I dread the Christmas season, and it’s not just because of the four-month overemphasis on organized religion. The latter half of November and the entirety of December mean horrendous traffic, last-minute shopping, and a surge in reunions and social gatherings that act more as figurative pissing contests than as genuine opportunities for warm, well-meaning and in-depth conversations.
But I don’t hate everything about it. I like the gift-giving part, and I love seeing people I love. And I love the food. Oh, the food. It’s the best excuse to let it all go and indulge, although we all know we shouldn’t.
So I ate (and drank) more than I should have, especially last month. And because that wasn’t enough, I read three books that focus on food — thus ensuring I was hungry before and after meal times.
It’s not just about my being a sucker for punishment. I know very little about the culinary arts and the human body. By reading books about food and how our bodies process it, I’m already starting somewhere, right? I’ll never turn into the next Martha Stewart, Ina Garten or Margarita Fores; or have the same dedication and zeal as everyone in the medical and scientific community, but at least I’ll know more about food and science than I did last year, or ever.
If you’re as clueless as I am, go with these three books. The Gullet: Dispatches on Filipino Food by Clinton Palanca, Lonely Planet‘s A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure and Discovery on the Road, and Gulp: Travels Around the Gut by Mary Roach collectively show that so much more goes on behind your favorite dishes, and it’s worthwhile to know how they’ve turned out and what they’ll become.
Food here and abroad
Ah, Filipino food, the great mystery for Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike. It’s the so-called “next big thing“, the most misunderstood/exoticized cuisine, etc. Food writer and critic Clinton Palanca got it right in the second page of his book, The Gullet: like my assertion of PH writers looking for validation from our literati, we want overseas affirmation of Filipino food as good, and as worthy as other cuisines.
We’ve always looked outwards. What we’re upset about is that the outside isn’t looking back at us.
(BTW, he also clapped back at the Vogue.com article I linked to above, and it’s delicious.)
The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food compiles some of his columns for The Philippine Daily Inquirer and other local publications, with some newer pieces thrown in. The relatively short length of his articles, combined with his recognizable writing style and tone, means you get quick, fun reads. He’s not pretentious or condescending, except for specific instances where they’re employed as means to punch lines.
His tone and views are also consistent through time — which can be both good and bad. It’s good in that you clearly hear his voice, and know it’s him talking; but bad in that if you read long enough, that honest voice could then sound grating.
He also talked about his years as both a paying customer/critic and a restaurant owner, providing a good balance of what it’s like at the front and back of the house. He doesn’t name his ’90s restaurant, but the chismosa in me wants to know what its name was.
Some of his essays aren’t explicitly about food. I didn’t know the first Filipino government was served an all-French menu in Malolos, or that dining in the Philippines comes with its own political/racial undertones. He talked about fine dining; the organic food movement; the state of food criticism; food and aging; and the paradox of local food being, in truth, imported. The inclusion of other topics were interesting, and offered a great change of pace.
But if you’re concerned only with relatability, know that Palanca comes from the moneyed/privileged set, with experiences most of us can’t relate to. For example, a night plus three meals at Isla Naburot now costs PhP12,000 (US$240) per person, a steep price tag considering the lack of electricity or mobile signal. (I think Sundang Island can give you the disconnection you crave, and for much less. Though you’ll have to bring and cook your own food…) We can only dream of living in London and Shanghai, or wandering around Paris and Morocco.
Then again, that’s part of the point: you can’t live it, but you can know about it, and that’s better than nothing.
I also had that better-than-nothing sentiment while reading A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure, and Discovery on the Road. I won’t ever make it to some of these places, but I like reading about other people’s experiences. Armchair tourism, I suppose?
This Lonely Planet book has a simple premise: it’s a collection of short food-centric travelogues and cultural observations from writers and authors, some of whom editor James Oseland has already worked with during his EIC stint at Saveur. And like Palanca’s travelogues on The Gullet, it’s not just about the food. A beautiful food story includes details about where you are, the history of what you’re shoving down your mouth, who you’re with, the personal/cultural/social/political contexts behind your visit, and how the experience influenced you afterward.
Some essays were engaging, and made me want to pen my own contributions. They can also serve as inspirations for culinary travelers. Skip to the following chapters if you have the same taste and interests as I do, and/or if you like unusual travel stories to go with your food:
- “The Good Witch”, Sandi Tan
- “Southern Exposure”, Jane and Michael Stern
- “Stolen Apples, Yankee Pot Roast and a Cabin by the Lake”, David Kamp
- “The Right Side of the Fall Line”, Annabel Langbein
- “Omar Sharif Slept Here”, Alan Richman
- “A Melancholic’s Guide to Eating in Paris”, Josh Ozersky
- “The Importance of Chicken Livers”, Beth Kracklauer
- “Guns and Gluttony on the Campaign Trail”, Ma Thanegi
- “The Boys of Summer”, David Mas Masumoto
- “Meat on the Hoof”, Naomi Duguid.
In contrast, some of the essays can be skipped; they bored me, and didn’t give me anything new in terms of knowledge or perspective. One essay thoroughly annoyed me — read M.J. Hyland’s “How to Eat for Free in Helsinki” if you want a prime example of how to be a young, irresponsible, and impulsive traveler with bratty first-world expectations.
Also, I have two questions:
- Why are there three to four essays set in Paris/France? I know the West considers this city the root of culinary arts, but there are other places to explore, you know.
- Where are the Asian/third-world writers? The writers’ voices and backgrounds were varied enough, but I also think it could be better.
Food outside, ugly inside
While the previous two books were all about the romance and sentimentality that come with food, Mary Roach’s Gulp: Travels Around the Gut swerves sharply and tells us all about the dirty work of the human digestive system, and then some. Basically: she talks about everything that happens the moment you meet your meal, right up to the moment you shit it all out.
For me, the content wasn’t as gross as other people would think — except for the last couple of chapters, which were slightly more difficult to get through, because Roach goes super-graphic with the descriptions. But the fact is our bodies do incredible and incredibly gross things to process everything we put in it, and they can malfunction in so many ways, so deal with it. And we (or rather, scientists and specialists worldwide) do equally gross things to learn more about the human digestive system; props to them. You can bet I’ll never take a job as a judge for flatulence, or as a donor for fecal transplants.
I’m also happy to see some things haven’t changed. Gulp is, in tone and progression, similar to another Mary Roach book I read years ago, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It’s funny but factual; witty but seldom dismissive. And it touches on both expected and unexpected topics, from speed eating to saliva types and production, Elvis Presley’s actual cause of death, how companies make dog and cat food (and do taste trials), the wild and cruel times before ethical human experimentation, the deadliness of hydrogen sulfide, and various medical hoaxes.
At 317 pages without back matter, Gulp appeals more to science nuts, general Mary Roach fans (like me), and readers with tougher dispositions. Those with queasy stomachs better skip this book.
A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure and Discovery on the Road, James Oseland (editor)
E-book, Lonely Planet Publications
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