The idiosyncratic food writer harvests some of her best work in a savory collection that doubles as a memoir and declaration of faith.
The first section, “Mirrors,” begins with autobiographical pieces that barely mention food, only gradually moving from vivid portraits of fraught family life into a detailed list of the staggering quantities of food “My Son the Bodybuilder” must ingest daily to fuel the sculpting of his physique. “Nostalgia: Salad Days” and “Love and Mayonnaise” move into more familiar Fussell (Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, 2008, etc.) territory of what we eat and serve as social and generational markers. “For me, food is a physical, passionate, revelatory window on the world, much more revealing than sex,” she writes—and that’s a strong statement, coming from someone whose earthy, sensuous appreciations of particular meals and ingredients can be positively steamy. The profiles in “People” pay tribute to precursors like M.F.K. Fisher and Craig Claiborne, who first stretched the boundaries of food writing, as well as to such innovative cooks as Alice Waters and Marcus Samuelsson. “Places” consists largely of relatively conventional travel pieces, all of them expert and readable but with less of Fussell’s genre-smashing flair. “Cultures” highlights her marvelous ability to mingle culinary, social, and regional history to deepen our appreciation of America’s “hodge-podge” cuisine. She evokes the bygone self-service cafeterias, “the great class leveler of the ’20s and ’30s,” and the boozy postwar cocktail culture, which eased the awkward interactions between battle-scarred veterans and the cloistered young women intent on marrying them, because that was what they had been raised to do. “Corn Porn” and “Romancing the Stove” again explore the food-sex connection, which is transformed into a philosophical credo in “A Is for Apple,” the collection’s moving final piece. “The language of love,” she affirms, “springs from every creature’s first love, food.”
A dazzling showcase for Fussell’s delicious ability to “taste...words with the kind of pleasure that turns cooking fires into the fires of love.”