Like your favorite local grocery store, with its sushi bar, fresh baked goods, and maybe a very obliging butcher, Best Food Writing offers a bounty of everything in one place. For seventeen years, Holly Hughes has delved into piles of magazines and newspapers, scanned endless websites and blogs, and foraged through bookstores to provide a robust mix of what's up in the world of food writing. From the year's hottest trends (this meal kits and extreme dining) to the realities of everyday meals and home cooks (with kids, without; special occasions and every day) to highlighting those chefs whose magic is best spun in their own kitchens, these essays once again skillfully, deliciously evoke what's on our minds-and our plates. Pull up a chair.
Betsy Andrews Jessica Battilana John Birdsall Matt Buchanan Jennifer Cockrall-King Tove Danovich Laura Donohue Daniel Duane Victoria Pesce Elliott Edward Frame Phyllis Grant Andrew Sean Greer Kathy Gunst L. Kasimu Harris Steve Hoffman Dianne Jacob Rowan Jacobsen Pableaux Johnson Howie Kahn Mikki Kendall Brian Kevin Kat Kinsman Todd Kliman Julia Kramer Corby Kummer Francis Lam Rachel Levin Brett Martin Tim Neville Chris Newens James Nolan Keith Pandolfi Carol Penn-Romine Michael Procopio Kathleen Purvis Alice Randall Besha Rodell Helen Rosner Michael Ruhlman Oliver Sacks Andrea Strong Jason Tesauro Toni Tipton-Martin Wells Tower Luke Tsai Max Ufberg Debbie Weingarten Pete Wells
For some it's the crackle of wrapping paper and an arm's length of red ribbon. For some the battered box of family ornaments. Mistletoe, menorah, a prayer or a carol...the ruhm-puhm-puhm of a choir may be what introduces tradition to the tail end of your year. While many of these elements arise in my holiday experience, what December calls forth most for me is The Season of the Rolling Pin.
I have a fine rolling pin. It is a wonder of a thing. Classic maple of prodigious length and ball-bearing action. This, as every neophyte should know, is vital as it allows the handles to remain stationary while the pin itself rolls. Essential for draping the upper crust over a mound of sugared apples, applying the requisite force to flatten the richest of cookie doughs (which, due to the bounty of their butter content, invariably come to the cloth cold) and proves dandy at crushing a mountain of crumbs for the sturdy shell of a complex cheesecake. Yes, I am a serious baker, and because of this I won't truck with toys. No doll-sized miniatures, no veined marble, no "French" handle-less sticks. I had to hunt for this. For years. Across many of these United States borders. (And thank you Cherry Creek, Colorado, for putting that chapter to a close. You have facilitated great confectionary pleasure...and not a few belt-tightening resolutions as January finds us absent a view of our chilly toes.)
What my rolling pin presages, of course, are hours of vigil before warm oven doors. Cakes must rise and fillings bubble, brownies fracture and pecans toast. Time will be spent at the wait and on the watch - time, as a few of you already know, I'll turn to use with the wealth of writings collected each year by Holly Hughes. She has a keen eye for good work, and her latest selections do not disappoint.
The current trends are covered, from the follies of extreme dining to the underwhelming fare of the pre-packaged "meal-kit." We visit the butchers of London, the bourbon purveyors of Nashville, and the cutting edge cuisine of Singapore. We wonder at the rather expensive suggestions made by Gweneth Paltrow, and take a moment to examine a Beyoncé lyric that taps a few truths hiding in the history of the African-American palate. Good cases are made for bad coffee, ugly food, and the comfort of the local diner. My favorite, though, has to be Brett Martin's The Chef Who Saved My Life. That chef was Jacques Pepin, and the saving was a simple hour's repast during which he helped mend a broken heart.
Five stars as always, absolutely, no regrets. And if you'll now forgive me, I suspect it's time to ice my gingerbread...
I only finished this book due to a vague sense of obligation once I'd begun. Colwin's Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant leaned a bit too much on New Yorkers who loved anchovies; this collection leans a bit too heavily on New Orleans and the excesses that come of seeking the novel or obscure.
Maybe that's due to the book's attempt to capture the 2016 zeitgeist or whatever. The fact remains that however navel-gazing it might be to write about Writing, doing so IS writing. But writing about Writing About Food is not exactly Writing About Food. 'There's a new pop-up place But you can't get the taste From the story in a magazine,' you could say.
The standout essays, for my money, were "In Praise of Ugly Food" (a timely reminder), "The Case for Bad Coffee" (ditto), "Mom's Meatballs" (dementia is always powerfully sad), and "The Chef Who Saved My Life." These most clearly captured the value of food as a means of building relationships, not just some kind of elitist social currency.
Well... to be totally honest, I barely remembered any of these, even a day or two after reading them. If you're looking for a "worth-reading" list, here are the ones that managed to stand out.
"Brooklyn Is Everywhere", Jon Birdsall, Bon Appetit To, again, be totally honest: I really only recall this piece because it's the first in the collection, and I thought it was a kind of sneeringly bougey way to open the book. Let Brooklyn be Brooklyn, and let it be inspirational to whomever it is, and stop trying to shoehorn everything remotely trendy onto the Brooklyn-Cool-O-Meter.
"On Chicken Tenders", Helen Rosner, Guernica It's not splashy enough to be the opening article, but it's indicative of the direction I hoped more of these pieces would follow. If this was the caliber of both writing and substance throughout, I would have liked this whole collection a lot more.
"In Praise of Ugly Food", Kat Kinsman, seriouseats.com "Some food isn't pretty and does not need to be." This early line in Kinsman's piece, defending the lackluster aesthetic of chicken and dumplings, sent me searching for a page I'd torn out of an issue of Food & Wine some time ago. I don't recall the article it preceded in the magazine, but I imagine it was full of food that was difficult to make pretty for the camera: "The Italians have an apt descriptor for a simple, crunchy-chewy hazelnut meringue cookie that tastes delicious but looks like something you'd scrape off your shoe after a visit to the dog park: brutti ma buoni, which means 'ugly but good'." This is a delightfully snarky rant against the Filtered Age of Instagram, wherein we spend more time judging things other people are doing/eating/sharing than devoting our own non-renewable resources to making/enjoying/celebrating elements of our own lives.
"How to Dupe a Moderately Ok Food Critic", Luke Tsai, East Bay Express You know those long-winded jokes that take forever to tell and seem like they're going nowhere until either (a) they somehow wrap the loose ends together, so it makes sense but it's not really funny; or (b) the joke-teller snaps their fingers and says "the aristocrats" or some such and you're left wondering if you dozed off at some point or maybe don't know the definition of "aristocrat", but you at least understand they were just wasting time and possibly distracting you? This whole article felt like one of those jokes, except you knew all the way through that there was going to be the finger-snap at the end.
"Sorry, Blue Apron, the Joys of Cooking Can't Fit in a Box", Corby Kummer, The New Republic This is like reading the antithesis of an infomercial. You know you don't actually need anything you see in an infomercial, and you probably already have multiple items that will accomplish the one thing that the infomercial item does; the sheer novelty is kind of the point.
"The Great Bourbon Taste Test", Wells Tower, Garden & Gun I'm definitely not the originally intended audience for this piece, but I appreciate people who appreciate bourbon.
"The Servant Problem", Toni Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code I wonder how much more circulation this piece would have gotten if it had been published in, say, mid-May 2020. The intro paragraph concludes that "at last, the black cooks whose recipes have long fed America get their due respect". ...I wonder, too, if the writer of that sentence realized how congratulatory and dismissive it is.
"Chained to the Stove: What It's Really Like to Write a Cookbook", Jessica Battilana, seriouseats.com If the title of this piece sounds like something you'd like to read, may I suggest pretty much anything by David Lebovitz instead.
"Ya-Ka-Mein: Old Sober", L. Kasimu Harris, Edible New Orleans This might be the most disappointing piece in the entire collection. It reads somewhere between a cub reporter's freshman effort at Travel Food Writing and a diary stripped of the juicy parts that might make it interesting, if not palatable. It's about New Orleans! And Hangover Soup! Why on earth am I so bored?
"Dinner and Deception", Edward Frame, The New York Times The editor's intro to this piece reads thus: "When NYC grad student Edward Frame's essay about his haute cuisine service stint appeared on the Times' op-ed page, Internet comment sections lit up... [but] the social media buzz missed the point... about the co-dependent dance between the waiter and the waited-on." The end of this piece reminded me sharply of the end of The Devil Wears Prada, when the heroine bails on not-Vogue-but-actually-yeah-definitely-Vogue to follow her dream of writing "real" literature, rolling her eyes at the drama and waste of high fashion... but financing that dream by hitting up consignment shops to sell all the posh gear she picked up during her haute couture stint. Frame's "essay" is full of brief anecdotes that are clearly meant to be shocking to the reader: sex in the bathrooms, secret codes among staff, drunk Wall Street bigwigs. But if there's a message in there about co-dependence, it's overshadowed by the reminiscences about perfecting details and helping others celebrate their perceived place on the socioeconomic food chain.
"Sonoko Dreams of Soba", Francis Lam, Saveur Yes, the title of a direct riff on "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" - Lam says so, right before he says "that's how Japanese food is supposed to work", which seems to put a lot of pressure on cooking Japanese food but is actually pretty accurate: lose yourself in learning and perfecting the details of the building blocks, translate the small things into the way the larger world works. I always love Lam's writing style, but this piece in particular is a beautiful illustration of what he does well: tells you what he's going to tell you, then tells you, then translates all of that into a metaphor for how the world works.
This was the best Best collection I've read in a long time. Like any compilation, some essays are (much) better than others. There are essays about food I've never heard of, and if I did somehow manage to find it, I couldn't afford it. But there are also love letters to instant coffee and chicken tenders. There's warnings about climate change and the precariousness of family farms. There's the inevitable writing about food writing, and writing about wine, and writing about coffee. My favorites included an essay about Indianapolis cuisine and how it's so much more than a fried pork tenderloin sandwich, a beautiful story about gumbo, and a hilarious true story of Good Coffee. The best essays were infused with memories and identity and love, which is what food is really about.
I didn't love every essay, but there were a handful that really stood out, including "The Meaning of Mangoes" by Dianne Jacob, "The Chef Who Saved My Life" by Brett Martin, and my personal favorite: "Smoke Signals" by Julie Kramer, which was beautifully written. I appreciated the variety of subjects and stories (everything from tasting great bourbon to the importance of a mother -- also known as starter dough). Bottom line: If you enjoy food writing, I would recommend this book, as I think it has something for everyone.
This book was a required book for a course I wanted to on Food Writing (along with 'Will Write For Food' by Dianne Jacob which I highly recommend) and I can see why. Through an array of articles from a number of sources, the various writers perfectly put me into a scene and I could smell the gas station coffee and felt the sting in my eyes from the Gumbo's steamy spices. Not all articles resonated with me but that's the beauty of it- there is something for everyone. My favourite is 'The Case for Bad Coffee' by Keith Pandolfi.
My last read of 2020 comes courtesy of one of my favorite series: Best Food Writing. While I enjoyed Holly Hughes’ selections for this collection, I can definitely see the differences in her editorial style, versus those put on offer by the past few years’ guest editors. While 2016 had some fun offerings in the food realm - meal kits, hyper-hipster restaurant offerings, and homages to old favorites - it made me, more than anything else, yearn for travel, especially to New Orleans, the flavors of which are highlighted in more than one selection.
What is there to dislike? A collection of articles that cover a wonderful variety of food experiences, thoughts and facts. A continuous source of delight for a self styled gourmet. Just shed the very very tiny number that talk more of politics than food.
Im off to another year. Apt to mention a slightly changed version of those immortal words from Blackadder. You see Blackadder, I am a colossal glutton. Animal, vegetable or mineral, Ill eat anything with anything.
"Best Food Writing" is my annual treat to myself and 2016 didn't disappoint. In fact, though I tried to parcel out the collection, I succumbed to the inevitable and fitting binge-reading that overtakes me each year. Hughes curates yet another great collection...already ready for the 2017 edition....
Like all of Hughes' anthologies thusfar, it had its shining moments (Brett Martin, Julia Kramer in this collection, among others). It didn't jostle me in like 2014 did—some essays weren't bad per se, but just sort of toppled off. I can blame this on authors trying to stretch a short bit of material to a worthy essay. Sometimes it doesn't work. But there's enough here that I would warrant another year of recommendation, and I will be analyzing the best of The Best to teach next Fall.
ALSO: whoever designs this cover don't select three fonts. That's too many typefaces from too variant font families. Small qualm but it really stuck with me.
The best of this year's crop of Best Writing. I think it's consistently one of the best, unlike the Best American Essays and the Best Science and Nature Writing, because it doesn't pick a celebrity editor. Holly Hughes picks consistently great pieces, timely and timeless, and that's, in part, I think, because she has grown into the role. Nothing against any of the celeb editors of the other collections, but I feel there may be too much pressure in them to feel they have to present THEMSELVES in their essay collection--that the essays they select are more about us thinking about the editor as a Really Smart Person, or a Really Politically Hip Person, than what is great writing.
This book ranges from the pretensions of the too rich (seriously, dinnerinthesky is actually a thing?!) and foods that you or I, average readers, will never know or experience (bioluminescent squid, anyone?) to the home and rustic (artisanal baking, farm-to-table and its weaknesses, chicken tenders). It's a good mix. You learn, you meet people who think about food in ways most of us don't, and you learn to appreciate the food you do have in new ways, too. There are stories of family (Mom's Meatballs) and immigration (The Meaning of Mangoes) and culture (Charred and Feathered--about puffin meat). And of course, as the two other essay collections also have, an essay by the late, and great, Oliver Sacks, an elegaic piece on food and communion and death. It's an adventure in a book--you travel to Mexico City and get ill on mezcal, you hit the hidden hit in Penn Station, and journey for the perfect fondue. It's a great read, with many of the essays being 'snack size' or, 'amuse bouche' sized.
I always enjoy these collections. Some pieces are stronger and/or more to my taste, but overall I always feel like I've connected to new regions, traditions, seen the 'behind the scenes' and have an appreciation for how food does connect us in so many ways in every community.
After reading 2015's version, this has become my favorite book to read at the beginning or each year....of course, it took me almost 4 months to get through it due to the busy season of my profession, but I finally read each entry. Just s 2015's articles inspired me to host "Friday Night Meatballs" (which by the way I have not hosted a one....but I digress....) this year's entries have inspired me to begin a food journal. The author of the excerpt "Dinner Party Diaries" wrote about her menu's for dinner parties, I would like to write about both dinner parties (this would mean I would actually have to stop working enough to invite people to the house! ha!) and restaurant experiences throughout the world! Let's Eat! :-)