Every once in a while a friend will declare, quite doggedly, that he knows what he likes. He will then proceed to wonder, out loud, (usually at a dinner party within earshot of others), how it is that some people give themselves the right to judge food when after all isn’t taste subjective? Like art or music?
No; it’s not. Sure there are things you like that I don’t, like biscuits and gravy perhaps, or beets, for example; but there are other things, like Chicken McNuggets, that are just plain bad—and that are bad for you.
How fresh something is and how it is handled in the kitchen is a standard measure of what’s good and what’s not, and if my friend declares that he has an affinity for frozen waffles or canned peas, then great, I’m glad he’s happy, but I’m not going to give any credit to his next restaurant recommendation.
Experience comes from both cooking and of course eating. Through practice and by learning the terms of reference and tricks of the trade we train our palate, but there’s also a lot that can be learned from books.
Food writing is as varied as any other field, but again, not all are equal: some write well and know what they are talking about, others do not. To check out what the professionals are reading, go to the website eGullet or to the New York Times and see what they recommend. There are also plenty of great food/cooking blogs out there that do the same thing.
I’m not talking about cookbooks here. I mean books about the art of cooking and enjoying food in general. If you have already read a lot about food, then skip down to the end of my personal favourites list for some quirky alternatives that might be new to you, but if you have never explored this genre before, then begin with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000). Bourdain tells the story of growing up in professional kitchens in NYC in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Not for the squeamish, but it will get you hooked on good food writing.
I also highly recommend Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of A Critic in Disguise (2005). Former editor of Gourmet magazine, in this book Reichl tells the story of her ten years as food critic for the New York Times. If you have any doubts about the question of whether there are objective standards of taste, you won’t after reading this.
There are plenty of biographies and autobiographies about celebrity chefs. Some are worth reading, most are not. Just because you cook well, doesn’t mean you can write. (Bourdain is an exception, and by his own admission, he doesn’t cook all that well.) So for instance, despite his popularity, there is no good biography of Gordon Ramsay. Those that have appeared so far are painful to read.
In this genre I would go with Rudolph Keminski’s The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine (2005), about the career and suicide of French Chef Bernard Loiseau, who killed himself in 2003 after losing one of his Michelin stars. If you are interested in the world of celebrity chefs in general, there is none better than Michael Ruhlman The Reach of A Chef (2006). Rulhman is not a flashy writer, but he knows the business inside out.
There are of course many famous food writers that I cannot mention in a short column: M. F. K. Fisher, Colman Andrews, Jeffrey Steingarten—and many will recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) as the book that truly opened their eyes to the good and bad of the food industry. In that same category I would offer Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2002), which will change the way you think about food forever. I never ate another McNugget again.
If you delve deeply into the world of food writing, you will soon become familiar with these names. For a taste, you could begin with the series edited every year by Holly Hughes called The Best of Food Writing which has been highlighting both well-established and up-and-coming writers every year since 2000.
For sure there will be some books that appeal to you more than others. A story about a businessman who quit his job and went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris to become a professional chef; one about growing up in a family restaurant; a history of Italian food. It takes a while to be able to sort the good from the bad but they all have something to say about taste, which is less subjective than you might think.