First things first:
Alton Brown goes gluten-free
Dear Alton Brown: Thank you.
I just watched the Good Eats episode “Sub Standards,” in which you make peanut-free satay sauce and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. You talked not only about the science of allergies, but also gave sound explanations for the ingredients and proportions in your gluten-free flour mix. It was smart; it was helpful. (I recorded it for future use, actually.) It was sensitive– everyone who knows the feeling of being denied delicious cookies was grateful for that little demo. And those recipes looked good.
I wrote you an email several months ago asking you to do just that show; either you really liked my letter, or I wasn’t the only one with that request. Or maybe you’re just in touch with these sorts of issues, realize that the numbers of people with food allergies and sensitivities in the US is rising rapidly (why? That’s another post…) and decided to strike a blow for us. I’d like to believe you read my letter, though!
See, the thing about Good Eats fans is that we actually cook. Good Eats is the Food Network show that the foodies watch, and use, and argue about. And do you know what that means for this particular episode? One in 100 or so Americans are gluten-free, and more are wheat-free. When your fans see this episode, they’re immediately going to think of their gluten-free friend/coworker/neighbor and say, ‘Oh, I can do that!’ And hundreds, if not thousands, of celiacs are going to be presented with a surprise plate of delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies. And if you think ordinary people are happy when you give them cookies, believe me, those gluten-free cookies will inspire tears of joy in some people.
So thanks, Alton. Keep rocking the food science and fighting the good fight. We are all a little nerdier (in a good way) because of you.
What I’m reading
Alton wasn’t the only one who made my foodie heart glad last night. I also received my copy of the big, beautiful Oxford Companion to Food, which I bought used on Amazon for $15. This gorgeous coffee-table book is an encyclopedia of ingredients, dishes and cuisines (not a cookbook). Surprisingly, it’s the work of a single author, Alan Davidson, who’s been working on it since 1976. It’s amazingly well-researched– the bibliography is 20 pages long, and draws on everything from Pliny to a gastronomical journal from Sudan. Its coverage is uneven– Europe, India, the Arab world and Japan are well represented, but not so much Latin America or Africa. But, again, it’s one man’s life’s work, and it represents his voice, his quirks, and his obsessions. You’ll get whatever information you’re looking for, plus a funny quote from a 1700s-era cookbook or a rave about the amazing taste of opah or beaver tail. I plan to spend many happy hours leafing through this wonderful work.
I also just received my new Chinese cookbook! It’s The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History, and Memories from America’s Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-fei Lo. It’s another big, pretty hardcover, also way cheap if purchased used on Amazon. She delves into the history and cultural significance of each dish, and it’s a pretty fascinating read for a Chinese-cuisine newbie like me. I haven’t cooked from it yet, but at a preliminary glance the explanations of techniques and ingredients seem helpful and thorough. The emphasis does seem to be on elaborate, fancy dishes rather than everyday food, but both are represented and I’m looking forward to a shopping trip in Chinatown and my first experiments with her recipes.
Finally, two classics of gastronomic literature: The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher and The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendental Gastronomy by the big daddy of the table, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. (You can also read the latter online for free here.) Fisher is one of the best food writers of the English language. She’s funny, strong, informative and sensual. This book is a collection of some of her works, including the famous How to Cook a Wolf. I haven’t had time to get deeply into it yet, but her discussion of 1950s ideas of ‘balanced nutrition’ (and what a ridiculous pain in the ass it was) is hilarious and sensible. She’s also known for her translation of Brillat-Savarin, still the king of funny food writing. He was a French lawyer and gastronome who wrote in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (and yes, he’s responsible for the ‘Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are’ quote they show at the beginning of Iron Chef episodes). He writes on various social aspects of food, tells all sorts of anecdotes about French dinner parties, and makes the case over and over for ‘gourmandise’ as a way of life.
Here’s a teeny little taste:
I have looked through various dictionaries for the word gourmandise and have found no translation that suited me. It is described as a sort of confusion of gluttony and voracity. Whence I have concluded that lexicographers, though very pleasant people in other respects, are not the sort of men to swallow a partridge wing gracefully with one hand, with a glass of Laffitte or clos de Vougeot in the other.
Just read him. You’ll get it.
And while I’m at it, Alton’s book I’m Just Here for the Food is excellent. The recipes are good, but what’s more useful is that the whole book is set up by technique (as in, different ways to apply heat to food). It’s designed to teach the reader how to understand a recipe, not just follow it blindly.
OK, readers, your turn: what should the well-read foodie be consuming?