Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Eating - Jason Epstein

"I am a serviceable cook. Friends like what I serve them and come back for more. This gives me pleasure."

This line from Jason Epstein's memoir, Eating, hit precisely on the type of cook I consider myself to be. Yes, I love the creativity the kitchen offers and the way cooking relives my stress. But, if my end result is unsatisfactory to its consumers, I'm disappointed with myself. 

Kind of like how if, at the end of a book, I find myself not satiated by its content, I'm dissatisfied. Case in point: this one.

You know how I usually completely gush over food memoirs. I adore the things. Quality writing plus quality food - perhaps even recipes! - I'm nearly always hooked from the first chapter. This one, not so much.

There's nothing wrong with Epstein's writing. As witnessed by the quote below, it's lovely. His introduction is particularly nice, as he describes what it is that drew him into the combined world of publishing and food in the first place, what led him to write the book. 
"Cooking is like poetry, where one's unique voice is everything: words and their placement are essential ingredients, too, but the poet's own voice makes them sing, which is why when you paraphrase a poem you end up with nothing but words."
So, what then, led to my distaste for this book?

Well, for one thing, it doesn't really have much content. Epstein intersperses his writing with recipes, as many do in this genre. Yet, his recipes seem to be the bulk of the book. He writes them out long form, as if he would if he were sharing them with a friend, he says. This leads to somewhat lengthy descriptions of ingredients or processes that wouldn't be there should he have just included the recipe in a more standard form. Sure, some of those suggestions would be helpful should I make the dishes, but, more often then not, I found them superfluous.

Which brings me to my next point. I had a great deal of trouble connecting with Epstein. The personal stories and anecdotes he shares seem carefully selected to share as little as possible. There is nothing here you wouldn't tell a casual acquaintance or  person you had just met at a party. Perhaps I'm ready interpreting the genre of memoir incorrectly, but, for me, the best selections are ones in which the author offers something new or something the reader would not have known otherwise. Bonus points if it bares some or your soul or, alternatively, if it is a tiny bit salacious. Epstein has none of that. The connection to cooking that he began to share at the start dissipates as he begins micromanaging what type of ingredients you will use to cook his recipes.

Epstein is nothing if not a product of his life. He has been privileged to work with some of the greatest chefs and eat some of the greatest foods. His book, unfortunately, caters nearly exclusively to that same group. He insists on premium ingredients (a point whose value I cannot debate, merely show my bank statement in response) and disparages unhealthy eating. Don't get me wrong - you should use the best ingredients you can and choose wisely what passes into your body. Yet, the majority of Americans will not be able to afford the lifestyle, foods, or even destinations about which Epstein writes. I have no doubt his intention was pure, but it all came off a little judgmental to those who would deign to go a different route than his experiences have led him down.

Sadly, I have to chalk this one up to a genre failure. I will be back for plenty more food-based memoirs, but not from Epstein. If nothing else, I just want to go read Blood, Bones, and Butter again. Now, that book is the genre perfected. 

Pages: 192
Date Completed: October 21, 2014


  1. You definitely need to check out 'The Man Who Ate Everything' by Jeffrey Steingarten. And it's apparently already on your Goodreads To-Read list. It is perhaps my favorite food book.

    1. Good to know! Yeah, it's been on my list for a while, but I'll have to prioritize it now!