile journalist, could influence opinion. Perhaps there was a CIA briefing document somewhere outlining how the American version of freedom could be spread about the world by the judicious distribution of free McDonald’s hamburgers to tastemakers.
The truth of our hamburger windfall was probably a little more prosaic: The embassy had got McDonald’s to cater the event, and seeing a number left over and being appalled by the waste, my mother had offered to take them home, thereby dealing with the lunch issue. Whatever the cause, I was delighted.
I had never eaten hamburgers like them. Even cold, there was the intense sweetness of the bun and the juicy meat of the patty and the punch of the pickles. This was what America meant to me: food with a certain shamelessness, lunch with its knickers around its ankles. And, thankfully, I soon found more options from across the pond to try out. Around this time, an American expatriate called Gabriel Gutman launched the Dayvilles chain of ice cream parlors in Britain, based on America’s popular Baskin-Robbins.
“There is superb cream in England and excellent chocolate,” he told the New York Times. “Nobody ever married the two together. It’s been driving me crazy for years.” The actress Lee Remick, who had just starred in The Omen and was living in London, was more savage. “They don’t know from ice cream in this country,” she said, as if identifying the very heart of Britain’s famed malaise. Remick had a point. Until Dayvilles arrived you could have any flavor you liked in Britain—as long as it was strawberry, chocolate, or vanilla. Plus the ice cream itself wasn’t creamy; it was hard and icy. British ice cream was a beautiful promise, broken.
And now here, praise the gods of greed, was Dayvilles, which, like its role model, proclaimed 32 flavors but seemed to offer many more. There was banana split and bubble gum flavored ice cream, toffee nut crunch, and something called peppermint fudge ripple, which, to a fat boy yet to navigate the hormonal rapids of puberty, sounded seriously naughty and indulgent. This was what America meant to me: It was a place where you could get 32 flavors of ice cream, and one of them was called peppermint fudge ripple.
It didn’t end there. In 1977 another American expat called Bob Payton opened the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory off St. James’s, and then a handful of Rib Shacks. Music blared, everything came slathered in a sticky vinegary barbecue sauce, and cutlery was optional. We overprivileged kids would go to these restaurants without our parents when we were 13 or 14 and play at being grown-up, while really we were just getting a big sugary, salty hit, eating with our hands, throwing away all of the breeding of our London childhoods. For an hour or two, we were American, and we’d become American through food. It tasted far better than eating British did.
Food in 1970s Britain was not, for most people, hugely encouraging. The generation that had lived through the Second World War still held sway and, as a result, gastronomic indulgence was frowned upon. There were a few restaurants of note, but in your average British home vegetables were still boiled until they could be eaten without the aid of teeth, and exotica rarely went beyond a rudimentary coq au vin.
In our house, fortunately, things were a little different. We were restless in matters of the plate and had what were regarded then as sophisticated tastes for the cuisines of countries like India and China, places we had no expectation of ever visiting. My mother may not have had much time for trends in décor or couture, but when it came to the kitchen, she cared greatly. She made fragrant chicken curries with Bombay duck, a pungent salted and dried fish from India. She bought packs of snails imported from France and laboriously stuffed the canned snail meat into shells filled with garlic butter. Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World, first published in 1963 and reprinted in updated editions for years after, gave recipes from the farthest reaches of the planet. The publication in 1961 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking seemed to have turned every aspirational American cook into the budding chef of his or her very own little Left Bank bistro.
She, cooking these international meals, and I, dreaming of hamburgers and fudge-flavored ice cream, were on trend. Back then, on both sides of the Atlantic for those who could afford it, the right way for the fashionable to eat depended upon exotica.
Today, though, the whirligig has turned; we’re meant to be dismissive of imports, to be locavores. In Britain, if we dream of American hamburgers, they are no longer from McDonald’s. Rather, they are supposed to be made from rare breeds of British beef, raised on local farms. We have come to understand that this is the truly sustainable way to eat; that, with the global population rising to 9 billion by 2050, to do otherwise is to play fast and loose with the planet’s ecosystem merely to satisfy our appetites. Hence, we eat local food. Of course each way of eating—21st-century local and mid-century exotic—makes its own emotional kind of sense. We nurture each other through food and show our love through it. We celebrate and we commiserate through it. Localism, with its sweet wash of neighborliness and community, has a logic. To be honest, though, it’s nowhere near as much fun as the kind of juvenile thrills I once got from cooling McDonald’s hamburgers or flavors of ice cream with triple-barreled names involving the word fudge.
Indeed, as a result of research for a new book on food security in the 21st century, my adult self has come to understand that eating like a locavore is not the most sustainable option. In the late ’90s when the term “food miles” was first coined by the British academic Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London, it was simple and easily understandable: The farther your food traveled from field to fork, the worse for the environment it was by dint of the amount of fuel that journey took. It gave environmentally minded consumers a simple way to judge whether they should buy a product. Had it come from as close by as possible? If yes, then into the basket it went.
The problem is it’s too simple. Just as eating chicken curry in 1970s Britain didn’t make you sophisticated, so eating locally doesn’t actually make you an ethical eater. The petrochemicals used in farming and in fertilizers, the energy to build tractors as well as to run them and to erect farm buildings and fences—all of that (and so much more) has to be measured against yield. When you do that, you discover the proportion of your food’s carbon footprint caused by its transport is somewhere between just 2 and 4 percent. What matters is not where your food was grown but how it was grown.
Take the McDonald’s hamburgers I so adored as a kid. It can take up to 20 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. So even if the cow that gave its life for my lunch lived in my garden, one could argue that what would really matter is the volume of carbon inputs that produced the soya it ate. Or to put it another way, a grass-fed animal raised a thousand miles from me would have a much smaller carbon footprint than a grain-fed one raised out back.
What would the fat-cheeked boy I once was, craving the caloric hit of Dayvilles ice cream and McDonald’s hamburgers, have made of all this? What would my late mother, with her snails and menus culled from the pages of Robert Carrier, have thought? I think she would have been baffled. Back then we knew nothing about the way a debate around the environment and concerns about industrial agriculture would eventually come to dominate the conversation about how and what we ate. We had other worries. In the 1970s we had the Arab-Israeli wars, Vietnam, the oil crisis, and so much more. All of that was discussed around my family’s dinner table—there was a lot of politics in our house when I was a kid. But dinner, the food actually on that table? We never considered it a part of it. Dinner was just dinner.
And sometimes when I think back to a time before the wars over localism and Big Ag, to those days when it was still possible to be thrilled by the first taste of a new kind of hamburger without any of the worry of how it became a hamburger, of how it arrived in its perfectly wrapped packaging and into my hand, I can’t deny a certain wistfulness.
ARE BIG FLAVORS DESTROYING THE AMERICAN PALATE?
By Kate Krader
From Food & Wine
Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate Krader eats out, by her own count, a minimum of five nights a week. (Occupational hazard.) She’s in the business of spotting food trends before the rest of us. So when she sees a flavor falling out of favor, it’s a good bet we’ll all grow tired of it in the very near future.
I have a crystal-clear memory of one of the most perfect dishes I’ve ever eaten. It was a little potato gratin, served in a polished copper dish. The crispy mahogany-brown potato rounds on top glistened with duck fat; inside, the gratin was mashed-potato-tender. It was the late ’80s, and I was at La Caravelle, an elegant, old-school French restaurant in midtown Manhattan that’s now long gone.
Today, it isn’t hard to find an exceptional potato gratin. Considering the heirloom potatoes that are out there now and the reverence for butter, lard and all those other fats, we are probably in the golden age of potato gratins. The problem is that I’m no longer so interested. When a dish isn’t laced with chiles or some kind of fermented paste or doused with vinegary sauce, I can pass it by. I’ve accepted the fact that I crave a hit of fire, acid or funk in my food. The question I’m working through: Is this an evolution or a devolution?
A colleague at F&W has dubbed this predicament my culinary arms race—my quest for bigger and bigger flavors. It’s not just me, though. The brick-red hot sauce Sriracha was one of the nation’s most talked-about ingredients last year: A rumored shortage freaked everyone out. Then there’s the pickling and fermenting obsession. Now every ingredient at the farmers’ market gets pickled or half-pickled or, best of all, loaded with spice and pickled. The hot-and-tangy trend extends to cocktails, too. Chile-spiked drinks are hugely popular; so are pickleback shots (whiskey with a pickle-juice chaser). Sour beers are trending, as are extra-tart wines like Riesling (which happens to pair well with all the super-tangy food I eat).
When the excellent chef Andrew Carmellini opened his brasserie Lafayette in Manhattan last year, I marched over to get my hands on the signature rotisserie chicken—and then didn’t eat much of it. The bird tasted boring. “What’s up?” I asked Carmellini, who serves a super-flavorful roast chicken at Locanda Verde, his Italian place. Turns out, he wasn’t satisfied with the Lafayette dish either. “I don’t know what to do with it,” he lamented. “Slather it in Sriracha? This is a French place. At Locanda, there’s a lot more spice on that chicken than people realize: crushed red pepper, herbs, a ton of black pepper. It’s high-end Wish-Bone Italian chicken.” For the record, he has since made the Lafayette bird better; now he braises the legs with sherry vinegar. Still, I eat any leftovers with one of the hot sauces in my fridge.
“People are looking for a bigger blast when it comes to flavor,” says Vinny Dotolo, chef and co-owner of Animal restaurant in Los Angeles, which specializes in over-the-top cooking. He thinks small plates and shared dishes have contributed to this evolution: When you only have one bite of something, it has to make a big impression. A best seller at Animal is the hamachi tostada, which sounds tame until you realize that the raw fish is topped with an especially pungent, tangy cabbage slaw. “We almost overdress that slaw with fish sauce and lemon juice so it can flavor the hamachi, too,” he notes. Dotolo also credits the sous-chefs from Latin America and Asia who add flavor to the kitchens they work in. “Back in the day, 20 years ago, the head chef made the food; that was it. Now, kitchens are like a band: Someone will say, ‘Hey, try this note,’ or bring in a chile sauce he got from his cousin in Laos.”
Bay Area chef James Syhabout has a unique perspective on the culinary shift. Born in Thailand, he was raised in Oakland; his family had a restaurant outside the city. “American Thai food used to always be so sweet,” says Syhabout. He would ask his mother why they couldn’t serve the spicy, intense dishes his family ate at staff meals, like crudités with chile paste and burnt garlic. “My mom would say, ‘It’s not the way Americans eat.’ ” At that time, pad Thai was a discovery for most Americans. Now, after years of watching adventurous TV chefs and culinary travelers like Tony Bourdain explore the globe, as well as making their own trips to foreign spots that serve potent specialties, people want whatever funky dishes the cooks are eating at the corner table. “My customers go for intense flavors like shrimp paste and miso,” says Syhabout, who specializes in robust Southeast Asian food at one of his restaurants, Hawker Fare. “I’m really into this unfiltered fish sauce called pla raa. It’s like a dirtier version of fish sauce; it’s mixed into our beef tartare, and it makes the papaya salad more interesting. When I was growing up, we were afraid to use fish sauce. Now we can go crazy with the extra-funky kind.”
As I debate whether my obsession with in-your-face flavors is a good thing or not, I consider the downside. Does everything I eat now taste to some degree like Sriracha? Have I lost the ability to appreciate the nuances in an elegant dish of sole in nasturtium broth? If a new Chinese restaurant isn’t using a lot of Sichuan peppercorns and shrimp paste, will I dismiss the cooking as boring? I think I can still appreciate delicate flavors, but there’s the strong possibility that I’ll try the nasturtium broth once and never again.
Still, I’m a positive person, so I prefer to consider the upside, which is this: Nowadays, no matter where I am, I can almost always find the strong flavors I love, invariably prepared by a very talented cook. When I was at Syhabout’s Hawker Fare, I loaded up on the chile-paste-tossed fried chicken, which had the word spicy next to it on the menu in capital letters. Plus, there were two kinds of hot sauce on the table, including authentic Sriracha from Thailand.
Across the Bay, at the outstanding San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions, my in-your-face food choices were more limited. Chef Stuart Brioza employs some fermented and spicy ingredients in his American-style dim sum, but not a lot; his food is layered with subtle flavors. And I discovered a new favorite dish. It’s just-fried, doughnut-like garlic bread, topped with fresh burrata, rosemary salt and a sprinkling of pepper. The creamy, slightly chewy cheese covers the crispy, fatty pastry, melting just a little. Maybe, I thought, I’m becoming addicted to food with incredible texture. My evolution continues.
A TOAST STORY
By John Gravois
From Pacific Standard
As deputy editor of Pacific Standard—a magazine devoted to West Coast culture—Berkeley-based writer John Gravois spotted a phenomenon potentially ripe for satire. His article could have made “$4 toast” a symbol of foodie-ism gone berserk, but he dug deeper and discovered so much more behind it.
This book is a menu of delicious food, colorful characters, and tales of strange and wonderful food adventures that make for memorable meals and stories.”
Consistent in quality and enthusiasm, Hughes again delivers a cornucopia of varietal amusements for foodophiles whose palates crave invigorating interpretations and perspectives.”
Hudson Valley News, 9/17/14
Browse, read a bit, browse some more and then head for the kitchen.”
Bookviews, November 2014
Plenty to enjoy.”
Library Journal, 11/1/14
This collection has something for connoisseurs, short story fans, and anyone hungry for a good read.”
Taste for Life, November 2014
The finest in culinary prose is offered in this new anthology these pages delight and inform readers with entertaining and provocative essays This book ultimately opens readers' eyes to honest, real food and the personal stories of the people behind it.”
Beverly Citizen, 11/13/14
[A] gem of an anthology Though this is most definitely a book that can satisfy in small biteslike a box of good chocolatesit's hard to stop at one piece.”
- On Sale
- Oct 14, 2014
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books